Growing readiness woes: Only 7 in 10 Air Force planes are ready to fly

Staff Sgt. Shane Dewyar of the 332nd Expeditionary Maintenance Squadron, inspects an engine while deployed to Southwest Asia. Photo Credit: Staff Sgt. Eboni Reams/Air Force

 

On March 22, as North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un prepared to test-launch a missile and tensions rose on the volatile Korean peninsula, a lone B-1B Lancer bomber took off from Andersen Air Force Base in Guam and flew across the Pacific on a Continuous Bomber Presence sortie.

It rendezvoused with Japanese F-15J Eagles for a training mission, before flying on to South Korea to further train with their F-15Ks and F-16s.

But there were supposed to be two B-1Bs there that day. The second bomber that was “scheduled to respond to a clear and present danger in North Korea,” as Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., said in a hearing later that day, was unable to take off. Pacific Air Forces later said a maintenance issue kept the second Lancer on the ground.
It’s not only B-1Bs having readiness problems. On any given day, according to official statistics, nearly three out of every 10 aircraft in the Air Force’s aging fleet are out of commission — in the shop getting upgrades, undergoing regular maintenance or inspections, or receiving heavier-duty repair work.

And the problem is getting worse. Mission-capable rates — the metric by which the Air Force measures how much of its fleet can fight or fly other missions at any given time — are trending downward, slowly but steadily.

In fiscal 2014, mission-capable rates for all of the Air Force’s airplanes and helicopters were just shy of 74 percent.

One year later, that rate had dropped to 73 percent. It fell even further in 2016, to about 72 percent.

The decline in readiness is accompanied — and partly caused — by the increasing age of the Air Force’s fleet. The average aircraft age has spiked in recent years, from roughly 24 years in fiscal 2010 to 27 years in 2016.

Air Force leaders have expressed concern about aircraft readiness rates and aging airframes for the last several years.

“Our highest investment priority is in improving readiness,” acting Air Force Secretary Lisa Disbrow said March 3 at the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Florida. “The aircraft we have on the ramp are too old. We need to revitalize the fleet.”

Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein tied aircraft readiness issues to the morale problems plaguing the force and prompting good airmen to leave.

“Pilots who don’t fly, maintainers who don’t maintain, controllers who don’t control … will not stay with the [Air Force],” Goldfein said. 

Downward trend

Declining readiness is especially concerning given the relatively small size of the Air Force’s fleet. The Air Force had a total of 5,447 aircraft last year. That’s up slightly from the 5,430 aircraft in 2015, but down from the 5,476 aircraft in 2014 — and a far cry from the roughly 8,600 aircraft in the Air Force’s inventory during Desert Storm.

The fluctuations in mission-capable rates are hitting different air frames differently, and not all are dropping — indeed, some have shown improvement. But overall, especially in some of the Air Force’s most crucial aircraft, readiness is continuing to fall or remaining at concerningly low levels.

In 2015, for example, 67 percent of F-22s were ready to fly. Last year, the Raptors’ readiness plunged to 60 percent — the lowest since at least 2009.

Mission-capable rates for the Air Force’s B-2 Spirit bombers dropped from 56 percent to 51 percent over that time, while the B-1 Lancer rates increased from 47 percent to not quite 52 percent. Despite the improvement, on average, about half of the Air Force’s B-1s and B-2s are grounded.

(The venerable B-52 Stratofortress fleet — at an average age of 54 years, one of the service’s oldest — is doing the best of all Air Force bombers, with 74 percent flyable at any given time.)

Balancing act

Managing aircraft readiness is a delicate balance between budgetary, manning and resource realities, modernization needs, training, and operational requirements, said Col. Michael Lawrence, chief of the maintenance division in the Air Force’s directorate of logistics.

In most cases, aircraft are brought to the depot at pre-planned intervals — usually about every 400 flight hours for most platforms — for expected maintenance and to look for hidden problems.

When it can, the Air Force also tries to conduct planned upgrades to aircraft while they’re already looking under the hood, so to speak.

For example, Lawrence said, two of the Air Force’s 20 B-2A Spirit bombers are now in programmed depot maintenance, and two others are getting modifications. Additional B-2s might need inspections or other repairs, which contributed to the bomber’s slide in mission-capable rates last year.

But even with B-2s in the shop for one reason or another, the Air Force still needs those bombers to fly training sorties at home and support security packages around the world. For example, two B-2s flew a 34-hour mission in January from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri to Libya, where they led a strike against an Islamic State training camp near Sirte.

However, flying such a small fleet of advanced bombers so heavily can lead to further problems, Lawrence said.

“When you start to fly the same aircraft over and over and over again, the possibility of having some second- and third-order effects, when an aircraft breaks and you’re not able to fix it, begin to manifest themselves,” Lawrence said. 

Fighter problems

Some of the Air Force’s newest and most advanced fighter jets are experiencing problems of their own that keep them from flying.

The F-22A Raptor is having problems with its low-observable, or stealth, coating, Lawrence said.

“In high flow areas, what’s essentially happening is there’s a gradual deterioration of the [stealth] coatings, and they begin to liquefy on the surface,” he said. “So if the [low-observable] coatings aren’t doing what we need them to do, then the platform loses its ability to do its primary mission, which is get behind enemy lines without detection.”

This means airmen have to spend more time re-applying the stealth coating on the Raptor, which means less time in the air. The F-35A Lightning II has similar issues with its stealth coating, he said, but not to the same degree as the F-22.

The F-22 is also having issues with its spare parts inventory, Lawrence said. The Air Force conducted modeling on the Raptor to try to predict which parts would break first, to make sure depots had plenty of spares on hand.

But other parts — particularly avionics components and relay parts — started to break earlier than expected, Lawrence said. And because the Air Force hadn’t predicted an increased need for them, it’s been running out, further delaying some Raptors’ return to the air.

The Air Force also grounded 13 of its 96 F-35s last year after discovering insulation on coolant tubes was peeling and crumbling, which left potentially damaging residue in the fighter’s fuel. Those planes resumed flying after two months of repairs. 

“That was probably the biggest issue that impacted the F-35,” Lawrence said.

F-35 rates fell from 67.9 percent in 2015 to 65 percent in 2016.

Rebuilding readiness

Lawrence said an aircraft mission-capable rate decline of 5 percent is typically within the Air Force’s control limit, but swings of more than 5 percent in a single year are particularly concerning.

Full article: Growing readiness woes: Only 7 in 10 Air Force planes are ready to fly (AirForceTimes)

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