Fewer planes are ready to fly: Air Force mission-capable rates decline amid pilot crisis

The F-22 saw an 11.17 percentage point reduction in mission-capable rates in 2017. It was one of several airframes that saw similar dips, contributing to an overall decline in mission-capable rates across the Air Force. (Tech Sgt. Michael R. Holzworth/Air Force)


The readiness of the Air Force’s aircraft fleet is continuing its slow, steady deterioration — and this could spell trouble for the service’s effort to hold on to its pilots and its ability to respond to contingencies around the world.

According to data provided by the Air Force, about 71.3 percent of the Air Force’s aircraft were flyable, or mission-capable, at any given time in fiscal 2017. That represents a drop from the 72.1 percent mission-capable rate in fiscal 2016, and a continuation of the decline in recent years.

Former Air Force pilots and leaders say that this continued trend is a gigantic red flag, and warn it could lead to serious problems down the road.

“It scares the heck out of me,” said retired Gen. Hawk Carlisle, former head of Air Combat Command. “It really does.”

“We are seeing an Air Force that is back on its heels,” said John Venable, a Heritage Foundation fellow and former F-16 pilot who flew in Iraq and Afghanistan. “They’re all on the backside of the power curve.”

Look closer at some of the service’s most crucial air frames, and even more alarming trends emerge.

In fiscal 2014, almost three-quarters of the Air Force’s F-22 Raptors were mission capable. But since then, the Raptor’s rates have plunged — by more than 11 percentage points in the last year — and now less than half are mission-capable.

The F-35, the Air Force’s most advanced fighter, also saw a nearly 10 percentage-point drop.

It’s not just fighters. Mobility aircraft such as the C-5 and C-17, surveillance aircraft such as the E-3 AWACS and E-8 JSTARS, and the B-52 Stratofortress are some of the other critical aircraft that saw mission-capable rates decline.

The B-1B Lancer and B-2A Spirit bombers experienced some improvement over 2016 — but even they are still mired in mission-capable rates of about 52 percent or 53 percent.

The mission-capable statistics would be even worse without the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper, which are consistently around 90 percent and are by far the highest in the Air Force.

When those two RPAs are removed — and the Predator is to be retired from service March 9 — the overall mission-capable rate drops to 70 percent.

How we got here

Multiple factors over the past few years have led the Air Force to this crisis point. The Air Force has been flying its aircraft exceptionally hard for years, fighting wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, as well as providing deterrence against North Korea, Russia, and China.

For example, the F-22 is getting flown more downrange these days — in places like Afghanistan and Syria — than the Air Force originally expected, Carlisle said. That means more breakage, and thus the need for more spare parts.

Heavy deployment rates, Carlisle said, also lead to strain on the air frames, requiring more maintenance.

But finding maintainers to fix those airplanes is not so easy. The Air Force cut its maintainer ranks during the severe drawdown of 2014 — a serious mistake, Carlisle said, that is coming back to haunt the service.

Gen. Carlton Everhart, head of Air Mobility Command, also pointed to the pace of operations and maintenance

“I think the reason why they’re declining is, we are really flying aircraft hard,” Everhart said Feb. 21. “It winds up being a balance. If you fly aircraft hard and don’t give them much of the maintenance time they need, then they will have a tendency to bring those rates down. If you balance those rates and maintenance capability to operations, that gives you a more definitive mission-capability rate.”

Considering how crucial logistics are to keeping the military functioning, Everhart said he’s “absolutely” concerned about any signs of declining readiness.

“It’s kinetics that win the battles, but it’s logistics that win the war,” Everhart said. “Anything that’s taking those airplanes away, where you can’t see the power of the United States Air Force, that does concern me.”

Deployers first

The Air Force makes sure its deployed squadrons have the most senior, experienced maintainers to guarantee that planes flying combat or other forward missions are in the best shape.

But Carlisle said that means bases back at home, which are already short-staffed on maintainers, don’t have as many experienced maintainers to keep those planes up and running.

When it comes to new aircraft, Carlisle said, it takes a while to spin up newer maintainers on how to fix them — especially something as advanced and complicated as the F-35.

And stealth aircraft such as the F-22 and F-35 need more work to maintain their stealth coatings, which brings down their availability, he said.

“It’s more than just corrosion control,” Carlisle said. “There’s a lot of science to the entire stealth process.”

‘Pilots who don’t fly’

But no matter the cause, declining mission-capable rates present a problem the Air Force must fix. And if it doesn’t, experts agreed, it could drive more pilots out and exacerbate an already alarming pilot shortage.

The Air Force needs about 20,000 pilots across the total force, but despite taking many steps to retain them, the service remains about 2,000 pilots short.

A major driver is that pilots are being recruited for lucrative flying jobs in the commercial airline industry.

As Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein has often warned, “Pilots who don’t fly … will not stay with us.”

But if there simply aren’t enough operational planes, pilots don’t get nearly as many flying hours. Venable said pilots should get about 20 to 25 hours of flight time per month.

The bottom line

If one of the many hot spots around the world erupts — such as North Korea — the Air Force could find itself in a situation where the crucial planes it needs to respond are out of commission.

The risk [of such a scenario] continues to go up,” Carlisle said.

To fix it, “we need to buy more airplanes, we need to increase our end strength, and we need to modernize and recapitalize our fleet,” he said.

Otherwise, this problem could have serious repercussions on the Air Force’s combat capabilities.

“It’ll be something on the order of the spiral down of the United States Air Force into something that may not be as combat-effective as we need it to be when the day comes,” Venable said.

Full article: Fewer planes are ready to fly: Air Force mission-capable rates decline amid pilot crisis (AirForceTimes)

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