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.”

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Less than half of the US bomber fleet is ready to ‘fight tonight’

A U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer prepares to take off for a 10-hour mission from Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, into Japanese airspace and over the Korean Peninsula, July 30, 2017. (Tech. Sgt. Richard P. Ebensberger/Air Force)

 

WASHINGTON – Less than half of the bombers President Donald Trump would rely upon to be “locked and loaded” against North Korea could launch today if needed, according to the latest Air Force figures available.

That’s not a surprise to the bomb squadrons who have seen firsthand the combined effects of aircraft age, the demand of 15 years of air war operations and reduced budgets. But the numbers can be stark. Of the nation’s 75 conventional and nuclear B-52s, only about 33 are ready to fly at any given time, according to Air Force statistics. Of the 62 conventional B-1s, only about 25 are ready. With the 20 nuclear B-2 stealth bombers, the number drops further. Seven or eight bombers are available, according to the Air Force.

On a nominal basis you don’t have more than single digits of B-2s available to do anything,” said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Dave Deptula, currently the dean of the Mitchell Institute of Aerospace.

“If anything good comes out of the North Korea crisis,” it should be a wake-up call, he said.

“It’s not just the nation’s bomber force,” that is so stretched, Deptula said. “It’s the military writ large. The U.S. Air Force is the smallest and least ready it’s ever been in history – that should get people’s attention.”

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