An F-35A Lightning II pilot assigned to the 4th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron performs a performance check with the MBU-23/P oxygen mask assembly at Al Dhafra AB, United Arab Emirates, in preparation for the first combat sortie in the Air Forces Central Command area of responsibility on April 26, 2019. Air Force photo by TSgt. Jocelyn A. Ford.
The US military is struggling to improve the readiness of its F-35 and F-22 fleets, though other airframes such as the F/A-18 have made “significant progress,” Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan told lawmakers on Wednesday.
Last year, former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis directed the Air Force and Navy to reach an 80 percent mission capable rate for the F-35, F-22, F-16, and F/A-18 inventory. Air Force leaders have said the goal is difficult to achieve, due to issues such as parts shortages and intense maintenance needs for components such as the low-observable coating of stealth aircraft.
Shanahan, during a House Appropriations defense subcommittee hearing, said the 80 percent readiness rate for the F-35 should be the “baseline where we start” since it is a brand-new aircraft. However, the jet’s rate at the time of the Mattis memo was only about 55 percent.
The F-22 also has “struggled,” Shanahan said. USAF Secretary Heather Wilson said following a March Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee the F-22 fleet may not reach the 80-percent goal because of “permanent change-of-station moves” required after Hurricane Michael devastated Tyndall AFB, Fla., last fall.
The F-16’s readiness rate also is a “bit of a high bar” for the military, Shanahan said. At the time of the memo, its rate was about 74 percent, but Wilson said the service would likely meet the goal.
The Navy, on the other hand, has recovered “50 to 60 more aircraft” in the past six months, Shanahan said. “It’s been a tremendous amount of progress.”
The fleets’ low readiness rate meant there’s “a lot of iron to keep on the ground,” which limited training missions and overall productivity, Shanahan said.
“I think holding that standard is smart for now,” he said of the 80 percent goal.
The Mattis memo only focused on the fighter aircraft and not bomber aircraft such as B-1s and B-52s because that would be an “unrealistic goal” for those fleets, Shanahan said Wednesday.