Readiness in a Downdraft

July 1, 1998

Air Force MSgt. Eugene D. Mehaffy has a message for Pentagon budgeteers: Real readiness does not come cheap.

An 18-year veteran and C-5 flight engineer with the 22d Airlift Squadron from Travis AFB, Calif., Mehaffy saw readiness rates reach historic levels around the time of the Gulf War. Today, the readiness of his unit remains high but is probably not sustainable, he told Congress earlier this year.

Years of budget cuts are finally taking their toll. Spares shortages for the Galaxy are only one aspect of the problem, he said. Manning reductions, plus retention losses driven by low pay and high operations tempo, are becoming major factors in the readiness equation.

Higher-ups constantly tell Mehaffy to “do more with less.” Yet “less” means such frustrations as the inability of a tired and hungry crew to get a box lunch at some en route stopovers. “I only hope everyone now understands ‘more with less’ is not going to happen,” the veteran NCO told a House committee this spring.

Frustration similar to that of Mehaffy’s affects flight lines all across the Air Force. Everyone from commanding generals to the airman stacking munitions realizes that most units are not as ready as they would like to be.

This does not mean the Air Force could not fulfill its worldwide missions, if called upon. The hundreds of sorties flown every day over Iraq, Bosnia, and other trouble spots testify that US airpower remains a potent weapon.

Downhill Sliding

But many officials warn that the service may no longer just be standing at the top of a slippery slope on readiness. Downhill sliding has begun, and once such movement develops momentum, it is difficult to reverse.

“It is like the Titanic,” Gen. Richard E. Hawley, the commander of Air Combat Command, told the audience at a recent Air Force Association symposium. “If you’ve seen the movie, you know they were frantically trying to turn that ship. We can apply a lot of rudder to the force today and it is going to take time before those trends begin to stabilize and we can reverse them in order to prevent the hollow force from developing.”

Readiness problems are relative, of course. No one is predicting that Air Force wings will once again suffer a serious decline such as the one they experienced in the drawdown years following the Vietnam War, when overall mission readiness figures sank to less than about 55 percent.

Overall, 91 percent of Air Force units have readiness ratings of C1 or C2. Readiness in front-line theater units in PACAF and USAFE is even higher than that.

Some key indicators are dropping, however. In the late 1980s, fighter force readiness hovered around 80 percent, for instance. Today, only about 74 percent of the Air Force’s fighters are fully mission capable on a given day.

Air Force mission capable rates for all systems peaked in 1991 at 83.4 percent. Since then, they have slowly declined by almost 9 percentage points, to 74.6 percent at the end of the first quarter of Fiscal 1998.

Within these figures lie some specific problems which officials find particularly troublesome. “Engine readiness has become a very significant problem,” said acting Air Force Secretary F. Whitten Peters at a recent AFA meeting.

The F100-229-series and TF39-series power plants, used in front-line fighters and the C-5, respectively, are among those most dogged by breakdowns and parts shortages.

Budget cuts are a big reason for the recent readiness problems-but they are far from the only cause. Engines are a good example in this regard. “It is not just a matter of money,” said Peters.

Turmoil in the San Antonio Air Logistics Center workforce, coupled with a spares funding shortfall in Fiscal 1997, caused lower than expected engine repair productivity. In addition, engines-and aircraft-are aging. In four years, over 75 percent of the Air Force fleet will be 20+ years old.

The service is planning to buy new engines for the F-15 fleet and for RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft. Some $500 million has been set aside for C-5 engine and avionics improvements. By the end of next year, the core F100 repair work will have been transferred to a stable work force at Oklahoma City ALC.

These and other changes should stem the 1.1 percent annual decline in mission capable rates, the Air Force contends. The question is when.

“It will take some time for these problems to work themselves out,” said Peters. “It has taken until recently for the underfunding in 1997 to work its way through the depot pipeline, so it will take at least several more months before the increased funding in 1998 and 1999 will take effect.”

One good way to peel back the layers of the readiness problem and understand its causes is to break down overall mission readiness figures into two main categories: Not Mission Capable Supply (airplanes suffering from lack of parts) and Not Mission Capable for Maintenance (airplanes at least partly broken because no one has gotten around to fixing them yet).

The Unready Quarter

Lt. Gen. William P. Hallin, USAF’s deputy chief of staff for installations and logistics, told Congress this spring that a bit more than a quarter of Air Force aircraft were rated not mission capable in the first quarter of Fiscal 1998. Of those, the larger group was affected by lack of parts, he said. Those rated Not Mission Capable Supply constituted just over 14 percent of the fleet. According to Hallin, slightly more than 11.3 percent were judged Not Mission Capable for Maintenance.

“These rate increases illustrate that the MC-rate decline is both maintenance and supply driven,” said Hallin.

In other words, readiness is a complicated issue that features interlocking problems. Hallin said that major areas of concern, and areas where corrective actions have focused, include aging aircraft and personnel retention, as well as engines and spare parts.

“We are concerned with the adverse trend and increased level of effort required to meet our operational requirements,” said Hallin.

The state of the F-15 air superiority fighter force is a good example of readiness trends at work, according to Hallin. He said that, while the aircraft is not nearly as elderly as the B-52 and KC-135, the average age of USAF’s F-15s is more than 15 years. Age-related component failures are causing parts shortages, which in turn drive the airplane’s Not Mission Capable Supply rate up.

A lack of horizontal stabilizers is a major driver of F-15 and F-15E readiness rates, for instance. The stabilizers are in short supply because corrosion caused by water seeping through deteriorated seals results in longer-than-expected depot repair times. That translates into airplanes sitting on the flight line.

F-15C/Ds, for their part, are experiencing structural corrosion in the forward fuselage fuel cell area that is causing many to sit on the ground awaiting inspection.

Even the F-16, a relative youngster of a military aircraft, faces age-related readiness problems. Early production F-16s are dogged with a rising number of fuel leaks, which are a particularly time-consuming problem to fix.

Lean Years

Meanwhile, funding for aircraft spares went through a particularly lean period in the early years and middle years of this decade. The “spares” line item was funded at less than its full requirement from 1991 through 1994 and in 1996 and 1997, according to Hallin. That exacerbated existing supply problems.

Overall, the complexity of parts supplies is shown in an Air Force analysis of the top 10 spare parts shortages affecting F-16s throughout most of 1997. Three of the items were in short supply, it turned out, because contractors were late in producing them. One of the shortages was caused by a “technical surprise”-failure at a higher than predicted rate. One shortage was due to inaccurate demand forecasting caused by the aging of the aircraft model. One was driven by insufficient capacity in the depot to meet repair demands. The last four were caused by long lead times for depot component repair parts.

“Improved supply chain discipline, along with FY 98 and FY 99 spare parts funding at 95 percent and 100 percent, respectively, should begin to stabilize spare parts shortages in FY 98 and begin recovery,” concluded Hallin.

Officials take some heart in the fact that the recent decline in readiness leading indicators has been gradual. The drop in the mid- to late-1970s was sharp and uncontrolled.

Some studies have since concluded that the most important factor in the creation of the late 1970s “hollow” force was the exodus from the services of experienced personnel following the pullout from Vietnam. The overall skill and quality of Air Force units dropped far below the levels necessary to maintain complicated jet aircraft.

By 1976, the rate of nonjudicial punishment actions for all Air Force personnel was about 40 per 1,000 people, for instance. By way of comparison, the figure for 1997 was 22.

The lesson from this is that current retention rates are thus a key readiness ingredient. And while the Air Force may not be as bad off as it was in the 1970s in this regard, retention is rapidly becoming a difficult issue.

The pilot problem is well-publicized; by the end of 1998, the Air Force could be short of its total requirement by as many as 800 pilots. But key specialists throughout the service, from officers to NCOs to first-term airmen, are walking away in alarming numbers. The first-term reenlistment rate for aircraft armament personnel is only about 21 percent, for instance. It is 14 percent for all F-16 avionics specialists and 46 percent for F-16 crew chiefs.

The well-known problem of high operations tempo is a major contributor to the high separation rates. It is a figure that Air Force leaders repeat again and again: The active duty force has declined in size almost 40 percent since the end of the Cold War, yet deployments have increased fourfold. On any given day Air Force personnel are working hard from Saudi Arabia to Diego Garcia to Bosnia.

But optempo is not the only trend with a big effect on retention. The revitalized US economy is a vacuum sucking airmen and pilots into the private sector. Young enlistees see that their future retirement and health care benefits may not measure up to those offered in the past and make career decisions accordingly.

Experience Gap

The result of all this may be a growing “experience gap” on the flight line and in the air, according to personnel in front-line units.

Take, for example, Mehaffy’s organization, the 22d Airlift Squadron at Travis. Today, the squadron’s pilots and crew, as a group, are the youngest, least experienced people ever to fly the C-5. Of 61 pilots assigned, for instance, only nine have prior Galaxy seasoning. Most are in their first mobility airlift tour.

Each year, one-third of the experience that the unit “grows” on its own is lost because pilots leave for new posts based on a three-year assignment cycle.

“This rotation forces a loss of my top-line fliers-instructors, examiners, and supervisors,” said Lt. Col. Karen M. Torres, commander of the 22d Airlift Squadron, in a recent congressional appearance.

Nor is the experience gap limited to officers. Enlisted flight engineers and loadmasters are leaving for more lucrative jobs with private cargo carriers, as well. Their initial pay can range from $50 to $57 per flight hour, plus benefits.

“For the first time, we are finding flight engineer and loadmaster trainees who don’t want to finish training, much less start a flying career, because of the difficult work environment,” said Mehaffy.

Top service officials say that, to reduce the retention problems, they need to develop more incentives for their airmen, particularly key middle managers and the enlisted ranks.

USAF leaders are trying to reduce deployment rates through creative use of Guard and Reserve units and increases in manning of high-demand specialties, among other things. The Fiscal 1999 budget proposed a pay raise of 3.1 percent, but Congress is moving toward approving one of 3.6 percent. One-third of Air Force military construction spending next year will be devoted to such quality-of-life improvements as new child care centers, houses, and converting “gang latrine” dorms to the DoD 1+1 standard.

Bonuses offered per the Air Force selective reenlistment program have been increased for the hardest-hit specialties. The number of specialties to which the bonus applies has been expanded from 41 to 88.

“We are also aggressively implementing the new Aviation Career Incentive Pay and bonus programs passed by Congress last year,” Peters told AFA. “We are having some luck, but the future there is still in doubt and we have more work.”

While retention is an issue throughout the Air Force, some readiness problems affect only certain service commands.

Hard-flying Air Mobility Command units are simply wearing out airplanes, for instance. The C-5 is becoming maintenance-intensive, requiring 21 man-hours of ground work for each hour of flying time. Yet the aircraft has roughly 80 percent of its structural life remaining.

Desperate Need

“That equates to another 30 to 40 years of service, but it desperately needs new engines and upgraded avionics,” said Gen. Walter Kross, commander of Air Mobility Command and commander in chief of US Transportation Command.

The Air Force logistics system has become a readiness challenge for AMC, said Kross. Airlifters fly into many locations that have little or no repair infrastructure. They need the right parts in the right places at the right time to maintain a high operations tempo.

Kross also says that the Air Force needs a new long-range strategy for the C-130 fleet to maximize readiness. The problem is that the service’s fleet of 500 C-130s is composed of five different versions. These variants may look alike on the outside, but inside they are virtually five different systems. The C-130J is 70 percent different than its immediate predecessor.

That means that C-130 training, maintenance, and logistics is far more complicated than it needs to be. “We’ve got to get that family down to two types,” said Kross.

Pacific Air Forces, for its part, has fewer readiness problems than much of the Air Force. Its distance from continental US depots means that PACAF gets some supply priority–as does USAFE.

Thus, PACAF mission capable rates are somewhat higher than those of Air Combat Command units. Its infrastructure, however, may well be shakier. The average age of PACAF’s buildings is over 40 years. Some 65 percent of infrastructure systems–such as water, sewer, heating, airfield lighting-have exceeded design life expectancy.

A deteriorating fuel infrastructure at Andersen AFB, Guam, is already impairing aircraft resupply. Alaska’s bases are in similar straits, though construction of new JP-8 tankage is scheduled for this year.

“Our ability to support continuous air operations may be seriously impacted by our inability to resupply jet fuels in theater,” PACAF commander Gen. Richard B. Myers told a House panel in March.

Overall, Air Force readiness problems need to be addressed through sufficient resources, say service leaders. Some money is working its way through the supply pipeline. The question is whether it will be enough.

“Seriously Compromised”

The House National Security Committee, which held numerous readiness hearings this year, completed its defense bill on May 6. At the same time, the chairman, Rep. Floyd D. Spence (R-S.C.), issued a harsh assessment of the combat readiness of US forces.

“The committee remains concerned by contradictions between official reports of military readiness and the reality confronting military personnel out in the field. Where official reports and testimony before the committee portray the overall readiness of US armed forces as high, soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines increasingly admit that their units are continuing to slip below standards. …

“The committee conducted a series of hearings … to hear the views of operational unit commanders and senior noncommissioned officers from all of the military services on this issue. What the committee heard from all who testified was that personnel are working harder and longer than ever before, leaving little doubt that ‘doing more with less’ is methodically undermining the readiness of US military forces.

“Despite dedication and high morale, the readiness of today’s forces has become a systemic problem that limits the military’s ability to execute the National Military Strategy. … Despite a growing consensus that US military readiness is in steep decline, the Administration continues to underfund critical accounts that support the ability of US forces to fight and win wars.

“Despite the addition by Congress of approximately $350 million in fiscal year 1998 to address the backlog of depot maintenance and repair, the backlog will grow by $120.4 million in fiscal year 1999. Despite the addition by Congress of $600 million in fiscal year 1998 for real property maintenance and repair accounts, this backlog will grow by $1.6 billion in fiscal year 1999. And despite the addition of $562 million in fiscal year 1998 for Navy and Air Force flying hour and spare parts accounts, the shortfall in fiscal year 1999 is projected to reach $250 million.

“These few examples are symptomatic of the problem: as defense resources and force size have declined, and the number, frequency, and duration of contingency operations [have] increased, the ability of US armed forces to train for their primary warfighting missions has been seriously compromised.”

Peter Grier, the Washington bureau chief of the Christian Science Monitor, is a longtime defense correspondent and regular contributor to Air Force Magazine. His most recent article, “Troubles With Tricare,” appeared in the June 1998 issue.