Most USAF Fighters Won’t Meet 80 Percent Directive, but Process Has Lessons Learned

An F-22 Raptor assigned to the 525th Fighter Squadron from JB Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, flies away after refueling from a KC-135 Stratotanker assigned to the 909th Air Refueling Squadron from Kadena AB, Japan, during exercise Northern Edge, May 16, 2019, over Alaska. Air Force photo by SSgt. Micaiah Anthony.

While the bulk of the Air Force’s fighter fleet will not meet the directive to increase its mission capable rate to 80 percent, the increased funding and focus on readiness under the effort has identified issues Air Combat Command can address to improve the health of the fleet.

Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in October 2018 issued a directive to the Air Force and Navy to improve the readiness of the F-16, F/A-18, F-22, and F-35 fleets to an 80 percent mission capable rate by the end of fiscal 2019. With the deadline less than two weeks away, the only Air Force fleet that will meet the mark is Active Duty F-16s.

Air Combat Command boss Gen. Mike Holmes said Sept. 18 at AFA’s Air, Space & Cyber Conference he was “really happy with the shift made in the Air Force” to emphasize readiness, moving “significant money” during the fiscal 2019 budget. That trend will continue in the fiscal 2020 budget.

F-22 fleet readiness is limited by multiple factors, the first being the response to Hurricane Michael that devastated Tyndall AFB, Fla., last year. The Air Force scattered Tyndall’s F-22s and personnel to JB Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska; JB Langley-Eustis, Va.; and JB Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii. The personnel moves wrapped up last month, after the Air Force gave airmen and their families time to find places to live, get children enrolled in schools, and deal with issues related to an abrupt move.

Second, the F-22 faces complications with maintenance of its low observable coating. Maintaining this stealth capability takes time and effort, at a time when Tyndall’s low observable maintenance facility was damaged. That facility is now operational, and the service is looking at expanding the LO maintenance capability at the F-22 operational bases, Holmes said.

“A big part of the F-22 issue is LO,” he said.

The main issue with the F-35 has been parts availability, which is a challenge the Joint Program Office is working through. In the past several months, the 388th Fighter Wing at Hill AFB, Utah, the Air Force’s operational F-35 wing, has had jets flying in four separate locations. This has complicated the overall readiness and maintenance process. Despite that, the F-35s that are deployed to the Middle East have had a “constantly improving rate,” including more than 80 percent recently, Holmes said.