The Air Force’s Low Aircraft Availability Rates

Across nearly all of its combat and mobility aircraft, the Air Force is failing to meet aircraft availability standards, according to data the service recently provided to Congress. “The Air Force has a challenge in aircraft availability, and we are trying to shore that up,” Col. Michael Lawrence, chief of maintenance division, told Air Force Magazine. Aircraft availability offers “a mechanism to understand the relative health of any fleet,” he said, by showing what percentage of time a particular fleet of aircraft is ready to fly missions. The data show that, in the fourth quarter of 2016, 16 of the 17 USAF aircraft fleets included had availability rates below the standard, which indicates a fleet in good health. Additionally, only six of the 17 aircraft had availability rates within five percentage points of the standard, which maintainers consider an acceptable deviation from the norm.

While warning that “every weapons system has its own story,” Lawrence said three main factors contribute to the service-wide low rates of aircraft availability. Some of the lowest rates during that time period were among platforms undergoing “service life extension programs,” like the B-1, B-2, and F-15E. Here, “there is a need to prepare for a near-peer adversary,” Lawrence said. “It’s painful to take these aircraft off the front lines, but we know we’ve got to do it.” The F-22A Raptor also suffered a low availabilty rate at 46 percent, which Lawrence said was primarily caused by work on the aircraft’s stealthy low observable platform surfaces. Second, as the average age of the Air Force inventory increases, “the amount of time we have to spend working on those aircraft tends to increase,” leaving them in the depots longer. Third, aircraft availability has been impacted by “the maintenance manpower sh?ortfall.” The aircraft availability data were provided in a pre-hearing memo to the House Armed Services readiness subcommittee ahead of the March 22 hearing on the “current s?tate of the Air Force.”

Note: A previous version of this entry incorrectly stated that the F-22A Raptor had the lowest aircraft availability rating in the fourth quarter of Fiscal 2016; it was actually the third lowest.