Mattis orders service branches to bring fighter jet readiness up to 80 percent within a year as threats rise

050817-N-3488C-028 Pacific Ocean (Aug. 17, 2005) - An F/A-18C Hornet, assigned to the "Golden Dragons" of Strike Fighter Squadron One Nine Two (VFA-192), launches from the flight deck of the conventionally powered aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk (CV 63). Kitty Hawk and embarked Carrier Air Wing Five (CVW-5) are currently returning to their homeport after a scheduled deployment in the 7th Fleet area of responsibility. U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate 3rd Class Jonathan Chandler (RELEASED)

Defense Secretary James Mattis has ordered the Army, Air Force, and Navy to bring their fighter aircraft readiness up to 80 percent within one year, which is going to be difficult given abysmal readiness rates for some classes of jet fighters.

The Sept. 17 memo, obtained by Defense News, to the secretaries of those service branches, along with the acquisition chief Ellen Lord and acting Undersecretary for Personnel and Readiness Stephanie Barna, the DoD head said he’s aware of “budget constraints and shortfalls in aviation squadrons across the force” that have contributed to “systemic underperformance, overcapitalization and unrealized capacity” within the fighter jet fleet.

“For change to be effective and efficient, we must focus on meeting our most critical priorities first,” Mattis wrote.

Specifically, Mattis wants F-35s, F/A-18s, F-22s, and F-16 fleets to be at 80-percent readiness, which is far higher than most of them at present.

The F-22 fleet, in particular, is only about 49 percent in-service, according to the most recent Pentagon figures. In addition to higher readiness rates, Mattis also wants operating costs lowered beginning in the FY 2019 budget year.

Defense News reported further:

Specific to tactical aircraft, the F-16C fleet reported a mission capable rate of 70.22 percent, the just-standing-up F-35A a 54.67 percent mission capable rate, and the F-22 Raptor a shocking 49.01 mission capable rate. While not covered by Mattis’ memo, the F-15C (71.24 percent) and F-15E (75.26 percent) were also below the threshold now sought by the secretary.

The Raptor’s rates stand out as the most alarming. When the F-22 was first used in combat towards the end of 2014, its mission capable rate was over 70 percent; as use has increased, its rates have dropped dramatically.

Navy figures are released less regularly, but in an Aug. 7 media roundtable, Navy Secretary Richard Spencer told reporters that the service started 2018 with 241 fully mission capable aircraft, and he said had increased to 270 by the time he met with the press. And almost half of the Navy’s 546 Super Hornets are now mission capable, he said — well below Mattis’ target.

“The Air Force and Navy are operating many of their fixed-wing aircraft well beyond their original designed service lives and therefore are confronted with sustainment challenges,” said a recent Government Accountability Office report.

Analysis: One way that the service branches can achieve the kind of readiness Mattis seeks is by following the Navy model. Spencer told Congress in August that the Navy has implemented “a program called the Depot Readiness Initiative, where he said the Navy is letting the depots perform regular calendar maintenance as well as depot-level maintenance at the same time, a move that cuts out redundant work by performing scheduled and depot maintenance at the same time,” Defense News reported.

Thanks to the second straight fiscal year of having an actual defense budget — not “continuing resolutions” which made it impossible for service chiefs to plan out spending and prioritize programs — Mattis has a much greater capacity to fix the force he and President Trump inherited, which was in bad need of upgrading and repair following more than a decade’s worth of low-level conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan. It doesn’t hurt that Congress is providing tens of billions of additional funding over Obama-year spending levels. 

But Mattis knows he may be up against the clock here. The U.S. must check — that is, deter — a resurgent Russia and China, and while NATO can assist with the former, the European-centric alliance has left the latter to the United States and its Asian allies to deal with, for the most part. 

While the U.S. has a lot of fighter planes in total — around 1,700 excluding A-10s and strategic bombers — that leaves a small number for each theater when you factor in the high unavailability rates. Granted, U.S. fourth- and fifth-generation aircraft are highly capable, but in sheer numbers alone, U.S. fighters could be outmatched by greater numbers of Russian and Chinese fighter aircraft operating closer to home.

Mattis obviously understands that in order to put up a credible deterrent against both nations, the U.S. military has to expand its capability, and in part, that means bolstering its fighter aircraft readiness rates in order to offset declining numbers of fighter aircraft over the past decade. Despite this dearth of planes, the Pentagon has no plans at present to boost acquisition rates for the F-35. The president’s FY2018 budget projected a decrease “in total aircraft from 5,517 aircraft in 2017 to 5,416 in 2018, but over the course of the year, the inventory slipped to 5,373,” the Heritage Foundation reports.

The think tank further notes: “Adversaries are modernizing and innovating faster than the Air Force is, jeopardizing America’s technological advantage in air and space. Before 1991, the Air Force bought approximately 510 aircraft per year. Over the past 20 years, it has acquired an average of only 96 new aircraft per year. Today, the average age of our aircraft is over 28 years, yet the Air Force—even with the budget increases for FY 2018 and FY 2019—has no plans to raise the acquisition rates for the F-35 or KC-46 to buy down that average. The decades-long trend of steadily declining aircraft numbers, coupled with the fleet’s ever-growing average age, may be lulling senior leaders into the belief that the service can be fixed sometime in the future, but the numbers tell a different story.”

The SECDEF is aware of the deficits and is trying to fix it sooner rather than later.



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