Air Force Moves the Goalposts | Citizens Against Government Waste

Air Force Moves the Goalposts

The WasteWatcher

On September 17, 2018 former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis issued a directive to the Air Force and Navy to increase mission-capable rates to above 80 percent for four of their most important jets by September 2019.  After failing to meet that goal, the Air Force announced on May 7, 2020 that it was abandoning the target. 

For years, the Air Force has suffered from poor readiness rates, stemming both from well-documented flaws in 5th generation aircraft such as the F-22 and F-35, as well as continuing to fly jets that were long ago meant to be retired. 

A September 2018 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report noted that 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.”  Between fiscal years (FY) 2011 and 2016 the GAO analyzed 12 Air Force and Navy jets, finding that nine failed to meet mission-ready goals, and that rates for half the planes declined over the time period.  The Pentagon classified the specific number of troubled aircraft.

In FY 2019, each of the four aircraft targeted by the Mattis threshold sustained readiness rates below 80 percent.  The F-35A achieved a mission-capable rate of 62 percent, while 73 percent of F-16s and just 51 percent of F-22s could undertake missions at any given time.  The Navy has yet to comment as to whether it will stick to the 80 percent rate for the F-18.

Air Force brass never liked the directive.  In August 2019, Air Force Chief of Staff David Goldfein downplayed the 80 percent rate, arguing that other metrics such as trained air crew, maintenance workers, and supply chain performance provided a better indicator of readiness.

However, scrapping a rate that the Air Force has little chance of meeting smacks of grading to the curve.  Required mission frequency will change over time.  While a sub-80 percent mission-capable rating might be deemed acceptable today, it might prove disastrous in an engagement with a peer adversary.

The ultimate answer to the readiness dilemma is to fix the longstanding deficiencies inherent in the F-22 and F-35, which are meant to be the backbone of Air Force fighters for years to come.  This will allow the Pentagon to retire older generation aircraft at a faster clip.  Addressing the broken procurement system that rubberstamped these acquisition disasters would also improve readiness of future aircraft.

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