Air Force's Decline in Mission-Capable Aircraft Continues | Citizens Against Government Waste
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Air Force's Decline in Mission-Capable Aircraft Continues

The WasteWatcher is the staff blog of Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) and the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW). For questions, contact blog@cagw.org.


The Air Force has a growing dilemma on its hands, exacerbated by aging older platforms, and problematic newer aircraft.

According to a July 26, 2019 Air Force Times article, of the approximately 5,143 planes in the Air Force’s fleet, less than 70 percent were capable of flight in fiscal year (FY) 2018.  This follows a six-year decline in air readiness, where the percentage of aircraft deemed flyable dipped by eight percent.

This problem extends to new and old platforms alike.  The air readiness of the Air Force’s version of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), a platform already hampered by massive cost overruns and delays, dropped by five percent in FY 2018 compared to FY 2017.  Less than 50 percent of the service’s 148 JSFs achieved a mission-capable rating in FY 2018.

The mission-capable rate of another fifth-generation aircraft, the F-22, increased by 2.73 percent in FY 2018.  However, only 51.74 percent of these planes were labeled worthy of flight.

Older planes such as the F-15E also did not fare well.  The mission-capable rate of this model dipped by 4.1 percent to 71.16 percent.

In a July 15, 2019 statement, the Air Force labeled the age of the fleet as the primary factor in the reduction in flyable aircraft.  Air Force planes are on average 28 years old compared to an average of 10 years in 1991. 

Of course, a significant cause for the increased fleet age is the lengthy delays and high cost of new platforms, and their inability to sufficiently replace aircraft from prior generations.  The best example of this is the F-35, which has been in development for nearly 18 years and is approximately eight years behind schedule.  One of the consequences of the massive delays incurred by the program is that the fourth-generation aircraft the JSF was intended to replace have reached the end of their service lives. 

The poor performance of the JSF and the extreme age of older planes led the Air Force to detail a plan to spend $1.1 billion purchasing 144 F-15EX aircraft, an upgraded version of the F-15C/D, beginning with eight in FY 2020.  The Department of Defense’s current stock of F-15C/Ds has an average age of 35 years.

Given the aging stock of existing planes and the continued deficiencies in fifth-generation models, the Air Force will likely continue to struggle with fielding mission-capable aircraft.  It will also likely be forced to throw good money after bad fixing the JSF’s litany of issues while simultaneously patching up older models. 

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