U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis has ordered this of the armed services: get your fighter jets ready for action. Mattis has instructed the services he wants four out of five fighter jets ready for combat within one year—which is a far cry from current levels.
The number would go a long way toward restoring America’s aging and somewhat dilapidated fighter fleet, but it is also an audacious, possibly even hopeless goal that will require more time, attention, money and resources than the services can currently spare.
For years, the Pentagon’s fleet of aircraft have been in a slow but steady spiral to declining readiness. The Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps have dealt with a nonstop series of crises, starting in 9/11, then the invasion of Iraq, operations in Libya and Somalia, and the Islamic State. Joining that list are new emerging tensions with Russia in Europe and China in the western Pacific. The services have pushed their fleets of ever-aging planes harder to keep up with the demand, while replacement jets were late in coming.
At the same time, budgetary issues—including overruns—have plagued the armed services. The military has struggled to operate within the confines of the 2011 Budget Control Act that trimmed federal spending. Even in relatively stable years bickering over the federal budget often resulted in the passage of so-called “continuing resolutions.”
These resolutions, which doled out just enough money to keep the government going while the political fighting carried on, were an inefficient means of spending money and played havoc with the Pentagon’s budgetary planning.
As a result, fighter fleets are in poor shape. In 2017, only 70.22 percent of the Air Force’s F-16C fighter jets were considered ready for action. Just under half of F-22A Raptors, or 49.01 percent, are ready. In the Navy and Marine Corps, 44 percent of F/A-18 Hornets are ready for action, although those older aircraft are relegated to the Navy Reserve and Marine Corps. The Navy’s Super Hornet force stands at 53 percent.
The F-35 program is, of course, no exception. In March, the office that manages the F-35 program reported readiness stood at 51 percent across all three versions and all three services. Drilling down a bit readiness levels varied wildly depending on the age of the plane: earlier production F-35s averaged only 40 to 50 percent readiness while newer planes averaged 70 to 75 percent.
(By the way, just today, the Pentagon grounded all F-35s. At issue is “suspect fuel tubes” believed to be the cause of last month’s crash. Great.)
Eighty-five percent readiness is considered “good” in peacetime. Typically readiness levels jump during wartime, as maintainers push to get aircraft ready for combat and Congress and the Pentagon open the funding floodgates. In 1990 Air Force fighter jet readiness levels averaged 85-90 percent—numbers that surged an average of six percent during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
And so yesterday, Defense News broke the story that Mattis has ordered the services to reach 80 percent readiness across the F-16, F-22, F/A-18, and F-35 fleets within one year. In a memo to the Pentagon leadership, Mattis stated, “For change to be effective and efficient, we must focus on meeting our most critical priorities first. These include achieving a minimum of 80 percent mission capability rates for our FY 2019 Navy and Air Force inventories—assets that form the backbone of our tactical air power—and reducing these platforms operational and maintenance costs every year starting FY 2019.”
And no, the U.S. Army is not off the hook—the Secretary of the Army got the memo too. “Progress cannot be limited to these platforms alone,” Mattis wrote. “Our Military Departments must also set and pursue aggressive targets for our other enduring fixed wing and rotary wing aviation assets.”
Reaching readiness levels of 80 percent in just in those four fighter fleets—F-16, F-22, F/A-18, and F-35—will be an enormous undertaking, and there isn’t just one root problem to solve.
The F-16’s problem is that the fleet is old. The F-35’s problem is that the fleet is new. The F-22’s problem is that the fighter is complex, and the F/A-18’s problem is that the planes are overworked. There are hardware, software, personnel, operational tempo, and training problems to overcome.
Each of the services has its work cut out for it. The Air Force is probably in the best shape, with increased funding reportedly helping readiness issues, but the service also wants to grow the number of squadrons by 24 percent at the same time and it will be challenging to do both. The Marines took a break from buying fighters and gambled on the F-35 arriving in the nick of time—which it did not, forcing the service to keep flying older F/A-18 Hornets. The Navy’s strike fighter readiness—which was at about thirty percent a year ago—is now at roughly fifty percent but must rise another thirty points.
Mattis also wants aircraft flight costs to come down. Again, there are different reasons for different planes. Older planes such as the F-16 and F/A-18 start to see costs rise during their advanced years, as the planes need more TLC and spare parts grow scarce. The complex F-35A costs $50,000 an hour to fly, twice as much as the F-16 it replaces, a recurring problem with the various F-35 models and the planes they replace. If those costs don’t come down, the Pentagon will be forced to ask for more money, buy fewer planes, or fly less often—none of which are attractive options.
The Secretary of Defense is asking the armed services for a lot, but the credibility and capability of the U.S. military as a fighting force is on the line here. If, as in many cases only half of the planes are ready to fight, why bother maintaining large inventories of planes in the first place? Why bother investing in jets like the F-35 if you can’t afford to fly them? And if America can’t afford to fly them, who can?
Allies and adversaries alike are watching, to see if the Pentagon can dig itself out of this mess. If it can, they may decide the U.S. is still a force to be reckoned with. If it cannot, they may conclude America’s fighter fleet is a paper tiger—and we might not like what they do next.