The US Defense Secretary James Norman Mattis has signed a memorandum, requesting that the US Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps keep main fighter jets such as F-35 fighter planes, F-22 Raptor stealth fighter jets, F-16 fighters and F/A-18 air fighters in combat readiness throughout the fiscal year 2019, that the ratio of task-performing fighters should be raised to 80%, and that they should be ready for battle through perfect systemic combat capabilities and strong comprehensive national support.
In order to achieve this goal, the various services of the US military started to focus on improving their operational readiness of air combat forces. But the road ahead might not be smooth due to various institutional obstacles and technical difficulties.
The worrying situation of the US fighter planes
The air superiority has always been a trump card held by the US military and a precondition for carrying out military operations. Compared with other countries, the US military possesses the advantage of generational gaps in areas of surveillance, remote strike and electromagnetic suppression.
However, the surge in missions in multiple hotspots has made the US air combat forces feel the strain. The long-term execution of missions by various fighters has led to significant losses that exceed expectations. The number of the US fighters in combat readiness continues to decline.
In the US Air Force, for example, the average combat readiness rate of fighters was only 71.3% in fiscal year 2017. If we exclude drones whose combat readiness rate is kept at around 90% per year, the overall combat readiness rate of manned fighters is less than 70%.
In regards to each fighter model, the combat readiness rates for F-16C, F-16D, F-22A, and F-35A were 70.22%, 65.96%, 49.01%, and 54.67%, respectively in fiscal year 2017. The readiness rates of the F/A-18 and F-35 series of fighters owned by the US Navy and Marine Corps, however, were even worse. It has been reported that more than 60% of the fighters in the two services were unable to perform their duties.
F-16, F/A-18 and other types of fighters in full service, generally face problems such as aging, frequent failures, discontinuation of spare parts production and inventory reduction. In particular, carrier-based F/A-18 fighters have been deployed in a high-salt and high-humidity environment for a long time, and have frequently been used to perform operational missions overseas. Thus, their aging situation is even more serious than other ground-based fighters.
Richard V. Spencer, Secretary of the US Navy, revealed to the media that the US Navy has 546 F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighters in service, but only 270 of them can execute missions, and the combat readiness rate of the old model F/A-18C/D Hornet fighters is less than 30%.
The lack of experienced ground staff is another influential factor. After a large number of ground staff in the US Air Force was cut down in 2014, the staff gap reached a peak of 4,000, making preparations for aircraft takeoff and landing more time-consuming than ever.
Although the US Air Force later narrowed this gap to 200 people, the structural problem in terms of personnel is even more prominent. The proportion of ground crew in middle and high-tech levels is too low. The newly recruited personnel need 5 to 7 years to gain experience and get promoted through progressive training to become competent for high-tech aircraft repair and maintenance work. If the logistic team lives up to an ideal state, it will take a long time to bridge the gap between novices and veterans.
US military faces multiple challenges
As General Carlton D. Everhart, commander of the US Air Force’s Air Mobility Command (AMC), has said, “Winning a battle depends on aerodynamics, while winning a war relies on logistics.” The ambitious goal of 80% proposed by James Mattis has been recognized by all the US military services, but it will not be easy to achieve this goal on time due to the enormous difficulties and challenges.
The US Air Force first launched a specific plan to achieve the 80% target. The US Air Force Secretary Heather Ann Wilson said in an interview on October 25 that the US Air Force will adjust its budget structure, increase investment in supply, expand the number of ground staff by increasing bonuses and years of service, and increase the number of to-be-maintained fighters and their frequency of maintenance. In addition, personnel training for pilots will be strengthened and their flight training time will be guaranteed, with a view to shape the soldiers’ morale, recognition and sense of pride.
In response to the maintenance of old fighters such as the F/A-18s, the US Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick M. Shanahan and the Commandant of US Marine Corps Robert Blake Neller told reporters on October 10 that they could speed up the retirement of old fighters, turning them into “organ donors” to guarantee the supply of newer fighter parts and to alleviate the shortage caused by the reduction or discontinuation of parts production. At the same time, rational allocation of manpower and resources will be applied to the maintenance of new fighters.
Besides, the support of military enterprises is also crucial. According to reports, Lockheed Martin cooperates with the US Air Force to monitor the status of fighters using advanced data analysis and intelligent algorithms, such as monitoring stealth coating performance of the F-22 and F-35, and the aging degree of the F-16 fuselage, to estimate potential hazards and to complete the procurement and preparation of parts in advance. Boeing has strengthened its cooperation with the US Navy by sending field service representatives and engineers to comprehensively assess the supply chain needs.
Increasing the level of fighters’ combat readiness means reducing the denominator while improving the numerator, namely reducing the size of the fleet, which runs counter to the idea of the Trump administration, the congressional hawks, and the conservative academic community.
The 2019 Index of US Military Strength issued by the Heritage Foundation mentioned that the US Air Force needs 1,200 fighters, the Navy 624 fighters, and the Marine Corps 36 expeditionary battalion units to meet its operational needs.
The US Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson is planning to expand the US Air Force by a quarter by 2030, adding 14 tanker squadrons, seven fighter squadrons, five bomber squadrons, nine combat search and rescue squadrons, one air transportation squadron and two drone squadrons.
However, operational effectiveness cannot be simply and accurately reflected by numbers, as its limited maintenance capabilities may be cut back further.
Disclaimer: The author is Wang Yu. The article was published on the China Defense Newspaper on November 7. It is translated from Chinese into English and edited by the China Military online.