Mattis Orders Supercharge in Fighter Jet Readiness

F-16 Fighting Falcons line the runway during an elephant walk at Misawa Air Base, Japan, on Sept. 16, 2017. Deana Heitzman /Air Force
F-16 Fighting Falcons line the runway during an elephant walk at Misawa Air Base, Japan, on Sept. 16, 2017. Deana Heitzman/Air Force

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis wants to increase the mission-capable rates of the Pentagon's premier fighter jets to more than 80 percent in a single year, requiring the Air Force and Navy to boost maintenance and sustainment for dozens of fourth- and fifth-generation aircraft, according to a new report.

"I can confirm that Secretary Mattis issued a Sept. 17, 2018 memo that directed multiple under secretaries of defense, the Air Force and Navy to get mission capable rates for four key tactical aircraft to 80 percent by FY19,” Pentagon spokesman Air Force Lt. Col. Mike Andrews said in a statement to Military.com.

“The Department of Defense is working closely with the Departments of the Air Force and Navy to achieve Secretary Mattis' directive of achieving a minimum of 80 percent mission capability for Navy and Air Force F-35, F-16, F-22 and F-18 inventories by FY19," Andrews added.

The memo, addressed to the service secretaries and other top Defense Department officials, was first obtained and reported Tuesday by Defense News.

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In the document, Mattis said the services must achieve a minimum level of 80 percent readiness -- meaning 80 percent of all aircraft are ready to deploy at a moment’s notice -- in the F-16 Fighting Falcon, F-22 Raptor, F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and F/A-18 Hornet fleets by next September, Defense News said.

"For change to be effective and efficient, we must focus on meeting our most critical priorities first," Mattis said in the memo.

Mission-capable rates vary from year to year, but have hovered around 70 percent for the Air Force's entire fleet the last two years. According to Air Force Times, the service saw a slight decrease, from 72.1 to 71.3 percent, in mission capability in its inventory between fiscal 2016 and fiscal 2017.

According to Defense News' fiscal 2017 statistics, the F-16C fleet had a 70.22 percent mission-capable rate; F-35As, 54.67 percent; and F-22s, 49.01 percent. F-35As were declared initial operating capable in 2016, while the F-35B was the first of the U.S. military's three F-35 variants to reach the milestone in 2015.

Meanwhile, the F-22 has seen the most significant drop, with a very small inventory.

The Air Force originally wanted at least 381 Raptors, but production ceased in 2011 at only 187 aircraft. More than 160 F-22s belong to active-duty units; the remainder are with Air National Guard elements. While some aircraft have come out of active status for testing purposes, the Air Force currently has 183 aircraft in its inventory. Four planes were lost or severely damaged between 2004 and 2012.

Air Force Times reported that more than three-quarters of F-22s were mission capable in 2014. Today, less than half are flyable at any given time, the report said.

In July, the Government Accountability Office said the F-22 is frequently underutilized, mainly due to maintenance challenges and fewer opportunities for pilot training, as well as the inefficient organizational structure of the fleet.

"Unless the Air Force takes steps to assess and make necessary adjustments to the current organization and use of its F-22s, F-22 units are likely to continue to experience aircraft availability and pilot training rates that are below what they could be," the GAO said.

The Navy for months has pushed to restore readiness levels, increasing fighter flight hours and performing needed maintenance. But officials see challenges ahead.

Vice Adm. DeWolfe Miller, head of Naval Air Forces and commander of Naval Air Force-Pacific, last week said the service's F/A-18 Super Hornet fleet is at about a 50 percent mission-capable rate, with roughly 260 aircraft ready to deploy at a moment's notice. He said the Navy must increase that number to at least 341 out of 546 total jets.

"We didn't get here overnight, and we're not going to get out of here overnight," Miller said during a panel discussion on naval aviation at the Center for Strategic & International Studies.

To do so, the service is implementing what it dubbed "The Navy Sustainment System" to increase spare parts, maintenance capability and lead time to maintain aircraft at a faster rate, he said. The Navy Sustainment System will bring in additional bodies to watch how maintainers perform.

"What's different this time is the expertise of the outside industry that we're bringing in," Miller said. "This is supported at the highest levels of the [Defense] Department, and that gives me confidence that if we ... require changes in policy or law, that we will have complete support moving forward. This ... is a proven system" in the civilian airline industry.

The Navy is looking to its fleet readiness centers and depot supply chain to spearhead the effort, starting with the Super Hornet lines. Experts will tour fleet readiness centers, working with Navy counterparts where they see inefficiencies in the system.

On the Air Force side of the house, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson in recent months has publicly hailed improvements in the service’s maintainer shortage. The service said it was roughly 4,000 maintainers short in 2016 and began to prioritize staffing for air combat units with higher operations tempos, reshuffling more experienced maintainers throughout the force, with an emphasis on combat-coded units.

But officials have noted that, while those numbers are steady, some maintainer units lack experienced workers.

"We've now got enough people. [Now it's about] getting them experience," Wilson said at a Pentagon press conference in February, adding that the Air Force is working to get new maintainers more experience from higher-ranking "craftsmen who are supervising the apprentices."

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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