Key point: All planes are vulnerable to mother nature.
The F-22 Raptor may be the most elusive fighter ever built. It has a radar-cross section the size of a marble, and if it gets into trouble, it can rocket away traveling up to two-and-a-half times the speed of sound—so fast that the friction from the air would melt its radar-absorbent coatings right off its airframe. But this October, the Air Force discovered that a Raptor with its wings clipped can’t evade the force of nature.
Tyndall Air Force Base, located on a coastal peninsula across from Panama City, Florida, is a sprawling twenty-nine thousand-acre complex which at the beginning of October housed fifty-five F-22 Raptors of the 325th Fighter Wing—nearly a third of all F-22s built, making it the primary center for Raptor pilot training. It also houses QF-16 jet fighter drones used for Full-Scale Aerial Target tests, T-38 supersonic jet trainers and Mitsubishi Mu-2 twin-engine utility planes used to train AWACS crews in airborne-early warning skills.
On October 9, 2018, Hurricane Michael was upgraded to a Category 4 hurricane, with winds measuring between 130 to 150 miles per hour and a storm surge as high as fourteen feet (Tyndall is about twelve feet above sea level). The Air Force had just a few days to evacuate.
Thirty-three Raptors were flown to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. Fortunately, all of the four thousand active-duty personnel at the base and their families were evacuated before the storm hit, save for a small skeleton crew.
That left as many as twenty-two of the stealth fighters—which cost roughly $150 million each, or more than twice that if you factor in R&D costs—in non-flyable condition tucked away in hangars to weather Hurricane Michael. Tough mechanics had reportedly managed to restore several F-22s in time to be flown away, but one Raptor reportedly experienced a malfunction during takeoff, and others were missing parts as they had been cannibalized to keep other aircraft operational.
Tyndall stood almost directly in the path of Michael when it made landfall in the neighboring coastal town of Mexico Beach, Florida, on October 10. The storm flipped a fourteen-ton F-15 used as monument on its back, destroyed all of the homes of base personnel and their families, scattered trailers like matchsticks, shredded trees and peeled off metal roofs. Tyndall’s drone runway, flight line and marina sustained catastrophic damage.
Afterwards, photos emerged showing the collapsed roof of Hangar Five, and the blown out doors and windows of at least one smaller hangar—with at least three F-22s visible under debris. Mu-2s and at least five QF-16 drones were also entangled in the wreckage. In this helicopter footage, you can see how hangar roofs have been stripped away, leaving the paneling to fall down on QF-16 drones below.
The extent of the damage has yet to be fully calculated, though later statements indicate seventeen to nineteen F-22s remained at Tyndall during the storm, but “all aircraft are intact” and will “likely fly again.” Whether the remaining three to five F-22s were moved out or were not on base to begin with is unclear.
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Defense Secretary Mattis told reporters “I’m not ready to say it can all be fixed, but our initial review was perhaps more positive than I anticipated . . . in light of the amount of damage.” Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson subsequently stated on October 16 that damage to the F-22s was “less than feared”; with the hangars having sustained more damage then the aircraft within. Officials from Lockheed Martin are currently evaluating the extent of the damage.
Nonetheless, the damage is particularly biting because the Raptor is no longer in production, is unlikely to ever be built again and the Air Force has only around 120 Raptors in operational units, plus another sixty-four assigned for reserve, training and testing. That implies roughly 10 percent of the active-duty Raptor fleet was taken out of service by the storm. The small Raptor force is expensive to operate ($58,000 per flight hour, three times the cost of an F-16), but the fifth-generation stealth aircraft remain the U.S. military’s preferred weapon for countering the latest 4.5-generation jets like the Russian Su-35 or China’s J-20 stealth fighter and J-11D.
The inability to move the non-flyable Raptors out of Tyndall is not a black mark on the short-term evacuation effort. Most U.S. fourth-generation jet fighters requires around twenty man-hours of maintenance for every one hour of flight—the Raptor requires over forty hours. Therefore, simply getting that many aircraft in flyable condition and out of the base at the same time nearly all the personnel were being evacuated was a major logistical feat. Methods for moving non-ambulatory fighter jets by air or ground transport would have required days of preparation time and logistical assets that were manifestly impractical during the scramble to evacuate. By the time the danger posed by Hurricane Michael was clear, there simply was not enough time to arrange for them.
However, the incident should nonetheless serve as a learning experience to correct larger planning failures. For instance, it was already known that Tyndall was located in a coastal sector prone to hurricanes—earlier this year, Raptors at Tyndall had to be jam-packed into a hangar to weather Hurricane Alberto! For several years, the Pentagon, and particularly Defense Secretary Mattis, have been concerned with the impact of global warming, which may not only increase conflicts in desertified regions but also render unviable many U.S. military bases on coastal locations.
A 2016 study concluded that rising sea levels would affect 128 Navy bases, causing ten times more floods over the course of the twenty-first century, and leaving four bases likely to be entirely submerged. Hopefully, the Tyndall experience will prompt military planners to avoid basing expensive assets like the F-22 in places prone to extreme weather incidents, or at least harden facilities to better protect them.
The incident has also spotlighted the Pentagon’s struggles with operational readiness. Of the fifty-five Raptors at Tyndall, only 60 percent were able to fly out of the base with a few days’ notice. In fact, while the finicky Raptor has an especially poor fleet-wide readiness rate of forty-nine percent, even less maintenance-intensive aircraft such as F-16s and F-15 average only seventy to seventy-five percent operational readiness, and that figure may go back down to fifty percent for Marine and Navy fighter units.
Defense Secretary Mattis recently set a likely unachievable goal of a minimum of eighty percent readiness across the U.S. military by August 2019. Unfortunately, attempting to surge readiness rates on the short term could have a negative on impact on sustainability in the long-term.
Repairing the damaged F-22s will likely take years and hundreds of millions of dollars. When Japan similarly lost a fifth of its F-2 force (eighteen fighters) to a tsunami in 2011, it had to spend seven years and the equivalent of $800 million to restore thirteen of them. Hopefully, the costly experience at Tyndall airbase will inspire the Pentagon to think about how it can maximize the long-term survivability of valuable assets while considering the likely effects of climate change and the potential havoc it may wreak on coastal bases.
Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring. This first appeared in October 2018.