A recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on the readiness levels of Navy and Air Force aircraft had nothing good to say about either service’s efforts to keep their fighter aircraft combat-ready.
While the report dwells more on history than recent trends in readiness, it reveals a great deal about service priorities, what its senior leaders have done to meet the strategic guidance of the Trump administration, and how they spent the increased funding they received over the last four years.
The GAO reports that, from 2011 to 2019, not a single Navy or Air Force fighter aircraft fleet met the readiness goals for a full year. The readiness of military aircraft is measured by that weapons system’s mission capable rate: the percentage of all aircraft of a particular type that can execute at least one of the aircraft’s mission. An F-16 annual mission capable rate of 80% means that eight out of every ten of those fighters could execute at least one of the fighter’s missions throughout a given year.
From 2001 through 2016, the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria consumed were enormously draining. The relentless wartime requirements, combined with anemic funding, forced the services to literally cannibalize themselves to support those campaigns, devouring stateside spare parts inventories and causing rates to fall significantly. These pressures reduced fighter aircrew training and unit readiness levels below those of the Carter administration’s “hollow force.”
This trajectory began to shift in 2017 with the Trump administration’s first increment of supplemental funding and a new strategic direction to be supported by that funding. The 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) shifted service planning from low-intensity conflicts to preparing for great power competition with China and Russia.
A few weeks after the 2018 NDS was released, then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis directed the Navy to bring its FA-18 fleet of fighters—and the Air Force to bring its F-16, F-35 and F-22 fleets—up to an 80% Mission Capable rate over the course of the next year.
It’s important to understand what the services were up against, and why Secretary Mattis would give such detailed guidance. The great power competition framed by the 2018 NDS acknowledged our peer competitors had closed on our technological advantage, which meant the number of combat capable fighters the services could generate really mattered.
The previous year, the Navy’s F/A-18 C/D and FA-18E/F had rates of 30% and 49%, while the Air Force F-16C/D, F-22A and F-35A fleets had rates of 69.5%, 49% and 54.7% respectively. So, how does that equate to the number of fighters we could use to fight such a war? Pull out your abacus, and let’s do a little math.
Training aircraft aside, the Air Force has just over 140 operational F-22s in its inventory. The jet’s mission capable rate of 49% means that just sixty-eight total F-22s would be available to fight a war with China, but you can’t fly those jets all at one time. Generally, one-third of the jets will be out on patrol, one-third will have just landed, while one-third are getting ready to launch. That means just twenty-three of those fighters can be airborne at any given time. Increasing the F-22’s mission capable rate to 80% would make 112 jets available and allow thirty-seven fighters to be constantly in the fight—a 60% increase. In a war with a peer competitor, those additional fighters would prove critical.
In early 2019, the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, General David Goldfein, said it would likely be the end of 2019 before its three fighters achieved an 80% MC rate. In early 2020, he stated that reaching the goal would take longer than anticipated. Then in May, having increased the 2019 F-16C/D rate by just 2% to 72.5%, the F-22 by 2% to 51%, and the F-35 by 7.3% to 62% over the rates for 2017, the service stated that achieving an 80% MC rate for any fighter platform was “no longer a priority.” (Further statistics on the mission capable rates and aircraft availability for the entire Air Force fleet can be found in the Heritage Foundation’s recent Index of U.S. Military Strength.)
On the other hand, the U.S. Navy, a service that was in a much deeper fighter readiness hole than the Air Force, moved as it was directed. In the first year following the 2018 NDS, the service retired its remaining F/A-18C/Ds and worked hard to get its F/A-18E/F and EA-18G fleets to an 80% MC rate. It crossed that threshold in September of 2019, and while it may have gotten there by spending more time fixing than flying its fighters, for all appearances the Navy earnestly executed the strategic guidance given by Secretary Mattis.
With a primary mission of flying and fighting in the air, the question now is: Why didn’t the Air Force get there? Even with adequate funding and the right internal priority, it would have been a big challenge to bring those fighter platforms to 80%, but it didn’t come close with any of the three jets. So, what was missing?
It wasn’t funding. The Trump administration increased the Air Force budget by more than 30% over four years. But what matters is where the service applies that funding, and in the Air Force’s case, they didn’t choose to put the money in maintenance.
An increase in mission-capable rates, and the increased additional flying hours those rates result in, would be driven by money placed in its operations and maintenance account. However, a close look at the Air Force budgets reveals that those accounts increased only modestly during the Trump era, averaging less than a 3% plus-up a year through 2020. And the service’s 2021 budget doesn’t increase funding for flying hours at all; instead, it justifies maintaining the status quo by stating it was already flying at the maximum executable levels. And yet, limitations for both mission capability rates and flying hours are directly linked to this funding—so there must be another, more important portfolio.
The Air Force has publicly stated it needs more spare parts and aircraft. Its 2018 “The Air Force We Need,” study demonstrated the need to grow by 25% to execute the missions in the National Defense Strategy. And yet, the budget for procurement has changed only around the edges since both the 80% MC directive was given and the Air Force study was released.
Funding for research and development (R&D) on the other hand, has literally exploded over the last four years. For the first time in Air Force history, funding for R&D exceeded that for procurement in 2018. In spite of SECDEF direction, the service did little to increase near-term operational readiness and the service’s stated need to grow capacity to prepare for a peer level fight—while it expanded the research and development slice of the budget with every passing year. Assuming it is approved, the R&D budget of $37.3 billion for 2021 will top that of procurement by $12 billion—or 50% more.
James Frick of Notre Dame once said “Don’t tell me where your priorities are. Show me where you spend your money, and I’ll tell you what they are.” If you look at the Air Force budget, it’s clear what the Air Force really values and why they did not make the readiness goals set by successive Pentagon leaders. And who knows—by choosing internal service priorities over Secretary Mattis’ directive to increase near-term operational readiness, the service’s research and development efforts may pay the nation big dividends down the road. Perhaps it will discover that ever-elusive Holy Grail of technologies: a capability so great that it will forever change the course of warfare as we know it, breaking the spiral of technological innovation that has existed since the inception of warfare and leaving China and Russia in our dust.
The odds are against it, but let’s hope that they’re right. And in the time between now and whenever that capability comes of age, let's hope we don’t get caught wanting for the capacity and readiness levels Secretary Mattis and National Defense Strategy called for back in 2018.
A 25-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force, John “JV” Venable is a senior research fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense.