There was a silver lining in the hurricane that devastated Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida's panhandle region in October 2018.
The storm forced the U.S. Air Force to redeploy Tyndall's resident squadrons of F-22 Raptor stealth fighters -- and gave the flying branch the chance to boost the size of other F-22 units, making them more efficient.
In that sense, Hurricane Michael helped the Air Force to accomplish something that the Government Accountability Office had argued the flying branch should do. Equip each front-line unit with no fewer than 24 planes.
"The Air Force’s organization of its small F-22 fleet has not maximized the availability of these 186 aircraft," the GAO warned in a 2018 report.
But there's a downside. Growing five front-line F-22 squadrons at the expense of the sixth squadron also undermines the Air Force's ambitious plan to expand the overall force from 312 to 386 squadrons.
Hurricane Michael wreaked havoc on Tyndall, uprooting trees, flattening buildings and ripping the roofs off of hangars. Prior to the storm, two Tyndall squadrons -- the 43rd Fighter Squadron, which is a training unit, and the combat-coded 95th Fighter Squadron -- together operated 55 F-22s.
With its complex avionics and delicate stealth coating, the F-22 is a difficult airplane to maintain. Tyndally airmen were able to fly out just 38 of the 55 Raptors prior to the storm. The remaining 17 jets -- nearly a tenth of all F-22s -- rode out the wind and rains in hangars. Some suffered damage.
Airmen quickly repaired many of the jets. Official photos depicted small numbers of F-22 departing Tyndall on Oct. 21 and 24, 2018. The last three F-22s left Tyndall on Nov. 16.
With Tyndall likely to need years of work costing billions of dollars, the Air Force announced that all F-22s would relocate to other bases. The 43rd Fighter Squadron, the training unit, set up shop with 28 F-22s at Eglin Air Force Base in western Florida.
That's three fewer F-22s than the squadron possessed prior to the storm, implying that at least three Raptors suffered storm damage requiring long-term repairs.
The combat-coded 95th Fighter Squadron meanwhile dispersed its own F-22s to the three other bases with front-line Raptors. "We have recommended that the best path forward to increase readiness and use money wisely is to consolidate the operational F-22s," Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said.
Langley in Virginia, Elmendorf in Alaska and Hickam in Hawaii together house five F-22 squadrons. At the time of the storm, Langley's two squadrons each had 23 F-22s. Elmendorf's two squadrons together possessed 47 Raptors. Hickam's sole squadron, an Air National Guard unit, operated 20 F-22s.
Spreading the 95th Fighter Squadron's 24 F-22s across the other five units would allow the surviving units to maintain 24 jets of their own, Air Force Times reported. In fact, the five squadrons between them needed just seven extra Raptors to boost their inventories to 24 planes apiece.
The balance of the 95th's jets -- 17 Raptors -- likely are undergoing repairs for storm damage or are going into the Air Force's attrition reserve. Lockheed Martin built just 195 F-22s before production ended in 2011. Eight were test models. By 2018 just 183 F-22s were operational.
Leaving aside the recent hurricane damage, accidents have destroyed at least two front-line F-22s and two test planes and badly damaged several others. Raptors are in such short supply that the Air Force spent tens of millions of dollars and four years repairing one F-22 that suffered damage during a training flight at Tyndall in 2012.
The flying branch likewise invested millions of dollars and years of labor restoring an old test-model F-22 for an additional few years of trials. In breaking up the 95th Fighter Squadron and redistributing its planes, the Air Force arguably improved the overall force.
Since fighters often operate in four-plane formations, 24-plane units can launch more sorties than an 18-plane squadron can do. Moreover, a squadron typically can manage 24 planes as easily as it can manage 18 planes. Thus a unit with more jets makes more efficient use of its manpower. "Larger, traditional Air Force squadrons and deployable units provide a better balance of equipment and personnel," the GAO explained.
But in cannibalizing the 95th Fighter Squadron, the Air Force reduces its overall squadron count to 311, down one compared to late 2018. The reduction runs counter to the flying branch's stated goal of expanding to 386 squadrons over the next decade or so, an expansion that could require the Air Force to buy hundreds of additional aircraft potentially costing tens of billions of dollars.
Critics have attacked the expansion plan as unaffordable. It's worth noting that, when the opportunity afforded itself after Hurricane Michael, the Air Force opted to have fewer but larger squadrons.
David Axe serves as the new Defense Editor of the National Interest. He is the author of the graphic novels War Fix, War Is Boring and Machete Squad.