WASHINGTON — In October, Hurricane Michael swept through the Florida Panhandle, slicing apart hangars at Tyndall Air Force Base that contained F-22 Raptor fighter jets incapable of fleeing the storm.

After the hurricane subsided, a number of those aircraft were moved from Tyndall to manufacturer Lockheed Martin’s facility in Marietta, Georgia, where one was parked at a new dock and contractors began working to restore its stealth coating.

Jim Mattis is no longer secretary of defense, but Air Force officials contend they are putting into action his mandate to bring the F-35, F-22 and F-16 up to an 80 percent mission-capable rate by the end of the fiscal year. Because of Mattis’ order, the service worked with Lockheed to make more resources available for repairing the Raptor’s finicky, low-observable coating.

When the storm struck Tyndall, the capacity was there to move more F-22s through the repair process, said Col. Mike Lawrence, the chief of the Air Force’s maintenance division.

The service maintains it can bring the most important of its F-22, F-35 and F-16 squadrons up to that 80 percent mission-capable rate by the end of FY19. From there, the service wants to see improvement across its entire aircraft inventory, with Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson pledging to get 204 of the service’s 312 operational squadrons to 80 percent readiness by 2020, and the rest reaching that level in 2023.

Top Pentagon leaders continue to seek increases in aircraft readiness, and the Air Force gives “frequent updates” to senior officials, including acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, about its progress, Lawrence told Defense News in a Feb. 7 interview.

“There’s improvement that needs to be made in all of the platforms,” Lawrence said. “The F-22 is one of the platforms … that has some of our tougher challenges. The F-35, being a new platform, tends to be performing well, especially in the newer model F-35s. The F-16, despite its age, is doing quite well. Among those three, there’s distance to be gained, but I don’t think it’s anything insurmountable.”

For its FY19 goal, the Air Force has narrowed its focus to increasing the mission-capable rates of its “pacing units” — the service’s combat-coded squadrons that would be used in a high-end fight against a near-peer adversary like Russia or China. The service won’t say how many pacing units it has or the mission-capable rates of those squadrons, but statistics for the entire F-16, F-35 and F-22 inventories paint a bleak picture of readiness.

The oldest of the aircraft, the F-16, garnered the highest mission-capable rates of the three planes, with the "C" model sitting at 70 percent and the "D" model at about 66 percent in 2017. That same year, the F-35 eked out a 55 percent mission-capable rate, while the F-22 managed a mere 49 percent.

A U.S. Air Force F-16C takes off from Royal Australian Air Force Base Darwin as part of Pitch Black 2016. (LSIS Jayson Tufrey/Australian Defence Force)
A U.S. Air Force F-16C takes off from Royal Australian Air Force Base Darwin as part of Pitch Black 2016. (LSIS Jayson Tufrey/Australian Defence Force)

“Years of shortages of parts and budgets that were inadequate, I think, have made us a little bit accepting, perhaps too accepting and complacent,” Wilson said in October. “We’ve come to think that maybe it’s OK to have mission-capable rates that are constrained by what we can afford. It’s not. It is not OK.”

But the Pentagon may be focusing on the wrong metric, said Hawk Carlisle, a retired four-star general who led Air Combat Command until 2016 is now president of the National Defense Industrial Association.

Mission-capable rates measure only the number of aircraft on the fight line ready to fly. They do not include those that can’t be flown due to ongoing modification work or depot maintenance. Carlisle contended that concentrating solely on mission-capable rates can mask the kinds of problems experienced by an aging aircraft inventory that may be sidelined for heavy repairs or life extensions.

What commanders want is a high availability rate — a high proportion of combat-ready aircraft across the entire inventory, he noted.

“When you’re going to deploy a squadron and the commander walks out and says: ‘OK, we’re starting this mission set. How many airplanes do I have on the line that I can load with ordnance, put pilots in and go do a mission?’ That’s the question,” he said.

What’s changing?

The Air Force’s plan to increase fleetwide readiness boils down to a few main initiatives, Lawrence said:

  • Boosting the number of parts available to maintainers on the flight line. To get parts through the repair process — and back on the flight line more quickly — the Air Force increased manpower at its air logistics complexes, and it made additional investments in contractor-performed repair work. It also bought more parts and materials.
  • Increasing the number of maintenance hours done per week. In some cases, this means beefing up the amount of contractor-performed work. It also entails adding manpower to support a second shift for certain Air National Guard F-16 units.
  • Reducing legwork. Although it may seem unreal in the age of iPads, most Air Force maintainers still have to walk back into an office building to log technical data, increasing the risk of errors. Certain bases, like Davis Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona, are getting new tech that will allow workers to input data on the flight line.

In terms of boosting the mission-capable rates for the F-35, F-22 and F-16, each aircraft has its own particular challenges.

“For the F-22 it’s about low-observable maintenance, that’s where we have spent the bulk of our plan,” Lawrence said.

An unused dock at Lockheed’s Marietta plant has been repurposed for repairing F-22 stealth coating, allowing for work on three jets at that depot, he said. F-22 pacing units have also added weekend shifts for the Lockheed Martin field teams that help sustain low-observable coating.

First Fighter Wing maintainers at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, are noticing more parts are now in stock, and they can turn around F-22s more quickly, said Col. Dave Seitz, who oversees F-22 maintenance as the 1st Maintenance Group’s commander.

“Our aircraft availability has been good and continues to improve, and I think it’s a direct reflection of some of the initiatives,” he said.

Additional measures are expected to take effect in the near future. For instance, the service is set to award a contract to a company that will be tasked with washing F-22s every 30 days to control corrosion. That menial job is usually performed by skilled blue-suit technicians, whose more intricate work is thus interrupted.

The wing is also preparing to construct docking stations on the flight line, where maintainers can plug in their computers, input technical data and push that information to the server. Currently, F-22 maintainers at Langley do not have internet access from the flight line.

“It’s something we’ve always wanted to do, but we’ve been resource-constrained, largely due to funding,” Seitz said. “We’ve got the design complete at Langley. We anticipate that we’ll actually start that work in the coming months, and my goal is to have that operational within the next year.”

Many of the efforts to improve F-16 readiness revolve around making the supply chain more responsive so repairs can happen rapidly, Lawrence said. The service is also ensuring older F-16s, produced in blocks 40 through 52, are distributed throughout the pacing squadrons in such a way that not all jets are undergoing service-life modifications or upgrades simultaneously.

Meanwhile, the F-35 has a number of sustainment-related problems. Certain parts have high wait times — sometimes because suppliers are still ramping production, and sometimes because it takes a long time to fulfill off-site repairs.

The Autonomic Logistics Information System, or ALIS, is supposed to track parts or aid maintainers during the repair process. Instead, data gaps in the system have led to lost missions, and maintainers complain of a high number of workarounds needed to use it.

The Pentagon has put together a new life-cycle support plan that sets specific timelines for accomplishing goals related to F-35 sustainment and ALIS, said Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, the Air Force’s top uniformed acquisition official.

"We have a list of systems that are not performing as well as we want — the big drivers. We have improvement programs that we've started in those areas, and we're going to measure if we get the performance that we expect,” Bunch said during a Feb. 1 event.

“How can I accelerate depot standups? How can I cut down my turn times for my parts? How can I take maintenance and push it down into lower levels so it all doesn’t have to be done at a depot somewhere else?” Bunch said. “We want to get ALIS to be more user-friendly and make it to where it’s not taking as much time [to accomplish tasks] and we can get the jets turned quicker and get them up in the air."