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The US Military Has An Aircraft Readiness Problem

Col. John York, the 144th Operations Group commander, taxies in an F-15C Eagle during his fini flight with the 144th Fighter Wing at Fresno Air National Guard Base, Calif., Jan. 8, 2016. (U.S. Air National Guard photo/Senior Airman Klynne Pearl Serrano)

The US Military Has An Aircraft Readiness Problem: Despite having the latest quantity and most advanced aircraft in the world, the U.S. military is having trouble flying them, a recent report revealed.

According to data released to the Air Force Magazine, the official journal of the Air Force Association, the U.S. fighter fleet is suffering from aircraft readiness issues. Out of the eight fighter and attack variants, the service is flying, only one increased its mission capable rate compared to last year. And some of the most advanced jets, such as the F-22 Raptor, are in dire straits.

Not Enough Fighter Jets?

The data concern the five fighter jet platforms—some platforms have several different variants—the Air Force is operating. Out of them, only the venerable A-10 Thunderbolt II, which specializes in close air support, increased its readiness compared to last year, most probably a result of the pullout from Afghanistan and the end of major operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Here are the complete numbers:

A-10 Thunderbolt II: 72.54 percent (last year it was 71.2 percent)

F-16C Fighting Falcon: 71.53 percent (last year it was 73.9 percent)

-F-16D Fighting Falcon: 69.32 percent (last year it was 72.11 percent)

-F-15C Eagle: 69.48 percent (last year it was 71.93 percent)

F-35A Lighting II: 68.8 percent (last year it was 76.07 percent)

-F-15D Eagle: 68.56 percent (last year it was 70.52 percent)

-F-15E Strike Eagle: 66.24 percent (last year it was 69.21 percent)

-F-22 Raptor: 50.81 percent (last year it was about 51 percent)

So in the event of a near-peer conflict with China or Russia, the Air Force would only be able to field a limited number of 5th generation stealth fighter jets—the F-35 and F-22—and would have to rely mostly on older platforms to pull the weight.

Full Mission Capable vs. Mission Capable

The Air Force uses two classifications—Full Mission Capable and Mission Capable—that denote readiness for its aircraft. Full Mission Capable is when an aircraft is ready at a moment’s notice to perform all the mission sets that is designed and equipped for. On the other hand, Mission Capable is when an aircraft can perform at least one of its assigned mission sets.

For example, an F-35 can perform six mission sets—Air Superiority, Close Air Support, Strategic Attack, Electronic Warfare, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR), Suppression Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) and Destruction Enemy Air Defense (DEAD)—but would only be considered Full Mission Capable if it was ready for all of them, after the necessary adjustments to payload, fuel, etc., depending on the mission and operation environment.

But if, for example, the F-35 had issues with some of its sensors and couldn’t do Strategic Attack—or the targeting of a strategic enemy site, such as a Chinese radar installation—but could do Air Superiority and Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance, then the aircraft would be considered only Mission Capable.

The data provided to the Air Force Magazine were only for the Mission Capable category, so we don’t know how many aircraft are Full Mission Capable and can perform the full gamut of their capabilities the Air Force currently has.

Historically, the Air Force has aimed for a Mission Capable rate of 75 percent and 80 percent, and deployed units can achieve higher rates than that because they get priority on parts.

Although it is standard and expected not to have 100 percent mission-capable aircraft at all times, the drops in rates are concerning, especially when juxtaposed with the fact that large-scale combat operations in the Middle East have seized.

1945’s New Defense and National Security Columnist, Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.

1945’s Defense and National Security Columnist, Stavros Atlamazoglou is a seasoned defense journalist with specialized expertise in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate. His work has been featured in Business Insider, Sandboxx, and SOFREP.