Few people realize it, but the U.S. Air Force has been at war for 25 years. Beginning with Operation Desert Storm in January 1991 and continuing through the current conflict against ISIS, the USAF has been continuously deployed, enduring an exhaustive operations tempo that has taken its toll on aircraft and personnel.
And, making matters worse, the Air Force is much smaller than it was a quarter-century ago. Many of the squadrons that took the fight to Saddam have been inactivated; their aircraft now sit in the “Boneyard” at Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson, baking in the Arizona sun. Thousands of airmen who flew, maintained or supported those aircraft have moved on as well; the service has trimmed more than 100,000 personnel from its ranks over the past 25 years, and sequestration-mandated cuts have accelerated that trend.
Now, with on-going operations in the Middle East, a resurgent Russia and growing threats from China and Iran, the Air Force finds itself in an increasingly precarious position. Some airmen openly question whether their service could carry out missions it performed only five years ago, during the limited air campaign against Libya. As Fox News reports:
Many of the Airmen reported feeing “burnt out” and “exhausted” due to the current pace of operations, and limited resources to support them. During the visit to Ellsworth earlier this week, Fox News was told only about half of the 28th Bomb Wing’s fleet of bombers can fly.
“We have only 20 aircraft assigned on station currently. Out of those 20 only nine are flyable,” Pfrommer said.
“The [B-1] I worked on 20 years ago had 1,000 flight hours on it. Now we’re looking at some of the airplanes out here that are pushing over 10,000 flight hours,” he said.
“In 10 years, we cut our flying program in half,” said Capt. Elizabeth Jarding, a B-1 pilot at Ellsworth who returned home in January following a six-month deployment to the Middle East for the anti-ISIS campaign.
In fairness, the aircraft at Ellsworth are undergoing a major systems upgrade that required the B-1 to take a break from the war on terror. The “Bone” (as its known to aircrews and maintainers) will return to the fight, but in the interim, a number of airframes will be grounded as the aircraft acquires new and improved capabilities.
But it’s not just the B-1 fleet that is facing operational problems. At Shaw AFB, South Carolina, home to the 20th Fighter Wing, mission-capable rates for the assigned F-16CJ squadrons remain abysmally low; of the 79 Vipers at the base, only 42% can actually deploy. The CJ model is viewed as a critical resource by air planners, since it performs the suppression of air defenses (SEAD) mission. Obviously, ISIS doesn’t have much in the way of AD assets, but in a conflict against a regional power, the F-16CJ would play a vital role. The problems at Shaw are identical to those at Ellsworth:
That’s because they, too, are missing parts. One F-16 squadron that recently returned last month from a deployment to the Middle East had a host of maintenance issues.
“Our first aircraft downrange this deployment, we were short 41 parts,” Chief Master Sgt. Jamie Jordan said. To get the parts, the airmen had to take parts from another jet that deployed, leaving one less F-16 to fight ISIS. At one point, Jordan said they were taking parts from three separate aircraft.
When asked about the efficiency of taking parts from expensive fighter jets, Jordan said the costs were not just in dollars: “From a man-hour perspective, it’s very labor intensive and it really takes a toll.”
Overall, the Air Force has 30% fewer airmen, 40% fewer aircraft and 60% fewer fighter squadrons than it did 25 years ago. The average “age” of a USAF aircraft is 27; many are older than the pilots who fly them and the maintenance troops than maintain them.
Responding to a query from FNC, Pentagon press spokesman Peter Cook was asked if Defense Secretary Ash Carter believed the maintenance and budget issues affecting flying units was widespread. “No, I don’t think so,” Mr. Cook replied. He claims the issue has been discussed “at length” and is being addressed.
That exchange probably left a lot of Air Force commanders scratching their heads. If talk equated action, then every squadron in the USAF would have a Fully Mission Capable (FMC) rate approaching 100%. But the reality is reflected in those numbers at Ellsworth, Shaw and virtually every other Air Force installation. Aging jets are breaking more frequently; the service doesn’t have the money to fully fund its maintenance program, and in some cases, spare parts can’t be found because production stopped years ago, or the vendor is no longer in business. And, at the same time, aircrews and maintainers burned out by non-stop deployments are voting with their feet and leaving the service.
It’s a vicious cycle that is compromising America’s dominance in the skies, with damning consequences for future military campaigns. It’s also worth remembering that any solution to this problem will require time and a massive investment of defense dollars. The timeline from the hollow force of the late 70s to the military juggernaut that smashed Saddam stretched out over 10-15 years. Even if this administration–and the next one–were truly interested in fixing this problem, the airmen at Ellsworth, Shaw and other bases won’t see any relief for years to come.