Air Force leaders see readiness gains, but 'long way to go'
By CLAUDIA GRISALES | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 10, 2018
WASHINGTON — The Air Force is on track to meet new, aggressive goals to boost readiness among its key squadrons and increase the number of student pilots by nearly 30 percent in the coming years, service officials told lawmakers Wednesday.
Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson told a Senate panel that it will reach 80 percent readiness levels for those squadrons by 2020. It’s also increasing the number of students it trains to fly from 1,160 in 2017 to 1,311 in 2019 to 1,500 in 2022.
“The Air Force is more ready for major combat operations today than we were two years ago,” Wilson told the House Armed Services Committee subpanel on readiness and management support in her prepared remarks. “That said, we have a long way to go and we’re after it.”
Wilson made the comments to the Senate panel in the wake of challenging times for the Air Force. Like other services, it’s faced a readiness crisis and a series of training crashes.
It’s also been under pressure to address President Donald Trump’s demand to create a new Space Force, which has drawn Wilson into the spotlight. Last week, media outlet Foreign Policy reported Trump might oust Wilson over delays to support a new military service branch.
At the start of Wednesday’s hearing, new subpanel chairman Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, said Space Force wouldn’t be a topic of discussion on Air Force readiness.
“I commend President Trump for thinking about space in a more assertive and organized way,” Sullivan said. But first, “we must focus on the readiness of the existing military services, which I think everyone recognizes has plummeted over the last several years so that they are fully ready do what the president and the American people expect of them.”
The military has received a boost in funds in the last two years to address a readiness crisis that has gripped all the services. Last month, funding was approved for the $716 billion 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, which was passed into law in time for the start of the fiscal year on Oct. 1.
Yet challenges going forward remain, said John Pendleton, an official for the Government Accountability Office, a federal watchdog agency that has conducted several studies on Air Force readiness concerns.
“Over the past quarter century, we have been tracking readiness and we have seen it gradually but steadily decline. Primarily because the Air Force has gotten smaller, but demand has stayed high,” said Pendleton, GAO director of defense capabilities and management. Now, “the Air Force is aiming to have 80 percent of its over 300 operational squadrons ready within about 5 years. It’s is an aggressive goal.”
In 2016, the agency urged the Defense Department to develop a plan for readiness rebuilding. At that time, the Air Force suggested it could take 10 years with increased budgets and decreased pace of operations. But while budgets have increased, the pace has remained high, he said.
“Regardless of future growth, the Air Force will have to keep much of its existing force structure for decades to come… the priority needs to be rebuilding the readiness of the existing fleet,” Pendleton said. The Air Force has “taken several steps in the right direction. Now it’s a matter of achieving results. Recovery won’t be easy or fast. It took a quarter century for the Air Force to get here, so it may take a while to recover.”
Sullivan raised concerns on why there is such a disparity between commercial and military aircraft readiness. For example, Delta Air Lines’ readiness for their fleet is at 86 percent, while the F-35 is about 65 percent, Sullivan said.
“Why is there such a disparity between military aircraft that are brand new and commercial aircraft,” the senator asked. “I know it’s a complex aircraft …but it does seem to me kind of ludicrous that we get new aircraft off the production line and, you know, within a month they’re at 65 percent readiness.”
Wilson told Sullivan that the boost in readiness goals is part of addressing these concerns.
Pendleton, however, said when it comes to the F-35, there hasn’t been enough focus within the Air Force on sustaining the aircraft, instead of focusing on production.
“It’s causing problems now,” he said. “And it’s going to be difficult to achieve those kinds of mission capability rates.”