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​A USAF F-16 breaks away after receiving fuel from a KC-135 assigned to the 340th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron out of Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, on Aug. 24, 2019. Air Force photo by SSgt. Keifer Bowes.

The Air Force is working with the Office of the Secretary of Defense to find a more “holistic” and meaningful way to measure aircraft readiness, as 80 percent of three USAF fighter fleets won’t be mission-capable by Oct. 1 as former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis wanted.

Mattis last year ordered the Air Force and Navy to increase the F-16, F/A-18, F-22, and F-35 mission-capable rates to at least 80 percent in an overall push to grow fleet readiness. The Air Force’s Active-Duty F-16 fleet will meet the mark, and the Navy announced this week that its Super Hornets will as well. Air National Guard and Reserve F-16s, along with all F-22 and F-35 fleets, will fall short of the goal.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, in an interview with Air Force Magazine, said service and Pentagon leaders want to move away from using MC rates as a major readiness metric. Their argument: there’s more to getting a fleet ready for combat than simply knowing how many fighters can fly on a given day.

“The fastest way for me as chief and for us as the Air Force … to increase the MC rate is to stop flying,” Goldfein said. “If I gave that airplane to maintenance, bought them the parts, they’re going to get that MC rate high. But I’m not going to have people trained, I’m not going to have folks airborne, so my overall performance … is going to go down.”

As of September 2018, the F-16C’s MC rate sat at nearly 74 percent, the F-35A’s was about 55 percent, and F-22s hit 49 percent, Air Force Magazine previously reported.

Goldfein said the MC rate of a single airframe doesn’t account for platforms that aren’t ready to fly because they are undergoing necessary upgrades and other maintenance. For example, the Air Force is planning extensive upgrades to the F-16 fleet in the near future.

“That means I’ve got to lower the MC rate of the F-16 while I put them in depot, and I’ve got to offset that by making sure I have other weapons systems that are ready,” he said.

While the F-16 will look unhealthy on paper, the MC rates of F-15Es, A-10s, and F-35s will increase as those platforms fly missions to cover the Vipers.

“That’s how we manage that in every portfolio,” he said.

Mattis’s 2018 memo outlining the 80 percent directive pushed the military to meet its “most critical priorities first.” The group of fighters selected for the initiative “form the backbone of our tactical air power” and must “prove dominant over the battlefields of both today and tomorrow,” he said.

The mandate spurred a “helpful drill” that highlighted the fleets’ needs, Goldfein said. Air Combat Command boss Gen. Mike Holmes recently said the effort taught USAF new lessons about maintaining the F-22’s low-observable coating, and addressing parts issues for the F-35.

But now, at the end of fiscal 2019, Goldfein proposes that leaders should instead consider how deployable Air Force aircraft and personnel are—a broader metric of how quickly and well a force could meet a combatant commander’s demand.

“How many force elements do we have—fighters, bombers, tankers—across all of the Air Force, and how are we doing relative to the time all of those forces need to be ready?” Goldfein said.

He used the recent deployment of a B-52 bomber task force to the Middle East as an example. While the overall number of flight-ready Stratofortresses may not be high, the Air Force was able to put the bombers in the Middle East no later than two days after receiving a tasking order from US Central Command. The aircraft began flying combat missions within 24 hours of their arrival.

Goldfein said there are five aspects of overall readiness that allows the Air Force to deliver that kind of performance:

  • Training airmen. Pilots, maintainers, weapons loaders, avionics specialists, air traffic controllers, and others have to be trained and ready to launch a plane. For example, the service came back from a shortage of about 4,000 maintainers, but must now ensure the young airmen who filled that gap can gain experience.
  • Flying-hour funding. Without an adequate flying-hour budget to pay for fuel and tires, planes are stuck on the ground.
  • Mission preparation. Ranges need improvements to provide modern threat emitters so crews can train on realistic scenarios that they would see in combat. The service wants to spend billions of dollars on range updates.
  • Robust sustainment. Depot maintenance must continue to keep aircraft in good shape, so the service needs a healthy sustainment system.
  • Time in the air. “Sometimes that’s the hardest one,” Goldfein said. A few years ago, pilots flew about 16 hours per month, which has boosted to 21 flight hours a month with higher funding.

“There’s a broader story than the pilot. … There are 1,000 fingerprints” on an aircraft before it takes off, Goldfein said.

The Air Force has also said that more than 90 percent of the service’s 204 “pacing” squadrons, the first group of unnamed aircraft that could be sent into a fight with an advanced adversary, are ready to deploy if needed. All of the service’s operational squadrons are expected to reach the 80 percent readiness mark by 2022.

Holmes said earlier this year that the focus on making those pacing units ready for combat has boosted the Air Force’s ability to respond to conflict.