The Raptor Isn't 'Ready': America's F-22 Stealth Fighters Have a Problem

David Axe

David Axe

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Since becoming operational in 2005, the F-22 has achieved roughly a 50-percent readiness rate, on average -- one of the lowest rates of all U.S. fighter types. The Raptor's complex systems and delicate, radar-absorbing coating require intensive maintenance.

The Raptor Isn't 'Ready': America's F-22 Stealth Fighters Have a Problem

The U.S. Air Force's small force of F-22 Raptor stealth fighters is unlikely to meet the readiness goal that then-defense secretary James Mattis set in 2018.

The shortfall underscores just how few of the 187 F-22s actually are available for combat.

Mattis directed all Air Force, U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps F-15, F-16, F/A-18, F-22 and F-35 squadrons to achieve an 80-percent mission-capable rate by the end of September 2019.

Mattis resigned in January 2019 in protest of the Pres. Donald Trump's chaotic foreign policy. Acting secretary of defense Patrick Shanahan maintained Mattis's readiness edict.

The Air Force in 2018 and 2019 shifted $750 million into maintenance accounts for the F-22 and F-16 fleets in the hope of meeting Mattis's goal.

The flying branch also withdrew F-22s from the Middle East, ending five years of continuous Raptor operations in the region. Older F-15C fighters took over for the F-22s.

The extra spending and a break from Middle East ops weren't enough to boost the F-22's mission-capable rate. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson in mid-March 2019 told lawmakers that the flying branch's five front-line Raptor squadrons likely would fall short of 80-percent readiness.

Since becoming operational in 2005, the F-22 has achieved roughly a 50-percent readiness rate, on average -- one of the lowest rates of all U.S. fighter types. The Raptor's complex systems and delicate, radar-absorbing coating require intensive maintenance.

Hurricane Michael didn't help. The October 2018 storm devastated Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida's panhandle region. Tyndall at the time housed two squadrons together flying 55 F-22s. The 43rd Fighter Squadron is a training unit. The 95th Fighter Squadron is a combat unit.

Tyndall airmen were able to fly out just 38 of the 55 Raptors prior to the storm. The remaining 17 jets -- nearly a tenth of all F-22s -- rode out the wind and rains in hangars. Some suffered damage.

Airmen quickly repaired many of the jets. Official photos depicted small numbers of F-22 departing Tyndall on Oct. 21 and 24, 2018. The last three F-22s left Tyndall on Nov. 16, 2018.

With Tyndall likely to need years of work costing billions of dollars, the Air Force announced that all F-22s would relocate to other bases. The 43rd Fighter Squadron, the training unit, set up shop with 28 F-22s at Eglin Air Force Base in western Florida.

That's three fewer F-22s than the squadron possessed prior to the storm, implying that at least three Raptors suffered storm damage requiring long-term repairs.

The combat-coded 95th Fighter Squadron meanwhile dispersed its own F-22s to the three other bases with front-line Raptors. "We have recommended that the best path forward to increase readiness and use money wisely is to consolidate the operational F-22s," Wilson said.

Langley in Virginia, Elmendorf in Alaska and Hickam in Hawaii together house five F-22 squadrons. At the time of the storm, Langley's two squadrons each had 23 F-22s. Elmendorf's two squadrons together possessed 47 Raptors. Hickam's sole squadron, an Air National Guard unit, operated 20 F-22s.

Spreading the 95th Fighter Squadron's 24 F-22s across the other five units would allow the surviving units to maintain 24 jets of their own, Air Force Times reported. In fact, the five squadrons between them needed just seven extra Raptors to boost their inventories to 24 planes apiece.

The balance of the 95th's jets -- 17 Raptors -- likely are undergoing repairs for storm damage or are going into the Air Force's attrition reserve.

The Raptor force probably will fall short of 80-percent readiness owing in part to "all of the permanent change-of-station moves" after the hurricane, Wilson told lawmakers.

There's a reason to expect major readiness improvements once the former Tyndall F-22s settle in at their new units.

The redistribution of Raptors into fewer but larger squadrons, while potentially disruptive in the short term, ultimately could help maintainers to improve their mission-capable rate. "Larger, traditional Air Force squadrons and deployable units provide a better balance of equipment and personnel," the Government Accountability Office explained.

"The reason is the economy of scale," Air Combat Command boss Gen. Mike Holmes told Air Force magazine's Brian Everstine.

"If on any given day you only want to commit a certain percentage of your aircraft to the flying schedule, and spend time addressing delayed discrepancies, doing planned and unplanned maintenance on the others. The more you have, the more you can commit a certain percentage of them [to maintenance], … the more sorties you have to train pilots."

David Axe serves as Defense Editor of the National Interest. He is the author of the graphic novels  War FixWar Is Boring and Machete Squad.

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