WASHINGTON - From a distance, the idea – and operational meaning – of “readiness” for the U.S. Air Force seems straightforward.
Be prepared. Have all the equipment, training and personnel necessary to accomplish any mission quickly, efficiently and decisively. It means being primed, prepared and available for full-spectrum combat on a moment’s notice.
In reality, however, achieving and sustaining readiness across the Air Force’s vast operation is a far more complex and nuanced proposition. It also is a highly visible, high volume priority.
“The Air Force is more ready for major combat operations today than we were two years ago,” said Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson in a Sept. 17 address to the Air Force Association. “More than 75 percent of our force is combat ready and we’re moving the whole force to higher levels of readiness with actions that will play out over the next several years.”
Like the other services, the Air Force has long understood how critical readiness is. Recognizing the importance and achieving it, however, are not the same, especially since the Air Force has been operating at highly demanding tempo for more than a decade.
The need for readiness and its importance is also spelled out in the National Defense Strategy.
“The National Defense Strategy recognizes that we are in a more competitive and dangerous international security environment than we have experienced in decades,” Wilson told the Senate Armed Services Readiness and Management Support Subcommittee on Oct. 10. “So, the restoration of the force -- the restoration of the readiness of the force to win any fight, any time – has to be job one for all of us.”
In her Senate testimony Wilson illustrated in detail how the rhetoric on readiness moves to reality.
“Our plan accelerates readiness recovery in these units by aligning resources and manpower. Our goal is for 80 percent of these units to have the right number of properly trained and equipped Airmen by the end of 2020 — six years faster than we projected before we developed our recovery plan,” said Wilson at the Senate hearing.
“While we will drive the readiness recovery of these operational squadrons first, the remainder of our 312 operational squadrons will be close behind so that by 2023 we will meet the 80 percent mark for all of our operational squadrons,” she said.
A Focus on Innovation and Details
That mandate is one reason Wilson and other senior leaders are looking to innovate and update the policies and practices that govern readiness.
Ideas for getting there include utilizing what Wilson calls “conditions based maintenance” that uses predictive analytics and “sensing on aircraft” to replace parts before they fail so that planes are kept in service longer and without unexpected interruptions which directly affect training programs, certification efforts and other activities that have a direct impact on readiness.
Wilson told senators during the hearing that the new approach is being tested on the B-1 and C-5 aircrafts, yielding promising results and a 30 percent reduction in unscheduled maintenance.
More broadly, the Air Force is looking for ways to expand the use of advanced manufacturing technologies such as 3-D printing to address shortages of some hard-to-get parts and the use of cold spray technology that can be used in some cases to repair parts instead of replacing them.
Getting there and sustaining gains, Air Force planners say, demands innovation, persistence and a degree of good fortune. Budgets and factors outside the Air Force’s direct control, for example, will influence the outcome.
It also depends on how “readiness” is defined and measured – another exercise that appears straightforward but which, in truth, is anything but.
“(Department of Denfense’s) readiness rebuilding efforts are occurring in a challenging context that requires the department to make difficult decisions regarding how best to address continuing operational demands while preparing for future challenges,” said John H. Pendleton, a senior analyst for the General Accountability Office who has studied Air Force readiness, to the Senate subcommittee.
“Determining an appropriate balance between maintaining and upgrading legacy weapon system platforms currently in operational use and procuring platforms able to overcome rapidly advancing future threats. Air Force leaders have stated that striking such a balance is exceptionally difficult,” Pendleton said.
Air Force leaders are also searching more widely for suggestions on how to change and improve readiness across the service. Last spring 50 Airmen from around the world spent six months examining all facets of readiness and providing specific proposals. Among the questions they confronted were: How should readiness be measured? How can the Air Force ensure the effort has enough resources, both financially, procedurally and in personnel? What is the best way to recover readiness when it slips?
No matter how the reforms play out, the complexity surrounding readiness means there will be challenges. They include accommodating the years-long timeline necessary to train pilots and maintenance personnel who must learn the intricacies of flying and caring for aircraft that are a complex blend of vastly different ages, high-tech materials and inter-connected systems all controlled by millions of lines of software.
Accommodating Hard Numbers and Unknowns
The numbers – and implications – add up fast. Each F-35, for example, demands 20 maintainers. That’s why Air Force leaders have paid special attention to closing the shortage of active-duty maintainers. To date a gap that once numbered 4,000 Airmen in 2016 has been reduced to 400 and is expected to be erased entirely by December.
Similar effort and attention is being directed at boosting the number of pilots. By the end of fiscal year 2019, the Air Force expects to train 1,300 pilots, compared to 1,160 in 2017. By fiscal year 2022 the number will grow to 1,500 where it is expected to remain into the future.
Beyond specific benchmarks, bringing the Air Force to readiness requires adapting to fluctuating funding and shifting operational imperatives that are a result of the world’s changing geo-politics and threats.
It must take into account more pedestrian but equally important concerns that include providing health care and housing to 318,000 active-duty Airmen as well as incorporating Guard and Reserve of differing ages, genders and needs spread across all corners of the world. Fuel, food, administrative support and logistics must be reliably delivered. Opportunities for continuing education and professional growth are necessary along with ensuring quality of life at a time when the Air Force has been engaged in active combat operations for 25 continuous years.
The effort to achieve readiness must take into account that any solution by itself triggers a host of issues that must be addressed.
In 2016, the number of students being trained as aircraft maintainers at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, surged from 3,400 to 4,900 within a single year – much faster than the staffing and resourcing processes are designed to accommodate. That meant a 40 percent increase in workload had to be absorbed without additional staff, equipment or other training resources.
In practical terms, where there were once perhaps 30 students learning to change a C-130 tire, there were now 55, with no additional instructors, classroom space or training aircraft. In some cases, the answer was moving to shift work; during the heart of the surge, the 82nd Training Wing at Sheppard AFB was training across three shifts for many of its 900 courses.
Beyond training itself, it also meant increased workload for support forces – a 40 percent increase in students meant a 40 percent increase in reassignment orders, medical and dental exams, security clearance processing and a host of other functions, all without immediate increases in staffing.
Adding 40 percent more maintainers now means 40 percent more Airmen who will need upgrade training as they reach higher rank.
The 982nd Training Group based at Sheppard AFB operates 48 field training detachments embedded with maintenance groups at Air Force bases on three continents. The units deliver Air Education and Training Command-managed, curriculum-driven courses primarily in support of aircraft maintainers. Importantly, the courses include 5- and 7- level upgrade courses, specialty courses and transition courses such as those required to move from an F-16 wing to an F-15 wing.
The group is already working through AETC and individual functional communities to prepare for that coming, second surge – ensuring there are enough qualified instructors at the right locations, teaching the right courses with the best possible equipment and resources to continue to grow these new maintainers.
Despite the complexity, countless “moving parts” and a collection of “known unknowns” such as budgets and evolving threats, the focus on readiness is – and will remain – a high priority.