The Air Force is struggling to turn around a bad situation long in the making: After 24 years of nonstop combat operations, the full-spectrum readiness of combat-coded flying units is subpar. The high operating tempo has meant that many units—especially Active Duty—don’t have enough time between deployments to train and qualify aircrews in their full range of assigned missions.
Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III has set a goal of getting 80 percent of combat-coded flying units—bomber, fighter, tanker, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, etc.—up to full-spectrum combat readiness by 2023. The levels are considerably lower now; the Air Force declines to specify just how bad they really are.
Since the launch of combat operations in Afghanistan in 2001—worsening with the start of the Iraq War two years later—“that’s when we saw the readiness of flying units really take a nosedive,” said Col. Robert D. Sagraves, operational readiness division chief on the Air Staff. By necessity, units put a priority on training for the missions they’ll fly in upcoming deployments, at the expense of core competencies, especially training for “high-end” threat scenarios.
“If you asked the Air Force to go out and do CAS [close air support] in a nonpermissive environment, we’re good to go,” said Sagraves. “We’ve been doing that for 10-plus years. But if you ask the Air Force to fight a near-peer adversary in a highly contested environment, … the full-spectrum readiness of the Air Force right now is not where it needs to be,” he admitted.
Sagraves thinks 80 percent readiness is an achievable target, based on historical readiness rates pre-2001. However, with new demands for airpower popping up everywhere from Eastern Europe to the Middle East and budget-imposed groundings still possible, it won’t be easy.
“We’ve been there before—we’ve actually been above 80 percent readiness, but you’d have to look pre-9/11 for those sort of statistics,” he said. “Our readiness just went in the tank, and we are still in the process of digging out of that.”
For a combat-coded flying unit, readiness has a concise definition and quantifiable standards of measure.
“Readiness for a flying unit comes down to the unit having the right people, equipment, training, and support that enables that unit to go out and fulfill its wartime mission successfully” and survive to fight again, explained Sagraves. These elements are tracked and reported by supervisors. They are assigned squadron-level monitors from individual airmen up through the wing, where they are assessed on a monthly basis to determine if the unit is prepared to meet its aerospace expeditionary force tasking.
Noncommissioned officers assigned as AEF Reporting Tool monitors look at “four monitored areas, down to the individual level,” said SMSgt. Hali Confer, 113th Wing deployment manager at JB Andrews, Md.
Every airman must answer: “Am I healthy, am I trained, is there equipment that goes along with [my job], do I have it, does it work?” she said. The results are then briefed to the wing commander and fed into the Air Force’s overall monitoring system, known as the Status of Resources and Training System (SORTS).
SORTS generates a forcewide snapshot of the Air Force’s preparedness for war.
“It’s a monthly update that all units do that feeds into a big database that aggregates up from the squadron, to the group, to the wing, to the major command, to the headquarters level,” said Sagraves. “So we, at the headquarters, can drill down to see at the unit level what the various issues are as to why a given unit may not be ready—whether it’s a personnel issue, an equipment issue, or a training issue.”
SORTS works in tandem with—and feeds into—a Defense Department-wide system called the Defense Readiness Reporting System (DRRS). The classified DOD system allows the Pentagon to “drill down based on various war plans” to see if Air Force units are ready to play their role in a joint force, theater-specific scenario, Sagraves explained. On the Air Staff, “we use both of those in a complementary fashion to write up an overall broad-brush picture of where we think the Air Force is, readiness-wise.”
Air Force doctrine dictates a continually ready state across all three components—Active Duty, Air National Guard, and Air Force Reserve. Unlike Army brigades which can flow into theater over a period of a month or two, in “any of the major war plans out there, the bulk of Air Force forces are required very quickly in the theater,” Sagraves pointed out. Since the Active Duty force is no longer large enough to meet this demand alone, “we don’t treat or measure [reserve component units] any differently than we do the Active Duty forces,” he said. “The Air Force doesn’t do tiered readiness. We can’t afford to.”
Getting It Done
Meeting these standards is ultimately the wing commander’s responsibility. Achieving readiness depends on properly balancing five inputs: the flying hour program, weapon systems sustainment, critical skills, training resources, and the unit’s ratio of deployments versus time at home station. “If any one of those is out of whack, then you’re going to have difficulty meeting your readiness goals,” Sagraves said.
The flying hour program—getting pilots the flight time they need to certify and stay current in each of their wartime skill sets—gets the most attention, but each of these levers is vital and mutually interdependent.
Weapon systems sustainment, for example, is more than simply upgrading aircraft to handle current threats. It’s also ensuring aircraft and engines flow through programmed depot maintenance and return to the flight line in a timely manner to support operations and training requirements. The same applies to cockpit simulators, which have to be kept up-to-date with the aircraft they replicate. If jets are stuck at depot and you “run out of iron on the flight line, you can’t execute your flying hour program,” Sagraves said, pilots won’t get the training they need, and the unit will be unable to fulfill its assigned role.
In terms of critical skills availability, maintenance is a key choke point for flying units, especially on the flight line. If a unit doesn’t have enough five- and seven-level qualified crew chiefs—the midlevel and senior maintainers—there aren’t enough people to supervise, train, and certify junior personnel and still repair and launch aircraft.
“If you can’t generate enough jets to meet the flying schedule, then your training is going to suffer” just as much as if the aircraft were stuck in depot, Sagraves pointed out.
“Training resources” encompass everything from simulator availability to training ranges and access to exercises—especially high-quality, full-spectrum training opportunities like Red Flag, or weapons employment drills such as Combat Hammer and Combat Archer. If an F-16 unit has range access but no aggressors to battle, or an A-10 unit has no opposing ground forces to challenge or friendlies to coordinate with, the unit’s not preparing for what it will realistically face in war.
“I can’t knock out these certain training events because I don’t have access to the range … or I can’t get to Red Flag, so there’re various different issues,” Sagraves said.
“The fifth lever is outside the Air Force’s purview, and that’s the deploy-to-dwell issue,” he noted. Not surprisingly, this is a “large part of why the Air Force is in such a full-spectrum readiness hole right now.”
The Readiness Hole
When a combat flying unit is deployed—an F-16 squadron providing close air support to allied forces in Afghanistan, for example—there’s little to no opportunity for pilots to practice skills outside their current mission. Without practice, essential skills in missions such as offensive and defensive counterair, suppression of enemy air defenses, or forward air control quickly deteriorate.
“This is pretty much an accepted view, that when you deploy a flying unit, … [its] readiness begins to erode,” because for however long the unit is in a real-world mission, it is “not using the full complement of capabilities,” Sagraves said.
As a result, units returning from deployment have to move fast to schedule training sorties and recapture crew competency in neglected skills. Before their next AEF rotation to theater, units have to “hit the range—go to Red Flag, go through operational readiness inspections to bring that readiness back up,” Sagraves explained. The problem—especially for Active Duty units—is that there simply isn’t enough time between deployments to get everything done.
Deployment-to-dwell ratios for some high-demand communities like combat rescue or intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance are “less than one to two,” meaning that for every month deployed, the heavily tasked units get less than two months at home. “It wears out equipment—it wears out people,” said Sagraves.
While most fighter units don’t fall into this category, due to the wide variety of missions they’re expected to do, they still don’t have sufficient training time to regain full spectrum readiness before redeploying.
“Right now, training is probably the biggest driver, and that goes back to not having enough white space on the calendar between deployments to knock out that training,” Sagraves observed.
The heavy back-at-home training schedule also cuts into time when units are expected to catch up with their families and resume some sort of normalcy in their lives—another of Welsh’s priorities.
Readiness rates began a painfully slow climb with the pull-out from Iraq in 2011, only to run headlong into the sequestration stand-down that grounded 13 combat-coded flying units for several months in 2013.
“It was a pretty significant dip and pretty quick dip” in readiness rates, Sagraves said. Specific readiness figures are classified, but Sagraves said the grounding “hit the pause button” on the recovery, setting units back six to nine months just to regain their pre-stand-down readiness levels.
Although sequestration and government shutdowns seriously damaged readiness in the short term, the long-term systemic readiness problem is the deployment rate, especially for flying units in small, specialized communities such as command and control, combat search and rescue, and ISR.
“Until the deploy-to-dwell ratio is fixed, the Air Force is going to be challenged with providing sufficient, full-spectrum, ready units” for contingency operations, Sagraves predicted.
Everyone from the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff on down is aware of the problem, he said, but in many cases, combatant commanders simply can’t achieve the strategic goals they’ve been given without the Air Force assets, regardless of their readiness state.
Sagraves said that some within the Air Staff believe deployment-to-dwell ratios will begin to improve with the end of combat operations in Afghanistan, but no one knows what contingency may pop up in its place. As part of the overall forces committed to Iraq and Syria to deal with ISIS, or to Eastern Europe confronting a resurgent Russia, Air Force flying units make up a disproportionately high percentage, simply due to the strategic nature of the operations.
While the Active Duty force is about as small as it’s ever been, the demand for airpower is undiminished.
“There’s always going to be demand” even if it’s not in Afghanistan, and in certain mission areas “we just don’t have enough” capacity to meet demand, Sagraves said. “What crisis is going to pop up next month … that’s going to call for additional Air Force capabilities?” he asked rhetorically. “We don’t know, … so [units] never really dig out of the hole.”
USAF leaders say they’ve made a priority of readiness accounts in upcoming budgets, emphasizing those levers that the Air Force has control over. This includes funding Red Flag, USAF’s premier full-spectrum training event, which was canceled due to sequestration. Other priorities are depot maintenance and keeping the flying hour program intact.
“We’re pressing hard to make sure our readiness accounts are funded in the manner that we think they need to be to keep us on a positive vector,” Sagraves said. “We’ve been able to maybe turn the vector around a little bit as far as readiness is concerned.”
“Down at the wing and squadron level, the guidance has been, ‘Fly your program.’ Zero out your program, because we need the training. Congress is willing to provide us these dollars, … so we’re expected to execute, and the wings have followed through,” he said.
Flying units’ full-spectrum readiness “is not where it needs to be at all,” said Sagraves. Even without the return of sequestration stand-downs, the combat Air Force as a whole is “still recovering” and will require budget stability and improving deployment-to-dwell rates to achieve the 80 percent readiness goal by 2023.