The Readiness Crisis of the U.S. Air Force:
Project on Defense Alternatives Briefing Report #10
This Publication Available in Print
In just six months of 1998 the U.S. Air Force and its sister services reportedly moved from the "razor's edge of readiness" to the depths of a readiness crisis, prompting the first major increase in defense spending in a decade. Although policy debate now focuses narrowly on how much more than $100 billion should be added to the six-year defense budget, nothing approaching a consensus has formed on the nature or extent of the Pentagon's ills.
The leading, proposed remedies are scaled to relieve nothing less than a chronic and systemic readiness crisis. But it is difficult to reconcile such an alarming assessment of the military's condition with the change in readiness resources since the Cold War's end. Between the late-1980s and the period 1994-1998, average per person Operations and Maintenance (O&M) outlays have increased by 20% in real terms. Of course, resources are only half the equation; the other half is the pace of military activity.
In recent years the United States has had an average of more than 40,000 military personnel continuously deployed in contingency operations -- a level several times greater than the average for the late-1980s. Nonetheless, temporary deployments currently involve only 2.8% of the total active military. Taking all forms of overseas presence into account, a smaller proportion of the U.S. military is kept in foreign areas today than during the late-1980s. During the years 1984-1989, 22% of the U.S. military was deployed or stationed overseas; During 1994-1997, by comparison, only 17% was foreign stationed or deployed during 1994-1997.
Comprehensive measures of resources and activity, such as these, cannot settle the issues raised by reported readiness problems. But they do pose questions about the nature and extent of these problems -- and about the necessity of increasing defense expenditures to solve them. Answers may reside in the details of the services' experiences. The case of the U.S. Air Force provides a particularly good focus of inquiry. Without question, key indicators of USAF readiness registered significant declines in 1997 and 1998.
The recent readiness crisis of the Air Force has had three principal manifestations:
There is also evidence that some inputs to Air Force training regimes -- such as training time and home-based training activity -- have declined, at least in some locales and for some commands.
The Air Force's recent problems are attributed routinely to a post-Cold War dilemma involving decreased resources and increased operational demands. But a closer look at these problems reveals little evidence of their being long-term or systemic in nature. Instead, they have discrete and recent sources, often involving how the USAF manages its resources and activity. One clear extrinsic source of difficulty, however, is the Air Force's burden of excess infrastructure, which it carries at great expense and by no choice of its own.
Measured in per capita terms, the Air Force's infrastructure has grown significantly since the Cold War's end; per person floor space, for instance, has increased by more than 15%. This reflects the lag between reductions in the size of the service and reductions in its base infrastructure. The Air Force, in order to prevent the cost of excess infrastructure from distorting its budget, has recently funded property maintenance at levels sufficient to complete only emergency and critical repairs.
However, as the need for infrastructure repair has mounted, migration of funds from other areas has occurred. And in this way the burden of excess infrastructure immediately cuts into other areas of readiness -- especially those under the control of wing and base commanders, such as home-based training and exercises. National leadership could relieve this pressure by pumping more money into the Air Force. Or, it could resolve it by closing those bases that the Air Force neither needs nor wants.
The Air Force began 1999 with a shortfall of 954 pilots and it estimates that this shortage may grow to nearly 2,000 by FY2002. Although this assessment evokes the image of hundreds of aircraft without pilots to fly them, a closer look reveals a more complicated and less worrisome situation.
Today, the active Air Force employs 13,146 pilots against a stated total requirement of about 14,100. This compares with the approximately 3,470 aircraft of all types in the Primary Aircraft Inventory (PAI), which fills the authorized strength of USAF operational and training units. The Air Force calculates pilot shortages based on its total pilot requirement. Thus, even when there is an official "shortage," the service has significantly more than enough aviators to fly its planes. Indeed, only 7,862 of the USAF's pilots -- or 60 percent of the total -- are actually assigned to billets for operational force cockpits. The rest are assigned to staff positions, to advanced schooling, and to other special duty.
The ratio among pilots, operational billets, and aircraft suggests significant room to rethink and revise requirements. At any level, however, managing the balance between pilot inventory and requirements poses a challenge. Over the last fifty years the number of Air Force pilots has frequently deviated from official requirements, swinging between surpluses and shortages of 15% or more. This is due to sudden changes in requirements, the lag time needed to adjust the inventory, and fluctuations in private sector demand for pilots. The goal of management should be to enact policies that increase the flexibility to respond discretely to changing conditions, while dampening the tendency of the system to wild swings.
The balance between pilot inventory and requirements was relatively stable in the 1980s. However, the post-Cold War reduction in force structure brought on a pilot surplus, which peaked at 9% in FY1993. This prompted a sharp cutback in training, as the USAF sought to retain older, more experienced pilots (including those in staff positions). Subsequently, the training roll-back interacted with several other factors to produce a shortage, beginning in FY1998. So far the affects have been minimal: some inconvenient reallocation of higher ranking pilots into flying billets usually occupied by younger officers and some suboptimal experience mixes in operational units. Looking forward to early next decade, however, the USAF worries that too few pilots from the small training cohorts of the mid-1990s will choose to re-enlist and fill the openings for senior command and staff positions. Air Force officials now estimate the shortfall will reach 14% in FY2001.
The Air Force has responded in several ways: First, it has increased the training of new pilots. Second, it is trying to improve retention rates by increasing re-enlistment bonuses and pension benefits. These moves may well resolve the coming shortage -- but they may also create conditions for costly pilot surpluses further down the road. Moreover, pension enhancements will accrue not only to career pilots, but to all career service people. Thus, the chosen solution to a five-year shortfall in pilot training will cost many billions of dollars annually for an indefinite period. Rather than taking steps that have the character of permanent financial commitments, it would be more cost-effective for the Air Force to focus narrowly on that portion of the next decade when shortages are forecast. The Air Force could achieve less costly, more immediate, and ultimately more stabilizing results by adopting more flexible personnel management policies.
Alternative policies that the Air Force might pursue include:1
A combination of these reforms, together with the planned increase in the production of new pilots, would allow the Air Force to weather the coming shortage without incurring extraordinary new financial commitments. More important, reform along these lines would allow the Air Force to reduce its pilot requirement and dampen the tendency of the pilot inventory to swing between surpluses and shortages.
The clearest indicators of the USAF's recent readiness problems are the declines in aircraft Mission Capable Rates (MCRs) and in service-wide unit readiness scores. Since 1991, the MCRs for the service's aircraft fell 10 percentage points to a current level of 74%. Almost one-third of this decline occurred in 1998 alone. The decline in MCRs helped pull down unit readiness ratings for the service -- by 18% since the end of 1995. Air Combat Command (ACC), which controls most of the service's state-side combat aircraft, suffered an even greater decline in unit readiness: a staggering 56% drop in three years.
Declines as steep as these point less to systemic, long-term problems than to some acute and exceptional cause -- in this case: a shortage of aircraft spare parts during 1997 and 1998.2 This arose due to an unexpectedly high demand for parts in 1996 and to the service's inadvertent understatement of requirements for 1997. The result was not only declines in mission capable rates, but also increased cannibalization of aircraft and "dipping" into stocks set aside for operations.
By Autumn 1998, before talk of crisis swept Congress, the USAF was reporting that it had contained the parts shortage and that a gradual restoration of MCRs was expected. Remedial action involved correcting earlier underestimates of need and substantially funding the parts requirement in the service's FY1998 and FY1999 budgets. But it takes time for budget change to affect the ordering, production, and delivery of parts. Certainly, the full effect of the service's remedial steps will not be felt before the end of 1999.
Air Combat Command was particularly hard hit by the parts shortage because USAF policy gives priority to forward-deployed forces. Thus, ACC suffered a somewhat steeper decline in mission capable rates than the Air Force average. More remarkable was the unusually severe effect that this had on ACC's overall unit readiness scores. As noted above, ACC readiness scores plummeted by 56% in three years. But the ACC's aircraft mission capable rates declined only 9% during the same period. This discrepancy may be an artifact of how overall unit readiness is calculated. The reported 56% decline was in the number of units reporting either a C-1 or C-2 readiness status. Relatively small changes in the factors (such as MCRs) that determine these scores can push a large number of units over the line from C-2 to C-3 status -- effectively magnifying the impression of decline. Also, the determination of unit readiness involves some subjective judgments, and these are sensitive to command guidance. In 1998, the head of Air Combat Command had cautioned subordinate commanders to be careful to avoid the inflation of readiness reports.3 This may have prompted a re-evaluation of standards throughout ACC.
The decline in Air Combat Command's readiness indicators effectively pulled down the averages for the entire Air Force. Moreover, the alarm generated by ACC's experience has helped shift the focus of the entire readiness debate from forward-deployed and engaged units to non-deployed, state-side, and "second-to-fight" units. This may portend a move to shrink the difference in the readiness levels of the two categories -- an option that is precisely the reverse of proposals to adopt "tiered readiness," which gained some currency a few years ago.
Recent discussions of decline in Air Force readiness have uniformly failed to put the service's current situation into proper historical perspective. This makes it difficult to gauge today's problems or even to understand them. For instance, in asserting a 10% decline in mission capable rates, the Air Force uses 1991 as a baseline. But MCRs reached historic peaks in 1990 and 1991 for a unique reason: during and immediately after the Gulf War there was a concerted effort to bring all participating combat aircraft up to prime operating condition. Thus, the recent dip in MCRs is from an unusually high starting point. If 1989 were used as a baseline the recent decline in MCRs would register as a six percent drop, not ten. And taking a fuller view of the post-Cold War period would show that USAF mission capable rates for the years 1992-1996 all registered above the value for 1989.
The assertion of an alarming 78% jump in cannibalization rates since 1995 is another case in point.4 The baseline for this assessment is a 1995 force-wide rate of eight acts of cannibalization for every 100 sorties flown. This rose to 12% in September 1998 and then to 14% in January 1999. One yardstick for gauging this change is the experience of the 1970's "hollow force" period, during which cannibalization rates peaked at levels 50% higher than today, and persisted at significantly higher levels for more than a decade.
Cannibalization of aircraft has been long-practiced as a way to address temporary shortages in spare parts. At some low rate, the practice need not cut into a unit's basic fighting strength if the unit has more planes on hand than called for in its structure -- as all units do. Complicating any direct comparison between today's cannibalization rates and those of earlier periods is the fact that the Air Force possesses proportionately more spare and backup aircraft today. Taking active component fighter and attack aircraft as an example: the ratio between the authorized strength of the Air Force's fighter wings and the number of aircraft in its Total Active Inventory (TAI) increased by 20% between 1989 and 1997. Today, the authorized strength of USAF fighter wings is 936 aircraft. But there are 1,610 comparable fighter and attack aircraft in the TAI.
The difference between "authorized strength" and "total active inventory" represents a buffer against aircraft loss and cannibalization -- and the size of that buffer has been growing proportionately since 1989. This should substantially transform our interpretation of cannibalization rates.
As noted earlier, a common measure of increased Operational Tempo (Optempo) is the number of personnel deployed on a temporary basis in military operations. In 1989, 3,500 USAF personnel were so deployed; in 1996, the number was 13,700 -- a four-fold increase. However, as in the case of the U.S. military generally, a comprehensive accounting of all forms of USAF overseas presence alters the impression of dramatically increased activity:
Thus, a paradox of the Air Force's current readiness situation is that the service is more of a "stay-at-home" force today than during the Cold War. Qualifying this is the fact that the pattern of overseas deployment also has changed: today a greater proportion of those USAF personnel who are overseas are on temporary duty in contingency operations. And temporary deployments are certainly more disruptive to military organizations than the routine stationing of troops abroad -- because they are less predictable in size, character, duration, and timing. Still, the absolute number of USAF personnel involved in contingency operations is small, representing only 3.7% of the active USAF.
Another way of assessing the change in operational tempo is in terms of flying hours. According to data compiled by the Congressional Budget Office, average annual flying hours for active-component fighters and bombers indeed was higher in the period 1992-1996 than in the late Cold-War years 1985-1989 -- but only by 4%. The specific burden attributable to contingency operations also can be expressed in terms of flying hours: During the years 1991-1995, USAF aircraft flew 800,000 hours in support of contingency operations -- out of a total of 13.5 million hours. Thus, contingency operations consumed about 6% of the Air Force's flying time in this period.5
Selected Background Facts
This overview contravenes the notion that operational activity has increased dramatically. It also refutes the idea that contingency operations are routinely consuming a large portion of the service's energy. Nonetheless, the pattern of overseas activity has changed, and this poses new management challenges. One serious problem is that the burden of today's contingency operations is unevenly distributed among the Air Force's commands and systems.
Within the Air Force a variety of "low density/high demand" (LD/HD) systems and unit-types have had to routinely spend more than 120 days a year on temporary duty assignment. Especially stressed have been reconnaissance, electronic warfare, and command and control systems and units. Relative to today's unique demands, these systems are under-represented in the Air Force arsenal; they comprise approximately 8% of the Primary Aircraft Inventory.
Since the mid-1990s, the Air Force has made substantial progress in relieving the pressure on most of its "stressed systems." Only four systems surpassed a 120-day TDY limit in 1997, as opposed to 13 in FY1994. And in September 1998, the USAF reported that all of its LD/HD units were at or below steady-state deployment limits. It accomplished this by a combination of measures: increasing the number of crews, restricting non-essential use of assets, increasing reliance on the Reserves, increasing cooperation with the Navy and NATO allies, and, in the case of the RC-135 Rivet Joint, adding two new aircraft.
Burdens are also unevenly distributed across commands. A 1998 RAND study shows that fighter and attack units of the USAF European command (USAFE) and Air Combat Command have carried a significantly greater Optempo burden than units of the Pacific Air Forces (PACAF).6 As a result, for some types of units the average number of days spent on temporary assignment has equaled or exceeded 120 days during one or more years. For most types of units this need not have been the case -- if either operational demands or service assets had been distributed differently among the commands. Between 1995 and 1997 the Air Force made progress in distributing burdens more evenly across the force. Indeed, the European command was substantially relieved. But relief for ACC was less evident -- and this undoubtedly contributed to the 1997-1998 meltdown in its mission capable rates. PACAF units on average, although more active in peace operations by 1997, remained substantially below 100 TDY days.
A central element of USAF readiness concerns is the effect of Optempo on training. Concerns about training derive from a perceived decline in the combat skills of pilots returning from overseas deployments. Recent performance in combat operations should mitigate some of these concerns. Another solid indicator of problems would be a deterioration in the rate of flying mishaps. However, looking at the history of flying accidents for the Air Force as a whole shows no notable deterioration of rates. (See Table 10, Figure 13). Except for a brief tick in FY1994, the transition from a Cold War to post-Cold War posture has continued the downward trend in accident rates.
Reduced training time, depending on extent and compensatory measures, could eventually lead to performance problems. And contingency operations certainly compete with training for scarce time. However, a 1997 RAND study found that the reduction in training time for attack and fighter aircraft was very modest when viewed on a service-wide basis.7 The study compared recent training hours with the average for 1988 and 1989.8 Looking at the total force of F-16, F-15, and A-10 units, the study found their training hours during 1990-1995 to be near, at, or above the 1988-1989 average -- with one prominent exception: During 1993-1995 the A-10 fleet fell toward 80% of the Cold War standard. Disaggregating the averages for the total force revealed substantial variations in the experience of different USAF commands and components. And this is where real problems may reside.
While PACAF and Reserve units generally flew well above the putative "Cold War standard" for training hours, ACC and USAFE averages for F-16 and A-10 units often fell below it. Indeed, USAFE A-10s in 1993 and 1994 fell as low as 50% of the standard, before recovering to 80% in 1995. Otherwise, average training hours seldom fell below 80% of the standard, regardless of component or command. F-15 units in all subdivisions achieved averages comparable to or better than the standard.
One solution to localized shortfalls in training hours is to better distribute those activities that cut into training time -- for instance, hours spent in conducting contingency operations. Sharing operational burdens implies sharing the opportunities for training time. In this way, all the subordinate parts of the Air Force might come to approximate the total force average for training hours, which is reasonably close to the Cold War standard.
The single-minded focus on peace operations as the cause of training shortfalls diverts attention from other sources of Optempo pressure. How Air Force wings and squadrons spend their time does not divide neatly into training and peace operations, of course. Broadening our view of "tempo" disposes of this simple, binary opposition.
The Air Force manages a heavy schedule of exercises and peacetime engagement activities other than contingency operations. The 1999 USAF posture statement asserts that in 1998 service members "participated in over 1,600 exercises in 35 countries, and conducted almost 300 military-to-military contact visits in Europe and the Pacific." Many of these exercises serve something more or something other than training needs -- notably, "environment shaping" objectives.9 Of course, many peacetime engagement activities and exercises are small. But the stress that units suffer is due not only to the magnitude of the demands placed on them, but also to the quantity, variety, and frequency of them. These demands converge with other requirements at the wing and squadron level, where they pressure commanders to take time and resources out of those activities that they can control, such as home-station training and base operations. One study of three USAF wings found that 26.5% of their time, on average, was consumed by inspections and exercises. Off-station training took another 4.5%. And contingency operations consumed 7%.10
The first prerequisite to finding a robust solution to the Air Force's Optempo-related problems is to consider all the activities of the force. The second prerequisite is to recognize that the Optempo issue is principally one of resource management. To its credit, the Air Force has focused most of its attention on tackling the Optempo issue as a management problem. Among the specific steps it has taken are:
More may be required to manage the demands of the new era effectively, however. First, taming Optempo may require fuller utilization of the assets assigned to PACAF. Second, further pruning of "environment shaping" exercises may be in order. And finally, the Air Force may have to attempt a closer fit between its choice of assets and the unique requirements of the new era.
1. These proposals are developed in Michael C. Ryan, Military Pilot Retention: Issues and Options (Washington DC: Congressional Research Service, 11 September 1998); Harry J. Thie, et al., A Critical Assessment of Total Force Pilot Requirements, Management, and Training (Santa Monica, CA: National Defense Research Institute-RAND, 1994); Dave Brackett, "How the Air Force Can Keep Pilots," Air Force Times, 30 June 1997; and Harry J. Thie, et al., Total Force Pilot Requirements and Management: An Executive Summary (Santa Monica, CA: National Defense Research Institute-RAND, 1995).
2. AFor an official USAF analysis of this shortage and its implications see the Air Force chapter in Senator John McCain, Going Hollow: America's Military Returns to the 1970s -- an Update (Washington DC: Office of Senator John McCain, October 1998), Tab F, pp. 28-29.
3. radley Graham, "Strains on Many Fronts Drive Pilots from the Sky, Airmen Say," Washington Post, 13 August 1998.
4. USAF Chief of Staff General Michael E. Ryan, testimony before the Senate Armed Service Committee, 5 January 1999.
5. Congressional Budget Office, Paying for Military Readiness and Upkeep: Trends in Operation and Maintnce Spending (Washington DC: CBO, September 1997), p. 31; Alan Vick, et al., Preparing the U.S. Air Force for Military Operations Other Than War (Santa Monica, CA: National Defense Research Institute- RAND, 1997), p. 20; and, U.S. Air Force Statistical Digest FY 1997 (Washington DC: SAF/FM, Air Force, Pentagon, 1998); Statistical Digest FY 1995.
6. David E. Thaler and Daniel M. Norton, Air Force Operations Overseas in Peacetime (Santa Monica, CA: National Defense Research Institute-RAND, 1998).
7. Alan Vick, et al., Preparing the U.S. Air Force for Military Operations Other Than War (Santa Monica, CA: National Defense Research Institute-RAND, 1997).
8.Notably, the study counted all flying hours in 1988 and 1989 as "training." For the post-Cold War period, the study counted none of the flying hours spent supporting contingency operations as "training."
9. Government Accounting Office, Joint Training: Observations on the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Exercise Program (GAO: Washington D.C., July 1998), pp 3-4.
10. Thomas Fossen, et al., What Helps and What Hurts: How Ten Activities Affect Readiness and Quality of Life at Three 8AF Wings (Santa Monica, CA: National Defense Research Institute-RAND, 1997).
Citation: Carl Conetta and Charles Knight, The Readiness Crisis of the U.S. Air Force: A Review and Diagnosis, Project on Defense Alternatives Briefing Report #10. Cambridge, MA: Commonwealth Institute, April 1999.
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