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.
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.
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.