The Air Force Is Dropping Mattis' 80% Aircraft Readiness Goal

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U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcons, assigned to the 480th Fighter Squadron, taxi on the flightline at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, Oct. 1, 2019. Flying operations at Spangdahlem were briefly halted after the crash of an F-16 on Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019, but are expected to resume next week. (U.S. Air Force/Valerie Seelye)
U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcons, assigned to the 480th Fighter Squadron, taxi on the flightline at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, Oct. 1, 2019. Flying operations at Spangdahlem were briefly halted after the crash of an F-16 on Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019, but are expected to resume next week. (U.S. Air Force/Valerie Seelye)

The U.S. Air Force is no longer working to hit former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis's 80% mission-capable rate goal for its major operational aircraft fleet, according to the general nominated to be the next Air Force chief of staff.

In written responses provided to the Senate Armed Services committee, Gen. Charles "CQ" Brown said the goal, which assesses whether aircraft are able to perform their core functions, is no longer a benchmark for all units. The Air Force will allow commanders to set their own goals, he said.

"The Office of the Secretary of Defense determined the FY19 80-percent Mission Capable (MC) Rate initiative is not an FY20 requirement," Brown said, according to the published remarks.

"As a result, the Air Force returned to allowing Lead Commands to determine the required MC rates to meet readiness objectives. We continue to balance near term readiness recovery with investment long-term combat capability."

Related: Under the Wire, Navy Says it Has Met Mattis' Fighter Jet Readiness Deadline

In 2018, then-SecDef Mattis said the services must achieve a minimum level of 80% readiness for the F-16 Fighting Falcon, F-22 Raptor, F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and F/A-18 Hornet fleets by the end of fiscal 2019. Only days before the Sept. 30 deadline, Air Force officials acknowledged that the service wouldn't meet the target.

Lt. Gen. Mark Kelly, deputy chief of staff for operations, told audiences at the 2019 Defense News Conference that only one aircraft platform would make the goal.

"The F-16 MC rate in our active-duty units is above 80%," Kelly said during a panel on Air Force prioritization.

But according to recently published statistics in Defense News, even the F-16 fell short.

In fiscal 2019, the F-16s MC rate was 73%, an increase from 70% from the year prior, Defense News said. By comparison, the F-22 decreased to 51% from 52%; the F-35A increased from 50% to 62%.

Letting go of the Defense Department's 80% standard may actually allow for units to apply their time and effort toward readiness in a more resourceful way, according to a longtime defense analyst in Washington, D.C.

"By letting the commands determine the desired mission-capable rate instead of DoD, it lets the commands move resources around to the missions they think are most likely to be needed, rather than trying to bring particular units up to 80% even if that's not the unit you're likely to need tomorrow," the analyst told Military.com.

The Army, for example, reports its unit's readiness to execute a variety of tasks using "mission-essential task lists" as opposed to whether a particular percentage of their tanks are capable of being driven, the analyst said.

Fighter units especially have a wide variety of missions, and their planes may be ready to execute some but not others.

"It seems that the Air Force is giving commanders the ability to say whether the whole unit can still accomplish the mission, even if particular pieces of equipment -- in this case fighters -- are below a certain mission-capable rate," the analyst said. "Measuring readiness is much more an art form than a science. Setting an arbitrary number, as Secretary Mattis did, gives a goal to shoot at. The question is what gets sacrificed in trying to meet that goal."

Todd Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, said dropping the goal may allow the service to fall farther behind on readiness.

"Letting commanders set their own readiness standards is like letting students grade their own papers. It will lead to inconsistency across the service and readiness metrics that are less credible to policymakers," Harrison said.

"The Air Force needs credible, objective, and quantifiable readiness metrics that measure the performance of units in realistic training rather than the amount of training and resources consumed or the subjective opinions of commanders who are themselves being graded."

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @oriana0214.

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