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Senator to Air Force: Fix Hurricane-Damaged F-22s Fast

F-22 Raptors are parked near the runway at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, Oct. 15, 2018. Air Combat Command has mobilized multiple relief assets in an effort to restore operations after the hurricane caused catastrophic damage to the base. (U.S. Air Force/Master Sgt. Russ Scalf)
F-22 Raptors are parked near the runway at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, Oct. 15, 2018. Air Combat Command has mobilized multiple relief assets in an effort to restore operations after the hurricane caused catastrophic damage to the base. (U.S. Air Force/Master Sgt. Russ Scalf)

Sen. Marco Rubio is urging the U.S. Air Force to repair and restore the F-22 Raptor stealth fighters damaged during Hurricane Michael as soon as possible in order to meet mission demands.

In a letter addressed to Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson Monday, the Florida Republican stressed urgency, saying the service must ready the fleet to meet Defense Secretary Jim Mattis' request to have an 80 percent mission capability rate in a year's time.

"As you finalize damage assessments of the aircraft that endured Hurricane Michael, I urge you to begin implementation of the framework laid out by Secretary Mattis starting with all Tyndall AFB fighter aircraft," Rubio said. "Additionally, I ask you waste no time or effort in providing a supplemental funding request to Congress to repair and restore these aircraft to mission capable status as soon as possible."

While the F-22 overall has a roughly 49 percent mission-capable rate overall -- meaning less than half of the aircraft are flyable at any given time -- the lawmaker zeroed in on the readiness rate for jets stationed at Tyndall.

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"As Hurricane Michael approached the Florida panhandle, 31 percent of F-22 aircraft at Tyndall Air Force Base were designated non-mission capable (NMC) and were sheltered in place," Rubio said.

Fifty-five of the fifth-generation fighters are assigned to the 325th Fighter Wing, he said.

That figure corresponds with reports that up to 17 aircraft may have been damaged by the Category 4 storm. Photos of F-22s left behind in shredded hangars that have surfaced on social media in recent weeks have some in the aviation community theorizing that a significant chunk of the F-22 fleet -- roughly 10 percent -- may be left stagnant for good.

"While the damage assessment of these remaining aircraft is still underway, the facts are clear that any damage sustained could have been avoided if the [non-mission capable] rate for the F-22 was lower," Rubio said.

The Air Force has yet to disclose exactly how many twin-engine jets are nonrecoverable versus those they will attempt to fix. Officials last week said five to seven temporary hangars are being constructed at Tyndall, each capable of housing two aircraft; the Air Force, however, cautioned against assuming that 10 to 14 Raptors may have been damaged.

Some F-22s that sustained minor damages will be moved to Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, early next week to join F-22s that were previously moved there. Officials have not said just how long the aircraft will remain there.

While some aircraft have been moved out of active status for testing purposes, the Air Force has 183 of the Lockheed Martin-made F-22s in its inventory today. More than 160 belong to active-duty units; the remainder are with Air National Guard elements. Four aircraft were lost or severely damaged between 2004 and 2012.

Production was cut short in 2009, with original plans to buy 381 fighters scaled down to a buy of just 187.

Rubio noted that the small fleet is already challenging to sustain, given parts reliability and maintenance dwindles in dwarfed fleets.

"This significantly smaller than planned inventory has resulted in maintenance and supply challenges that have affected aircraft availability rates," he said.

But "as the threat from near-peer competitors continues to evolve and grow, this aircraft is vital to the U.S. military's ability to defeat high-end adversaries," the senator said.

Rubio said he will facilitate communication between Congress and the service "to accomplish the priority of ensuring our air superiority aircraft meet this mission capable goal."

"I look forward to working with you to accomplish this," Rubio said.

The Air Force is reviewing Rubio's request, Air Force spokeswoman Capt. Carrie Volpe said.

Wilson has received the letter, and she "will respond directly to the senator," Volpe said.

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

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