Air Force F-22s could face increased combat risks caused by less available aircraft and pilot training time if the service doesn’t make necessary changes to the fleet’s organizational structure, a federal watchdog agency warned Thursday in a newly released report.
The Air Force has 186 F-22 aircraft, which is widely regarded as one of the world’s elite fighter jets.
“The Air Force’s organization of its small F-22 fleet has not maximized the availability of these 186 aircraft. Availability is constrained by maintenance challenges and unit organization,” according to the 38-page report by the Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm for Congress that routinely reviews U.S. agencies and programs. “The Air Force’s utilization of its F-22 fleet has limited pilot opportunities to train for air superiority missions in high threat environments.”
F-22 pilots are not meeting annual training requirements, according to Air Force reports and service officials, the GAO report stated. In addition, the use of F-22s for exercises and operational missions that don’t require the aircraft’s unique capabilities disrupt pilot training and lead to reduced proficiency, the report stated.
For example, pilots are restricted from using certain F-22 capabilities during partnership building exercises for fear of exposing the fighter jet’s unique features. Air Force officials said these restrictions limit the value of the exercise and can lead to bad habits, the report stated.
The F-22 jets are also used to support alert missions, or missions that require certain bases to have jets ready at all times to respond to threats from civil or military aviation. The alert missions fall to the F-22s since the jets are based in Alaska and Hawaii, where no other operational Air Force fighter squadrons are based.
“Pilots and aircraft assigned to the alert mission cannot be used for any other purposes, including training,” the report stated. “This limits opportunities for pilots to enhance air superiority skills. Without examining and implementing options to improve F-22 pilot training opportunities, the Air Force may be foregoing opportunities to improve its capability to address the high-end air superiority challenges it expects to face.”
In addition, the Air Force organizes its F-22 fleet into small units of 18 to 21 aircraft per squadron and one or two squadrons per wing, which creates maintenance inefficiencies, the GAO report states. For example, among its specific demands, the F-22’s stealth coating requires time-consuming maintenance and reduces the jets availability for missions.
Traditional fighter wings have three squadrons per wing with 24 aircraft in each squadron, allowing more people, equipment and parts to be shared, Air Force officials told investigators.
In addition , the Air Force organized operations for its F-22 squadrons from a single location when it generally only deploys part of a squadron, the report stated.
“The remaining part struggles to keep aircraft available for missions at home,” according to the report. “Larger, traditional Air Force squadrons and deployable units provide a better balance of equipment and personnel.”
The Air Force has not assessed the structure of its F-22 fleet since 2010, the report stated. Without such a review, the Air Force might be losing opportunities to improve the availability of its small, yet critical F-22 fleet, and support air combat needs in high-threat environments, the agency said.
The federal watchdog recommended the “Air Force reassess its F-22 organizational structure to determine alternative approaches to organizing F-22 squadrons, and identify ways to increase F-22 pilot training opportunities for high-end air superiority missions.” The Department of Defense concurred with the recommendations, the GAO said.
The full report can be read on the GAO website.
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