This appeared in today's Wall Street Journal opinion section:
Fighters Downed by Hurricane
Why America’s best military aircraft couldn’t fly to escape a storm.
By The Editorial Board
Oct. 16, 2018 7:19 p.m. ET
Hurricane Michael did terrible damage in Florida last week, and that may include some of the world’s most capable military aircraft left in its path. But why can’t Air Force F-22 jet fighters, of all things, escape a storm? Answer: They lack the parts to be operational and so were stuck in hangars to take a beating.
Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said Sunday that the damage to an unspecified number of F-22s on Tyndall Air Force Base was “less than we feared.” But maintenance professionals will have to conduct a detailed assessment before the Air Force can say with certainty that the planes will fly again. Press reports estimate that at least a dozen planes were left on the base due to maintenance and safety issues.
Welcome to a fighting force damaged by bad political decisions and misguided priorities. Of the Air Force’s 186 F-22s, only about 80 are “mission capable,” according to a July analysis from the Government Accountability Office. The average across the Air Force in 2017 was that about 7 in 10 planes were mission capable, which is still too low for meeting increasing demands.
Part of the F-22 problem is upkeep on a coating that helps the planes evade radar. Another issue is the supply chain for parts now that the U.S. no longer produces the airplane, and “some original manufacturers no longer make the parts or are completely out of business,” GAO notes. Air Force officials told GAO that a simple wiring harness requires a 30-week lead time for finding a new contractor and producing the part. Ripping out parts from planes that work, or “cannibalizing,” is now common practice in military aviation.
Then there’s scale, or lack thereof. The Air Force in the 1990s planned for about 650 F-22s, which were designed to replace the F-15. That number fell to about 380 over time, according to GAO, but in 2009 President Obama and Defense Secretary Bob Gates convinced Congress to shut down the production line.
At the time Messrs. Obama and Gates argued that the U.S. had to focus on defeating unconventional enemies (Islamic State), whereas the F-22 is designed for air dominance against conventional national forces, which could also be handled by the new F-35.
This now looks like a mistake, as Russia and China improve their military technology and the F-35 continues to have a cascade of problems. The Pentagon last week grounded the entire F-35 fleet for a fuel tube issue, though most were cleared to fly again as of Monday. Now the F-35 is the only fighter show in town. The Air Force looked at restarting the F-22 production line and predicted it’d cost billions to launch. That isn’t happening.
The larger mistake of the Obama years was cutting defense willy-nilly to pay for entitlements and other priorities, which meant military units in all branches were crunched for training, flight hours and maintenance. Budget uncertainty through “continuing resolutions” from Congress compounded the pain.
Republicans in Congress and the Trump Administration this year accepted Democratic demands to spend more on income transfers to get a bump in defense spending that included some $47 billion to get planes flying. But Democrats are promising to cut defense again if they win the House. They pretend that a vote for free health care is affordable, but damaged planes on the tarmac is one more lesson that more spending on entitlements eventually means too few planes that can fly.
Appeared in the October 17, 2018, print edition.