Assessing Unit Readiness of an Air Force Fighter Wing

R.V. Phadke, Senior Fellow, IDSA


The biggest peacetime challenge that all air forces face is to ensure the operational preparedness of their combat units. Most of them including the IAF have devised different methods to evaluate this. The above report which was recently published as part of RAND's Documented Briefing Series1 makes interesting reading and is quite relevant to the IAF. Its main objective is to determine the readiness of an Air Force Wing, in this case the 388th Fighter Wing (FW) Hill Air Force Base, Utah, which, among other things, is responsible for the training and operational readiness of the three F-16 squadrons and the Maintenance Squadron based there. The authors and its publishers, and indeed the USAF, deserve credit for the candour and sincerity with which a sensitive issue such as the fighting potential of a frontline combat unit is discussed in an open unclassified document readily available to the whole world.

The fifty-four Block 40 F-16 Air Superiority Fighters (ASFs) in three Squadrons, the 4th, the 34th and the 421st are equipped with Low Altitude Navigation and Targeting Infrared-Night (LANTIRN) systems that make them among the most lethal ground attack fighters in the world. The F-16 aircraft also have powerful air-to-air capability and hence are held on a high state of operational alert. The 388th Maintenance Squadron (MXS) is intermediate level or what we in the Indian Air Force call Second Line, maintenance support. The 388th FW also has on the base a range of other supporting units and is commanded by an officer of the rank of Colonel, the equivalent of a Group Captain in the IAF.2

The report analyses the simultaneous and competing pressures faced by the wing on an almost daily basis. These are (1) strenuous contingency requirements, (2) demanding requirements to maintain current and future readiness and (3) severe resource and retention problems. If it is any consolation the RAF is also reported to be facing similar constraints of spares, resources and personnel-retention.3 The authors say that their data is consistent with well-known but often insufficiently documented allegations of problems in fighter units and goes beyond the merely anecdotal or subjective feelings of the operators. They claim that their findings are indicative of the pressures facing operational fighter wings throughout the USAF, especially those in the continental United States (CONUS).4 It is for this reason that this report is of relevance to all serious students of air power.

The broad recipe for assessing readiness includes three tasks, (1) define what is 'healthy', (2) evaluate the current and the future status, and (3) identify where that status deviates from what is 'healthy'. The official Department of Defence (DoD) dictionary defines operational readiness as "the capability of unit/formation, ship, weapon-system or equipment to perform the mission or functions for which it is organised or designed". This is assessed for both peacetime and wartime tasking.

The two most basic functions of all USAF wings and squadrons are:

(a) To provide current military capabilities, that is, activities universally associated with operational readiness and,

(b) To produce future capabilities which include training of both pilots and maintainers5 so as to ensure that the requisite number of appropriately trained and experienced personnel are always available to cater for separation, transfers, promotions and the like.

The authors contend that while the first task is spelt out explicitly in all DOD directives, the second, that of producing future capabilities through the rejuvenation of human capital, by on-the-job training (OJT) is not normally recognised as a separate and equally important task. This is a common ailment of almost all organisations. It is always easy to focus on the short-term goals, but often difficult to imaginatively set out long-term objectives. The longer the units spend their energies and resources in doing the immediate, for example, maintaining the operational status of the squadron, through exercises, operational detachments, and inspections and contingencies such as Kosovo or Iraq, the more they must postpone or reduce their effort towards upgrade training and life-cycle maintenance of aircraft. This would mean that future commanders then have a less experienced and less capable force from which to draw.

Pilot training involves taking the raw or recently qualified pilots from Field Training Units (FTUs), {in our case the newly commissioned pilots passing out of Flying Training Establishments (FTEs)}, through operational training to make them familiar with the new aircraft (conversion training), and proficient in air-to-air combat, gunnery, delivery of all kinds of weapons and instrument flying so essential for bad-weather and night operations. The inexperienced pilot gradually acquires experience and expertise to become fully operational (F/Ops) or Combat Mission Ready, (CMR) as the Americans call them. He has to then be further trained to lead formations of two and four or even more fighter aircraft, Flight Lead (FL) and Instructor Pilot (IP) and Mission Commander in USAF terminology.

Maintenance training for enlisted maintainers proceeds along the same lines to pass him from low to high skill levels. The newly trained technician from training units has to progress to become a competent worker on a specific type of aircraft, to a medium level experienced supervisor, to senior level trainer/instructor or supervisor. This has to be achieved concurrently with the task of routine/daily servicing and maintenance of the aircraft; otherwise the aircraft cannot fly. It will thus be seen that any distraction from the primary task would adversely affect the output at both the pilot and technician levels.

"The necessity to continuously recreate assets that are lost from people leaving the squadron or the air force drives a requirement to have people at all skill levels. It is not sufficient to have the most senior, most skilled people flying the sorties and maintaining aircraft, for when they leave—as they all leave sooner or later- a quality replacement must be available. Thus, a healthy unit—and a healthy force—is one that is composed of an adequate number of people at all skill levels, from entry level to the highest level people".6

"When this fundamental condition is not recognised, resources allocated to units are underestimated and very difficult trade-offs have to be made at the wing and the squadron levels. When resources are limited, (and they usually are) there is a tension between the two unit tasks that pits sortie production for pilot training and contingency operations against maintainer training and maintenance of aircraft".7 In any air force, aircraft are maintained to produce sorties for pilot training which in turn builds both the operational capability of the pilots as well as the skills of the technicians. "Newly assigned pilots and maintainers attain skills and proficiency through On the Job Training (OJT) in the unit under the tutelage and supervision of experienced personnel.

The challenge of wing and unit leadership is to forge a delicate balance between these activities. Contingency deployments may spring up with little notice, thereby hampering the ability of the unit to strike a balance between current and future requirements. To be characterised as 'healthy', a wing must be able to produce a sufficiently high number of training sorties to sustain a healthy mix of pilots while simultaneously providing adequate training to sustain a healthy maintainer personnel mix. The report cites three parameters to measure the health of a wing/unit. These are:

(a) The ability to produce the minimum number of sorties necessary to maintain the operational status of the pilots while simultaneously training the less experienced pilots that enter the squadrons at regular intervals.

(b) The capacity to generate the desired aircraft utilisation and aircraft availability rates required to sustain these sortie levels.

(c) Maintenance manning needed to generate the sorties over a sustained period.

(d) Maintain experience mix to provide adequate OJT mix over time. The Air Combat Command (ACC) decides the flying hours for air combat units through a recently developed methodology called the Ready Aircrew Programme (RAP). (In the case of the IAF each unit is assigned a Government Authorised task which is often revised by the Air HQs to suit the changing needs.) The USAF goes into great detail as to the frequency and the number of sorties that a pilot must fly to attain and maintain a certain status. The RAP defines the minimum number of sorties per year for four classes of pilots: experienced and inexperienced combat mission ready (CMR E or N) and basic mission capable (BCM) pilots. The authors of the report feel that although the RAP is a good way of calculating the requirement of flying hours, it does not adequately cater for the changes in the experience mix of a unit. This is so because the individual and unit sortie requirements change when the experience mix in the unit changes. To attain higher skill levels the newly assigned pilots have to fly with FLs or IPs. This means that in a single seat aircraft such as the F-16, each flies his own aircraft.9 The higher the proportion of inexperienced pilots the more the FLs and IPs must fly. The seniors have to thus fly much more to train the juniors thereby consuming an ever bigger portion of flying hours allocated to the unit and thus depriving the younger pilots their due share. It is axiomatic, therefore, that a skewed experienced mix such as that resulting from training backlog can get the unit into a vicious cycle of everyone running faster to simply stay in the same place. If left unattended the situation worsens each year as more and more raw pilots enter the unit and seniors leave it. But that is not all, it affects the status of the IPS and FLs as they are unable to meet their status and currency needs. Consequently it takes longer for the experienced pilots to become experienced wingmen, FLs and IPs. The UTF rates (or what we in the IAF call the Authorised Task per aircraft per month or simply Aircraft Utilisation Rate) also constrain the RAP limits since the latter does not take into consideration the actual conditions of the unit. The report dramatically highlights the gap between theory and practice. For example, if the RAP demands 100 hours the UTE may allow flying only 80 hours (because of aircraft and spares availability) but because of the skewed experience mix of pilots as well as maintainers the unit may actually fly only 70 hours. "Unless correct attention is paid to the relationship between individual and unit training standards on the one hand, and the fundamental connection between pilot flying hours and the implied demands on UTE rate and maintenance resources on the other, the following seemingly paradoxical situation can easily emerge. The unit authorised task may be too low to meet the training standards and yet units may not be able to achieve even this reduced task due to problems such as too many raw pilots and technicians and too few spares to maintain the aircraft in an airworthy state.10

The report states that given the manning levels and qualification of pilots the wing can maintain a healthy experience mix if it flies 87 sorties per week. This yields a UTE rate of 20.8, which the 388th achieved in FY94 but has not reached since.11 Simply stated, the USAF is unable to maintain the sortie rates at the desired levels. The USAF plans its flying hours and manpower requirements on the basis of Major Theatre War scenarios (MTWs). Currently, there is a debate on whether it should be for two or two and a half MTWs. But peacetime scenarios with frequent contingency deployments do not match with the MTW based planning. In the IAF too, the unit establishments that authorise personnel to the units do not distinguish skill levels. Simply allocating total numbers without regard to their skill levels would obviously affect the overall efficiency of the unit. The report states that skill levels and experience mix can deteriorate quickly, and in the last few years highly skilled people have left and been replaced by less skilled junior personnel. There are no figures available for the IAF but such situations are not novel to us.

"An additional complexity arises from the difference between deliberate plans and actual deployment practices of USAF units. No one wants to send units to a contingency without adequate support in personnel and material. This often results in the units taking with them a larger than needed proportion of senior highly skilled technicians and pilots and the best and the most 'trouble-free' aircraft on detachments, obviously leaving the less experienced and the less reliable personnel and aircraft at base. Further, on receipt of warning of contingency deployment, the units must necessarily concentrate on quickly upgrading the senior pilots and on getting the maximum aircraft on the flight line. Units often conserve hours in the run up to foreign deployments and also resort to wholesale cannibalisations further affecting normal or routine training. What is left behind at base resembles what we in the IAF call 'Christmas Trees'. Worse still, most of the additional spares allocations also travel to the deployment area. Surely, no one wants to be caught on the back foot when thousands of miles away from home base. In such a situation those responsible for allocating personnel to the units assign 'faces' to the 'spaces' without regard to skill and experience levels. The unit is in no better shape when it returns from deployment since most of the aircraft are due for periodical servicing and all that the senior pilots have flown are 'combat air patrols' also called 'milk runs'. It will be obvious to a layperson that given such demands no fighter unit can remain in a healthy state.

"Training adequacy during deployments is highly situation dependent. On one deployment, sorties might be limited to 'drilling holes in the sky' during repetitive combat air patrols; on another, pilots could be involved in operations against real enemy targets. UTE rates at the 388th have diminished rapidly. In FY 99 UTE rates could fall to 15.3 about 22 per cent below the healthy 19.6. Sorties per senior pilot RPI-1 per month have come down by 30 per cent. The projected FY 99 average per crew per month for RPI-1 is 14.3 against the programmed figure of 17.1. With this diminished rate the report forecasts that it would take about 130 weeks for an inexperienced, 100-hour pilot to achieve 500 hours of cockpit time that he needs to log before he is considered experienced. It should take the same pilot in a healthy unit only 97 weeks to reach the same level, i.e., it is taking 34 per cent longer to train a pilot to a certain standard than it should take. Moreover, since in the USAF a pilot is usually reassigned to another unit after a two-year-eight-month tour (138 weeks), the unit benefits for only two months of experience from that pilot. When he goes to another unit he has to be given training for four ship (aircraft formation) lead—training for which there was no time at the first unit. This creates additional training burden on the new unit and today's shortfalls can have lingering effects that can last for years. According to the RAND's pilot training model, at these reduced hours and sorties the 388th cannot sustain a desirable experience mix. At the present rate the experience would dip below 50 per cent in about two years and, according to the RAND model, reach its steady state at a catastrophic experience mix of less than 35 per cent. This is caused by the snowballing effects of training shortfalls discussed above.12

"When the flying hour programme does not meet the training standards for the pilots, the pressure builds on the maintenance side to produce sortie-capable aircraft, and this explains much of the tension currently so in fighter units".13 Material related sources of declining aircraft availability are also not completely understood. Ageing aircraft, unforeseen engine problems, unexpected wear and tear due to frequent deployments, policy implementation difficulties are cited as the most common problems. The authors of the report believe that even though there is not as yet a complete level of understanding of the relative contribution of all these sources of problems in maintenance, a great deal of attention is currently being paid to these issues.

The story of the maintenance side is similar. Skewed experience mix adversely affects aircraft production as well as OJT for building future experience levels. The rate at which inexperienced technicians enter the units is far higher than what the units can cope with, resulting in a larger proportion of less skilled workers for routine maintenance jobs with fewer supervisors and trainers. "Undermanning and lack of experience are particularly acute in avionics, crew chiefs and engines (Trades) in the squadron and avionics test, LANTIRN, structures (Airframe?), electrical/environmental, and a number of other fields in the maintenance squadrons. This is because the squadrons carry out routine or flight line maintenance such as between sorties checks or 'Turn Round Servicing', while the maintenance squadron undertakes more complex work of phase or what the IAF terms Second Line Servicing. It will be evident that this closely parallels the problem on the pilot side—too few FLs and IPS flying too many sorties and too many young pilots vying for a smaller pool of sorties.14

Surprisingly, the USAF also faces problems of diverting trained manpower to other jobs such as mobility, debrief, ancillary training, resource advisor, and small computers for which there are no authorisations and no funding, but which must be filled, often by experienced personnel. Time Compliance Technical Orders (TCTOs) which are directed at system modifications and one-time inspections, (STIs and Special Bulletins in the IAF) also add to the problems. Many of the TCTOs are assigned to the depots but some become the responsibility of the units. In addition, TCTOs almost double the average number of work-days that a jet spends in 'phase'—or what we in the IAF call Second Line servicing, thereby reducing the number of aircraft available for training sorties. Much of this happens despite existing policy guidance. USAF guidance states that TCTOs requiring more than 25 working hours to complete should be transferred to the depots to avoid the 'creep' in unit workload that we observe here. Unfortunately, this limit is often exceeded, and since there is no additional manning to accompany the increased workload, the result is lower aircraft availability.15

A brief examination of the deployments including USAF and CINC-sponsored operational readiness exercises (OREs and ORIs) shows that in a twelve month period, the squadrons have, on an average, only six to six and a half months during which a normal home station environment prevails. In months leading up to the departure of the squadron, the sortie rates decline due to the wings placing higher emphasis on (a) training maintainers for the specific demands of the exercise, and (b) conserving aircraft hours and resorting to cannibalisations to build up the squadron strength thereby reducing aircraft availability for normal training. After the departure of the squadrons, some maintainers worked 11-hours per day at the home base to maintain more problematic aircraft to support the flying schedule and with fewer experienced personnel.

The 388th FW, faced with the problems mentioned above, merged the remainder resources of the 34th with those of the 421st Squadron and managed them as one squadron. This improved the situation a great deal, as now there were more aircraft, pilots, and maintainers to produce sortie rates commensurate with the demand. "In effect, the 421st was able to reap the benefits of operating at a somewhat larger scale by functioning as a squadron of 26 aircraft rather than the usual 18.16

Under the RAP, the pilot training requirements are established by experience and skill. But since a training flight usually involves a flight of four or even more aircraft it becomes necessary to design a training schedule that satisfies requirements of pilots of several different experience and skill levels. The greater the pool of pilots from which the flight schedule is made up, the easier it becomes to match the training syllabus to an appropriate set of pilots of each flight.17 This works towards greater efficiencies. In the long run the larger pool of pilots makes it possible to retain an air-to-air or air-to-ground configuration of a dual-mode aircraft like the F-16; every time the configuration has to be altered, it costs time, creates more work for the maintenance personnel, and always involves the risk of something on the aircraft breaking—which costs sorties. (All Air Force Officers should be aware of the problems of changing configurations like putting on or taking off, drop tanks, rocket pods, bomb rails and multiple bomb-shackles, reprogramming the navigation and armament delivery computers and the like.

Larger squadron size would also mean additional number of maintainers in the wing allowing for greater flexibility in matching supervisors to production personnel, which will further improve OJT scheduling. Logistics support and maintenance would become more efficient since test equipment, calibration load and cannibalisation would be easier to manage. In addition, large squadrons lead to overall savings in manpower. The number of flying supervisors and senior staff positions such as the Flight Safety, Inspection, and support personnel of the Meteorology, Air Traffic Control branches, and a host of other personnel would reduce considerably. Given the problems of retention of trained personnel, both of the flying and the maintenance communities that almost all modern air forces face today, such savings in manpower cannot be taken lightly. Lastly, one significant advantage of larger squadrons is that they make it much easier to support contingency operations with detachments of six or twelve jets. It is much tougher to stick to training schedules when half or one third of the unit deploys than when less than 25 per cent of the resources are required to be sent away.

The report gives the verdict that the 388th FW faces a mismatch between the tasks it must accomplish and the resources at its disposal. The turbulence that accompanies systemic shortfalls and operational demands in the form of split-ops has continued unabated. A stable environment is necessary to help alleviate these problems. Even with such an environment and the resources to support it, one should not expect a rapid return to health. It would in all likelihood take several years to re-establish a pilot and maintainer inventory—and a healthy balance that is sustainable.18 Although the study does not address other connected problems, it recommends action at the MAJCOM, Air Staff, Office of the Secretary of Defence (OSD) and Congressional levels to increase the resources at the wing level to match all assigned taskings—especially with a long term view in mind. The authors believe that any related decisions would require difficult and painful trade-offs that go beyond the research of this document, but it is clear that merely 'throwing' money at these problems, is not the sole remedy.

Summary of Relevant Issues

1. It will be evident that the problems highlighted in the document are of a universal nature and that a number of lessons can be learnt without experiencing the problems at first hand.

2. Operational training and operational readiness are intimately connected and ad hoc deployments for exercises, inspections or indeed for meeting contingency situations can and do have serious long-term implications for the health of the air force.

3. Maintaining a healthy experience mix of pilots and technicians is often neglected at the altar of expediency. If USAF, which is the biggest and the most powerful air force in the world, faces such serious problems of operational preparedness, one can imagine the conditions in a smaller air force with even more limited funding and resources. We in India are quite familiar with the difficulties faced by the Indian Army due to its frequent deployments in Internal Security and Counter-Insurgency Operations. Frequent alerts and actual deployments to operational areas or stations naturally disrupt routine flying training activities and also adversely affect operational readiness of the air force. Going by the USAF experience such imbalances in training and experience mix of fighter squadrons require a long time and concerted effort to correct.

4. Problems of retention, motivation, morale, boredom with routine sorties like Combat Air Patrols among pilots and repeated cannibalisations among the technicians, need to be addressed. Frequent separations from families when deployed in areas and for causes without a visible and easily understood national stake or interest are apparently eroding the will of the American combatants involved.

5. It is interesting to note that if a larger wing like the 388th with as many as fifty-four F-16 aircraft (three squadrons) faces such serious difficulties, a smaller wing operating two or more types is bound to be much worse off. Not only would dissimilar aircraft demand different and additional supervisory staff to oversee flying training activities but there would also be an attendant increase in maintenance manpower. Difficulties of Logistics and Spares availability would also be considerable.

6. Retention of fighter (as indeed other) pilots continues to be a serious problem in almost all the air forces. In addition to the well-known reasons such as huge disparity in pay packages, there are many others. These include a relatively short span of active flying since most fighter pilots are under-employed after completing their command assignments at the level of the Squadron Commander. There is a need to modify our organisational structure to utilise them for much longer periods in active flying jobs. Chief Operational Officers (COOs), Station Flight Safety and Inspection Officers, (SFSIOs) could be given more senior pilots to augment the supervisory pool at Stations. But these would require some difficult decisions that would be painful in a hierarchical organisation. As brought out above, skill oriented exercises such as air-to-ground and air-to-air armament delivery need to be given more importance in planning the personnel mix of a squadron. Larger squadrons would certainly help. In the final analysis, the raison d'etre of an air force is to deter a war or to successfully fight it when deterrence fails. It is axiomatic therefore that each pilot is given the opportunity to continuously hone his basic and advanced skills to remain fighting fit at all times. Station Commanders are usually so engrossed in routine administrative functions such as ensuring adequate water and electricity supply, schooling, medical, transportation, local purchase, housing and the like; that the more important function of maintaining the operational preparedness of the combatants gets less attention. Finally, there is no alternative to regular and vigorous flying training and to achieve that goal, aircraft need to be maintained at the highest level of serviceability, reliability and availability possible.



1. Dahlman Carl J & Thaler David E. "'Assessing Unit Readiness' Case Study of an Air Force Fighter Wing", RAND, Documented Briefing Series D B-296-AF, (Santa Monica: RAND), 2000.

2. Ibid., p. iii.

3. 'Hundreds of Crippled Jets Puts RAF in a Crisis', The Observer, London, January 23, 2000.

4. Dahlman and Thaler, n. 1, p. iii.

5. Dahlman and Thaler, n. 1, p. 1. Here term 'maintainers' is used to denote technicians, a commonly used term in the IAF.

6. Ibid., p. 4.

7. Ibid., p. 4.

8. Ibid., p. 5.

9. Even when two seat trainers are available the IPS and FLs or supervisors have to necessarily fly much more to train others at the cost of their own upgrade training.

10. Ibid., p. 10.

11. Ibid., p. 11.

12. For example also see RAND Dissertation, 'Blunting the Talons', The Impact of Peace Operations on USAF Fighter Crew Combat Skills', by John Stillion, RAND Graduate School, RGSD-147, 2000. The author very lucidly highlights the deterioration in the pilots' skills in air-to-air and air-to-ground armament delivery.

13. Ibid., p. 22.

14. Ibid., p. 27.

15. For example following a failure of a particular component, special checks are instituted and on occasions one-time inspections are ordered. Some modifications are also required to be undertaken at the unit level.

16. Ibid., p. 41.

17. For example in the IAF, units such as the Operational training Unit OUT, or MiG Operational Flying Training Unit, MOFTU, Tactics and Air Combat Development Establishment, TACDE, Flying Instructors School, FIS and other FTEs it is much easier to plan training programmes because of the larger pool of aircraft, pilots and more importantly, the training syllabi are similar and the experience levels of the pilots are also nearly the same.

18. Ibid., p. 43.