To keep its fighters flying, US military learns from commercial airlines - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Saturday 20 October 2018

To keep its fighters flying, US military learns from commercial airlines

Facing serviceability rates of 50% in some fleets, US Navy approaches Delta and Southwest Airlines

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 20th Oct 18

In a radical move, the US Navy is looking to commercial airlines for ideas and procedures to get more of its combat fighter aircraft off the ground. 

US Navy aviation maintenance engineers have begun examining the maintenance and stocking practices of Delta Airlines and Southwest Airlines, which routinely ensure significantly higher aircraft availability rates than the US military.

The US Navy’s primary fighter – the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet – has an availability rate of just 53 per cent. The US Navy’s reserve fighter – the F-18C Hornet – has an even lower availability rate: Just about 44 per cent.

Much like the Super Hornet, the Indian Air Force’s (IAF’s) frontline Sukhoi-30MKI fighter has an availability rate of about 55 per cent. That means, of the IAF’s fleet of 240 Sukhoi-30MKIs, about 108 fighters – the equivalent of five squadrons – remain unavailable for combat at any given time.

To prevent this in the Rafale, the IAF has paid French aerospace firms Dassault and Thales about Euro 350 million for “performance based logistics”. This requires the vendors to ensure that 75 per cent of the Rafale fleet is combat-ready at all times.

The US Pentagon, however, is taking the path of improving its own procedures. Last month, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis ordered the US Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force in writing to ensure a “mission capable rate” of 80 per cent by end-2019. That requires four out of five fighters – including the F-35 Lightning II, F-22 Raptor, F-16 and F-18 fleets-- to be ready to discharge combat missions at all times.

“Our aviation inventory and supporting infrastructure suffer from systemic underperformance, overcapitalization and unrealized capability,” wrote Mattis in a September 17 memo.

“[Implementing this] involves adopting commercial best practices to modernize maintenance depots and streamline supply chain management. By adopting these proven practices, we will rapidly attain the ability to sustain increased numbers of full mission capable aircraft and achieve [Mattis’] readiness vision,” said Naval Air Forces spokesperson, Commander Ron Flanders.

“When you look at the F-18s, this is the same size of fleet as Southwest Airlines has. It’s not a super-large fleet, they’re all basically the same. So how do we put in place, you know, the support practices and the parts so that people aren’t working as hard?” US Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan told trade journal, Defense News.

An earlier Indian defence ministry analysis of why 45 per cent of the Sukhoi-30MKI fleet remained non-available, it was found that, at any given time, 20 per cent of the fleet was undergoing "first line" and "second line" maintenance, which is the IAF's responsibility. Another 11-12 per cent was undergoing major repair or overhaul by Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL); and 13-14 per cent of the fleet was grounded, awaiting major systems or spares – the technical terms is: “aircraft on ground.” 

HAL has repeatedly advised the IAF to stock more spares in its repair establishments, based on a study of consumption patterns over the years. That is a lesson commercial airlines learned long ago to reduce “aircraft on ground” time.

However, aviation analysts point out that keeping commercial airliners flying is simpler, since they have less mission-critical avionics. Fighter aircraft are not just flying machines but also fighting machines. If their airborne radar or weapon systems or radar jammer is non-functional, the fighter is unavailable for combat missions.


  1. It’s a smart move by US Navy. IAF should take note regards the availability of Su-30 fleet. Starting 2019 onwards, IAF will be able to study the Dassault model to keep a higher percentage of Rafale airworthy

  2. Hi,

    The numbers you quote would suggest that there will be at least 86% availability for combat operations in a short-term war. The 20% under routine maintenance by the IAF will be promptly returned to service, and the 11-12% with HAL can also be returned quite quickly as tensions mount.

    As part of a surge, some of the aircraft awaiting major parts (13-14%) could also be returned to ops by cannibalising amongst them.

    At other times, the benefit of higher serviceability to have more aircraft available than the minimum required for training, etc, needs to be balanced against the cost of achieving this.

    The numbers work in the same way as having a fair chunk of the personnel of a unit on leave at any one time, and leave being cancelled in preparation for operations.

  3. Your numbers for the Su-30 are 3 years out of date.

    A report of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) in December 2015 said Su-30 MKI aircraft with the IAF suffer from poor serviceability, which is just around 55 per cent against the prescribed norm of 75 per cent.

    In January 2017, the then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar said the serviceability of the fighters has improved, and is now at 60 per cent. Informed sources said the present serviceability of the Su-30 MKI fleet is between 60 and 65 per cent. Since its induction in the Indian Air Force in 2004, seven Su-30 MKIs have crashed, the last one on Thursday in Rajasthan.


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