F-35A fighter planes of the U.S. Air Force Fighter Wing arrived at Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates, in April. Photo by Staff Sgt. Chris Thornbury/U.S. Air Force
Oct. 15 (UPI) -- A concentration on mission readiness has improved the capabilities of F-35 Lightning II fighter planes and pilots, the U.S. Air Force said Tuesday.
Officials said all three squadrons of the 388th Fighter Wing were involved in missions and exercises away from home this summer, operating in nine countries, meeting goals set out by now-former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis.
Col. Michael Miles, 388th Maintenance Group commander said the group has seen remarkable improvements since Mattis told Air Force and Navy fighter squadrons to improve their mission-capable readiness rate to 80 percent. Officials called the goal "lofty," considering the requirements and constrains of the military.
But on a single day in September, two of the squadrons were at a 90 percent capability rate while the third was above 80 percent, the Air Force said.
"This is a reflection of processes that are on the right track. It took hard work and there will be a lot of naysayers, and many people don't understand the trajectory the program is on," Miles said in a press release.
One squadron was involved in the European Theater Support Package with deployment to Germany, and another conducted off-station operations at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, while runways at its home base of Hill Air Force Base, Utah, were under construction. The third is currently involved in the first F-35A combat deployment in the Middle East.
In total, nearly 70 F-35As of the three squadrons have been operating away from their home bases, with commanders saying the wing met all requirements.
"It was a team effort, and I'm proud of our folks," said Col. Steven Behmer, 388th Fighter Wing commander. "We're focused on maintaining and improving every aspect of readiness -- training, manning and developing our people and tactics to meet current threats. Our maintainers are doing a great job providing the sorties we need to do just that."
The successes of the summer are an improvement over training, maintenance and supply chain issues of the recent past.
A report in April by the government's General Accounting Office cited spare parts shortages and limited repair capabilities, making F-35 planes throughout the U.S. military "unable to fly nearly 30 percent of the May-November 2018 time period."
Also, the Department of Defense had a repair backlog of about 4,300 F-35 parts." It referred to the planes' readiness rate as "abysmal," which prompted Mattis to demand the capability rate of 80 percent.
Current Defense Secretary Mark Esper said in July, however, that the fleet of F-35s of the Army, Navy and Marines "is not expected" to meet Mattis's goal of readiness -- though it appears they're working to meet the goal anyway.
"We're not seeing the same problem parts and issues that we did in the past," Miles said of newer aircraft completed by manufacturer Lockheed Martin. "Problems sent in from the field are being addressed, and solutions are woven into the production line. I like the trajectory we're currently on. There have been some valleys, but our overall experience shows we're on a readiness incline."