In Britain, the inability of the military to maintain aircraft in flyable condition was recently revealed when current aircraft readiness data was made public, despite government efforts to keep it secret. There had been rumor and hearsay from pilots and aircraft maintainers about the growing problems. But earlier pledges by military and political leaders to fix, or at least halt the spread of the problem were shown to have been unfulfilled. The current situation has a third of the 434 combat and EW (Electronic Warfare) aircraft in the RAF (Royal Air Force) unavailable for lack of money to properly maintain them. This is not a new problem but has become a common and intractable one since the Cold War ended in 1991 and NATO countries sought to enjoy as large a “peace dividend” (reduced defense spending) as possible. The peace only lasted a decade and after 2001 the threats and crises just kept coming. Defense spending did not keep up and these embarrassing military readiness (or lack thereof) headlines became increasingly common. The latest media reports also noted another aspect of these chronic crises was that certain types of aircraft never seem to suffer from inadequate maintenance budgets. In Britain, this included the four business jets used to transport the royal family and senior politicians around and the most high profile new aircraft, in this case, the F-35B jets for the two new aircraft carriers the navy is putting into service. This is a stark reminder that once an aircraft is no longer in the media spotlight a lot of its maintenance budget is plundered for what are considered more urgent needs.
Since 2017 the United States has made a big deal of repairing the damage done by a decade of inadequate maintenance budgets for aircraft and ships. The American forces have always carried a heavier load of the mutual (with allies in Europe and Asia) defense obligations and the navy and air force were expected to make large numbers of warplanes and ships available even though maintenance resources were being cut and senior military or civilian officials who spoke up were replaced by ones who would be more discreet. As in other countries if the leaders won’t speak up the followers will. Enterprising reporters need only show up at places where military personnel hang out while off duty and listen. In democracies that means the official data eventually gets forced into public view and the problem again becomes worthy of public debate.
In 2017 the French media had at it. Over the previous five years, France had made a major effort to improve the readiness rate for its military aircraft. Despite that, it was revealed in 2017 that the overall readiness rate was only 44 percent. It varied by aircraft type and where aircraft were is based. Thus the readiness rate is 80 percent for French warplanes in combat zones while that rate plummeted to 30 percent for military aircraft in France. French military transports were in particularly bad shape with overall readiness rates closer to 20 percent. Another annoying factor was that in 2000 the overall readiness rate was 55 percent and a lot of the problems appear related to bureaucracy and more paperwork required to do repairs in the 21st century versus the 1980s.
In 2017 the French Defense Ministry insisted it would take a closer look at how maintenance is carried out, especially compared to other nations with large fleets of modern military aircraft. Britain, for example, has a better readiness rate, but not by much (readiness rates for British Typhoon fighters was about 35 percent in 2017).
Back then it was noted that it was not just a French problem but is typical of all West European armed forces. Britain had been more successful at improving readiness rates while Germany had not. For example in 2014 a German Defense Ministry readiness report was leaked. The report showed that only 8 percent of 109 Eurofighters (similar to the U.S. F-15), 11 percent of 67 CH-53 transport helicopters, and 10 percent of 33 NH90 helicopters were fully operational (not sidelined for upgrades, repairs or other problems.) However, 38 percent of 56 C-160 twin turboprop transports were available.
Normally a combat-ready military has at least half, and more normally over 70 percent of its warplanes and transports ready to go. While this sorry situation for NATO forces shocked many, those who have followed European military trends since the 1980s were not surprised. The problems began developing in the 1990s and no one in or out of the government felt any compulsion to make an issue of it. It is common in European nations for the Defense Ministry to eventually discover that a shortage of spare parts and years of poor management practices led to the parts shortage and the low readiness levels. A new Defense Minister will often come in and promise to make it all better. That may be possible once there is general agreement that there is a problem but often the promised fix is just another illusion.
After the Cold War ended Britain and France were known for having the most capable forces and able to deploy them around the world to deal with crises in distant places. But even these two nations were unable to allocate sufficient maintenance funds to achieve acceptable readiness rates. Germany learned the hard way that it was not combat ready in the 1990s when they had a hard time organizing a peacekeeping contingent for a joint effort in the Balkans. Reforms did not come quickly enough because when Germany sought to help out in Afghanistan after 2001 they again came up short. The lesson is that the next time you see this routine being played out with problems discovered and assurances made that it will be fixed, check back every year after that to see what was, or was not, actually fixed.
The worst part of this is that NATO forces are going the way of so many less affluent nations that buy some modern warplanes and other equipment and then find that this equipment is expensive to use. It is no secret that the lifetime (several decades) cost of actually operating and maintaining a jet fighter, warship or modern tank reveals that the actual cost of the aircraft, ship or tank is a small percentage (a third or less) of lifetime cost. This can be avoided by simply not using the expensive military equipment much. Just keep the equipment looking good, have photographers standing by during the few times the airplane flies, the ship goes to sea or the tank is taken out for training. The rest of the time this stuff is basically in storage. As long as you don’t get involved in a war, no one really notices.