Before Hurricane Michael made landfall in October, Tyndall Air Force Base was home to the largest basing of F-22 Raptors in the world. No one expected the level of catastrophic damage to Tyndall, where 55 of these advanced platforms were assigned to the 325th Fighter Wing.
I am proud of what the base leadership, Air Force personnel and their families have been able to accomplish in the weeks since the storm destroyed most of the base. Operations are slowly resuming, but Tyndall has a long road to full recovery.
Following a tour of the base and assurances by Air Force leadership, Vice President Pence pledged, “We will rebuild Tyndall Air Force Base.” Unfortunately, the Air Force recently announced its intent to remove 21 operational F-22s from the base, potentially indefinitely. That move does not align with the pledge to fully rebuild Tyndall.
The operational F-22s should instead be temporarily relocated to Eglin Air Force Base, along with the F-22 training wing. This makes more sense for the mission, the airmen and their families, and the future of Tyndall. The decision by the Air Force to relocate the 95th Fighter Squadron from Tyndall to other bases in Virginia, Alaska and Hawaii will not only stress military families, but it will worsen the state of readiness across the F-22 Raptor fleet.
A report published by the Government Accountability Office paints a dire picture, and makes clear the Air Force needs to reassess the distribution and structure of its F-22 Raptor units, as well as their assigned missions and deployment schedules. At present, the fighter jets suffer from increasingly low availability rates and their crews have limited time to train for their primary air superiority mission, especially due to having to fly homeland defense alert missions. The report indicates that this could lead to a shortage in capability from the already small fleet during any potential high-end conflict.
Earlier last month, as Hurricane Michael approached the Florida panhandle, 31 percent of F-22 aircraft at Tyndall were designated Non-Mission Capable (NMC) and were sheltered in place. The facts are clear that any damage sustained could have been avoided if the NMC rate for the F-22 was lower. This concerning figure highlights the dismal state of readiness across our fifth-generation fleet.
In September, Secretary of Defense James Mattis requested all critical aviation platforms, which includes the F-22, to achieve a minimum of 80 percent mission capability for Fiscal Year 2019. In a letter to the Secretary of the Air Force, I urged the service to begin implementation of the framework laid out by Secretary Mattis, starting with all Tyndall fighter aircraft. I also asked the Air Force to waste no time or effort in providing a supplemental funding request to Congress to repair and restore these aircraft to mission capable status as soon as possible
It is important to recognize that no American base, outside of Florida, has access to a test and training range comparable to the Joint Gulf Range Complex. In a recent letter, U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff, General David L. Golfein states “[t]he complex of eastern Gulf of Mexico operating areas and warning areas provides critical opportunities for advanced weapons testing and joint training exercises. The moratorium on oil and gas leasing, pre-leasing, and other related activities ensures that these vital military readiness activities may be conducted without interference and is critical to their continuation.”
To compete with countries such as China or Russia, pilots must have access to environment, which pushes the limits of a fifth-generation fighter jet. Only in the Gulf of Mexico can you find the unique testing and training of military capabilities provided by the 180,000 square mile Joint Gulf Range Complex as well as 17 miles of adjacent dedicated shoreline and 724 square miles of nearby land ranges.
Florida is uniquely positioned to enhance our military’s readiness, and despite the devastation caused by Hurricane Michael we are still able to serve. By contrast, Tyndall’s F-22s are being sent to bases that are exactly the type of deployments GAO has highlighted as a source of the readiness problem. We must do better for our military and their families, and the decision to not keep Tyndall’s F-22s near their home is the wrong direction for the Air Force and our national security.