Troubling Air Range Issues Demand Attention

Troubling Air Range Issues Demand Attention

May 13, 2019

 
Article discussing antiquated flight training facilities for US military. Allies for Cherry Point.

For a couple of years now, the topline strategy coming out of the Pentagon has called for a renewed emphasis on big nation state threats like Russia and China.

We’ve heard dire warnings from smart people who say the U.S. is rapidly losing its technological edge and that war with near-peer rivals would be much harder and more costly than we’d like.

Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis made improving “lethality” one of the top military buzzwords.

That’s why we were somewhat stunned to read a recent investigation report on the training ranges used by fighter jet pilots. The investigators found many training facilities are completely antiquated and unable to adequately prepare today’s units for a conventional war.

The investigation by the Defense Department Inspector General focused on ranges used to train for operations in the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.

For example, a Navy range in Nevada is still using 50-year-old surface-to-air simulators and electronic warfare simulators that do not “replicate the threats pilots would face in combat,” according to the report.

At a joint range up in Alaska, the electronic warfare simulators replicate Soviet missile systems from the 1980s and are so out of date that they do prepare pilots for today’s near-peer threats.

A U.S. Air Force training range in Japan features simulated surface-to-air threats “from the 1960s and 1970s,” according to the report.

Pilots complain that their training becomes “repetitive and predictable” after just a few runs.

“As a result,” the report concluded, “the aviation units in the USINDOPACOM area of responsibility could not train as they would fight.”

The IG blames these range problems on financial woes caused by the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, ongoing counter-terrorism operations across the globe and the fluctuating budgets Congress imposed on the services during the past decade.

But at some point, the Pentagon also must take ownership of this problem.

It is not an effective use of scarce defense dollars to buy dozens of the most advanced aircraft in the world every year if the U.S. military cannot provide facilities for pilots to train on them and learn real-world warfighting skills.

This is just another example of how the politics of defense spending is eroding readiness. At one end are pressures to boost pay, mostly through targeted bonuses, and to increase the size of the force. At the other are the constant calls to ratchet up the purchase of high-tech weaponry and equipment.

So, what gets squeezed in the middle is the actual process of training the force we have to use the weapons systems we’ve already purchased.

Readiness is inherently complex and involves thousands of interrelated factors. It’s hard to hold the Pentagon leadership totally accountable for something that is essentially impossible to measure precisely.

This is especially true when most top leaders hold their top jobs only for a few years before moving on, creating a perverse incentive to kick the can down the road.

But finding Soviet-era missile systems at a training range used by F-22s and F-35s reflects a staggering level of negligence.

The inability of aviation forces to train as they fight increases the risk that they will be unable to accom- plish their mission and that attrition of pilots and aircraft will rise unnecessarily in an actual battle.

The problem has now been clearly identified. We are waiting to hear how it will be corrected.

(From the Editors – Marine Corps Times)