Upgrades Needed For Sustained F-22 Operations During A Crisis In Europe Axed For Border Wall

The Air Force had planned to award contracts for the infrastructure improvements, including a specialized repair facility, next year.

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The Pentagon says it will defer building various facilities to support rotating deployments of F-22 Raptors to Germany as part of a larger reallocation of military funds to support wall construction along the United States' southwestern border with Mexico. Delaying the planned work, which included setting up a dedicated repair center that would be able to maintain the composite structures, exotic coatings, and other elements of the stealth fighter's sensitive radar-absorbing skin, could have significant impacts on the Air Force's ability to operate these jets for sustained periods in the region during a crisis.

On Sept. 4, 2019, the U.S. military announced it would redirect a total of $3.6 billion in funding to wall construction. All of these funds came from spending that Congress had approved between Fiscal Years 2017 and 2019 to support 127 individual military construction projects within the United States and elsewhere around the world, including the F-22-related work at Spangdahlem Air Base. The installation currently hosts a squadron of USAF Block 50 F-16CJ/DJ Vipers. 

Back in February 2019, President Donald Trump had declared the situation on the southwestern border to be a national emergency, which has enabled the Department of Defense to use provisions in the National Emergencies Act to redirect military construction funds to support building new border barriers without Congressional approval.

"I have determined that 11 military construction projects along the international border with Mexico, with an estimated total cost of $3.6 billion, are necessary to support the use of the armed forces in connection with the national emergency," Secretary of Defense Mark Esper wrote in a letter to Representative Adam Smith, a Washington state Democrat and present chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, on Sept. 3, 3019. "The funds being made available are associated only with deferred military construction projects that are not scheduled for award until fiscal year 2020 or later."

What Esper's letter doesn't note is that many of the 127 military construction projects in question have already been in the works for years and that raiding funds earmarked for those projects will almost certainly lead to significant delays in their implementation. This, in turn, could have cascading impacts on the operational plans many of these projects were meant to support.

Case in point, the F-22 projects at Spangdahlem, which Congress enacted funding for in the budget the for the 2017 Fiscal Year. That year, the Air Force asked for a total of $21.28 million to support Raptor related construction at the base. This was broken into three separate projects: a new F-22 low observable/composite repair facility, upgrading infrastructure/communications/utilities related to Raptor operations at the base, and upgrading hardened aircraft shelters there to accommodate the stealth fighters. 

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A satellite image of Spangdahlem Air Base as of 2017.

All three of these projects are tied to the U.S. government's European Reassurance Initiative (ERI), now known as the European Deterrence Initiative (EDI), which has focused on various efforts to improve NATO's ability to deter potential Russian aggression in Europe. The Air Force's specific goal with these infrastructure investments is to be able to support extended contingency deployments of up to a dozen F-22s at a time to Spangdahlem, which is situated deep in the western portion of Germany near the borders with Belgium and Luxembourg. The service otherwise has a single squadron of non-stealthy F-16C/D Viper fighter jets forward deployed to the base.

"Spangdahlem's geographic location and available ramp space make it an ideal location as a 5th Generation fighter rotational hub," Air Force budget documents for the 2017 Fiscal Year explain. "Building 5th Gen capability at Spangdahlem supports future interoperability training, as well as demonstrates the capacity to generate 5th Gen operations if required, in order to deter potential adversaries by increasing the presence of U.S. forces in Europe through additional rotations."

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F-22s arrive at Spangdahlem for a rotational deployment in 2018.

The infrastructure, communications, and utilities upgrades, the smallest of the three projects, with a total cost of $580,000, is not among those that the Pentagon is deferring to pay for border wall construction. The other two, which the Air Force planned to finally award contracts for next year, are on the list. The official project descriptions for the low observable/composite repair facility and hardened aircraft shelter upgrades in the Air Force's budget documents don't mince words about the importance of these facilities. 

"Existing facilities do not have either the capacity, or the proper configuration to support maintenance on the larger F/A-22 aircraft and its composite coating system," the entry for the repair center says, using an alternative designation for the Raptor. "If not provided, the twelve F/A-22 aircraft required for the ERI contingency mission will not be adequately accommodated for critical L/O composite coatings maintenance and other repairs to be provided in this facility."

"Existing HAS/PAS [hardened aircraft shelters/protected aircraft shelters] are not configured for the F/A-22 aircraft ... [which] have a vertical exhaust feature that requires roof penetration and ducting to support engine ignition in an enclosed space," shelter upgrade section notes. "Without vertical ventilation systems in place, equipment and facility structures will be damaged, including risk of fire. The health and safety of personnel in the vicinity of aircraft firing engines in shelters not adequately vented is at risk. If the new ventilation cannot be provided, the F/A-22 supporting the ERI contingency mission at Spangdahlem AB will have no shelter facilities in case of enemy attack, making the assets vulnerable to destruction."

You can read the full relevant portions of the Air Force budget documents below:

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DOD

To be clear, the Air Force does deploy F-22s to bases in Europe, including Spangdahlem, already, but for relative-short term stints. Spangdahlem needs the infrastructure upgrades in order to be able to better support more sustained contingency operations in the event of an actual crisis and to keep jets deployed in these scenarios better protected against any potential strike. 

As it stands now, Raptors make use of less robust hangars during trips to Spangdahlem. The Air Force is already concerned that established bases are increasingly vulnerable to standoff attacks and hangars of any kind, not to mention rows of stealth fighters exposed on the ramp, would be primary targets for a potential adversary during a major conflict. 

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An F-22 taxis away from a hangar at Spangdahlem during a deployment there in 2015.

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An F-16C Viper fighter jet sits inside one of Spangdahlem's hardened aircraft shelters.

The F-22's significant and complex maintenance and logistical demands, particularly when it comes to its stealthy skin, are hardly unknown. The War Zone has written extensively about these factors, which, combined with the relatively small size of the fleet as a whole, have long contributed to historically low readiness rates limited their operations to select bases in the United States and around the world. As of the 2018 Fiscal Year, the mission capable rate for these stealth fighters was still hovering around 50 percent.

In 2018, the Government Accountability Office issued a harsh report that recommended the Air Force work to consolidate its relatively small number of F-22s at fewer bases in the United States to maximize resources. The destruction that Hurricane Michael wrought in 2018 on Tyndall Air Force Base, a major Raptor hub, has added additional impetus to pursue that restructuring. That same review discussed making changes to the Air Force's deployment models for the Raptors to further help reduce maintenance and logistical strains across the fleet. 

Making infrastructure investments to better support F-22 deployments to potential crisis areas will also help increase the fleet's flexibility when it matters most. In addition, the new low observable/composite repair facility could help support other stealth fighter jets, including F-35 Joint Strike Fighters. The Air Force budget documents themselves highlight how it would help turn Spangdahlem in a hub for fifth-generation fighters, broadly, not just the F-22. 

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F-22s parked in the open at Spangdahlem during a rotational deployment in 2018.

As the Air Force, as well as the Marine Corps and Navy, increasingly integrate their respective F-35 variants into routine operations, there will only be an increasing need for specialized facilities to support them, especially in event of a high-end conflict requiring sustained operations. A number of NATO members are also in the process of fielding F-35 fleets and the total number of operators within the alliance could grow even further in the coming years, too.

Military construction projects are often painfully long-lead-time affairs, in general, requiring sites surveys, environmental impact studies, and otherwise taking the steps necessary meeting a host of building codes and other requirements. This goes double for work in foreign countries that often have their own unique regulations. 

So, deferring the F-22-related work in Germany, which has already been two years in the making, will only further push back the timetable for when these new facilities may actually be available for use. This means that any Air Force planning around being able to deploy F-22s to Spangdahlem for extended periods will be similarly delayed, as will efforts to establish the base as a regional hub for fifth-generation fighter operations, in general. 

To be clear, as far as we know, America's most capable air-superiority fighter – an aircraft designed to take on Russia  – cannot sustain forward operations in mainland Europe during a crisis without these upgrades.

Of course, it remains to be seen how Congress responds to the Pentagon's shifting of funding to border wall projects, whether it approves additional funds to cover the new shortfalls, and when. In the meantime, the Air Force's ability to deploy F-22s, and potentially F-35s, to Spangdahlem for extended periods of time will remain limited.

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com