Air Force Training:
Further Analysis and Planning Needed to Improve Effectiveness
GAO-16-864: Published: Sep 19, 2016. Publicly Released: Sep 19, 2016.
What GAO Found
The Air Force establishes combat aircrew training requirements for the full range of core missions based on an annual process, but these requirements may not reflect current and emerging training needs, because the Air Force has not comprehensively reassessed the assumptions underlying them. Specifically, assumptions about the total annual live-fly sortie requirements by aircraft, the criteria for designating aircrews as experienced or inexperienced, and the mix between live and simulator training have remained the same since 2012. For example, Air Combat Command has set the same minimum number of live-fly sortie requirements across aircraft platforms, but has not conducted the analysis needed to determine if requirements should differ based on the number of core missions for each platform. Reassessing the assumptions underlying annual training requirements would better position the Air Force to meet its stated goals for its forces to achieve a range of missions for current and emerging threats.
Combat fighter squadrons were generally able to complete mission training requirements for ongoing contingency operations, such as close air support to ground forces, but were unable to meet annual training requirements across the full range of core missions. Further, the Air Force does not systematically evaluate the effectiveness of training that has been completed against established expectations. Selected unit commanders that GAO interviewed cited four common factors that limited their ability to complete training, such as high deployment rates, and other factors that affected the training that aircrews were able to accomplish. However, Air Force processes used to record and monitor annual training do not include a systematic evaluation of training effectiveness against expectations. Specifically, Air Combat Command has not established the desired learning objectives or training support elements needed to accomplish training expectations and does not collect data to assess effectiveness. A more consistent basis for monitoring results is critical in tracking the Air Force's progress in training units for the full range of core missions.
Air Force plans for virtual training do not include all desirable characteristics of a comprehensive strategy, such as a risk-based investment strategy or a time line for addressing training needs. A strategy that included these elements would help ensure that the Air Force's plans addressed its capability needs.
This is a public version of a sensitive report GAO issued in August 2016. It omits sensitive information and data on some of the Air Force's training priorities, completion of annual training requirements for active-duty fighter squadrons, and aircraft maintenance generation capabilities.
Why GAO Did This Study
For more than a decade, the Air Force focused its training on supporting operations in the Middle East. The Air Force has established goals for its combat aircrews to conduct training for the full range of core missions. Both the Senate and House Reports accompanying bills for the FY 2016 National Defense Authorization Act included a provision for GAO to review the Air Force's training plans.
This report discusses the extent to which the Air Force has (1) determined requirements to train combat aircrews for the full range of core missions, (2) met annual training requirements for combat fighter squadrons across the full range of core missions and evaluated the effectiveness of this training, and (3) established virtual training plans that include desirable characteristics of a comprehensive strategy. GAO reviewed Air Force training requirements and plans and interviewed officials with a non-generalizable sample of units based on the units' range of core missions.
What GAO Recommends
GAO recommends that the Air Force (1) reassess assumptions for annual training requirements, (2) establish and collect data on desired learning objectives and training support elements for its training expectations, and (3) develop a risk-based investment strategy for its virtual training plans. DOD concurred with the third recommendation and did not concur with the first and second recommendations, stating that existing initiatives and policies address these issues. GAO believes the recommendations remain valid for the reasons discussed in this report.
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Recommendations for Executive Action
Comments: The Air Force has taken steps to address this recommendation. As of August 2017, Air Force officials identified a recently completed study, as well as an ongoing study, intended to reassess the assumptions underlying its annual training requirements for fighter aircrews. For example, Air Force officials stated a study was completed in August 2017 reassessing the criteria for designating aircrews as experienced or inexperienced for 4th generation fighter aircraft. In addition, Air Force officials stated that there is an ongoing study to define the optimum mix of annual training requirements for fighter aircrews. These officials stated that an initial briefing of the study results will be provided to Air Force senior leaders in September 2017. Completion of these studies and the corresponding adjustments to annual training requirements should help the Air Force ensure that their training plans are aligned to achieve a range of missions for current and emerging threats as recommended by GAO in its September 2016 report.
Recommendation: To ensure that annual training plans are aligned with the Air Force's stated goals to ensure that its forces can successfully achieve missions across a broad range of current and emerging threats, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Secretary of the Air Force to comprehensively reassess the assumptions underlying its annual training requirements--including, but not limited to, the total annual training requirements by aircraft, the criteria for designating aircrews as experienced or inexperienced, and the mix between live and simulator training--and make any appropriate adjustments in future training plans.
Agency Affected: Department of Defense
Comments: As of August 2017, no executive action has been taken. When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Recommendation: To improve the Air Force's ability to consistently monitor training results and better position it to allocate resources to address factors that limit the effectiveness of training, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Secretary of the Air Force to establish desired learning objectives and training support elements needed to accomplish the training expectations in its annual Ready Aircrew Program tasking memorandums, and develop a process to collect data to assess the effectiveness of annual training against these features.
Agency Affected: Department of Defense
Comments: The Air Force has taken steps to address this recommendation. As of August 2017, Air Force officials stated that the service is in the process of updating its Air Force Operational Training Infrastructure 2035 Flight Plan. This plan will be accompanied by an infrastructure funding strategy and classified supplement. These officials stated that among these three documents the Air Force will incorporate all of the desirable characteristics of a comprehensive strategy. Air Force officials estimate that these documents will be finalized in the fall of 2017. Completion of these documents should help the Air Force incorporate the desirable characteristics of a comprehensive strategy and better enable the Air Force to acquire virtual training devices based on sound requirements and priorities, as recommended by GAO in its September 2016.
Recommendation: To improve the Air Force's ability to develop the capabilities needed to meet its virtual training needs, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Secretary of the Air Force to continue to refine its planning for virtual training to incorporate the desirable characteristics of a comprehensive strategy, including developing a risk-based investment strategy that identifies and prioritizes capability needs and includes a time line for addressing them.
Agency Affected: Department of Defense