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Highlights

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.

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Recommendations

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.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Defense 1. 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.
Open
DOD non-concurred with the recommendation. The Air Force has taken steps to address this recommendation. Specifically, Air Force officials stated they have completed one study and have 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 another study was intended to define the optimum mix of annual training requirements for fighter aircrews. These officials stated that the study results were provided to Air Force senior leaders in July 2018 for approval. As of August 2020, the Air Force did not provide any additional documentation on steps taken to address the recommendation. 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 September 2016.
Department of Defense 2. 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.
Open
DOD non-concurred with the recommendation, stating that the Air Force's Ready Aircrew Program training differs significantly from other syllabus-directed courses of instruction and that desired learning objectives for this training are set at the squadron level in accordance with current Air Force guidance. As of August 2020, DOD did not provide any documentation on steps taken to address this recommendation.
Department of Defense 3. 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.
Closed - Implemented
DOD concurred with the recommendation. In September 2017, the Air Force issued the Air Force Operational Training Infrastructure 2035 Flight Plan, which describes the Air Force's vision for a realistic and integrated operational training environment and incorporates the desirable characteristics of a comprehensive strategy, as GAO recommended in September 2016. The Flight Plan establishes 13 lines of effort to achieve this vision. Each line of effort includes the office of primary responsibility and required tasks, deliverables, and time frames. One line of effort called for the development of a funding strategy for operational training infrastructure capabilities. That funding strategy was issued in December 2017. By developing a comprehensive strategy, the Air Force is better positioned to acquire virtual training devices based on sound requirements and priorities.

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