In addition to the tragic loss of life, Hurricane Michael left behind destruction that cuts across many of our issues. The disaster policies that are failing our country, a broken flood insurance program, agriculture businesses that are looking for additional storm-related bailouts and in this case defense-related waste.
The devastation left behind on the Florida panhandle didn’t spare Tyndall Air Force Base. Tyndall is home to the 325th Air Force Fighter Wing, among other missions. And the wing is home to 55 of the Air Force’s F-22 Raptor fighter aircraft. According to the official Air Force fact sheet on the plane, there are 183 operational F-22s, meaning Tyndall is home to almost one-third of the total inventory.
Still Waiting For A Clear Picture
Per normal military safety protocols, once the track of Hurricane Michael was identified, bases in the danger zone were shuttered and as many people and high-value assets as possible were moved to safer installations. In the case of the Tyndall F-22s, the aircraft and crews were evacuated to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. However, some of the Raptors were “unflyable” and therefore unable to be moved to safety. There can be various reasons for an aircraft to be unflyable, including routine maintenance: waiting on delivery of a part for instance. Another possibility is that some of the airframes might be “Hangar Queens” that are kept around so they can be scavenged for parts to keep other aircraft on flying status. (And, just as an aside, Hangar Queens would be a great name for a garage band made up of Air Force dependents. We’d download some of that!)
Official damage assessments for Tyndall are still coming in from the Air Force. But images available on social media show extensive structural damage to buildings on base, including hangars. The Air Force hasn’t released the exact number of damaged F-22s or how many of them will ultimately be returned to flying status. As the Chief of Staff of the Air Force said, “We have a sense of how they look physically, but, until we get into them and really power them up, we’ll (sic) have a good sense of what kind of damage is done.”
Waiting On Estimates
The F-22 has a checkered budget and political history. The low number of airframes eventually purchased is indicative of the hard-fought battle in Congress to contain the program’s soaring cost. Eventually, lawmakers established limits on costs and the Air Force could buy as many airframes that fit under the cap. But in the Fiscal Year 2019 budget request the Air Force asked Congress for $2.3 billion to modernize the airframes, a move we referred to as an expensive facelift. Without a doubt the Air Force will be back in coming weeks asking for more money for the program once damage is fully assessed. We’ll be watching for it and writing about it when it happens.
But Hurricane Michael also raises issues about the long-term viability of Tyndall AFB. In 1992 Hurricane Andrew devastated Homestead AFB near Miami. The base eventually reopened in a reduced capacity as an Air Force Reserve Base, at a cost of more than $100 million. More than 25 years later, it’s clear any rebuilding of Tyndall would quickly exceed that amount, even cost-adjusted. In fact, a recent Economic Impact study estimated that replacing all the buildings at Tyndall would cost $3.4 billion. Somewhere between $100 million and $3.4 billion covers a lot of your taxpayer dollars. So, we propose the Air Force and the Congress take a breath, consider the budget and mission consequences of rebuilding in the Florida Panhandle, and think of Hurricane Michael as a gateway to a necessary discussion of base capacity and base closure. Something that is sorely needed.