Wait — flying faster actually saves fuel?
That was my first reaction when my team presented the results of its fuel analysis for a transoceanic mission made up of six F-22 Raptors and two KC-10 Extenders. Our demonstration proved that fifth-generation fighters need to fly faster (about 10 percent faster than the legacy aerial refueling airspeed, but still within tanker boom limits) during transoceanic fighter (Coronet) missions in order to maintain optimal efficiency.
The increased speed preserves fuel, which could be helpful when you want to stay in the fight for one more pass. In addition, flying faster can also reduce total mission cost because you put fewer flight hours on the jet.
With each flight hour costing tens of thousands of dollars per fighter jet, and over 1,000 transoceanic fighter missions each year, that adds up to a lot of potential savings. But more importantly, it’s resources that can be used to increase combat capability for the war fighter.
This got me thinking: How else can we use data to optimize the U.S. Air Force?
For decades, commercial airlines have used data as their weapon against high fuel costs, resulting in about a 3 percent increase in efficiency annually. While the Air Force has made some efficiency improvements over the years (like optimizing the landing weight of the KC-135 Stratotanker, for example), we still lack enough data across all of our airframes to take advantage of the many possible areas for improvement.
We can no longer assume that “taking off full and landing empty” equates to maximum efficiency. The Air Force burns approximately $5 billion in aviation fuel annually, so even relatively small increases in efficiency (2-4 percent) for our large aircraft fleet could mean hundreds of millions of dollars available for other mission necessities, like additional training hours or upgraded equipment on training ranges.
In the race to maintain air superiority, a more comprehensive analysis of our operational energy use is critical to maximizing combat capability. By collecting flight data across all aircraft and missions, measuring fuel use and other operational parameters, and analyzing how we equip our ranges and conduct training, we can better understand operational and logistical challenges. Fusing maintenance and operational data has already given us greater insight on the impact of how we operate our aircraft and prompted us to re-evaluate how we train our crews and execute the mission. For instance, carrying more fuel than necessary has been shown to significantly increase landing-gear maintenance for some types of aircraft.
Providing modern tools to enhance our planning is just as important as analyzing our past performance. Initiatives such as Jigsaw — the tanker planning and scheduling tool for the Air Operations Center that uses a data algorithm to streamline aerial refueling — have demonstrated the value of 21st century solutions.
Jigsaw has already resulted in a 3.6 percent improvement in fuel delivered per tanker-hour flown, which means more tanker capability per aircraft and fewer crews deployed — and this number will only go up as we add automated planning features, and planners become more experienced with the tool.
The potential insights to be gained from increased flight data analysis are limitless. We have already uncovered inefficiencies that could cost the Air Force millions of dollars in aviation fuel over the next few years — and this is just the tip of the iceberg. But it’s not just about saving fuel and money — it’s about increasing our combat capability, improving readiness and lowering sustainment costs.
As we seek to further digitize the battlefield and maintain a competitive edge against our adversaries, the time is right for a collaborative effort to improve flight data collection and analysis across all major commands. Better operational data collection means better operational analysis — and better operational analysis means increased readiness and greater lethality.