CAPITOL HILL: Marines pride themselves on being ready for anything. But as of today, 19 percent of their air fleet is out of action “long-term” awaiting repairs and spares, the deputy commandant for aviation said today. “It’s 158 — actually, today, 159 aircraft — that the taxpayer paid $8.4 billion dollars for,” said Lt. Gen. Jon Davis.
An unexpected wiring problem even kept CH-53E heavy-lift helicopters from deploying to Nepal, Davis said. That left the earthquake relief effort to aircraft with smaller payloads, namely the V-22 Ospreys and UH-1Y Hueys. (Maintenance doesn’t seem to have been an issue in the fatal Huey crash, just the terrible conditions in the Himalayas).
The Navy’s wrestling with readiness as well. Backlogged maintenance on aging F-18 Hornets will leave the fleet about 104 fighters short. That’s roughly the equivalent of an entire carrier air wing, said Rear Adm. Mike Manazir, speaking alongside Davis at a Navy League event in the Cannon House Office Building.
So what’s wrong with the Hornets? Part of the problem is that the military’s still recovering from 2013’s sequestration cuts and continuing resolutions, which forced furloughs, hiring freezes, and slowdowns at maintenance depots. But part of the problem dates back to a bad decision made in the decade of bad decisions, the 1970s, when the F-18 first entered service.
The Hornet didn’t need the same protection against salt sea air as older aircraft like the F-14 Tomcat, the Navy Department thought back then. It was a newfangled composite aircraft, not all-metal, and anyway it would be retired after 6,000 flight hours. “So we did not do the normal corrosion control process that we used to use on metal airplanes like Tomcats and A-6s, A-7s,” Manazir said.
“We planned an adequate corrosion control program for 6,000 hours,” Manazir continued. Unfortunately, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter didn’t show up on time to replace the Hornets, forcing the Navy to extend their service life to 10,000 hours.
When engineers opened up the fighters to start work, they discovered much more corrosion than expected — and the damage was different on every aircraft. “The corrosion impacts I would say caught us by surprise. They made each airplane coming into the depot kind of a one-off,” Manazir said. “We realized we couldn’t just replace the parts[:] We also had to look at the corrosion on the surrounding framework.”
The depots abandoned their old assembly-line processes and applied new techniques that more than doubled F-18 production, he said, but the workforce won’t have fully recovered from 2013’s sequester until next month, and it’ll take until 2018 to recover readiness.
That’s assuming the Budget Control Act doesn’t go into effect again, as is the current law. To replace aging F-18A-D Hornets faster, the House and Senate voted additional F/A-18E/F Super Hornets for the Navy and additional F-35Bs for the Marines. But the money for those airplanes comes from budget gimmicks the administration has threatened to veto.
Nor are Hornets the only problem child, as proven by the CH-53’s no-show in Nepal. “It’s not an F-18 issue in the Marines,” said Davis. “It’s every type-model series in about equal pain.”
Take the AV-8B Harrier, the famous but aging “jump jet” that’s supposed to be replaced by (can you guess?) the tardy F-35. Having first entered service in 1968, the Harrier is currently slated to serve until 2025 — but, Davis said, “I might need to go to ’26.”
Outside experts are currently going over Marine Corps aircraft to see what readiness improvements it might need, Davis said. The V-22 is next. The Harrier’s already been reviewed, he said, and the experts told the Marines that “you can get a fair bit of life out of this airplane — you just can’t do it the way you’re doing it right now.”
The service is already altering its maintenance program for the Harriers — but that hardly means the F-35 program is off the hook. Davis is looking forward to full rate production of the F-35 starting in 2018, “not a moment too soon.”
“I cannot stop buying new while I take care of the old,” Davis said. Otherwise you get into a vicious circle: If you slow down buying new aircraft to invest more in maintaining the old ones, you can’t replace the old ones as quickly, so they cost even more to keep going.
“You have to take care of the stuff that you have…. while we transition to the new,” Davis said, “[but] you can’t transition to the new if you squeeze and keep constricting the number of airplanes you’re buying.”