WASHINGTON: Marine Corps aviation is on a “glide slope” to reaching acceptable readiness levels by 2020, the deputy commandant for aviation said Friday. But today the only units fully ready — with enough spare parts, trained maintainers and air crews, and adequate monthly flight hours for pilots — are two squadrons flying brand new Lockheed Martin F-35B Joint Strike Fighter jump jets.
“After 15 years of hard fighting, the numbers of aircraft in up status aren’t where they need to be,” Lt. Gen. Jon “Dog” Davis told a joint Air Force Association/American Enterprise Institute event. Davis said the Corps now has about 80 more aircraft mission capable than at a similar time last year, when 378 planes and helicopters were down for maintenance or repairs.
The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee says he was pleased to hear things are improving, adding he’ll keep pushing to improve readiness. “I continue to be concerned that current restoration plans are too fragile and optimistic because they rely on funding stability and funding levels that we have not seen in recent years. That is why Congress must follow through on the actions we have taken to replace the readiness cuts imposed by this administration,” Rep. Mac Thornberry says in an email.
Asked whether inadequate flight hours or other readiness gaps could explain the Thursday night fatal crash of a Third Marine Air Wing F-18C Hornet near Twenty-nine Palms Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, Davis said he doubted it.
“We don’t have all the details on it just yet,” Davis said. “I track each and every unit each and every week. The number of flight hours per pilot — this particular unit is doing okay.” He said flight hours per month per pilot vary according to the type of aircraft but the “low ebb” for the Marine Corps F-18C fleet was last summer, when the average was 8.8 hours per month per pilot for the entire fleet. “I do not think we’re unsafe, but we’re not as proficient as we should be, across the spectrum. We don’t let units fly that are unsafe.”
The 2016 Marine Corps Aviation Plan set 2020 as the goal for the service’s air arm to reach a readiness rate of T 2.0, defined as every unit being able to conduct at least 70 percent of “mission essential tasks at the individual and unit level.”
“We’ve been on that track now for two years to get all of our pilots in every type model series the hours they need,” Davis said. “Last year the only guys that got their hours, and the only T-1 unit I have right now, is the F-35s.” He added: “They’re ready for everything.”
Davis said the Corps was on its way to meeting its readiness goals because, “We’ve had great allies in Congress. They’ve actually helped us out.”
Retired Air Force deputy chief of staff Lt. Gen. David Deptula, who as dean of the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute think tank co-hosted Davis’s appearance, said readiness problems are being suffered across the armed services, but especially by the Air Force.
“The Air Force has been at war not just since 9/11 but since January 1991,” Deptula said, referring to that year’s Gulf War to drive Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s army out of Kuwait and various conflicts since then. “That 25 years of continuous combat, coupled with budget instability and lower than planned top lines, has made the Air Force the smallest, the oldest and the least ready in its history.”
Deptula said that compared to 1991’s Operation Desert Storm – an air campaign he planned – the Air Force today has 30 percent fewer people, 40 percent fewer aircraft, 60 percent fewer combat-coded fighter squadrons, and 25 percent fewer aircraft per squadron. “At the height of the hollow force of the 1970s,” Deptula added, the average age of Air Force planes was 12 years. “Today we’re at 27.” Airline aircraft average ages are 10 years, Deptula added.
“We’re operating a geriatric Air Force,” he said. “It’s an absurd situation we find ourselves in.”