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Marines: Sequester, CR Would Ground F-18s, Slash Pilot Training; ‘Very Real Risk Of Killing Pilots’

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on

WASHINGTON: As the government hurtles towards the latest fiscal cliff, March 1st, the Marine Corps‘ deputy commandant for resources outlined a host of painful potential consequences, from reduced rifle training to cancelled deployments to grounded fighter squadrons. Lt. Gen. John Wissler appealed to Congress for so-called reprogramming authority that would at least let the Marines move around the money they do have to mitigate the worst effects.

[Click here to read about the readiness problems for the Army, Air Force, and Navy]

“Our money’s just in the wrong places in some instances,” Wissler told reporters after his speech this morning to the Navy League. But they can’t move it without explicit permission from Congress, he explained: “What we would need is to move things between appropriations, and they would need to help us there.”

The legal wrinkle is that because Congress failed to enact a proper appropriations bill setting federal spending, it instead passed a Continuing Resolution that orders all agencies to keep spending exactly what they did last year on exactly the same things. The law leaves very little room to adjust for any changes in actual needs. So, even before you take into account the impending cuts from sequestration, the Marines are not only short of the total amount of operations and maintenance (O&M) money they need: They also aren’t allowed reshuffle the money they do have from overfunded or low-priority accounts to meet their most urgent needs — unless they get explicit permission from Capitol Hill.

“If you asked me to go up there tomorrow, I could probably give ’em a 95 percent solution,” Wissler told reporters. “We know where we would move the money from, we know where the money is, we know where the money isn’t, we know what we need.”

That said, moving funds around doesn’t make more money magically appear: “It doesn’t solve all of our problems,” Wissler emphasized. “If they gave us everything we wanted, we’d still have some readiness impacts.” The Continuing Resolution set O&M spending half a billion dollars short of what the Marines requested for 2013. Since then they’ve racked up another half-billion in unanticipated bills for such things as stationing more Marine guards at US embassies in the aftermath of last year’s Benghazi attack.

“Readiness will just continue to march south without the resources,” Wissler told reporters. “The things that happen today manifest themselves a few months from now.”

Fly Or Die: Marines Must Ground Fighter Squadrons Or Risk Crashes

The most dramatic impact will be on Marine Corps squadrons flying the F/A-18 Hornet fighter jet, some of which will probably be grounded starting late this year.

There’s an ugly series of ripple effects at play. Facing funding shortfalls from both the Continuing Resolution and the sequester, Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter ordered the armed services to cancel major maintenance in the third and fourth quarters of fiscal year 2013 (April through September of the calendar year). In the Navy Department’s case, that included cancelling planned overhauls of warships and maintenance depot work on both Navy and Marine Corps aircraft. That means squadrons will be taking busted airplanes out of service but not getting any repaired ones back.

“If in fact those depots are shut down,” Wissler told the audience at the Navy League breakfast, “by December 31st of 2013, instead of having roughly eight of 12 airplanes on the ramp in our non-deployed squadrons around the Marine Corps, we’ll have five.” (Squadrons actually deployed on operations will be kept at full strength, albeit at the expense of funding other forces). Fewer planes means fewer opportunities to train, which means pilots won’t be flying enough hours to retain their qualifications.

“We’ll be down to around ten hours per crew per type-model series [i.e. type of aircraft] per month,” Wissler said. “Statistics show that if you fly less than 15 hours a month, you’re a safety hazard, and we run the very real risk of killing pilots and destroying airplanes.”

So instead of cutting every unit’s flight hours equally and putting every pilot at risk, the Marines may fund some squadrons adequately at the price of grounding others altogether, Wissler said: “We’re not there yet, but that’s where we are headed.”

“I don’t predict much, but I can look at my watch,” Wissler said, and Congress simply doesn’t have time to make a deal: “On March 1st, sequestration will happen.”

Wissler has already used his existing, limited authorities for moving money around to raid facilities upkeep and upgrades at Marine Corps bases. “In Jacksonville, North Carolina alone, we took $88 million dollars out of the local economy,” he said. If sequestration hits as well, the Defense Department will have to furlough every single civilian employee for the legal maximum of 22 days (uniformed military personnel are exempt), which will slow down maintenance and reduce hours at facilities from on-base gyms to rifle ranges.

The Navy, meanwhile, has already cancelled the deployment of one aircraft carrier, the USS Truman. Future cutbacks might affect the amphibious warfare ships that carry Marines — a ship type already in short supply — which means Marine units may be unable to deploy.

As for work future weapons, Wissler said, the shortfalls will slow development of the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle to replace the vulnerable Humvee, possibly reducing the number of JLTVs the Marines can buy. And if the Continuing Resolution’s ban on new contracts is not lifted by mid-June, he said, the Navy Department will have to forgo a multi-year procurement (MYP) deal it negotiated to buy more V-22 Osprey aircraft: Without that bulk buy, he said, “it will cost us an extra billion dollars.”

Around the world, Wissler said, “our friends are very, very, very concerned.” Since his 2009-2010 tour of duty in Iraq, e remains good friends with the governor of al-Anbar province, Wissler said. When the USS Truman deployment was cancelled, Wissler said, “I got an email from him after that announcement was made and he was absolutely befuddled that the most powerful nation in the world could not sail one of our carriers.”

“And he’s our friend,” Wissler said. “Just think about what our enemies are thinking.”

What do you think?