Home » Aviation » Navy Digging Out Of Fighter Shortfall; Marines Still Struggling To Fly At Home


Navy Digging Out Of Fighter Shortfall; Marines Still Struggling To Fly At Home

F/A-18E-F Super Hornet. Boeing photo.

F/A-18E-F Super Hornet. Boeing photo.

A three-pronged approach is helping the Navy keep its strike fighter inventory shortfall at a “manageable” level –speeding up legacy Hornet life extension work, preparing to conduct the Super Hornet life extension program more efficiently, and buying new Super Hornets – though the Marines’ legacy Hornet fighter inventory is so strained there are hardly any planes available for day-to-day squadron training, Navy and Marine aviation leaders said last week.

Because the Marines fly only the legacy Hornet, the service’s situation is much more dire than the Navy’s more balanced inventory of older F/A-18 A-D Hornets and F/A-18E-F Super Hornets. Deputy Commandant of the Marine Corps for Aviation Lt. Gen. Jon Davis told the Senate Armed Services seapower subcommittee last week that, according to his records from the previous day, the Marines had only 87 Hornets that were mission capable, out of the 276 planes the Marine Corps owns and the requirement for 174 at any given time.

The Marine Corps will eventually transition its F-18 squadrons into F-35B Joint Strike Fighter squadrons, but in the mean time it is scavenging old planes for parts and using 3D printers to build what it cannot find lying around – trying to keep its planes flying until more come out of the depots after their Service Life Extension Program (SLEP) overhaul.

The Navy, on the other hand, will keep its Hornets and then Super Hornets in the carrier air wing until the 2040s, making each of its three levers important to avoiding a repeat of today’s readiness shortfall.

An F/A-18F Super Hornet assigned to the Fighting Swordsmen of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 32 (left) receives fuel from an F/A-18E Super Hornet assigned to the Gunslingers of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 105 on April 19, 2016. US Navy photo.

An F/A-18F Super Hornet assigned to the Fighting Swordsmen of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 32 (left) receives fuel from an F/A-18E Super Hornet assigned to the Gunslingers of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 105 on April 19, 2016. US Navy photo.

Classic Hornet SLEP

When the Navy and Marine Corps planned to send their Hornets into depots for SLEP work, they couldn’t have imagined that sequestration would come to pass, bringing with it hiring freezes at the depots, reducing operations and maintenance funding, and therefore a backlog of SLEP work. Work at the depots also took longer than anticipated in many cases, with the SLEP kits not containing all the materials needed to cover the full extent of the work the planes ended up requiring.

With Hornets just sitting at the depots, waiting for their SLEP to start, the Navy found itself working its Super Hornet fleet harder, eating up more of the new planes’ service life faster than anticipated. For the Marines, the backlog at the depot just meant fewer planes to train with.

Navy Director of Air Warfare (OPNAV N98) Rear Adm. Mike Manazir said at the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that the depots are now moving faster to get through the backlog of work – depot output increased 44 percent from Fiscal Year 2014 to 2015, he said. Still, the Navy won’t get through its Hornet SLEP backlog until FY 2018, he said.

An F/A-18E Super Hornet assigned to the “Eagles” of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 115 transits the Bismarck Sea in March 2016 en route to Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Base Townsville, Queensland, Australia. VFA-115 is conducting bilateral operations with the RAAF as part of Exercise Black Dagger. US Navy photo.

An F/A-18E Super Hornet assigned to the “Eagles” of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA-115) transits the Bismarck Sea in March 2016 en route to Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Base Townsville, Queensland, Australia. VFA-115 is conducting bilateral operations with the RAAF as part of Exercise Black Dagger. US Navy photo.

Preparing for the Super Hornets

Because the Super Hornets are flying more to compensate for the Hornet SLEP delays, the first Super Hornet will hit the end of its expected 6,000-hour service life “somewhere in the next year,” Dan Gillian, Boeing F/A-18 and EA-18G programs vice president, told USNI News in an April 21 interview.

Boeing and the Navy are still going through a Service Life Assessment Program to try to get as full an understanding as possible of the work the planes will need, to ensure the SLEP kits are more complete than the ones for the legacy Hornets and to reduce the unknown unknowns that could pop up and slow down work at the depots.

Aviation Machinist’s Mate 2nd Class Alexandra Mimbela performs maintenance on an F/A-18F Super Hornet. US Navy Photo

Aviation Machinist’s Mate 2nd Class Alexandra Mimbela performs maintenance on an F/A-18F Super Hornet. US Navy Photo

Gillian said Boeing will bring two “learning planes” to its St. Louis headquarters within the next couple months for engineers and mechanics to work on. With those learning planes, which Gillian said would be among the hardest-used planes in the Navy inventory, engineers will look for corrosion and will conduct destructive testing to validate assumptions about structural stress on the airframe – all of which will inform what goes into the SLEP kits, which Boeing is already starting to assemble. In all, Boeing will spend a year to a year and a half with the learning planes, but Gillian said the effort should yield significant time and cost savings later on.

“Those two airplanes will really help us inform the SLEP kits to make them better,” he said.
“One thing we know about SLEP and any service life extension program is there will always be unknowns. Corrosion and life happen, and there will always be unknowns, but we think through these learning airplanes we can get closer to having a total solution at the start, and then deal with those things that are always going to be unknown unknowns in a more manageable way.

“A big problem with the classic Hornets is everything has been open an airplane up, see what’s going on and then fix it and deal with it in real time,” he said. The problem with that approach is the significant lag time between when a problem is identified and when a solution can be identified, materials acquired and then work performed on the plane.

Gillian said this time around, Boeing wants a leaner cycle – the analysis will be validated, the SLEP kits will be more complete, and engineers will be empowered to make decisions on the spot about replacing versus repairing parts when unknown unknowns arise.

Additionally, Gillian said that modern materials and manufacturing processes used on the Super Hornets but not the legacy Hornets should have helped the new fighters age more gracefully than their predecessors – “and we’ve seen that through the analysis and through real-world examples, so we’re starting at a better spot.”

However, the Super Hornet SLEP presents a big challenge compared to the prior Hornet SLEP: volume. The Navy’s full inventory of 568 planes will eventually go through the program, about four times more than were put through the Hornet SLEP, Gillian said. At 50 to 60 planes a year, “sheer volume” might be the biggest challenge the Navy and the supply chain face.

Gillian said the first Super Hornets to go through the depots will likely take about 18 months, but that should come down to a year or less as more planes go through the process and lessons learned are incorporated.

Manazir said at the hearing he is pleased with the preparation efforts, noting “we have confidence that we can limit the shortfall in the [2020s]” thanks to this advance work.

New Plane Sales

Even with the hastening of the legacy Hornet SLEP and the preparations for an efficient Super Hornet SLEP, the Navy will still face a fighter shortfall of several dozen planes. Today that shortfall is hovering just under 65 planes – the maximum shortfall the Navy deems “manageable,” Manazir said at the hearing – and by the end of the Super Hornet program the shortfall will sit at about 30 to 36 planes, the Navy and Boeing have said.

Manazir said the 65-plane shortfall has been pushed back to 2024 now, thanks to help from Congress in buying more Super Hornets. The Navy bought five Super Hornets in FY 2016, which were not included in the service’s regular budget request but were on the “unfunded requirements list” and were added in by lawmakers. This year, the Navy requested two fighters in its official budget request and put 14 more in its unfunded requirements list. The House Armed Services Committee included funding for all the planes in its version of the annual defense bill, but the full House and the Senate would have to approve that spending.

Gillian said these new planes are an important component to the Navy’s inventory management.

“Certainly the airplanes that are in the discussions for FY 17 or in the budget for FY 18, new airplanes are part of the solution, he said.
“Even SLEPing the whole inventory, 568 airplanes, you still have a defined need as stated by the Navy of 30 to 36 airplanes to address the inventory management. Boeing would say there’s probably a need for additional new airplanes after that. But all of that is needed urgently. Certainly we’re pulling all the levers we can to make SLEP happen on time, and we’re certainly keeping the production line open to buy more airplanes.”

Gillian said that, despite concerns last year about the future of the production line, demand is now strong. This month is the first month of two-plane production, down from three a month previously. However, the 12 planes the Navy bought in FY 2016 will keep the production line busy through mid-2018 at two planes a month. The 16 potential planes in the FY 2017 budget talks would come next, followed by a likely 28-plane buy from Kuwait that would be inserted between 2017 and any 2018 planes for the U.S Navy.

Kuwait has submitted a Letter of Request to receive a Letter of Offer and Acceptance – part of the formal Foreign Military Sales process that shows serious interest. Congressional notification of approval by the State Department is the next step in the process, and once that happens the Letter of Offer and Acceptance would go back to Kuwait to sign before a contract with Boeing could be negotiated, Gillian explained.

Additionally, Denmark is expected to announce the winner of a downselect in its fighter competition this spring, and several other countries are interested in the Super Hornet as well – Canada, Finland, Belgium, Spain and possibly India, he said.

“We’re feeling good about where we’re at, both domestically with a good strong demand signal, and with Kuwait as our next international customer and an important bridge to FY 18,” Gillian said.

FA-18A++ Hornets with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron(VMFA) 314, forward based at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, are lined up on the flightline at Komatsu Air Base, Japan, during the Komatsu Aviation Training Relocation exercise March 7-18, 2016. US Marine Corps photo.

FA-18A++ Hornets with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron(VMFA) 314, forward based at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, are lined up on the flightline at Komatsu Air Base, Japan, during the Komatsu Aviation Training Relocation exercise March 7-18, 2016. US Marine Corps photo.

Marines’ Aviation Crisis

The Navy’s situation is looking up, even if the service isn’t out of its readiness hole just yet. But for the Marine Corps, the numbers don’t look good and options to regain aviation readiness are limited.

Davis, the deputy commandant for aviation, said at the hearing that until 18 months ago the Marines had 12 squadrons of F-18s with 12 planes each, plus 30 planes at training schools, for a total of 174. 18 months ago, though, the service shrank its squadrons to just 10 planes each in an effort to share the planes better; the squadrons about to deploy were prioritized, leaving the “bench” squadrons with few aircraft to train on each day.

Despite that change, Davis said he checked his readiness data the day before the hearing and saw that only 87 planes in the whole Marine Corps were mission capable: 30 in the training squad, 40 deployed overseas, and therefore just 17 to be split among all the Marine fighter pilots stationed in South Carolina, California and Japan.

“There’s not a lot left for the units to train with during the day, and that leads to low flight time and short training progression, and more importantly that bench on the schedule to deploy is not as ready as it should be,” he said. In fact, some units have reported only giving their pilots four to six hours of flight time a month. This is problematic now because pilots show up for pre-deployment training not as well practiced as they should be, Davis said. But it will also haunt the service down the road, as these young pilots eventually become senior Marines, potentially without sufficient experience to properly mentor the new generation of pilots.

  • AirBull

    The Marines have done this all to themselves. You can’t replace $30m Harrier and legacy Hornets with $135m+ F-35B’s, on a 1-1 basis, and not run out of funding. When the Marines agreed to continue to supply airframes on the Navy big decks, they could have been reasonable and bought into a few F/A-18F’s to replace their All-Weather Delta Hornets, but instead they said they will buy F-35C’s. That Super Hornet commonality would have served them well when it came time to replace their EA-6B’s with EA-18G’s, just like the Navy did.

    Same thing with the V-22. The Marines replaced an aged CH-46E that GSA will now sell you on their website for less than $500k. The Marines could have bought the MH-60S like the Navy (and all other service branches who operate the Hawk series helicopters to include the Marines at HMX-1,) for about $22m. Instead, they decided to buy 400+ MV-22B’s at about $72m a copy, or about $50m more per unit. (Not to mention operating costs 5x as high and $10B in R&D.) I like the Osprey alright, but I don’t think it was the best choice to procure in the Marines medium-lift role, which consists of the largest number of airframes in the entire Marine Air Wing.

    Same thing with the H-1’s. Instead of AH-1Z’s, they could have bought AH-64D/E’s right off the shelf, with the Army bearing the brunt of the R&D. Same goes for the UH-1Y – the MH-60S is still superior and like the Apache, could have been had minus all the H-1 upgrade R&D.

    I admire the Marines stubbornness, but in the case of the air wing, some of their decisions have bordered on foolishness. Fortunately the C-130J was prudent, and the CH-53K is on pace to be as well.

    • John King

      As a budgeter I totally agree with your assessment and solution. We want our Marines stubborn on the battlefield, not in the acquisition corps.

  • FedUpWithWelfareStates

    BLUF: Why do we still need “Three Fixed Wing Air Forces” in this day & age, when budgets are tight, we are NOT winning any wars, & the American Tax Payer is completely fed up with the continued Fraud, Waste & Abuse that has become military tradition?

    The USMC, as mentioned in other comments, continues to attempt to live out their “Champagne Dreams on a watered-down Beer Budget,” still trying to do everyone else’s mission for them, very poorly…

    SOLUTION: One Fixed Wing Air Force (all fixed wing assets) — U.S. Air Force. STOP the madness, we DO NOT need “THREE (USAF, USN, & USMC)” separate Fixed Wing Air forces!

    • ed2291

      Except the three services have three distinct needs. I think we could still take some steps in that direction such as the F-4 illustrated and the JSF tried to be.

    • Dave_TX

      That battle was fought almost 70 years ago and was viewed as a power grab by the newly formed USAF. Which service would control the Navy’s aircraft carriers?
      The USAF has never been interested in close air support (the A-10 has always been an unwanted step child), while the Marines have always been interested in close air support, hence the radio exchange where the marine replied ‘send me anything with MARINES painted on the side.”

    • Fed
      You are a nitwit if you don’t think the Dept of Navy needs two separate air forces to provide close air support to our Marines who will be the premeire force of the USA. Since 1944 this has been the only mission of these two separate air forces. We need two separate and independent forces as was pointed out of the overnight abandonment of the landing force of General Alexander Vandegrift on Guadacanal August 8 1942 by the commander of the expeditionary force Vice Admiral Frank Fletcher.
      This was because on the night of August 8th/9th 1942 when a Japanese cruiser force attacked the Allied naval force at Guadalcanal and forced it to withdraw.
      The Marines on Guadalcanal were on their own for that night.
      This is why to this day we have an independent Marine air force and air boss.
      To this day the Marines have their own independent “flat-tops” and I also propose that we have the Navy acquire DC-10 extenders and B- 52’s to continue this important mission.

    • Richard Moriki

      I have flown in the Navy/Marine Corps and Air Guard. The mentality schism between the two can fill a book. The Air Force can never imagine operating in the rapid paced and often impromptu environment of a carrier and/or CAS operation where pilots must think out of the box. Air Force flight rules limit you to what you can do while the Navy/Marines limit you to what you can’t do.
      Having been on both sides of the fence I prefer the freedom of choice to do what is required to accomplish the mission.

  • OldNavy207

    “When the Navy and Marine Corps planned to send their Hornets into depots for SLEP work, they couldn’t have imagined that sequestration would come to pass, bringing with it hiring freezes at the depots, reducing operations and maintenance funding, and therefore a backlog of SLEP work.”
    This statement is misleading. The Navy’s depots (called FRCs) are a classic example of bureaucratic mismanagement. While sequestration played a small part in degraded readiness, the real reason the work is taking too long is because of gross inefficiencies in process and supply chain management. Most of the government depot management would have been fired in a commercial organization, but this doesn’t happen with the Civil Service “jobs for life” program. And oh by the way, the commander of NAVAIR put out a work slowdown order when sequestration was implemented, so that they could show the pain. The bottom line is that the Title 10 mandate for the Navy depots to get 50% of the work needs to be removed. The resulting competition would have a wonderful cleansing effect.

  • Mook

    I amj NOT a pilot but I was around them a lot so forgive my dated or stupid ideas.

    The F-35 (due to cost) is not a main force sustainable fighter. Why not bring out the Iron works scooters in reserve or build new ones. I once was on the Nellis line and talked to a Navy fighter jock. He said the F-18 could out fly the F-16 Viper and he said he had flown both. Carrier service is HARD on airframes and aircraft skins and turbine blades. The F-18 is a studly monster.

    I think we need to bring back the iron scooter (new) production with modern W and avionics add ons to span the gap F-35s ludicrous costs create. In agressor hands the scooter can and has “killed” the “advanced” fighters. The scooter with applicable add ons could still fly out there. The scooter pound for pound gets in and out as well as other jets IF given proper fighter support and EW pods.

    I still wonder why the navy does not take up the long range missile drone carrying radar/passive directed super long range missiles. A cap made up of those could be on station in all weathers for long periods of time with tanker support.