Home » Aviation » Navy Lays Bare F/A-18 Readiness Gaps, Could Take Year to Surge Air Wing

Navy Lays Bare F/A-18 Readiness Gaps, Could Take Year to Surge Air Wing

An F/A-18E Super Hornet, attached to the Diamondbacks of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 102, assigned to Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 5, practices a touch-and-go landing on May 11, 2016. US Navy Photo

An F/A-18F Super Hornet, attached to the Diamondbacks of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 102, assigned to Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 5, practices a touch-and-go landing on May 11, 2016. US Navy Photo

Three out of four F/A-18s are not ready to go to war and it could take up to a year for the Navy to pull together enough reserve fighters to field a surge force air wing, service officials told members of the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday.

A combination of warfighting demand, delays of the Lockheed Martin F-35C Joint Strike Fighter entering the fleet and sequestration cuts from the Budget Control Act of 2011 have left the Navy’s tactical aviation force just able to meet the basic requirements to combatant commanders, the commodore of Strike Fighter Wing Atlantic, Capt. Randy Stearns, told a joint hearing of the HASC readiness and seapower subcommittees.

Stearns said a few years ago, the Navy could have a reserve air wing ready to surge with a carrier strike group in 90 days.

Now, “it would take me six to 12 months,” to get another air wing ready to go to deploy with a carrier strike group due to lack of reserve forces,” he said.

“There’s nothing to pull from in the back,” Stearns told seapower chair Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) in response to a question.
“We’ve already pulled everything forward. There’s nothing left.”

The Hornet and Super Hornet community are overextended for three prime reasons, officials outlined:

  • Demand for strike fighters to support missions in U.S. Central Command that has driven hours up for the deployed fleets.
    ” We’re chewing up about 40 aircraft worth of hours a month and if we’re not buying that much or putting that much through the depot – we’re falling behind,” Stearns said.
  • A delay in deploying expected F-35C squadrons that prompted the Navy to extend the life of five squadrons of legacy Hornets the service anticipated it would retire. The Hornet extension, creating a maintenance backlog at the service’s aviation depots. That in turn, will push back the availabilities of Super Hornets in line to start their 6,000 hours maintenance periods.
    “The depots were never set up to do high flight hour, which means essentially we’re extending them past the [6,000 to 10,000] hour life they were ever expected to fly just to meet the operational demand,’ Stearn said.
    “Now they’re forced to have a three-year lead time to get the parts they need to get them in there – and it’s all a capacity problem.”
  • Funding challenges from the 2011 BCA to fully fund and man the depots.
USNI News Graphic Based on Navy Data

USNI News Graphic Based on Navy Data

According to F/A-18 depot information provided to USNI News, the service has a backlog of 91 F/A-18s waiting to enter maintenance — up from just one in Fiscal Year 2012 and 23 aircraft in Fiscal Year 2014.

USNI News Graphic Based on Navy Data

USNI News Graphic Based on Navy Data

There is also a backlog of 539 engines and modules, up from 11 in FY 2012 and 237 in Fiscal Year 2014.

With the limitations, to support ongoing missions from the one in four aircraft deployed, the service has had to route supplies to deployed units from ones on shore and even pull parts off idle aircraft to get to squadrons out at sea.

“Cannibalization, or taking parts off an airplane, that is our last resort. We work through the supply system and as you know our A through Ds are stuck in the depot because of unforeseen utilization. Our Super Hornets – we’ve had parts problems over the last few years starting in 2012 due to sequestration and some other factors, but we’ve never caught up really,” Stearns said.
“That’s a regular occurrence.”

For example, to support the recently announced extension of the Truman Carrier Strike Group (CSG) to continue strikes against ISIS in Syria and Iraq as part of Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), Stearns had to identify three squadrons to use as a source for spare parts to keep the four Super Hornet squadrons in Carrier Air Wing 7 flying.

“I have three squadrons I had to call and tell ‘be ready, you’re the donors for the Truman extension’,” he said.
“That was not paid for. That was unforeseen and that’s a tax back here on the system.”

  • sferrin

    With a Democrat in the White House is this really a surprise? “Change Baby!”

    • Cocidius

      Your need to constantly bring up your political view of the world without actually talking about the subject of the article is mind numbing.

  • DaSaint


  • b2

    All predictable as early as 2011, and before, when the issue was defined as the “Strike Fighter Gap”. Not “rocket science” to predict that SLEP would also be required not only on legacy Hornets, but also on the 2004 IOC F-18E/F Superhornets based on their fly rates/missions…
    However, the bow wave of depot maintenance issues today is a self inflicted wound due to lack of resources. You have to reset sometime- deferring depot just comes back to haunt you. Additionally, the F-35C numerous shortcomings just exacerbate the situation….
    Certain folks tried to mitigate F-18 woes with S-3 tanker redux then, but of course, that was doomed from the beginning because of the “culture”. Only option available is to buy more SuperHornets, and more de-facto Superhornet tankers just to stay even. Even that strategy is only a temporary fix. Meanwhile the CBARs program is held out as the “savior”… We never seem to learn.
    Bottom line is Boeing makes out- all is good with the mil industrial complex. Carrier air wing not so much.

  • Jacek Zemło

    From the foreigner’s (allied nation) point of view, situation does not look too good. It seems the only steps taken by ANY administration since the early 1990s is reducing aircraft numbers/types and deactivating units.

    I am afraid the only step taken to remedy for the fighter gap would be decommisioning another air wing (bringing the number of CVWs to EIGHT), disestablishing 3 or 4 more squadrons, and annihilating the USNR/USMCR remains (namely VFA-204 and VMFA-112).

    At the same time the problem could have been properly addressed by:
    – buying more F/A-18E/Fs? – they are still hesitating…
    – delaying/cutting the F-35C program? – Lockheed lobby will never let it…
    – boosting the Navy drone programs? – nobody’s really interested…
    – bringing back S-3Bs (to save strikefigher airframe hours)? – refused, CMV-22B could be in danger…
    – add some air refueling capability to improved C-2As? – refused, see above…
    – make a tanker out of the CV-Osprey? – too few (too expensive) airframes ordered and the Navy seemingly does not want it.

    Any surprises now…?

    EDIT: Oops, sorry! – obviously, I meant they might be going to bring the number of air CVWs to eight, not nine – it has already been reduced to nine with decommisioning of CVW-14.

    • Lothar

      Solid comment. Agree on all fronts. To a certain point, the USN/USMC have brought this on themselves. Funding will never be almost never limitless again as it may have been in the Bush years – this isn’t a political statement but rather an economic one (based in reality). The US services need to look hard at what they want to protect in terms of capability and what they decide they can do without. The delta here could definitely be reduced with clever/non-traditional use and procurement assets and procurement. A C-2A that only fulfills one role (ie COD) when it could potentially provide more (ie tanking) is an example of an area for such an improvement/cost saving that would limit loss of capability by freeing up more FA-18s.

      • Lothar

        Sorry for the typos…iPhone…

  • Eric Renth

    It seems like all the USN/USMC
    reserve units are for is something to be stripped clean. Deleting VMFA-112 and VFA-204 would be a foolish idea with all the expertise in those units. Too bad the USN doesn’t value their reserve units the way the USAF does (F35s going to the VT ANG per planning)

    • Jacek Zemło

      The bright side is the fact that USN already re-equipped their sole Prowler reserve squadron with EA-18Gs. If some early Echos go to VFA-204, that would be a wise, far-sighted solution.

      Another thing is a quartet of VMFAs destined for carrier ops as F-35C units. Since they are not MEU-compatible anyway, why wait rather than forcing them to transition to SH instead? Boeing’s production lines are ready and waiting, Lockheed’s spoiled child will not be mature too soon.

  • Don’t worry, the nuclear forces substitute all these gaps

  • beac

    This has been a train wreck in slow motion for the past decade. If only there were some flags to fire over it, but the flags that were managing Naval Aviation for the short-term and couldn’t say “unable without lots more airplanes now” all now have their fat retirements. Also retired are the USMC Flags who made the decision to not buy Super Hornets a decade ago as a stop-gap when things really started falling apart for them. With this decision they managed to screw the entirety of Naval Aviation and for what, a half baked F-35 with severe limitations for their core mission of CAS in particular? The F model Rino would have made a phenomenal platform for them.

    Spend 30 minutes listening to N98’s testimony to the Senate AIRLAND Subcommittee of a few weeks ago and you’ll get a great picture if just how screwed Naval Aviation is. Manazir starts out admitting there is a problem but then says with straight face that they’ve got it under control – the depot is fixed (based on a single month uptick in production), the F-35 “ramp” is going to work (fool me 14 times…) so really all congress needs to do is keep a slow IV drip of incremental unfunded Super Hornets going to the active component. Turns out though that Manazir’s wonderful dream is a permanent shortfall of 60 jets — that right, 60 is the new zero. Also, telling congress that the depot is fixed based on one data point after years of abject and structural failure is outright misleading. Finally, and perhaps most problematic is the fact that he fails to mention to Congress anything about how the USMC’s massive shortfall of jets will affect the overall sea service picture — spoiler: it won’t make it better.

    Short of a congressionally mandated and dedicated super hornet buy for the two Navy Reserve Squadrons, VFA-24 and VFC-12 are dead. This fact is inescapable at this point and no amount of platitudes and specious reports to Congress from N98 can change it.

  • old guy

    Haven’t you guys heard about BONEYARD supply?It allows the funding to be wasted to meet lobbyist and Congressional demands.

  • eze240

    Perhaps the up coming probable change in administration will spark a change in the culture… historically, we have continuously gone thru such change….even in the earliest days of the country similar things happened….one administration attempts to dispose of the military, the situation deteriorates….and a new administration reverses course. This is a side effect of the two sides of America…weather one calls it left/right or any other name its existed since before the revolution…
    It’s also a side effect of freedom…we are free to choose to do something totally stupid, even when all evidence says “don’t do that”…
    Before this equipment issue can be fixed, the battle over direction must be won…do we continue as we have, or reverse course? Do we repair our successful capitalist, freedom based govt model or scrap it in favor of a Socialist model, complete with all that comes with it?
    We are at a turning point once more and the future will depend on which direction we choose to go…

  • Leatherstocking

    It’s the ghost of Jimmy Carter – no spares, no training hours, no planning, no honesty. We savaged the air wings back in the late 1970s the same way and we’ve learned nothing in the last 35 years. We’re sailing with hollowed-out air wings using “ready” aircraft as parts hanger-queens.

  • Doublebell

    We used to have two complete reserve air wings that were almost ready to deploy. Now we have a partial air wing that is no where near deploying. Sad!

    • mike

      I was in CAG 20 back in the 70s. There was no need yo have two Reserve wings. But the money we are spending on the F-35 could be used to upgrade the Reserve Forces.

  • mike

    I was assigned to VA-204 from 71-74. We were put on alert during tar Israeli Three Day War as we had the venerable A-4 Skyhawk and could provide support as needed.

    Today, VFA-204 is flying very old F-18 A+ models. During my last visit, only 4 of 13 planes were ‘up’. The Tactical Support Wing, of which VFA-204 is part of desperately needs to upgrade to newer Super Hornets in order to maintain proficiency. The TSW could provide much needed relief for active duty squadrons as well as the tactical training it now provides.

    I ask that everyone write their Congressmen for funding as we have no idea if an when the F-35 will ever get on line.


    It’s 1980 again!