Home » Aviation » Marines Would Save $1B If F-35 Entered Service Faster; F-18 Hornets Struggling To Stay Mission-Ready


Marines Would Save $1B If F-35 Entered Service Faster; F-18 Hornets Struggling To Stay Mission-Ready

A U.S. Marine Corps F/A-18C Hornet with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 232 “Red Devils” departs the runway at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, March 24, 2017. US Marine Corps photo.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Marine Corps could save about a billion dollars, reduce risk for pilots seeing too few flight hours each month and bring additional high-end capability to the fleet if the service were able to buy its F-35B and C Joint Strike Fighters at a faster pace, the deputy commandant for aviation said on Tuesday.

Lt. Gen. Jon Davis said at a House Armed Services tactical air and land subcommittee hearing the Marine Corps ought to be buying several more airplanes a year than is currently in the Pentagon budget, to help move to the new planes faster and retire legacy F/A-18 Hornets – which are struggling to get flight-ready in the first place and then more often than not break after just one sortie.

“That’s the number-one thing I could ask from this committee is to keep that recapitalization on track, to get us into those next-generation strike fighters as soon as we can,” Davis told lawmakers.

Davis and other Marine Corps officials have long called the current F-35B acquisition rate “anemic.” Current plans call for the Marines buying 16, 20, 20, 20 and 21 F-35Bs a year from Fiscal Year 2017 to 2021. Davis said he needs to boost that to 19, 23, 23, 23 and 30.

That higher rate, he told the subcommittee, “allows me to get out of F-18 – vice trying to take that (Hornet fleet) to 2030, push that left to 2025, 2026. If there’s one thing I could ask on the TACAIR side for the United States Marine Corps, besides funding our enabler accounts, would be those new airplanes. That would help us the most.”

Davis said he asked for the three additional planes for 2017, but they didn’t make it through the Pentagon-level review and into the final budget request.

“The F-18s I’m flying today, they’ve got a 55-percent break rate – so that means they’re up in the morning, they go off on that first sortie of the day, they come back and they’re down,” he said, explaining the need to hurry and replace them.
“So usually we got two or three sorties out of those airplanes back in the day; we can’t do that right now. These are tried and true war dogs, they’re great airplanes, but they’re tired.”

Powerliners assigned to Marine All Weather Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA(AW)) 242 perform maintenance on an F/A-18D Hornet after a flight mission during Exercise Valiant Shield 16 at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, Sept. 18, 2016. US Marine Corps photo.

The maintenance challenges with the legacy Hornets affect the service in a variety of ways, but Davis told USNI News after the hearing that there’s a major fiscal cost to keeping the Hornets through 2030.

“I can save a billion dollars in [operations and maintenance] by getting out of F-18 early” if he could boost the F-35 ramp rate to the ideal rate he outlined to the committee, he said.

“You heard me talk about that ramp rate – 19, 23, 23, 23, 30, 37 and 23 (a year), and then you’re in your pipe and attrition airplanes,” he said. Whereas that current plan would keep Hornets in service until 2030, “if I stood up all my squadrons by 2025, 2026, I’m out of Harrier, I’m out of Hornet, I’m flying new airplanes, new metal. That drives cost out, and also drives high-capability in.”

Asked what the greatest risk was in the 2017 Marine Aviation Plan, released on Tuesday, Davis again came back to the F-35 procurement rate.

“I think my number-one risk is a slower ramp than I‘ve got right now, and then I’ve got to continue to fly legacy planes longer, in particular the F-18,” he said, which could happen if the Marine Corps continues to see cuts, either during the internal Pentagon budgeting process or from Congress, due to ongoing defense spending caps.
“It’s been a great airplane for us … but it’s time to move on. The Navy’s moving on, and as they go with F-18 we go with F-18. So I don’t really want to be left out in the end with I’m the only one operating the airplane. They were going to fly them in the reserves until 2034, they might try to move that left. I don’t want to be caught out with maintaining the only old F-18s in the nation.”

One solution to get away from Hornets faster, regardless of F-35 procurement rates, is to prioritize transitioning Hornet squadrons to the F-35 ahead of AV-8B Harrier squadrons. Davis previously told USNI News that the squadron transition plan could be changed if Hornet readiness problems persisted and the Harriers held up – and with that appearing to be the case, he told USNI News today that the next five squadrons to transition would probably be Hornet squadrons, compared to the original plan of three more Hornet squadrons and then some Harrier squadrons.

An F-35B Lightning II with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 121, lands at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, Jan. 18, 2017. VMFA-121 conducted a permanent change of station to MCAS Iwakuni, from MCAS Yuma, Ariz., and now belongs to Marine Aircraft Group 12, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, III Marine Expeditionary Force. US Marine Corps photo.

VMFA-122 is starting to transition now and will be followed by VMFA-314 and VMFA-225, “and then TBD – my sense is, if I was telling you now, the next two would be F-18 squadrons. You’ve got to keep the Harriers sound, keep the spare parts, and we’ve been doing a good job with that. But I think the next five will probably be F-18, certainly the next three,” he said.

For Davis, the effect of keeping the Hornets in the fleet is more than just fiscal – lives are on the line.

Due to so few planes being ready to fly – only 146 of 326 tactical airplanes can fly today, he said, with the bulk of the problem being in the Hornet fleet – Hornet pilots only flew 9.1 hours last month. They should be flying at least 16 hours a month, with the “tactical hard deck” – the level where pilots can keep their qualifications – set at 11 hours a month.

“I worry about the F-18s,” he told the committee when asked about his pilots being ready for a high-end fight today.
“I think at the higher-end threat we could have a hard time being successful. We’ll still go fight because we like to fight, we like to do what we have to do. But bottom line, I think we might have less success, we might have more losses. We’ll go … but I think we could have some additional losses.”

He told USNI News after the hearing that recent airplane mishaps – major incidents resulting in death or injury, and the loss of or significant damage to a plane – have not been caused by the material condition of the plane, but some have been related to pilot inexperience.

“To be very honest with you guys, we haven’t crashed any because of a material problem, but for low readiness, we had one mishap at Twentynine Palms where a pilot landed between the runway and the taxiway at night. That’s not supposed to happen, but it did, so when you do the forensics and the why, he hadn’t flown a lot,” Davis explained.
“Other guys in the squadron were flying, so there were decisions about how we keep track of our young guys and young women who are flying airplanes. So I think the bottom line is, as we work our way through and work ourselves out of this readiness hole, not only we have good airplanes, we’ve got to make good decisions about how we fly them.”

He said the pilot involved in that crash is back flying Hornets but under a more structured program that takes into account more hazardous flight conditions such as weather, night-time and other factors. Davis said the Marine Corps was considering what “box,” or set of conditions, young pilots should be flying in, given the current inability to give them more practice.

Asked if the service would formally change how young pilots would focus their limited time in the air, if only allowed nine hours of flight a month, Davis told USNI News, “I have every intention in the time I have left to fix the nine hours. And part of that is, if I can take three squadrons down quicker (and transition to F-35), I’m going to have more up F-18s to go put the other remaining pilots into. So that’s the strategy in that – let’s collapse the pool of really good airplanes that we have, high-reliability airplanes, maybe lower flight hour airplanes … to put those in the hands of our young aviators.”

  • Duane

    Congress – just do it!

    It just makes too much sense for the government to stop bandaging up those old worn out Hornets. The F-35B is a well proven Marine workhorse, two years past IOC, already deployed to the West Pac/ECS theater of operations. The pilots and maintainers who fly it love it, and those units that integrate with the F-35Bs are getting a real (and pleasant!) eye opener in 21st century integrated multi-domain networked warfighting. We need to get F-35Bs on every L class amphibious pronto, making those medium deck carriers a true workhorse that can help make up for the current shortage of big deck CVNs.

    The Air Force can afford a somewhat slower transition to the F-35A, although even they are thinking seriously of retiring the F-15Cs now that they’ve got confidence in the F-35A.

    • E1 Kabong

      “The Air Force can afford a somewhat slower transition to the F-35A, although even they are thinking seriously of retiring the F-15Cs now that they’ve got confidence in the F-35A.”?

      What?

      The USAF A-10’s, F-16’s and F-15’s are as thrashed as the USN a/c.

      Where’d you see that report of the USAF retiring F-15’s?

      • Duane

        Various media reports have gone out in just the last week stating that the AF is considering imminent retirement of the F-15Cs. Putting links here sometimes doesn’t work well, but I read stories on CNN, military dot com, stripes dot com, etc. A 30-second google search will come up with lots of hits.

        As far as how ready the F-15s are, I haven’t seen anything lately that indicates they’re having near the readiness issues as is the Navy, which claims only 1/3 of their Hornets and Super Hornets can fly on any given day.

        • E1 Kabong

          So, that’s a “no” to backing up your claims…..

          • Duane

            I didn’t claim anything. I simply stated that the Air Force is considering early retirement of the F-15Cs. As of today there are dozens of media articles about that … just yesterday in a Senate hearing the AF Secretary nominee was specifically asked about those media reports. The head of the AF Air Combat Command was quoted as saying the AF is considering the retirement of the F-15Cs “sometime in the 2020s” because of the massive cost to upgrade the airframes due to life limiting components, estimated to cost $30M to $40M per aircraft by 2025.

            Really, do some reading dude you’re embarrassing yourself. This isn’t an argument. You are denying facts.

          • E1 Kabong

            Clearly, short term memory loss is an issue for you.

            STILL waiting for you to back up your claims….

      • CharleyA

        There’s some talk of retiring F-15s in the 2020’s rather than SLEPing them. The USAF has made its estimates to rebuild the F-15Cs in the $40M (expensive – much more so than Hornet SLEPs) range, but this is probably more of a strategy to force procurement of significant numbers of PCA. If you decide the upgrades are unaffordable and retire all F-15Cs before the PCA becomes available, you cannot (easily) use the retired F-15Cs as an option for reducing the buy of the PCA. Pretty slick, but also pretty obvious.

        • E1 Kabong

          “There’s some talk…”?

          Talk.

          Not actions….

          Much like the USAF “talked” about re-engining the B-52’s….more than twice….

        • Lightning Bolt 665

          E1 kabobs is right, talking is not the same as taking action.

          • CharleyA

            True, a plan is the plan, until it’s not the plan. But the USAF HAS been floating F-15C retirement over the past 2 weeks, and now has decided to extend F-16C out into the 2040s. Some are saying this is part of the prep work to retire the F-15Cs sooner rather than doing a CBR. We shall see.

  • RDF

    This Marine Airdale General makes a great deal of sense. The entire Naval service has been ridden hard now for almost 20 years. Stuff wears out. move the Hornet to the Reserves and the desert. Keeping the AV8B around and shifting F35B to the F18 side makes a lot of sense. Whoda thunk it.

    • Lightning Bolt 665

      Yes it does. The hornet finally needs some rest.

    • old guy

      There are 2 real options to consider:
      1. A.Give back the air combat mission to the Navy, where it belongs.
      B. Buy a sxxxload of A10s, OV10s and compound Apaches.
      C. Develop a REAL, armored anti-ground force aircraft.
      OR
      2. Keep sucking hind teat to the Navy

      • RDF

        I think ever since the Corps watched the Navy sail away with most of their rations and artillery still onboard, from Guadalcanal, they are loath to be totally reliant on even a Sister Service for survival. Dont blame them. The Corps has about the nicest balance of ground and air power. They really are the 911 number for the nation. make one call and get it all.. The Corps is there to be effective and oncall for anything up to first class opponent Heavy Divisions. The Army is supposed to do that.

  • CharleyA

    There are plenty of Hornets that can be transferred from the Navy – they have an excess amount of F/A-18Cs to support their remaining 4 squadrons. Every budget cycle, the Marines posit a new justification to accelerate purchases of F-35Bs; it took several years before the justification of replacing Harriers lost at Camp Bastion finally stuck (somewhat.)

    • Duane

      The Navy Hornets are just as old, over-used, and falling apart as are the Marines’ Hornets. 2/3 of all naval warbirds today are not flyable due to lack of parts or because they are in depot for complete overhaul.

      The Marines are using the heck out of their F-35Bs, relearning an entirely different way of warmaking … forcing them to stick with old obsolete Hornets when the net cost is much higher to do that is beyond ridiculous.

      This is the second decade of the 21st century – it is no longer the 1980s.

      • CharleyA

        Marine LtGen Davis testified just yesterday that his Hornets do not go through a comprehensive depot SLEP like the Navy F/A-18s do. The Marines could either do a more thorough depot process at a cost of a few million dollars per jet, or spend over a billion more every year to accelerate F-35B purchases. Or take Navy F/A-18s that are currently coming out of the depot that the Navy is replacing with the 36 new F/A-18E/Fs that will be purchased in the next two years.

        • Duane

          Gen Davis was extremely clear – he wants far fewer Hornets and far more F-35Bs. He wants a modern 21st century air force, not a 1980s air force.

          • CharleyA

            Yea, he didn’t say that. But it’s clear that they need to replace their neglected fleet, and rebuild their V-22s to a common configuration. All it takes is money.

        • muzzleloader

          The Marine Hornets don’t go through SLEP? The FRC at Jacksonville has around 20 Hornets at any one time undergoing mid center barrel replacement in order to extend thier service life 2-3000 flight hours. There are as many that say Marines, as there are Navy, in fact the majority belong to the Marines. That said, these birds are tired, and they need to be replaced ASAP.

          • CharleyA

            It not that they don’t get SLEPed, it’s that what is done is not as comprehensive as it could / should? be. – I’ll see if I can find a transcript of exactly what Davis said yesterday – not sure if I want to listen to a 2 hour hearing again. He also testified that his Hornets are breaking after every sortie, which doesn’t seem accurate / maybe an exaggeration.

          • muzzleloader

            As far as the Hornets constantly breaking I could believe that. In the late 90’s and early 2000’s the F-14 fleet was like that. They were a nightmare to keep airworthy. Once the Super Hornet reached it’s full operational status, the Navy cleared out the Tomcats in short order. The legacy Hornets need to be replaced the with the same expediency.

    • E1 Kabong

      What?

      The USN and USMC have been swapping Hornets to get enough with trap/cat cycles left on the airframes just to deploy a CAG.

  • b2

    Tired of this litany. I surrender…
    Let the Marines out of the Hornet business. Sustain the minimum Hornets required and let them buy their dream they whine and grovel for every day. This LTGEN has led the charge every two weeks about this acquisition since he came to the job…what a cheerleader.
    Marine Air turned their backs on the F/A-18E/F and the Growler when offered, for this platform, the F-35B which has been featured in movies since at least 2006 (Die hard X-LOL)…. I say give them the F-35B soonest and keep them OFF the CVN as we rebuild the US Navy bluewater capability. The Navy can form another 4 squadrons of F-18E/F, or F-35C as required (if it makes it to the fleet as planned).
    Let them eat their F-35B. and have it, too. 😉

  • Blain Shinno

    More F-35s = a lower per unit cost.

    That being said I think STOVL is a big waste of money for a capability that they will likely not need. Were the 20 Harriers they deployed on the Nassau during the Gulf War a luxury or was it a necessity. I say the former.

    • Corporatski Kittenbot 2.0

      The Harriers did a fine job beating back the ISIS insurgency in Sirte, Libya last year.
      The job got done at a fraction of the cost of sending a CSG off the Libyan coast.

      STOVL is about to enter prime time.
      Soon the US will have 20 carriers delivering the most advanced strike fighters ever made anywhere it wants.
      The STOVL Lightnings will be an essential complement to the CVs.

      • b2

        Exactly the size engagement Harriers can accomplish- day-VFR short engagement. Will F-35B be more capable- on paper it is. Time will tell…However Sirte is not a cornerstone for a national aviation procurement strategy though….

        • Duane

          The IDF already proved nighttime stealth attacks on active S-300 SAM systems – in Damascus Syria over the last couple of weeks. A single flight of their brand new F-35Is (the Israeli version) targeted and destroyed the Damascus S-300 system set up by the Russians and apparently operated by the Iranians to protect their munitions stores in the area. Once the S-300 was taken out, they then destroyed several warehouses containing massive stores of Russian SAMs (radars, launchers, and missiles) that had been staged there for shipment to Lebanon, part of Iran’s strategy to turn Lebanon into a no-fly-zone. The Israelis ruined their little party … and then in a parting shot, the Israeli F-35 pilots actually buzzed Assad’s personal residence in Damascus on their way back home!

          The Iranians went nuts after their SAMs were destroyed, and last week they even issued charges that the Russians “must have given out our security codes for the S-300 to the Israelies”.

          Once the SAMs were disabled, then the Israelis used their fourth gens to destroy virtually all the military supplies and equipment that Iran spent the last couple years building up in Damascus.

          • muzzleloader

            Israel is already operating the F-35? I did not know that.

          • Duane

            The Israelies have had their F-35Is since December. They knew that the Iranians and Russians had established S-300s in Damascus to protect their weapons buildup, and that the Iranians were amassing large stores of Russian SAM missiles, launchers, and radars for transport to Lebanon to set up a “no fly zone” in Lebanon. The only aircraft the Israelis have that can go in undetected and take out the S-300s without alerting Syrian fighter forces is the F-35I. And the Iranians admitted in media releases that their S-300s were destroyed by the Israeli air forces, but they chose to blame it on the Russians rather than admit they are defenseless against the F-35I.

  • airider

    Buying aircraft or anything else at the most economical rates for the military has no play in a Congressional environment that’s more interested in keep production lines open and jobs for voters for as long as possible.

  • E1 Kabong

    I’m far smarter than you, boy.

    You can’t back up your BS claims.

    You’re BUSTED!