U.S.M.C. Facing a Readiness Crisis

FA-18C of VMAF 232.jpgA 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.

Pilots need practice to maintain proficiency. Pilots flying a high-speed attack aircraft, even more so. Practice, however, requires two things – an aircraft and the money to pay for the cost of maintenance and fuel. The U.S. Marine Corps has neither. The Marines, like the U.S. Coast Guard are at the tail end of the budget dog, and we are suffering because of it.

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

Marines fly only the legacy Hornet, the F/A-18C, built more than 30 ago at a cost of $28 million each. The bad news is that in aviation, aircraft need progressively more maintenance as they age, and they wear out faster as they age. At thirty plus years old, they are flying antiques and maintenance costs are soaring and new repair parts are non-existent.

Marine Corps aviation, struggling to meet its operational and training missions with a shrinking fleet of aged F/A-18 Hornets, is pushing a program to recover and update 30 out-of-service F/A-18Cs in an effort to remain combat ready until the new F-35B is fielded in numbers. There are F/A-18C aircraft stored at the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center (AMARC) at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base near Tucson, Arizona.

The stored F/A-18C airframes need a lot of work and updating to bring them into safe flying condition. Boeing has a contract to do the upgrade, but at a cost that is more than the original purchase price, but far less than the cost of a new F/A/-18E or F ($98.3 million) in “fly-away” condition.  Pictures and AMARC’s story located at here and a 360 degree overhead is here.

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.

Marine Lt. Gen. Jon Davis, the assistant commandant for aviation, has testified that in order to provide combat-ready aircraft for deployments, virtually none of the fighter squadrons at home stations have anywhere near the aircraft they need to conduct training and to remain ready to deploy for an emergency.

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

“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. 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.”

“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.”

“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.

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.

F-35B.jpgAn 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.

The most recently contracted unit costs for Low Rate Initial Production lot 9 (not including the engine) are:

  • F-35A: $102.1 million/jet
  • F-35B: $131.6 million/jet
  • F-35C: $132.2 million/jet

This is a classic case of “pay me a little now or pay me a lot later” so its time to get the check book handy.

About Terry Welshans

I grew up in Burbank, California. My dad worked at a company that made sub assemblies for about every airplane made in the 1960-1970 era, so it was only natural that the aviation bug bit me while I was quite young. I hold a commercial pilot certificate and fly as much as I can. I live in Bardstown, Kentucky with my wife, moving here after we retired. I am a Vietnam veteran and a cancer survivor. I like to keep politicians honest, and do so when they open an avenue where I feel they have erred.
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11 Responses to U.S.M.C. Facing a Readiness Crisis

  1. wordcloud9 says:

    So where did the money go that Congress gave the Pentagon OVER AND ABOVE what the Pentagon had asked for in the last budget?

    The Teapublicans always say that “throwing money at the problem won’t solve it” whenever they’re talking about things like Education, but then they gleefully ax funds from much-needed domestic programs out of the Budget in order to throw more and more taxpayer dollars at the Pentagon. When we have Marines flying combat missions in 30 year old planes jury-rigged with salvaged parts, and millions may be taken away from the Coast Guard, then the Teapublicans clearly lack any sense of priorities when it comes to what actually keeps our country safer.

    Throwing even more money into the ravening maw of the Military-Industrial Complex to be mysteriously wasted on who-knows-what isn’t going to help. Let them move some of the billions they’re throwing at Pork Barrel projects and Occupant’s idiotic wall over to keeping all branches of of the armed services combat-ready.

    • Terry Welshans says:

      Priorities need review and adjustments made. Lots of flying junk operating at 30% efficiency is not the answer, neither are Billion Dollar aircraft bought one at a time.

      • wordcloud9 says:

        I’m an unabashed ’60s peacenik who still can see the irony that Barry Goldwater’s book, The Conscience of a Conservative, outlined his plan for the future of the U.S. Military: smaller, better-trained and equipped units that could mobilize fast to go into hot spots, with much less emphasis on weapons of mass destruction and giant hardware. I don’t think I’ve seen anything resembling a sensible plan from a Conservative politician since, but the Democrats’ thinking is only better by a thin margin.

        Our misguided foreign polices, the hair-brained schemes of both Democrats and Republicans, mostly based on the economic wants of multinational giant corporations rather than carefully planned, long-term diplomacy, have made the world a much more dangerous place, and we are paying and will continue to pay a very high price for them.

        This is one of the worst down sides of changing our head of state every 4-to-8 years – long-term policy-making is subject to the whims of whoever sits in the Oval Office. And right now, that is truly frightening.

        • Terry Welshans says:

          Every coin has two sides, and I wont argue about what you said, as I agree with it. The days of major invasions such as D-Day on June 6, 1944 will never happen again. The need for huge stockpiles of munitions is also behind us. We have always gone to war prepared to fight the last one, and are always unprepared to fight the next one.
          I believe we are in the midst of a war right now. This war, like all others before it is about money, in this case oil money. All of the digital data being hijacked and stolen for profit by pirates is part of it. All of the data stored is subject to clever attacks by unknown operatives of unknown governments. The stolen data becomes part of the currency as it has great value, as a fraction of it contains illegal activity that when exposed my cause great harm to the subject, and the subject may pay dearly to prevent its release.
          But more importantly, our (USA) government is relying on this same data to uncover illegal activity, both criminal and espionage, and those techniques, which were secure at one time, have become public, allowing the perps time to escape capture.
          We must defend ourselves, as a nation, not from a landing in force, but against this new form of warfare.
          Does bombing terrorist camps on another continent help? I doubt it. Does killing their leaders with surgical precision help? Perhaps. Is that were the war truly is located? I believe not.
          On the other hand, we need to be ready to defend our borders, even in the unlikely event it becomes necessary. Becoming isolationist, as we were before we entered World War II, is just as troublesome. We typically help those in need by feeding those who are starving, so we can’t put our head in the sand and not see it and not act. Sometimes the military is necessary to keep the peace in that case, and that is when those practiced skills are used.
          Hopefully the military storehouse of knowledge and tradition is maintained and not thrown away by the current administration. Changing the head of state should not change how the military is lead.

          • wordcloud9 says:

            It is far too late for us to wrap a wall around our selves and pretend that will make us safe. All our secrets can be shrunk down to electronic impulses,and sent around the globe in seconds. There’s no putting the genie back in the bottle.

            And we have well over 7,000 miles of border, but over 86,000 square miles of tidal shoreline, NOT including Alaska and Hawaii – yet Occupant wants to destroy our Coast Guard?!

            Trying to take the U.S in a land war is every bit as foolhardy as a land war in Asia, or a winter campaign in Russia, and the only world leader who doesn’t know that is Occupant..

            Ultimately, our best defense is making and keeping neighbors and allies as good friends, but Occupant is hell-bent on pissing off every one of them too.

  2. Terry Welshans says:

    Is it “Occupant” or “Current Resident”? I get mail addressed to both….

  3. I watched a video about F-15 ground crews and their importance. Planes about the same age as the FA-18. The narrator mentioned the airplane was older than its pilot and crew.

    I owned a thirty year old airplane once. True that it was a high performance, complex, systems airplane, so there’s that.. Damn thing spent more time in the shop than it did in the air. And its top speed was more than a thousand miles an hour less than either the FA-18 and F-15.. Boggles the mind. The smaller the part, seems as if the more likely it is to break–and because it is a small part, it is harder to find when broken.

  4. Terry Welshans says:

    Then add that the F/A-18s routinely make high-impact crash landings on carriers… and they continue to fly. Note: The Blue Angels fly F/A-18As, the earliest version!

    • One of my high school coaches was a WW2 Naval Aviator. He flew Wildcats and Hellcats in the Pacific. He often said that a carrier landing is nothing more than a controlled crash. He loved flying, but did not miss carrier operations.

      It is a credit to the designers and the crews that keep them flying, that all the Hornets have not been relegated to the recycling bin years ago. This can’t go on forever.

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