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.
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.
Aviation 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.
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.
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.