Nearly two-thirds of the U.S. Navy’s roughly 800 F/A-18 strike fighters are grounded owing to budget-driven maintenance delays, according to Defense News, a trade publication. Now the sailing branch is struggling to make up the shortfall.
Sixty-two percent of F/A-18 Hornet and Super Hornets are unflyable, the Navy told Defense News. Twenty-seven percent of Hornets and Super Hornets are undergoing major depot work. Thirty-five percent await minor maintenance or parts.
“Our shipyards and aviation depots are struggling to get our ships and airplanes through maintenance periods on time,” Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. William Moran told the House Armed Services Committee in mid-February 2017.
Historically, around a quarter of Navy aircraft are unflyable at any given time. Currently, around half of all of the fleet’s planes and helicopters are grounded.
Depot work, flight-line maintenance and spare parts have all suffered from nine years of budgetary dysfunction. The U.S. Congress hasn’t passed an annual federal budget on time — the fiscal year starts in October — since 2008.
Instead, lawmakers use “continuing resolutions,” which extend the previous year’s funding levels for each program, giving the politicians more time to haggle the details of the new budget.
But continuing resolutions don’t allow for changing needs. If planes fly more often than service planners expect and require more maintenance than in the previous year, there might not be enough money to pay for the work.
Spares-shortages force the Navy to strip parts from some F/A-18s in order to keep others airworthy. In early 2016, the commodore of Strike Fighter Wing Atlantic, Capt. Randy Stearns, had to borrow parts from three F/A-18 squadrons in order to keep the four Hornet squadrons in USS Harry S. Truman’s Carrier Air Wing 7 in combat over Iraq longer than originally planned.
“That was not paid for,” Stearns told USNI News. “That was unforeseen and that’s a tax back here on the system.”
The 2011 Budget Control Act has exacerbated the funding delays and maintenance gaps by mandating across-the-board spending caps. So have mounting delays with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program.
The U.S. Marine Corps declared its Lockheed Martin-built F-35B combat-ready in 2015 and is rushing to replace its own aging F/A-18s with the new stealth fighter. The U.S. Air Force gave its own F-35As the go-ahead to deploy to combat in late 2016.
The Navy, by contrast, doesn’t expect to bring the carrier-compatible F-35C into frontline service until 2018 or 2019. And even those deadlines could shift to the right. The Navy recently identified a problem with the F-35C’s nose landing gear that could require expensive, time-consuming redesign.
To bridge the gap until the F-35C finally begins entering fleet service, the Navy has been buying small batches of new F/A-18E/F Super Hornets from Boeing. It’s increasingly likely that the sailing branch will continue, and even increase, these stopgap acquisitions.
In early 2016 the Navy submitted to Congress its annual “unfunded priorities list,” documenting purchases it wants to make but can’t afford. The original list for 2017 includes 14 Super Hornets. Following Donald Trump’s election as president in November 2016 and the prospect of bigger defense budgets, the Navy added another 10 F/A-18E/Fs to the list.
Not coincidentally, in a mid-February rally at a Boeing factory in South Carolina, Trump announced his administration was “looking seriously at a big order” of new Super Hornets. These could be the F/A-18XT variant, which boasts conformal fuel tanks for additional flying range and additional radar-absorbing materials to boost the fighter’s stealth qualities.
But additional maintenance funding is still the fleet’s top priority. “Deferred maintenance is insidiously taking its toll,” Vice Chief of Naval Operations Moran said in January 2017. “At some point, we have to dig ourselves out of the hole.”
This first appeared in WarIsBoring here.