The chickens have come home to roost.
For years now, we’ve discussed and bemoaned the Navy’s short-sighted and ill-advised focus on new construction to the detriment of maintenance. Well, now the chickens have come home to roost. The Navy is facing a strikefighter shortfall of their own making, as Defense News website reports (1). As CNO Greenert plainly puts it,
"We have a shortfall in Super Hornets, we do."
As the article points out, the shortfall is not new. It's been anticipated for some time and the Navy thought they could "manage" their way past it. However, depot funding cuts, greater than anticipated aircraft usage, greater levels of corrosion than anticipated, and continued delays in the F-35 program have combined to worsen the fighter gap.
On paper, the Navy has plenty of aircraft, however, the earlier Hornets have exceeded their service lives. The Navy has around 600 F/A-18 A/B/C/D in inventory but many are not serviceable.
"The fleet has about 600 F/A-18C Hornet "legacy" aircraft — pre-Super Hornet strike fighters — in its current inventory ... About 300 of the 18Cs are out of service, according to the Navy."
The lack of legacy Hornets impacts the Super Hornets.
"With fewer F/A-18Cs flying, newer E and F Super Hornets are being used up at higher rates than planned."
All of this ties back to the Navy’s decision, many years ago, to reduce depot level maintenance funding. This ill-advised decision resulted in increased wear and premature retirement of aircraft in addition to backlogs of idled aircraft awaiting maintenance. The Navy is now scrambling to restore depot funding but is finding that maintenance capabilities, once lost, are not easily restored.
"Greenert told reporters Tuesday that by this summer he would have the depots fully staffed ..." (2)
However, funding alone will not solve the depot problems (1).
"While the Navy has restored the depot funding, the backlog has expanded from 65 to 100 aircraft, and the service is struggling to hire more skilled labor to work on the planes."
The Navy is also looking at extending the service life of the aircraft.
"Thus the legacy Hornets need to keep flying longer. While they were rated up to a lifespan of 6,000 flying hours, the Navy figures it needs a service life extension program (SLEP) to get 150 of those planes out to 8,000 hours."
The issue is only going to worsen as the Super Hornets shortly begin reaching their mid-life maintenance points.
"Another key factor, Manazir [Rear Adm. Mike Manazir, the Navy's director of air warfare] noted, is the Super Hornet mid-life refit program expected a decade from now.
‘I have to get 563 Super Hornets out to 9,000 hours,’ he noted. ‘Ten years from now I'm going to be in the middle of SLEP'ping 563 airplanes. Do I have enough depot capacity?’ “
The Navy is now suggesting a need for 36 new Super Hornets to meet the coming fighter gap.
USNI News website also sums up the problem (2).
"Adm. Jonathan Greenert explained the problem as a multifaceted one: the Navy is working to extend the life of its legacy Hornets, the Boeing F/A-18 A-D Hornet frames. ‘We’re finding that’s it’s very complicated and it’s harder than we imagined,’ he said. So as the Navy depots keep the legacy Hornets out of commission for longer, the F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets are picking up the slack and eating through flying hours faster than planned."
Hmmm …… That makes the decision to cut depot funding look pretty bad!
"The Super Hornets have been further drained over the past decade with a high operational tempo in the
Middle East and the fighters often acting as tankers to refuel other planes."
We see, then, another short-sighted decision coming home to roost. The Navy abandoned its tanker aircraft and opted to use its front line fighters as tankers. This not only reduced the number of available fighters (4-6 are always used as tankers and, thus, unavailable for strikefighter duty) but added flight hours and wear to the front line aircraft. This is an absolutely idiotic use of the mainstay aircraft of the fleet.
The Navy is now looking at extending the service lives of the Super Hornets.
"While pushing for more Super Hornet sales, Boeing is also working with the Navy to determine what it would take to bring the planes from a service life of 6,000 flight hours to 9,000 flight hours, to help mitigate the fighter shortfall.
"He [ed. Dan Gillian, Boeing’s F-18 Super Hornet and Growler program manager] expects that the Service Life Extension Program (SLEP) for the Super Hornets will go smoother than for the legacy Hornets ..."
He expects the Super Hornet SLEP to go smoother??? Why? Nothing goes as smooth as predicted. Only an idiot would expect the next SLEP to be easier than the previous ones. Remember the definition of insanity – to repeat a set of actions and expect a different outcome? The Super Hornet SLEP will not go smoothly. It will take longer and cost more than anticipated.
The years of poor decisions have come home to roost. Maintenance is the last place to cut funding when facing a budget shortfall. The depots should have been fully staffed and funded all along. This is simple mismanagement and incompetence on Greenert's part.
Unfortunately, the poor decisions continue unabated. Hornets are being used to plink pickup trucks in the “war” against
ISIS. What a waste of service life! Every pickup truck that a Hornet destroys is a win for our enemies around the world as it shortens the life span of our front line aircraft. We continue to operate Hornets as tankers with no plans to procure a low end, dedicated tanker. Instead of buying that next LCS for half a billion dollars, why not invest in a tanker? As a reminder, S-3 Vikings are sitting idle and would be perfectly suitable as restored tankers.
The Navy will jump through any number of hoops to continue LCS production but won’t make any effort to intelligently manage its fighter shortfall, improve depot maintenance, or procure tankers. That’s just incompetent management.
Welcome the chickens home!
As an aside, there are shortfalls in carriers, submarines, and surface combatants coming and the Navy is doing nothing about them, either. Way to learn a lesson, Navy!
(1) Defense News, "US Navy Details New Strike Fighter Need", Christopher P. Cavas,
(2) USNI News, "CNO Greenert Warns Congress of Fighter Shortfall, Boeing Super Hornet Line to Close in 2017 Absent New Orders", Megan Eckstein,
March 12, 2015,