Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Chickens Have Come Home To Roost

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, 13-Mar-2015,

(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,


  1. Yea, we've known about this problem for a few years now. It all started when deliveries of F-35C slipped by years - F-35C is supposed to replace the legacy Hornet, but not one-for-one (260 vs. 600.) CNO Mullen developed the program to SLEP our way out of the situation - in other words, the cheap route. Then sequestration hit and hours were cut at the depots, resulting in the inevitable shortfall. Anyway, it is interesting that the Navy is looking for more Super Hornets / Growlers to recapitalize the fleet, rather than buying more F-35Cs. In fact, at the same time the Navy is considering a possible SH/G buy, it has cut back on the number of F-35s it will buy between now and 2020. This is signaling once again that Navy leadership isn't sold on the stealth platform - could it be that the F-35C is basically double the cost of a Super Hornet? Or is it that the F-35C will not be a fully developed/capable weapons system until well into the 2020s?

    As far as using up the Super Hornets as recovery tankers, it is a waste of flight hours of a limited tactical jet resource. Part of the reasoning behind replacing the C-2 with HV-22s was that they could be used in a tanker mode. How well the $80M+ HV-22 (more than a Super Hornet) will work in practice, we will find out.

    The continuation of the SH/G line beyond is a strategic necessity. We need to start a serious design effort on the F/A-XX. If we allow Boeing (and its skilled employees) to exit the fighter business in 2017, that leaves exactly one manufacturer of tactical aircraft in the marketplace - one with a terrible record of producing working jets on time and on budget. If I were king, I would truncate the F-35 buy to fill out one squadron of F-35C per air wing (vs. the planned two) - or possible only enough for a det. I would reallocate resources from the F-35 (and penetrating UCAS if it is ever approved) to the F/A-XX to acquire a suitable naval aircraft with the un-refueled range needed for the WestPac.

    1. Charley, many people have theorized the possibility of using the V-22 as a tanker but I have never seen any official indication that the Navy intends or is even considering that path. Have you seen anything definitive?

      While truncating a badly flawed F-35 program and moving the money and resources on to the next gen aircraft is appealing to reasonable people like us, the sad reality is that we're talking about the Navy. If they were to end the F-35 and move on, they'd simply move on to a bigger and even more wasteful next gen aircraft which they would attempt to provide with optional manning, lasers, railguns, invisibility, and warp drive. I'm only being a little bit over the top with that. The Navy has a systemic problem with acquisition.

      I agree with terminating the F-35 but I also recognize that will only transfer the problem onto the next project. Very, very sad.

  2. The problem seems pretty basic—At something in the neighborhood of $180 million each, the F35 JSF is too expensive and its costs are crowding everything else out.

    There is an interesting comparison of airplane to airplane at (scroll down the left hand column to find the menu buttons). Taking a look, some interesting alternatives pop up:

    F/A-18EF Super Hornet -- $60 million (CATOBAR)
    Dassault Rafale -- $90 million (CATOBAR)
    SAAB JAS 39 Gripen -- $60 million (CTOL)
    Eurofighter Typhoon -- $125 million (CTOL)

    I am including the Gripen and Typhoon although they are conventional aircraft because navalized versions of each have been proposed and considerable development work done. Both have thrust to weight ratios greater than 1 and other characteristics suggesting that their designs could adapt better to a naval environment than most land-based aircraft. The navalized versions could peoVLY operate in either CATOBAR or STOBAR modes. They have been proposed to several navies including Brazil and India.

    Even the F22, which was shut down because it was too expensive, is cheaper than the F35 ($150 million versus $180 million).

    Anyway, we could get three Super Hornets for one F35, or two Rafales, or three Gripens or one and a half Typhoons. The ratios on Gripens and Typhoons probably go down slightly because the navalized versions would probably run 10-15% more than the CTOL versions. But even so, there is still a considerable cost savings.

    Are the F35 and Fords and LCSs going to price the Navy out of existence? It’s starting to look like it.

  3. No budget is sacrosanct and maintenace is actually a very good target to cut.
    To a point.

    If you had a fleet of 400 tanks, but now only plan to operate 250, you have a huge amount of flex in your service schedules.

    The problem is its only flex, not free money, and its been flexed much too far.

  4. I see a multi pronged issue here:

    A) Lack of a 'mission statement' for the Navy
    B) Politics wrecking acquisition, and, tied to B)
    C) Lack of leadership in the Navy.

    A) From the Mission statement part, why do we have a Navy? The SH may not be an X-wing for alot of reasons. I did a (paper) comparison between it and a Rafale awhile back. The Rafale came out better. But not by as much as I would have thought (though I drooled over the Rafale's combat radius). The point is that with its avionics and reliability, the SH is a good plane that we can buy in bulk. Its like a Sherman tank of the air, except with technology that gives it a chance in fights against better aircraft. Regardless, its our main aircraft for the Navy to combat a peer/near peer. Its wasted on bombing toyota's with machine guns mounted in the bed. The op tempo we've had for it for the past decade is crazy.

    Using it that way is fine... if we're willing to pay for it so we keep up the peer/near peer capability. We aren't.
    So we've ended up with this fallacy whereby we say we are prepared to face a near peer in our pacific pivot, but are grinding our mainline fighters down to a nub.

    B) The F-35 is a documented nightmare. Its already old, its expensive to buy, expensive to maintain, and with the cancellation of the F-22 is going to get forced into roles for which it was never intended. However, LockMart has turned it into a jobs program in 48 of the 50 States, and the Military for whatever reason seems to be wearing it like the Emperor's new clothes. Or, at best saying 'Its got its issues, but its all we have'.

    C) Is something CNO has documented again and again. We're going to end up with an over 200 ship fleet with capabilities that have huge, yawning gaps, and aren't worth the money we are paying. Would the Navy have been better off buying into the F-35C or trying to develop something along the Rafale's capabilities? LCS - replacing ASW Frigates with ??? Corvettes. But remember. It and its 57mm cannon are going to 'dominate the littoral battlespace'. The Ford...

    At this point, its almost like the Navy is just bumping along hoping to continue to exist fulfilling the role it did when we were the only superpower right after the fall of the Soviet Union.

  5. CNO,

    Pretty chilling stuff.


  6. COMNAVOPS, have you seen this latest exercise in blatant dishonesty by SECNAV Mabus? Seems par for the course these days.

    With people like Mabus, Admiral Greenert, Samantha Power and Susan Rice running our nation's national security team, you just know there is a big train wreck coming down the pike. The level of incompetence, dereliction of duty and outright lying is absolutely stunning. Mabus is without a doubt the worst SECNAV in the history of the fleet, while Admiral Greenert has got to be the most incompetent CNO ever, a classic political hack with no real ability except kissing up to the right people and a complete willingness to lie to protect those higher up on the food chain. Sadly, that seems to be a job requirement if you want to make admiral these days or be successful in politics...

  7. If shooting ISIS trucks is an appropriate mission for naval aircraft at all, then using T-45s to do the job seems a lot more sensible than F/A18s, let alone F-35s.

    However, that doesn't fit the structure and culture of the USN, which seems to an outsider to be a bunch of separate organisations - the various ship, submarine and aircraft type communities - fighting over budget. Officers seem to build their careers by creating organisations to do the same things, only bigger and more expensive.

    The CNO and his office seem to spend much of their time managing that rivalry, and it's terrible for cost-effectiveness, since everyone wants the expensive platforms to justify a bigger share of the budget. The things that get cut, like depot maintenance, seem to be ones that the officers leading a community don't care so much about, probably because they didn't do them as junior officers.

    The system doesn't create lateral thinkers who can find easy ways to solve military problems. Instead, it creates people who want to promote the interests of their community, and see those interests as synonymous with US national strength.


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