The U.S. Navy’s elite cadre of fighter pilots—made famous by Top Gun—are not flying nearly often as they would like. Instead, many of the Navy’s elite Boeing F/A-18 Hornet strike fighter squadrons are sitting on the ground with only two or three flyable jets available. The rest of the jets are awaiting maintenance for want of critical spare parts—and some of those parts are being cannibalized from brand new jets in an increasingly vain attempt to keep squadrons flying.
“It’s pretty bad, ” said one veteran F/A-18 fighter pilot. “Some squadrons have found it difficult to keep more than a few jets up, while other squadrons are spending a tremendous amount of operational time away from home base, creating what Air Boss has called ‘the haves and the have nots.’”
The ‘have not’ units are those squadrons based at home in the United States that are not immediately preparing to deploy. The ‘haves’ are those either flying combat missions over Iraq and Syria or those from high-priority areas like the elite Japan-based units that are always kept at a very high level of readiness thanks to China and North Korea.
While that’s great for the units that get to fly on a regular basis, it is very bad for those squadrons that are not able to take to the skies. Pilots need to fly a certain number of hours per month in order to keep their skills sharp—that is the advantage of American aviators over foreign countries. Often, it’s less about the technological advantages of American aircraft and more the skills of that man or woman flying that jet that makes the real difference in combat.
If pilots are not flying, their skills atrophy and that could put their lives in danger. That’s especially true when Navy pilots are flying over Syria and Iraq.
Sources tell The Daily Beast that there are dozens of jets awaiting maintenance—and most of the planes are less than 10 years old, which by aircraft standards is practically brand new. Effectively, dozens of brand new jets worth billions of dollars are sitting on the ground useless.
Some drop in readiness is normal. Whenever a Navy squadron comes back from a deployment onboard a carrier, it loses some of its roughly 12 jets and readiness plummets before building back up. There is a rough floor of about six aircraft that a unit is supposed to have even at low readiness levels. “They have gone below that minimum,” one source said.
The result is that the Navy’s fighter pilots are not getting necessary training to operate their pricey machines in combat should the need arise. Given that the nation is once again at war, that need could arise again sooner than anyone expects.
The problem is neither the Navy nor Boeing has enough trained engineers to inspect and perform needed repairs on the various versions of the F/A-18.
One of the main causes of the problem, according to multiple sources, was the congressionally mandated sequester that automatically cut the Pentagon budget.
Money that was cut during 2012 budget year is only now having a real impact because the skilled engineering force of engineers and technicians at various government contractors were laid off and found other jobs since then. The result is a massive backlog of aircraft that must be repaired.
“There are only so many people who have that expertise,” one source said.
Originally, the problem was limited to the Navy’s original model Hornet fighter, which dates back to the 1980s and 1990s. Instead of buying more jets, the Navy and the U.S. Marines pressed those early model F/A-18 fighters into flying well past their 6,000-hour lifespans to more than 9,000 hours. Furthermore, for a certain number of aircraft, the Navy is doing some structural work to keep those jets flying past 10,000 hours or more—ancient for a fighter aircraft.
Extending the life of a fighter jet past its expected lifespan comes at a steep price. The Navy has had to extensively inspect and modify those planes—and it has been a lot more difficult than the service or Boeing ever imagined. The Navy, according to sources, made “optimistic” assumptions as to how long it would take to inspect and repair each of those elderly jets. There were unexpected problems that were cropping up where no one had ever expected problems—a result of punishing carrier landings at sea. Moreover, “each airplane is a little different,” one source said, which makes life even more difficult.
In an attempt to speed up the process and get those early model F/A-18s flying again, the Navy pulled engineers from the current day Super Hornet program—which is a newer, larger, and more powerful version of the original jet. Pulling engineers from the Super Hornet program then led to a maintenance backlog on that program too, sources said. That has resulted in dozens of brand new F/A-18E and F model jets sitting idle after being stripped of parts or sitting on the flight line awaiting maintenance.
The Navy and Boeing are trying to train more engineers, but talented people can’t be replaced overnight. Engineers not only have to go to school, but they have to be trained and gain experience. All that takes a long time.
The only real long-term solution, sources say, is to buy more airplanes more quickly to replace old worn-out jets so they don’t need this kind of extended and expensive overhauls. Sources said that aircraft need to be thought of as consumables that run out after a certain number of hours—typically 6,000 hours for Navy jets and 8,000 hours for Air Force planes.
If the Pentagon does nothing, the Navy’s pilots will spend a lot more time on the ground than flying.