The U.S. Marine Corps has got an air force problem. Its current fleet of fighter jets, purchased from the 1980s to the mid-1990s, is in poor repair. And a new fleet of of vertical-launching F-35 stealth fighters that the Marines have been waiting years to put into action is coming on-line too slowly to keep up flying units’ strength.
The slow-motion collapse of the combat squadrons could, in some future conflict, expose Marine infantry on the ground to enemy air attack—something that hasn’t happened in generations.
The Marines’ air fleet isn’t small, at least on paper. It consists of 276 F/A-18 Hornet fighters, more than two-thirds of the Marines’ combat-capable jets. But on April 20, Lt. Gen. Jon Davis, the Marines’ deputy commandant for aviation, told the Senate that just 87 of those Hornets were flightworthy—a mere 32 percent.
Yet the Marines say they need 58 percent of their F/A-18s to be ready for flight in order to have enough planes to fight America’s wars while also training new pilots and giving trained pilots enough flight hours to maintain their combat prowess.
The statistics, as bleak as they are, mask the true extent of the crisis. The Marines keep around 40 Hornets deployed to the Middle East and the Western Pacific for airstrikes on ISIS and for patrols near China and North Korea. Another 30 F/A-18s belong to basic-training squadrons.
That leaves just 17 Hornets for the potentially hundreds of pilots who aren’t currently bombing ISIS or keeping an eye on the Pacific, but who still need to fly a couple times a week just to keep up their skills. There simply aren’t enough flyable jets to go around.
“I am concerned with our current readiness rates, both in equipment and personnel,” Davis wrote in his most recent annual report on Marine aviation.
Davis and other Marine leaders know have practically pleaded with Congress for financial help to solve the problem. In March, the service sent legislators a so-called “unfunded priorities” request—basically, a wish list of things it would like to buy in the next year’s budget that it didn’t actually include in its formal spending proposal. The military circulates these unfunded-priorities lists every year in the hope of convincing lawmakers to add money to the president’s budget.
The Marines’ wish list for 2017 includes a staggering $800 million for warplane spare parts plus four F-35 stealth fighters. “Our measure[s] of mission readiness are not where they need to be… and I will find the resources to turn that around,” Davis wrote optimistically in his annual report.
But in begging for a cash infusion, the Marine brass have cast blame for the airplane shortfall in all the wrong places.
They’ve blamed the U.S. aerospace industry for not producing spare parts fast enough. They’ve indirectly blamed American policymakers for getting involved in long conflicts that increase the wear and tear on aircraft. In griping about the automatic “sequestration” budget cuts that Congress wrote into law in 2011, Marine leaders have even blamed their aviation woes on the same lawmakers they’re now asking to bail out the Marines’ cash-strapped squadrons.
“We’ve been operating at a high rate,” Marine Corps commandant Gen. Robert Neller told a House of Representatives subcommittee in March. “Sequestration affected the work force at some of the fleet readiness centers [that maintain planes]. There are some parts issues with new airplanes.… We left our airplanes overseas—particularly our rotary-wing [helicopters]—probably longer than we should have, looking back it.”
But top Marine officers haven’t copped to the service’s own culpability. More than any other factor, it’s the Marine Corps’ insistence on—some might even say obsession with—buying pricey, complex F-35s that has starved the fighter squadrons of money, parts, and ready airplanes.
“The American military’s shrinking capabilities have very little to do with money,” Daniel Davis, a retired U.S. Army colonel, wrote in The National Interest. “Rather, they are the result of internal mismanagement.”
The Marines want to buy more than 400 F-35s to replace all of its old F/A-18s and other current fighters. The services is particularly enamored of two attributes of the new stealth fighter—its vertical-launch option and its purported ability to avoid detection, both of which, in concept, allow it to fly in more places amid even the heaviest opposition.
“We’re on a 40-year path to get an airplane that’s more responsive,” Harold Blot, then a lieutenant general and the head of Marine Corps aviation, told Congress in the mid-1990s.
The Marine Corps coveted the stealth fighters so badly that, in the ’90s, it stopped buying all other jet models and began, in essence, hoarding cash for the day the F-35 was finally available. After struggling with multiple design problems stemming, in part, from the Marines’ demand for vertical-takeoff capability, Lockheed Martin began production of F-35s in 2006—years later than the military initially had planned.
The Marine Corps finally declared its first 10 F-35s war-ready in the summer of 2015, but under current scheduling, it will take until the mid-2030s to buy enough F-35s to fully replace existing jets—by which time the old Hornets will be even older and, probably, even harder to maintain.
There’s a simple reason for the slow replacement rate: Cost. A single F-35B—that’s the Marines’ vertical-takeoff version of the radar-evading jet—costs a whopping $250 million. That’s more than three times as much as the Navy pays for a new F/A-18E/F, an un-upgraded version of the basic F/A-18 that the Marines had a chance to purchase back in the 1990s but passed over in favor of waiting for the F-35.
In short, the Marines budgeted themselves into a financial corner two decades ago by committing to a warplane they could not afford—and which, today, has effectively sucked all the cash out of the air wings.
“The cost of extending the lives of current fighter aircraft and acquiring other major weapon systems, while continuing to produce and field new F-35 aircraft, poses significant affordability risks in a period of austere defense budgets,” the Government Accountability Office warned in a March report. (PDF)
Today the Marine Corps is short on fighters not because America is at war or because Congress insisted on a little budgetary restraint, but because the service wants the latest high-tech jets, even if acquiring the jets comes at the cost of the Marines’ own war-readiness.