Top Marine: Budget Uncertainty Creates Conditions That Costs Lives

Without the budget to maintain legacy aircraft, Marine Corps pilots are not flying the hours they need to remain proficient, which causes crashes and further reduces the number of aircraft available, according to Marine Commandant Gen. Robert Neller.

The cycle is costing Marine lives in high-profile crashes and causing some pilots to exit the service because they have a guarantee of flying and a better paycheck in the commercial airline industry, Neller said at the Reagan National Defense Forum in Simi Valley, Calif., last weekend.

Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Robert B. Neller attends a baseball game at Nationals Park, Washington, D.C., July 25, 2017. Neller threw the first pitch during the annual Marine Night at the ballpark. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Samantha K. Braun)

Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Robert B. Neller attends a baseball game at Nationals Park, Washington, D.C., July 25, 2017. Neller threw the first pitch during the annual Marine Night at the ballpark. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Samantha K. Braun)

“Last year in aviation we had a horrible safety year in aviation, probably the worst year in 10 years,” Neller said. “Most of the accidents had nothing to do with the material condition of the airplane, it had to do, in my view, with the fact that we were not getting enough hours.”

Marine Corps pilots should be flying about 16 hours per month to remain proficient. The exact number of hours depends on the model of aircraft, Neller said. Most pilots do not reach that monthly threshold, regardless of the aircraft they fly, he said.

“We’re just underneath that now and it has taken us a couple years to get there,” Neller said. “If you don’t have enough airplanes...you’re flying a smaller number of airplanes, those airplanes break more frequently and then if you can’t get the parts support and don’t pay for the readiness then you have a smaller number of airplanes. So you’re not getting the hours. So the maintainers are required to work harder and longer.”

“You get into this cycle,” Neller said. “I think we’re coming out of that. It’s not going to happen overnight.”

The largest contributor to unavailable aircraft is a lack of spare parts, which requires a steady supply from second- and their tier manufacturers. That logistical throughput is difficult to maintain if those suppliers cannot depend on being paid, Neller said.

“Our biggest readiness degrader is parts,” he said. “You’ve got to have a source of supply. You’ve got to have a network and our vendors are not going to have that network if the money’s on, the money’s off, the money’s on, the money’s off. People are going to go do something else because they have to pay their bills and raise their families.”

Fewer planes also means fewer flight hours for Marines who joined the military to fly. When they are not given the chance to fly military aircraft, it is a disincentive for them to remain in uniform, Neller said. To make matters worse, commercial airlines are entering a hiring period because they hire in groups and one is approaching mandatory retirement age, he said.

Neller did not specify how much funding the Marine Corps or the Defense Department needs to maintain optimal readiness. The number of dollars matters less than that number being predictable and stable, he said.

“You’re never as ready as you want to be,” Neller said. “At the end of the day, the United States is going to get the military that they want to pay for and we’ll go fight...What I really want is a budget. I’d like a budget. I’d like a two-year budget. I’d really like a four-year budget. I just want to know what the number is so we can figure out what we’re going to do and how we’re going to move.”

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