For lack of F/A-18 Hornets to fly, the Marine Corps is barely training its pilots sufficiently for deployment and is providing too few flight hours for its “bench” units who are next in line to go overseas, Deputy Commandant for Aviation Lt. Gen. Jon Davis told lawmakers on Wednesday.

The Marine Corps fleet of strike aircraft has been ridden hard over the past 15 years of war in which many of the airframes met the prescribed end of their service lives, were given life-extending upgrades and flown back into combat without ever returning stateside, Davis said during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services subcommittee on seapower.

Fifteen years of non-stop wartime service including heavy fighting have taken their toll on Marine Corps aircraft. Fewer aircraft are being forced to deploy for longer times with less time off the front lines in maintenance. While deployed, aircraft have been “overutilized,” Davis said.

Orbital ATK AARGM (AGM-88E)lLaunched from U.S. Navy F/A-18D Hornet. Photo: Orbital ATK.
Orbital ATK AARGM (AGM-88E)lLaunched from U.S. Navy F/A-18D Hornet. Photo: Orbital ATK.

What is needed is continued investment in upgrading legacy aircraft like the F/A-18 Hornet, which has not been built since 2001, and in future technologies like the F-35B, he said.

The Marine Corps maintains 12 active squadrons of Boeing [BA] Hornets and a training squadron. With 12 aircraft in each squadron and 30 in the training unit, that comes to 174 F/A-18s. From 2011 to 2013, the number of aircraft on the bench, readying to deploy reduced by 35 airframes, he said. Another 76 airframes were taken offline from 2013 to 2015.

“We have flown them a lot – a lot longer than they were originally designed to fly – and we’ve kept some airplanes overseas maybe longer than we should have,” he said. “We reset them in theater. We rolled new units in on top of those airplanes vice bringing them home because we needed those airplanes over there.”

In early 2015, the Marine Corps had to strip aircraft from its deployable squadrons to make up for a lack of training aircraft, bleeding two F/A-18 jets from each to help train deploying pilots and their replacements on the “bench.”

“Eighteen months ago, because we didn’t have the inventory, we were worried the bench wasn’t going to be able to train,” Davis said. “It’s the bench – the next-to-deploy guys – that don’t have the airplanes they need.”

The service’s readiness status as of Tuesday was 87 mission-capable F/A-18s.

“There’s not a lot left to train with during the day,” Davis said. “That leads to low flight time and slow training progression and, more importantly, that bench that is scheduled to deploy is not as ready as it should be. We get them airplanes at the very last bit, right before they deploy and they work up their readiness but the bench is not ready to go.”

To better understand and combat the aircraft readiness problem, the service has launched readiness reviews of its fleets beginning with the AV-8B Harrier jump jet. The CH-53E heavy lift helicopter was found to have the “worst readiness” in the Marine Corps aircraft portfolio. At least 140 of the aircraft are scheduled to undergo a full reset, one of which has been complete. Each takes about 100 days and the Marine Corps is aiming to complete about 40 per year, Davis said.

Two of four prototype CH-53K King Stallion replacements for the CH-53E are flying. The second pair of test aircraft should join the flight development program in the summer. 

“These are old airplanes. We’ve got an F/A-18 on the line that flew in the Libya strikes, our oldest F-18, was purchased March 1985,” he said. “It’s 31 years old. If we ran that airplane all the way it would be 45 years old by the time we retired it. There’s a recapitalization effort out there that’s imperative and the F-35 is the key for us in the tac-air side. F/A-18s and Harriers and EA6-B Prowlers will go to the F-35 and we’re very excited about that.”

While the Marine Corps fleet of legacy strike aircraft continues to dwindle, their replacement, the F-35B, is operational but has not yet deployed to the corners of the globe where Marines often operate. 

The Marine Corps is the only service of three that will fly the F-35 to declare initial operational capability, which it did with one squadron of the short-takeoff, vertical landing variant in August 2015. The squadron plans to deploy aboard ship by 2017 and overseas by 2018. Software issues that have plagued the entire F-35 program have not hampered the Marine Corps’ adoption and integration of the jet and the service considers its program to be largely on track, Davis said. 

The Marine Corps also will operate four squadrons of the F-35C, designed specifically to fly from Navy carriers. Both the Navy and Marine Corps fly the legacy F/A-18 Hornet and the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, a larger, more capable version. The Marine Corps, however, is more heavily saddled with the legacy Hornet and thus facing obsolescence more directly than the Navy. 

The Navy will be the last service to declare the F-35 operational in 2017. The Air Force is expected to declare IOC by its target date this summer.