Readiness Of Navy And Marine Aircraft And Crews Is Improving, But It’s Still Pretty Dismal

Vice Admiral DeWolf Miller, head of Naval Air Forces, spoke at a forum put on by Center for Strategic and International Studies this week and the readiness—or lack thereof—of the aircraft under his purview came up. Among a string of interesting details he disclosed during the talk was the fact that aircraft availability has improved from a horrific one-third of the fleet being mission capable at any given time to “about 50 percent on average.” He went on to add that “we’re still not where we want to be… We found the hole is a little bit deeper than we thought.”

You can compare this general number to those of various USAF aircraft here

The Navy, and especially the Marine Corps, let their readiness atrophy on an alarming scale during sequester, prioritizing modernization over the health of the total force and its ability to fight on short notice. Since Mattis stepped into the position as Defense Secretary under President Trump, a high priority has been placed on reversing this alarming trend. Of course, actually doing so was largely helped by Congress passing the fattest defense budgets the services had seen in years. 

As the admiral alludes to, the good news is that things are improving, but spinning up depot capacity, filling out the spare parts bin, and filling empty maintenance billets isn’t something that just happens overnight. The Navy’s greater plan to give many of its Legacy Hornets to the USMC and take the remainder out of front-line service—which is made possible by the service’s move to purchase additional Super Hornets, among a series of other measures—will continue to help with the cause. 

Seapower, which originally posted the Admiral’s remarks, as well as those made by Marine Lieutenant General Steven Rudder, the Deputy Commandant for Aviation, included some interesting metrics in their piece. Here are the highlights:

  • 260 airplanes are ready on average, 341 are needed.
  • USMC pilots averaged 13.5 hours per month in fiscal year 2016. 15.4 hours in fiscal year 2017 and 17.9 hours in fiscal year 2018.
  • The USMC has 33 operational F-35Bs. 22 are forward deployed in Asia and in the Central Command area of operations.

Also mentioned in the piece were a few important takeaways from both flag officers:

  • USMC is still unhappy with the quality of some F-35Bs it is receiving from Lockheed Maritn, but Rudder states “if the taxpayers give the Marine Corps new airplanes, we’re going to use them.”
  • Different readiness metrics, such as fully mission capable and flyable, are going to condescend into one key metric, with Miller stating that “it’s going to be very simple. We’re going to have an airplane that’s ready to fight, or it’s not.”
  • The Navy is looking at a new program that will let midgrade naval aviators forego the normal track for command positions and remain permanent pilots in training units in an attempt to keep pilots in the force. 

During the latter part of the Obama years, the ballet of cannibalizing and swapping around aircraft and their components to prop-up deploying squadrons was totally gutting the rest of the force. As were reductions in manpower. As a result, it was very questionable as to how capable the Navy or the USMC would be of surging significant combat power for any sustained period of time during a crisis.

You can read all about the realities of life as a maintainer in a USMC Hornet squadron during the height of sequester in this first-person expose we published last Spring. The video below also gives a surprisingly candid look at the issue:

While the trend is heading in the right direction, the big challenge will be maintaining this initiative even if defense spending caps return in the budget for fiscal year 2020. Depending on how the midterm elections go, that could very well be the case. As I have noted repeatedly in the past, the current defense spending trend is not sustainable. So regardless, the Navy and USMC will have to come to terms with better balancing their readiness and modernization goals in the years to come. 

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Tyler Rogoway


Tyler’s passion is the study of military technology, strategy, and foreign policy and he has fostered a dominant voice on those topics in the defense media space. He was the creator of the hugely popular defense site Foxtrot Alpha before developing The War Zone.