Pen­tagon faces tough bat­tle to main­tain U.S. air fleet for war

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY CARLO MUÑOZ

The De­fense De­part­ment is scram­bling for ways to en­sure the U.S. mil­i­tary’s fleet of war­planes is able to fly and fight when called upon, de­spite a string of ac­ci­dents over the past sev­eral months. De­fense Sec­re­tary James Mat­tis re­cently took the un­prece­dented step of de­mand­ing an 80 per­cent readi­ness rate for all mil­i­tary air­craft, just days be­fore the Pen­tagon or­dered a fleetwide ground­ing of the next-gen­er­a­tion F-35 Joint Strike Fighters.

Both de­vel­op­ments un­der­score the dif­fi­cul­ties Pen­tagon and ser­vice lead­ers face in guar­an­tee­ing Amer­i­can air power can con­tinue to ex­ert dom­i­nance in the skies above bat­tle­fields world­wide, while de­mands on the in­creas­ingly ag­ing fleet con­tin­ues to soar.

The num­ber of crashes in­volv­ing Amer­i­can mil­i­tary air­craft — in­clud­ing fixed­wing fighters, bombers, cargo haulers, and ro­tary-wing at­tack and sup­ply he­li­copters — is up 40 per­cent over a four-year pe­riod, ac­cord­ing to a Mil­i­tary Times anal­y­sis of such in­ci­dents from 2013 to 2017.

The Mil­i­tary Times also first re­ported de­tails of the fleetwide sus­pen­sion of F-35 op­er­a­tions. In the case of the Navy and Ma­rine Corps’ aerial fleets — specif­i­cally its rapidly ag­ing F/A-18 Hor­net and Su­per Hor­net fighter jets — cat­a­strophic in­ci­dents dou­bled dur­ing that same fouryear pe­riod.

“Avi­a­tion has been the most prob­lem­atic area” in terms of op­er­a­tions and readi­ness fac­ing the Ma­rine Corps, ser­vice Com­man­dant Gen. Robert Neller told re­porters. “In [fis­cal year] 2017, we had a hor­ri­ble year … [and] we lost a lot of Marines” be­cause of air­craft crashes ei­ther dur­ing train­ing or live op­er­a­tions, the four-star gen­eral said dur­ing a break­fast brief­ing in Wash­ing­ton.

Ma­rine Corps avi­a­tion units sus­tained two crashes in a sin­gle day in April.

A Ma­rine Corps AV-8B Har­rier at­tack air­craft crashed while on ap­proach for land­ing at the U.S. fa­cil­ity in Dji­bouti. Al­though the pilot of that air­craft sur­vived the in­ci­dent, four Ma­rine Corps crew mem­bers died when a CH-53E Su­per Stal­lion heavy-lift he­li­copter crash-landed in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia.

Capt. Sa­muel A. Schultz, 1st Lt. Sa­muel D. Phillips, Gun­nery Sgt. Derik Hol­ley and Lance Cpl. Tay­lor Con­rad were killed dur­ing rou­tine air train­ing op­er­a­tions based out of Twen­ty­nine Palms, Cal­i­for­nia.

The in­ci­dents, Gen. Neller said, were rooted in the in­creas­ing op­er­a­tional tempo fac­ing not just Ma­rine Corps, but all air com­bat units across the ser­vices. “We are fly­ing a lot more than we were” just three years ago, he said.

The Ma­rine Corps chief added that main­te­nance on the fleet has not kept pace with the com­bat tempo.

Fed­eral law­mak­ers in March pumped a to­tal of $130 mil­lion for the ser­vices’ op­er­a­tions, main­te­nance and train­ing ac­counts into the om­nibus spend­ing bill that Pres­i­dent Trump signed into law.

Con­gress made the in­vest­ment af­ter a slew of train­ing ac­ci­dents left num­bers of U.S. ser­vice mem­bers dead.

But the lack of fed­eral dol­lars over the past sev­eral years, as a re­sult of mas­sive, across-the-board mil­i­tary spend­ing cuts un­der the Obama-era Bud­get Con­trol Act, has con­trib­uted to a spate of deadly in­ci­dents, the Pen­tagon says. Mr. Mat­tis ac­knowl­edged the fis­cal chal­lenges fac­ing the ser­vices as they pur­sue the 80 per­cent readi­ness rate.

But the de­fense chief also noted the risk of fail­ing to ad­dress the crit­i­cal na­ture of the ag­ing air­craft fleet.

“For change to be ef­fec­tive and ef­fi­cient, we must fo­cus on meet­ing our most crit­i­cal pri­or­i­ties first,” Mr. Mat­tis wrote in a Sept. 17 me­moran­dum call­ing for the 80 per­cent readi­ness man­date.

In some cases, com­bat com­man­ders have al­ready been able to turn the corner on readi­ness chal­lenges.

Avi­a­tors and main­te­nance crews have worked over­time to get the Ma­rine Corps’ ver­sion of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter ready for its de­ploy­ment to the harsh op­er­a­tional en­vi­ron­ments of North Africa and the Mid­dle East, Gen. Neller said.

“The readi­ness has been re­ally good. Sur­pris­ingly good,” Gen. Neller said about the jet’s on­go­ing de­ploy­ment with U.S. Cen­tral Com­mand. “It didn’t just hap­pen.”

He noted the time and ef­fort Marines on the ground and in the air put in to keep the Corps’ F-35B vari­ant fly­ing and fight­ing.

But suc­cesses have been over­shad­owed by a num­ber of large-scale sus­pen­sions of U.S. air op­er­a­tions.

A day af­ter Gen. Neller praised the Marines’ work in Cen­tral Com­mand, Pen­tagon of­fi­cials or­dered the sus­pen­sion of F-35 air op­er­a­tions world­wide. The or­der was an­nounced af­ter an Au­gust ac­ci­dent in­volv­ing an F-35B fighter went down near Ma­rine Corps Air Sta­tion Beau­fort in South Carolina.

The Ma­rine Corps pilot sur­vived, but the in­ci­dent prompted an in­spec­tion of the fighter’s fuel tubes within the fifth­gen­er­a­tion fighter’s en­gine, of­fi­cials from jet maker Lock­heed Mar­tin said.

In June, Air Force com­man­ders at the 18th Air Wing based at Kadena Air Base in Ja­pan shut down its F-15 train­ing op­er­a­tions af­ter an F-15C Ea­gle fighter jet crashed off the south­ern coast of Ok­i­nawa dur­ing a rou­tine train­ing op­er­a­tion.

It was the 12th such in­ci­dent to in­volve Amer­i­can mil­i­tary air­craft this year.


De­fense Sec­re­tary James Mat­tis re­cently took the un­prece­dented step of de­mand­ing an 80 per­cent readi­ness rate for all mil­i­tary air­craft. Days later, the fleet of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters was grounded.

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