A Navy captain from Virginia Beach was testifying before Congress Thursday about the shortage of flyable fighter jets at Oceana Naval Air Station. As he spoke, word came to military officials seated behind him:
A pair of F/A-18F Super Hornets from Oceana had “a mid-air mishap” off the coast of North Carolina, forcing four aviators to eject, and sending their $57 million aircraft hurtling into the Atlantic Ocean.
Capt. Randy Stearns, commodore of Strike Fighter Wing Atlantic, was briefed on the training accident involving two of his fleet's jets during a short recess from the hearing, then returned to the U.S. House committee room to answer additional questions about the difficulty of keeping aging aircraft flying – and pilots ready – after 15 years of relentless combat deployments.
Although the cause of Thursday’s accident is still being investigated, its timing put an exclamation point on recent warnings from naval officers and defense analysts that demands for Navy aircraft have outpaced the service’s resources, threatening its ability to respond to future conflicts – and making training riskier.
“I cannot connect today’s incident with that,” Rep. Randy Forbes said of Thursday's crash, hours after leading the House Armed Service subcommittee hearing on Navy readiness struggles. “We do have huge concerns … Our pilots are not getting all the training that they are supposed to get.”
The problems facing naval aviation have been building for years, according to data obtained this week by The Virginian-Pilot and the Investigative Reporting Program. The stats reveal a downward trend in the number of mission-ready naval aircraft over the past decade.
On an average day last year, according to the data, fewer than half of the Navy’s fighter jets were listed as “mission capable,” a status that indicates an aircraft is available to fly for training. That's down almost 30 percentage points from 2006 and far below the Navy’s goal of keeping about three out of every four aircraft mission capable at all times.
There are many reasons for the aircraft shortage, according to Stearns and other Navy officials. Among them: years of heavy use in Iraq and Afghanistan, cuts in funding for military operations beginning five years ago, a growing backlog of aircraft maintenance, and massive delays and cost overruns for replacement weapons systems, like the embattled F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. In addition, some defense analysts say the Navy can better manage the resources it already has.
All of that means the Navy has aging aircraft flying years longer than planned – with fewer available parts and skilled workers to keep them going – at a time when the fleet is dropping a record number of bombs on the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
While Navy officials stress that squadrons deployed in conflict zones overseas are getting the resources needed to complete their missions, the steady decline in flyable naval aircraft is putting a strain on sailors back home. That means crews readying for deployment are left with scarce resources to prepare for the war ahead – forcing maintenance workers to cannibalize parts from downed aircraft and leaving pilots short on flight hours.
“We are in the middle of resetting the naval aviation force in stride as we continue flying combat missions,” said Cmdr. Jeannie Groeneveld, a spokeswoman for Naval Air Forces, after providing the readiness data in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. “In short, reduced funding is forcing us to take greater risk.”
Retired Navy Cmdr. Chris Harmer, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank, had a tougher assessment.
“Bottom line,” Harmer said after reviewing the data. “We're screwed on maintenance. We're screwed on readiness. We need more aircraft. We need more parts. We need more people. ... And if something doesn't give, at some point we're approaching a complete free fall in readiness.”
The aircraft readiness gap “absolutely has an impact on safety,” Harmer said. Fewer mission-ready planes means pilots are flying fewer training hours between deployments than they were 10 years ago.
“If you have fewer aircraft to fly over an extended period, you're going to have more mishaps, because pilots aren't getting enough consistent flight time to stay sharp,” he said. “Any aviation safety analyst would tell you that. There's a direct correlation between flight hours and safety, and I think you're seeing that play out.”
Numbers provided Friday by the Naval Safety Center seem to support the claim. So far in the fiscal year that began in October, Navy fighter jets have been involved in 29 accidents that have resulted in at least $50,000 worth of damage, a rate of 25 mishaps per 1,000 flight hours. That’s 66 percent higher than in 2006, when there were 15 mishaps per 1,000 flight hours, though it’s not clear from the data how much of the uptick is the result of pilot error or mechanical failures.
What is clear is that pilots are flying less when they’re not deployed. Navy fighter pilots have been getting only 18 flight hours a month in the ramped-up training period immediately before deployment, more than six hours short of what the Navy estimates they need, according to information provided to members of Congress.
“The irrefutable truth is, the more flight time you get, the less likely you are to have a mishap induced by pilot error,” Harmer said. “If you go six or seven days without flying and try to do a close-formation flight, that's a very hard thing to do.”
To address the problem of inconsistent flight hours, Stearns told lawmakers Thursday that the Navy is considering shutting down an entire carrier air wing for four months to help ensure squadrons that are deploying sooner get the training time they need.
The shortage of mission-ready aircraft isn't limited to fighter jets.
Between 50 and 60 percent of the Navy’s MH-60 Seahawk helicopters were mission capable on most days last year, down more than 20 percentage points from a decade earlier, even as the newer MH-60R remains in production.
The MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopter had a mission capable rate of 18 percent last year, by far the lowest of any aircraft. The minesweeping heavy-lift chopper was slated for retirement a decade ago, but problems with development of the littoral combat ship’s suite of mine-clearing systems is forcing the Navy to keep the Cold War-era helicopters flying through at least 2025.
“I can tell you that after corrective actions were taken and focus and priority given to recovery of our MH-53E fleet, we have seen consistent mission capable rates of 44 to 55 percent for the past several months,” Groeneveld said, acknowledging that’s still well short of the Navy’s target.
Forbes and other congressional Republicans have sought to highlight military readiness shortfalls in recent months. During the hearing Thursday, a Navy official said the service has an estimated $848 million shortfall in its operations and maintenance accounts, leading to all sorts of challenges preparing surface ships, submarine forces and aviation assets for deployment.
Adm. Phil Davidson, head of U.S. Fleet Forces command in Norfolk, told lawmakers the operational funding gap “means accepting less readiness across the whole of the Navy, less capacity to surge in crisis and in wartime, or perhaps living with reduced readiness in our ships and submarines that would keep them from reaching the end of their service lives. In any case, recovering from these situations will cost us more in time and money in the future.”
Forbes, who’s running for election in the 2nd Congressional District, had scheduled a subcommittee hearing earlier this week aboard an aircraft carrier in Norfolk, but instead took a private tour on base after the Pentagon raised concerns about a public display weeks before his contested June 14 GOP primary with state Del. Scott Taylor and attorney Pat Cardwell.
Forbes argues the problems facing every branch of the military are the fault of the Obama administration.
“We are now getting the data that we need to say we need to turn this ship around,” Forbes said.
Mandy Smithberger, a defense budget analyst with the Project on Government Oversight, said Congress shares the blame for underfunding military operations and maintenance. And she challenged the notion that the U.S. isn’t spending enough on defense on the whole. She noted that the House voted recently to shift money from an operational war account to buy additional F-35s and other new weapons systems that the Pentagon hadn't even requested.
“It’s like when we used to have school levies and officials would always threaten to cut middle school sports, because they knew people would be upset and vote to pass the levy,” Smithberger said. “So the people who are arguing for defense spending point to readiness and say, ‘We need to spend more.’ But then when they're actually making budget decisions, they take money from readiness and spend it on weapons systems.”
Not all of the readiness problems can be blamed on funding, said Todd Harrison, director of budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. After reviewing the mission capable data obtained by The Pilot, Harrison pointed out that readiness began declining years before budget cuts started in 2011. And for some Navy airframes, like the MH-60S Seahawk, mission capable rates bottomed out in 2008, when the budget was stable.
“It looks like they had major management issues in the maintenance of their aircraft before (the budget cuts), and that's just exacerbated the problem,” Harrison said. “If they try to view this as only an issue of sequestration, they are missing a bigger systemic issue with how they manage their aircraft.”
Groeneveld, the Navy spokeswoman, said the service has taken steps over the past few years to improve maintenance efficiency and planning to ensure replacement parts are available when they’re needed.
On Thursday, Stearns told lawmakers that the shortage of mission-ready fighter jets will make it difficult to respond if a new conflict emerges. A few years ago, he said, it would have taken the Navy about 90 days to get another air wing ready for deployment. Now, it would take up to a year, he said.
“There is no chance of getting those ready,” Stearns said. “There is nothing to pull from in the back, we’ve already put everything forward. There’s nothing left.”
The problems aren’t only with equipment, Stearns added.
Because of the shortage in training hours – and because some experienced sailors are getting burned out and leaving the Navy – Stearns said if he loses “one experienced maintenance chief” before a deployment, he has no one to replace him.
That’s playing out right now as the aircraft carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower prepares to deploy next week, he said:
“So I have to reach back on not only parts and planes, I reach back into people. I mean, there’s last-minute saves just to get the Ike out the door.”
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