Sustaining Marine Corps Hornets

Lon Nordeen writes about the problems faced by US Marine Corps F/A-18 Hornet squadrons to maintain their allocated jets

US Marine Corps squadrons have been flying the F/A-18 Hornet strike fighter since 1982. First the Hornet replaced F-4 Phantoms in fighter, ground attack and reconnaissance roles. Later, twoseat F/A-18Ds replaced A-6E Intruders in reconnaissance, air control and all-weather strike missions.

The US Marine Corps has long been committed to operating a mix of conventional fixed-wing fighters, like the Hornet, and also the V/STOL AV-8B Harrier II, for close air support from forward sites and amphibious assault ships. Today, the US Marine Corps is committed to operating a mix of fifthgeneration F-35B STOVL and F-35C Carrier Variant Lightning IIs as replacements for fourth-generation F/A-18 Hornets and AV-8B Harrier IIs.

Because of the F-35’s long and protracted development programme, combined with funding issues, fourth and fifth-generation Marine fighters will have to operate together until 2030. The 2015 Marine Corps Aviation Plan called for accelerated retirement of the AV-8B fleet by 2025 and its replacement with F-35Bs. To fill the gap in the force, the Department of Defense, US Marine Corps and US Navy decided to extend the service life of F/A-18 Hornets until 2029 for activeduty units and 2030 for reserve units.

However, US Navy and US Marine Corps F/A-18 squadrons have been flying in combat for more than 25 years in Operation Desert Storm, Iraq No Fly Zone, Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, other military operations and training. Intensity and the term of combat operations have worn out most of the classic Hornet fleet. Sustained aircraft carrier operations of US Marine Corps single-seat Hornets have also had a major impact on aircraft fatigue life.

Marines refuel an F/A-18D Hornet assigned to Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (All Weather) 332 at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq in October 2005.
LCpl Sheila Brook/US Marine Corps

This year’s 2017 Marine Corps Aviation Plan has accelerated several F/A-18 Hornet squadrons’ transition to the F-35 and retains several AV-8B Harrier II units in operation for longer. Two F-35Bs squadrons, VMFA-121 and VMFA-211, are now operational and further F-35Bs will be delivered at a rate of about 20 per year. The 2017 plan lists a force comprising eight single-seat F/A-18 Hornet squadrons, four two-seat F/A-18D Hornet squadrons and a single training squadron falling to three single-seat F/A-18 and one two-seat F/A-18D squadron by FY2027. The Department of the Navy’s unit designation system uses VMFA to denote Marine Fighter Attack Squadron.

Marines move an engine to an F/A-18C Hornet assigned to Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 251 (VMFA-251) ‘Thunderbolts’ aboard USS Enterprise (CVN 65).
Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Gregory White/US Navy

Poor Shape

The high operational tempo has left the US Marine Corps Hornet fleet in poor shape and in need of deep maintenance. Funding issues and personnel shortages due to sequestration cutbacks and the condition of Hornet aircraft has slowed the production output from US Navy Fleet Readiness Centers, where deep maintenance is performed.

The US Navy’s strike fighter fleet comprises relatively new, though nonetheless highly-utilised F/A-18E and F/A-18F Super Hornets, but the US Marine Corps is way short of Hornets to meet its operational and training requirements.

During comments to the Seapower Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee on April 20, 2016, Lieutenant General Jon Davis, Deputy Commandant for Aviation, Headquarters, Marine Corps, said: “We have 87 aircraft that were mission capable. Out of those 87 airplanes, I put 30 airplanes in the training squadron and 40 airplanes deployed forward. There’s not a lot left for the [remaining] units to train with.

Priority goes to making sure every pilot is safe to fly.” Davis added: “But there’s very little time left for tactical proficiency.”

Problems have got worse since last year.

Five US Marine Corps Hornets crashed in 2016: on July 27 a VMFA-232 Hornet was lost at Twentynine Palms, California; on August 2 another VMFA-232 aircraft crashed; on October 25 a VMFA-251 Hornet was lost; on November 9, two Hornets had a mid-air collision resulting in one aircraft assigned to VMFA-314 crashing into the ocean; and on December 7, VMFA-115 lost a Hornet over the Pacific Ocean.

Lt Gen Davis told a defence writers group on February 8, 2017: “They’re flying safe planes; but their [pilot] proficiency and experience at dealing with things that go wrong is not where it needs to be”. Davis added: “We are not seeing a material failure component to those aviation mishaps. It’s mainly human error.”

In a 2017 report submitted to the US Congress, Lt Gen Davis reported: “The number one thing we can do to help improve readiness on the flight line for the Marine Corps is to fix our spare parts problem. Across the Department of the Navy, we do not have the spare parts we need — it’s not just the Marine Corps; it’s the Navy as well — to sustain our airplanes and maintain our readiness goals.”

The US military is operating on a continuing funding resolution, not a regular approved budget supported by the Congress. In his report, Lt Gen Davis commented that Marine Corps leadership hopes the US Congress will allocate more funds for operations and support before the end of the FY2017 budget year which ends in September 2017. Davis reported: “We are 8% shy of what we need to fly for our flight hours. We’re flying our plan right now. So, I would say we are running hot on our budget for our flight hour goals.” He added: “If we don’t get more money, I’ll stop flying in July or August.”

Causes of the Shortfall

What are the causes of the US Marine Corps Hornet shortfall? The US Navy has converted all but four of its classic Hornet strike ghter squadrons to the newer Super Hornet. By choice, the US Marine Corps elected to retain classic Hornets and AV-8B Harrier IIs, and manage the risks of retaining old aircraft until the service could buy 353 F-35Bs and 67 F-35Cs. The Marine Corps has caught a cold because the F-35 programme has taken longer and cost far more to develop, test and get into production than initially planned.

Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition, Vice Admiral Paul Grosklegs, commented in his 2015 Congressional report: “The F/A-18A-D was designed for, and has achieved, a service life of 6,000 flight hours. These aircraft have performed as expected through their design life and now service life management of this aircraft is intended to extend this platform well beyond its designed 6,000 flight hours. Through detailed analysis, inspections, and, as required, structural repairs, the Department of the Navy has been successful in achieving 8,000 flight hours per aircraft, and is pursuing a strategy to go as high as 10,000 flight hours on select aircraft. Continued investment in SLEP [Service Life Extension Program], the High Flight Hour Program, Program Related Engineering and Program Related Logistics is critical for our flight hour extension strategy and to sustain the combat relevancy of these aircraft. In order to maintain war ghting relevancy in a changing threat environment, we will continue to procure and install advanced systems [into US Navy and US Marine Corps Hornets]”.

1 Marine maintainers install a new motor on a F/A-18D Hornet.
SSgt Westin Warburton/US Air Force

Keeping the Hornet fleet going, and at the same time upgrading the same jets to remain tactically viable for more than a decade, will be a challenge. US Marine Corps and US Navy Hornet aircraft have been going through modification programmes to extend their service life for more than a decade. Early aircraft built before Lot 17 (aircraft issued with Bureau numbers before 164945) go through a life extension programme which replaces the aircraft’s fuselage centre barrel, wing leading edges and other upgrades. Aircraft built in Lot 17 and higher go through a detailed inspection and repair programme with the goal of extending their service life and safety. Most major upgrades are completed at US Navy Fleet Readiness Centers.

During a 2014 Congressional Hearing, Rear Admiral Michael Manazar, former Navy Director of Air Warfare, reported on the surprises discovered on F/A-18 Hornet aircraft undergoing life extension. He said: “Corrosion impacts, I would say, caught us by surprise. When we opened aircraft up and saw the extent of the corrosion damage, we realized we couldn’t just replace the parts we were going to replace. This made each airplane coming into the depot kind of a one-off. We realised we couldn’t just replace the parts — we also had to look at the corrosion on the surrounding framework.”

3 An F/A-18C Hornet, assigned to Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 323 (VMFA-323) ‘Death Rattlers’ launches from the flight deck of USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74).
Photographer’s Mate 3rd Class Ryan Restvedt/US Navy

Manazar added: “We had not planned on operating the Hornet past 6,000 hours, so we did not do the normal corrosion control processes that we used to use on metal airplanes, like Tomcats, A-6s, A-7s. We understood what corrosion was on metal. The science is different for corrosion of composites.”

Defence cutbacks required by Congressional sequestration has reduced personnel and the fiow of spare parts required for Hornet upgrades at the Fleet Readiness Centers. Grosklegs said: “This is one of the complications we warned the Congress about when we were talking about sequestration several years ago, particularly our depot throughput and the implications, and the fact that it would take us several years to recover”.

Nothing New

Strike fighter shortfall in the US Navy and US Marine Corps is not a new issue. It has been predicted for more than a decade and reported on widely. The US Congress has at times challenged some of the details (assumptions) provided by Navy and Marine Corps senior officers in hearings on the causes of the strike fighter shortfall.

During a FY2016 hearing of the US House of Representatives Committee on Armed Services (on March 26, 2015), Representative Loretta Sanchez D-CA asked some hard questions to Vice Admiral Paul Grosklags, Principal Military Deputy to the Assistant Secretary of the Navy (Research, Development, and Acquisition), Lieutenant General Jon Davis Deputy Commandant of the Marine Corps for Aviation and Rear Admiral Michael Manazir, Director of the Air Warfare Division US Navy.

2 A member of the airframes shop, assigned to Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 115 (VMFA-115) ‘Silver Eagles’ performs maintenance on the tail hook of an F/A-18A+ Hornet on the flight deck of USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75).
Photographer’s Mate Airman Philip Morrill/US Navy

Rep. Sanchez: “Gentleman, I want to talk about the F-18. So, the Navy, its testimony and also information provided to this committee says by 2020 you will be short of 100 F-18s. And you also said that this number is due to grow because of particular factors. In looking back at the materials we have had before this committee before, all the way back to 2009, we show a different shortfall every program year. For example, in 2009, the projection was 125 aircraft. A year later it was 145. In 2011 it was 177. In 2014 the shortfall was only 18 aircraft. So can you tell me the credibility when I see 18 to 100, that is a bit loose and a three, four, fivefold difference. Why is that, and what am I not seeing here? Do we just think that 82 planes will fall out of the sky this year? Why are the numbers so dramatically different? Are we guessing, do we really have ways in which we are trying to figure this out? And it appears to me the Navy has a throughput problem, not a lack of aircraft, in terms of numbers. And as a result, should Congress be focusing on better funding the depot operations, rather than just buying more planes to put through the same rather inefficient depot repairs? What is going on here? What is the approach we need to be thinking about here?”

1 A Marine applies sealant to an F/A-18C Hornet in the hangar bay aboard USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71).
Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jennifer Case/US Navy

Vice Admiral Grosklags, Lieutenant General Davis and Rear Admiral Manazir provided answers to the questions posed by Sanchez but the following six points provide greater details of the initiatives being undertaken by the US Navy and US Marine Corps.

First, more attention has been focused at improving US Navy depot performance to overhaul F/A-18 Hornets so they can remain in service until replaced by F-35B and F-35C fighters.”

The Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus admitted in a March 1, 2016 Congressional report: “The near term challenge is managing a Department of Navy Tactical Aviation (TACAIR) force that has been reduced in capacity through a combination of flying many more flight hours than planned, pressurized sustainment and enabler accounts, legacy F/A-18A-D Hornet depot throughput falling short of the required output due to sequestration and other factors, and the impact of delays to completing development of the Joint Strike Fighter programme. As a result of aggressive efforts instituted in 2014 across the Department to improve depot throughput and return more aircraft back to service, FY15 depot throughput improved by 44% as compared to FY14, returning to pre-sequestration levels of throughput. TACAIR aviation depots are expected to continue to improve productivity through 2017, and fully recover the backlog of F/A-18A-D aircraft in 2019.”

Depot teams have pulled parts from retired aircraft in the boneyard, ordered the manufacture of new parts and components and secured support from contractors. Rear Admiral Mike Zarkowski, Commander, Fleet Readiness Centers commented in March 2017: “The Naval Aviation Enterprise continues its efforts to reduce the number of aircraft in Outof- Reporting (OOR) status due to depot-level maintenance through the implementation of Critical Chain Project Management at all of the Navy’s Hornet Fleet Readiness Centers.

“Additionally, we continue to leverage the industrial capacity offered by Boeing at Cecil Field and have further augmented our depot maintenance throughput by bringing on board L3 in Mirabelle, Canada, to help us through the peak demand for Hornet depot maintenance inductions.”

Second, to help reduce the US Marine Corps aircraft shortfall, in 2014 the US Navy awarded contracts to Boeing and other suppliers to upgrade classic Hornets.

Spokeswoman for the Deputy Commandant of the Marine Corps for Aviation Captain Sarah Burns told AIR International: “The US Marine Corps is reactivating Lot 10 and Lot 11 F/A- 18C Hornets held in storage with the intent of updating them to a new F/A-18C+ standard.

The move is prompted by a half-decade delay in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programme.

“One of many levers the Navy-Marine Corps team is using to address the US Marine Corps F/A-18 shortfall and readiness issue is to initiate a C+ upgrade plan for 30 aircraft formerly stored with the 309th Aerospace Maintenance And Recover Group (AMARG) at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona.

Aircraft stored with AMARG are not the only ones getting upgraded. Factors used in determining which airframes to upgrade are the total number of flight hours and condition of the aircraft. This is identified in order to determine how much additional service time the US Marine Corps will get out of a particular aircraft once upgraded to ensure the best commitment of time and money.

Third, the US Navy and US Marine Corps have asked Congress for additional funding to reduce spare part shortages and improve maintenance issues. Both services have received some additional support funds and the FY2018 budget calls for $8.6 billion for flight operations for US Navy and US Marine Corps, compared with $7.5 billion in FY2017. This increase equates to more than 100,000 flight hours across all models of the Hornet. Additionally, the FY2018 budget request increases funding for operations, maintenance and spare parts to substantially higher levels than in previous years.

Fourth, the US Marine Corps has instituted many changes in its Hornet squadron maintenance and support processes to reduce the number of aircraft not flying due to missing spare parts, support issues and damage.

Captain Burns told AIR International: “Aircraft readiness continues to slowly, but steadily, increase overtime. Recently, Headquarters Marine Corps Aviation began a Hornet independent readiness review.

The Marine Corps has completed five other independent readiness reviews on the AV-8B, CH-53E, MV-22B, H-1, and a ground safety mishap review. These reviews have been instrumental in the design of our readiness recovery strategy.

Fifth, the Navy and the Marine Corps have developed and funded a plan to help ensure Hornets that remain in service are tactically viable. The 2017 Marine Corps Aviation Plan reported on important planned upgrades to improve the F/A-18’s lethality which include integration of the latest version of the AAQ-28 Litening targeting pod and the AIM-120D AMRAAM missile to enhance air-to-air capability, which started last year, and integrating the AIM-9X Sidewinder Block II airto- air missile this year, and upgrading cockpit displays in 2021.

2 A Marine maintainer performs maintenance on an F/A-18C Hornet in the hangar bay aboard USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) during a deployment in support of Operation Inherent Resolve.
Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Taylor Jackson/US Navy

Other upgrades to improve survivability by improving the ALR-67(V)3 digital radar warning receiver and enhancing the ALQ- 214(V)5 Integrated Defensive Electronic Countermeasures on board jammer. Both were started last year.

According to Raytheon, the AN/ALR-67(V)3 uses channelised receiver architecture to enable detection of threat emitters in high pulse density, and interception of faint distant signals despite interference created by strong nearby transmitters. The digital measurement path of the receiver uses leading edge digital technology for improved reliability and low cost through reduced parts count, and improved performance through precision digital parameter measurements.

Details provided by the Harris Corporation, the manufacturer of the ALQ-214(V)4 and (V)5 systems, which are currently being installed on Super Hornet and Hornet aircraft respectively say the system comprises a receiver, a modulator, a dual transmitter, a preamp and a mini amp. The new variants use modular open system architecture compliant design, which enables re-programming to counter theatre specific configurations, and future new components to be easily inserted. Operation is autonomous giving protection to the aircrew and aircraft against advanced radio frequency threats. Such threats are countered by the system with electronic countermeasures techniques that deny, disrupt, delay and degrade launch and engagement sequences.

Harris Corporation says each threat is identified, prioritized, countered and displayed to the aircrew for situational awareness as well as self-protection.

Lastly, upgrades to improve the aircraft’s interoperability started this year and include installation of digitally aided close air support radios with reprogrammable software and the Multifunctional Information Distribution System/ Joint Tactical Radio System (MIDS JTRS). The MIDS JTRS system is a four-channel radio designed to run the Link 16 waveform and up to three additional communication protocols, including the Airborne Networking Waveform.

In 2020, new mission computers which can run high order language operational flight program software, as used by the Super Hornet, will be fitted to legacy Hornets.

Sixth, the US Marine Corps has tailored its F-35 transition plan based on a number of conditions and assumptions. During his presentation on February 28, 2017 at the Avalon Air Show in Australia, Lt Gen Davis said: “Our F/A-18 fleet is getting older faster, and the bottom line is we’ve got life on our Harriers, so we’re going to move our F/A-18s out faster than the Harriers…. next three, maybe more, squadrons to transition to the F-35 will all be F/A-18 squadrons.”

The updated F-35 transition plan includes VMFA-122 currently transitioning to the F-35B, followed by F/A-18D-equipped VMFA-225 also to the F-35B, and then VMFA-314 moving to the F-35C.

New Versus Old

If more funding becomes available, the Navy and the Marine Corps will elect to focus spending on procuring new F-35s versus extending the life and improving legacy Hornets. Commenting on buying F-35s at a higher rate during the 2017 US House Armed Services Subcommittee hearing, Lt Gen Davis said the ability to do so would allow the Marine Corps to, “get out of the F/A-18-vice trying to take the Hornet fleet to 2030, push that left to 2025, 2026. If there is one thing I could ask on the TACAIR side for the United States Marine Corps, besides funding our enabling accounts, it would be those new planes.”

In his February 2017 Congressional report, Lt Gen Davis reported on the F/A-18 Hornet: “It’s been a great airplane for us…but it’s time to move on. The Navy is moving on…so I do not want to be left out in the end when I’m the only one operating the plane. The F/A-18s I’m flying today, they’ve got a 55% break rate, so that means they’re up in the morning on the first sortie of the day, they come back and they remain down. Back in the day we got two or three sorties out of those planes each day; we cannot do that right now. These are tried and true war dogs, they’re great planes but they’re tired. I worry about the F/A-18. I think at the higher-end threat we could have a hard time being successful. We’ll still go fight because we like to do what we have to do. But the bottom line is, I think we might have less success, we might have more losses.”

Davis added: “I will conclude by reemphasising that Marine aviation, particularly our TACAIR assets, is in a readiness crisis. We do not have the number of aircraft we need to fulfil our operational commitments – to be your force in readiness as mandated by Congress. Our readiness recovery lies in recapitalization of our assets. We must continue to transition out of our legacy aircraft and into this new aircraft as fast as we can afford to buy them.”

Lt Gen Davis is retiring this summer after 37 years of service and will be replaced by Major General Steven Rudder, who trained as a helicopter pilot and has held many senior staff positions. No matter who serves in the senior Marine Corps aviation assignment, it seems clear that the venerable fourth generation F/A-18 Hornet will have to soldier on for at least another decade. There is a plan to rework the Hornets, return them to service, increase squadron strength back to 12 aircraft per squadron, undertake tactically critical upgrades, improve pilot training and integrate new systems to allow fourth and fifthgeneration fighters to work as a team.

3 Marines perform an engine swap on an F/A- 18C Hornet on the flight deck of USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71).
Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Chad Trudeau/US Navy