Aging airplanes, a shortage of airframes and delays in the multi-service joint strike fighter are forcing the Navy to carefully manage its fleets of F/A-18 Hornets. Meanwhile, the Marine Corps, with an even older and less numerous Hornet fleet, is slashing two squadrons to keep the rest fully equipped.
The Navy flies approximately 350 F/A-18A/B/C/D Hornets in 20 fleet squadrons and about 270 new F/A-18E/F Super Hornets in 16 squadrons. Three training squadrons also fly Hornets. The last remaining F-14 Tomcat squadron and three Navy F/A-18C squadrons are slated to receive Super Hornets by 2008.
The Navy is currently in the middle of its second multi-year Super Hornet procurement. Production of legacy Hornets ended in 1999. The service plans to acquire no fewer than 460 F/A-18E/Fs.
The Marines fly just over 200 A through D models in 16 squadrons. Marine Corps Hornet acquisition ended in 2000 when it accepted eight D-models originally intended for Thailand. There are no tactical jets in production for the service.
In May, the Marine Corps unexpectedly announced that, in March 2007, it would decommission the all-weather Fighter-Attack Squadron 332 that is flying F/A-18Ds, and Fighter-Attack Squadron 134, which has the F/A-18A. It plans to redistribute the airplanes to other squadrons.
Squadron 332 had just returned from a six-month deployment to Al Asad, in western Iraq, where it flew close air support missions. For two years, the Marines have maintained Hornets at Al Asad — a commitment that effectively monopolizes a three-squadron force. In addition, the 2002 “tac-air integration” initiative requires the Marines to frequently provide Hornet squadrons to Navy carrier air wings. The Navy, in turn, occasionally sends Hornet squadrons to Japan to support the Marines’ unit deployment program. The result is an unprecedented demand for Marine Corps F/A-18s.
“Any time you increase demand with a fixed inventory, you’re going to use those assets more,” says Lt. Cmdr. Marc Preston, who oversees readiness for the Navy’s legacy Hornets. “Having a permanent requirement for Operation Iraqi Freedom for the Marines has increased demand. Demand for Navy airplanes has gone up as well.”
The result is more wear and tear on F/A-18s, especially those belonging to the Marines. After several years of intense operations, fatigue-induced retirements have reduced the Marines’ Hornet inventory to a level below that required to support the existing force structure, according to Lt. Col. Scott Fazekas, a Marine Corps spokesman.
“Obviously [JSF introduction] is a moving target, but it has slid to the right [past 2010],” Preston says. “Every time it slides, it affects Marine aircraft more than it affects Navy. Their issues are a little harder than ours because the Navy bought [Super Hornets] and Marines didn’t with anticipation that the JSF would be on time.”
Despite the overall health of the Navy’s tactical air force compared to the Marines’, a shortage of legacy Hornets requires careful fleet management, official stress. The chief of naval operations has mandated that each carrier air wing deploy with 44 strike fighters in four squadrons. “We tend to allocate less airplanes [to a squadron] early on in the [squadron’s training] cycle,” Preston says. “That enables us to ensure that we have the right amount of airframes towards the end of their training and while on deployment.”
The airplane shuffle also takes into account the number of aircraft carrier catapult “traps” a jet has accumulated and its total flight hours. The Navy imposes limits on both to avoid the safety risks associated with tired jets. But while an airplane that has surpassed the flight-hour limit must be rebuilt or retired, reaching the trap limit just means the jet can’t fly off carriers anymore. Jets that have logged high trap counts are still available for training from land bases.
Preston says he tries to spread airframes across the fleet to keep all of them aging at the same low rate while sending high-trap jets to training squadrons to free up low-trap jets for the operational force. “Gone are the days of having the same airplanes in one squadron for 10 years with the same maintainers. We’re moving airframes around a bunch.”
The Navy hopes this careful management plus select rebuilds of old or damaged jets will sustain its legacy Hornet squadrons until the naval JSF begins reaching squadrons sometime after 2012.
“We’re doing a lot of stuff in the legacy community to extend the service life and ensure that we’ve got airframes out a little bit longer,” Preston stresses. “To extend the lives of the A through D [models], we’re doing center-barrel replacements and wing inspections.”
“Center-barrel replacement” is a rebuild procedure pioneered by Naval Aviation Depot North Island, in San Diego, Calif., in the early 1990s. It replaces the central fuselage of damaged or fatigued F/A-18s, extending their service lives at a cost of several million dollars apiece.
The outlook is rosier for the Navy’s young Super Hornet fleet, which is on the cusp of a major radar upgrade — to the electronically-scanned APG-79 standard, versus the mechanical APG-73. The Boeing production line in St. Louis has churned out around 40 Super Hornets annually since the late 1990s.
“We have the right number of Super Hornets, but we need to manage in terms of traps,” says Lt. Cmdr. Trenton Lennard, who manages Super Hornet readiness for the Navy. “We’re watching it now instead of waiting 15 years and being reactionary.”
Overall, on the Navy side, the Hornet inventory is “tight,” Preston says. “We are resourcing every [carrier air] wing with 44 strike fighters. We’re not shorting anybody on the tip of the spear … We’re squeezing every ounce out of every airframe.”