Marine Corps to Plead Case for More Aircraft, Spare Parts, Maintenance Crews

By Sandra I. Erwin
MV-22 Osprey

Photo: Boeing

The Marine Corps’ aircraft fleet — notably the V-22 Ospreys — is being flown to exhaustion in operations around the world. Crews are overextended, spare parts are in short supply and there are never enough airplanes to satisfy commanders’ demands. 

On the upside, Marine aviation readiness has improved in recent years, although there is still a deep hole to climb out of, says Lt. Gen. Jon M. Davis, deputy commandant for aviation.

An executive order that President Trump signed last week requires Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to complete a 30-day examination of many aspects of military readiness, including equipment, facilities, maintenance, personnel and training. 

As far as Marine Corps aviation readiness is concerned, Davis boils down priorities as follows: Increasing the number of aircraft that are available to fly, stocking up on spare parts and boosting the ranks of enlisted maintainers. He also intends to push the case that the Marine Corps needs more money to buy new aircraft. 

“Old metal has to be replaced,” Davis tells reporters Feb. 1 during a roundtable meeting. 

The Marine Corps’ tactical fighter fleet of F/A-18s and Harriers is among the oldest in the entire U.S. military. And the V-22 today is the “most operationally in demand airplane in the Department of Defense,” he says. “We can’t get enough of those. We can’t turn the maintainers and the crews fast enough, or produce them fast enough to meet combatant commanders’ demands.”

As the Pentagon gears up for a new budget submission — which in theory will be shaped by the 30-day review that Trump directed — the Marine Corps should have an opportunity to argue that “we do need to recapitalize,” says Davis. “It’s imperative for the Marine Corps to get out of the old and into the new.”

Mattis issued new budget guidance that is broken down into three parts: a fiscal year 2017 budget amendment proposal, a fiscal year 2018 president's request and the 2019-2023 out-year plan. 

Davis says more resources will be sought for spare parts, flying hours, maintenance crews and procurement of new aircraft. “The president is putting pressure on the people who build our airplanes to come up with a better price,” he says, in reference to Trump’s individual meetings with the CEOs of Boeing and Lockheed Martin. “We’ll see what they come up with.”

In a separate review, the Defense Department will investigate whether an upgraded F/A-18E/F Super Hornet — to be proposed by Boeing — could replace the F-35C naval variant of the joint strike fighter. The Marine Corps intends to buy 353 vertical takeoff F-35Bs and 67 F-35Cs. Davis would not comment on the review but says he expects it to validate the current requirement.

With regard to the V-22, Davis suggests the Marine Corps might seek to increase the approved requirement of 460 aircraft if the Trump administration directs the Pentagon to grow the Marine Corps. 

The Corps is still acquiring new V-22s from the manufacturer — a Boeing and Bell Helicopter consortium. The Osprey is now the service’s primary personnel carrier, so a larger Corps would require more airplanes, Davis says. 

Under a five-year contract signed in 2013, the Navy is buying 99 V-22s: 92 MV-22s for the Marine Corps and seven CV-22s for the Air Force Special Operations Command. Davis noted that the Marine Corps has “loaned” 12 Ospreys to the Navy for carrier-based operations but expects to get those aircraft back. The $70 million apiece aircraft became operational in 2007 and has become a workhorse.

The upkeep of the V-22 fleet has been complicated because over the years units have customized and modified aircraft with various subsystems for different missions. The current fleet of nearly 300 V-22s includes 77 different configurations. 

The Marine Corps has funded a program to begin standardizing the oldest 129 aircraft to match the more modern versions. “It makes it hard to maintain readiness when you have to maintain 77 variants,” Davis says. The Marines also intend to continue to invest in aerial refueling kits that turn Ospreys into in-flight refueling tankers.

The upcoming budget proposal will reflect Marines’ growing concerns about aircraft maintenance and spare parts. A spike in mishaps in recent months has been blamed on human error but a number of ground-based accidents were the result of maintenance blunders, Davis says. “Each ground mishap takes airplanes out of the service for weeks.”

Because there are not enough spare parts, maintainers cannibalize other aircraft. “That’s negative maintenance,” says Davis. “Attacking those things will allow us to have more airplanes on the flight line. … The best thing we can do for readiness is fix our spare parts problem. Across the Department of the Navy, we do not have the spare parts to sustain our aircraft.”

One bright spot is Helicopter Squadron One (HMX-1), the unit responsible for the transportation of the president of the United States, vice president, cabinet members and other VIPs. The squadron operates MV-22 Ospreys that have a 94 percent full-mission capable rate. Only 3 to 4 percent of the squadron’s aircraft experience a shortage of spare parts, compared to 10 percent in other Marine Corps fleets. “I’m challenging the 10 percent non mission capable rate,” says Davis. “What airline plans on not having parts for 10 percent of its flying machines.”

Topics: Air Power, Marine Corps News

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