It made for shocking headlines when the Navy Times reported that the United States Navy and Marine Corps would be anywhere from 243 to over 300 fighters short by 2018. The Navy and Marines were projected to fall short of their requirements by anywhere from 20 to 25 12-plane squadrons (the standard squadron for a F/A-18, presently the Navy/Marine Corps front-line strike-fighter).
How did things get to this point? There are many causes, some of which are inherent to flight operations of aircraft in general, some of which are inherent to naval aviation (including flight operations on aircraft carriers), and some of which are due to failures by national security “leaders” to properly fund Navy and Marine Corps aviation.
NORMAL WEAR AND TEAR
Military combat aircraft are high-performance by their very nature. Any military fighter is fast, able to turn sharply, and carry a fair amount of air-to-air, air-to-ground, and anti-ship weapons. However, with that performance comes a tradeoff: They don’t last long. For instance, the F/A-18 was planned to have a service life of 6,000 flight hours.
This flight life includes training flights, test flights (often to make sure that the maintenance people fixed everything – or that an upgrade was installed properly), and other routine operations. As those go on, the “clock” is ticking on the fighter’s service life. Pretty much the metal the plane is made of is going through stress. Eventually, it will give way and the plane will end up as a smoking hole in the ground.
If a plane is pushed past its service life, degrading to the point that it “breaks,” the risk of something giving out increases exponentially. When that happens, not only is a plane likely to end up lost, but the pilot as well.
NAVAL WEAR AND TEAR
Naval aviation, though, can be a lot more stressful on a plane than normal combat aviation. It starts with how naval aviation usually works. Carriers use catapults to help planes attain the necessary speed to take off without stalling – and aircraft go from 0 to 200 in less than three seconds. Looks awesome on TV, but it can be stressful for an aircraft.
Landings on a carrier are arguably a misnomer. Controlled crash may be more accurate. The aircraft has to catch one of four cables that are stretched across the carrier – leading to an aircraft going from 150 nautical miles per hour to zero in a very short space. Again, that is stressful on a plane.
These planes also face one other factor on deployment—their environment. On carriers, Navy and Marine fighters tend to spend a fair bit of time on deck, exposed to salt water. Salt water tends to accelerate corrosion of metal.
Combat aviation is a far cry from flying a 747 from Dulles to San Francisco and back twice a week.
TRAINING AND MAINTENANCE
But does that alone account for the shortfall? Not quite. Having an adequate number of aircraft doesn’t just mean that every front-line squadron has a full complement of fighters. Front-line aviation is just the beginning.
You need to train pilots on the planes – that means that you need additional planes for the trainees. In many cases, these are two-seaters (the trainee in front, the instructor in the back seat). But there are also single-seat versions that will be used to help get pilots fresh from staff tours back into the flow.
Keep in mind, other planes will be sitting at a depot undergoing maintenance or getting an upgrade. If they are at the depot, a replacement will be needed up on the front-line squadron. So, some extra planes will be needed to make up for those.
Then, there is another factor to consider.
The articles appear on occasion, often very bland at first, stating that a plane has crashed. It may have been pushed for a few too many flight hours. It may have happened on a deployment. It may have been a collision with another plane during a routine training mission. The pilot may have landed with the landing gear up. Some other malfunction may have occurred, or it may be a case of “pilot error.” The pilot may have ejected (in the best of cases), or he (or she) was killed in the crash.
That plane is just as gone as if it had been shot down in combat. Gotta replace it somehow. The best way to do this is to have some extra planes available (after all, F/A-18s don’t grow on trees – it took Switzerland nine years from announcing plans to buy the F/A-18 until the first ones entered service). It’s the concept of having a reserve. This reserve would also be nice to have when a plane has reached the end of its service life – again, that plane is just as lost to the front-line squadron as a combat loss, and it must be replaced.
WHY THE INADEQUATE FORCE?
Why has the Navy gotten to this point? It is quite surprising, especially considering that the Navy went from carrying five fighter or attack squadrons (totaling 58 planes) to four (totaling up to 48) in the 1990s.
In the 1990s, though, the Clinton administration pushed through additional cuts in the wake of the Bush administration’s “peace dividend.” Then, after 2001, the United States found itself in a global war on terror.
As a result, aircraft procurement took hits across the board. The Joint Strike Fighter, for instance, had its production cut from 2,978 planned in 1996 to 2,443 in 2009, involving at least 259 F-35s from the Marines and 50 from the Navy. The Super Hornet had its production run cut from 548 to 460 (just restoring the cuts to the Super Hornet would cut the gap by as much as a third). The Air Force’s F-22 was chopped from a planned purchase of 648 F-22s to 442 in 1993 to 339 in 1997 before being limited to 187 by the Obama administration.
Keep in mind, the F-22s have to replace 522 F-15A/B/C/D Eagles, and the F-35s will have to replace not only the 1,280 F-16s and 357 A-10s, but also the 251 F/A-18A/C/D Hornets and 133 Harriers in the Marine Corps inventory as of FY07, and the Navy’s F/A-18A/C Hornets as well. As good as these new planes will be, they cannot be in two places at once.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?
One might ask, given the nature of combat faced by the United States military, “Why do we need to worry? We’re more likely to fight a counterinsurgency.”
It should be noted that during the last part of the Cold War, naval assets that had been designed to win World War III with the Soviet Union were more than capable of handling lesser crises, including three confrontations with Libya over the “Line of Death” in the Gulf of Sidra, Operation El Dorado Canyon, the “Tanker War” in the Persian Gulf (including Operation Praying Mantis against Iran), and the liberation of Grenada from Communist rule. Don’t forget Desert Storm. In essence, forces ready for a full-on conflict were able to “dial down” to deal with the lesser crises.
However, the reverse is not the case.
IMPROPER TRAINING AND EQUIPMENT ARE DISASTROUS
In an interview with SOF, New York Post columnist and Fox News strategic analyst Ralph Peters said, “When we trained Georgia, we didn’t train them to fight Russians, we trained them to be peacekeepers. We gave them small arms training, we trained them in small-unit tactics, we trained them in peacekeeping.”
When the Russians provoked Georgia into the 2008 South Ossetia War, the Georgians were unprepared, and Russia was able to snatch not only South Ossetia but Abkhazia as well. The Georgians’ misfortune due to improper training can also apply to inadequate equipment (an issue that also plagued the Georgians).
The problem with that is that America could very well find itself geared to fight a counterinsurgency or counter-terror war at the precise point in time that a major war kicked off. The United States military would be as unprepared for it as the Georgians were when the Russians attacked. The price will not be paid by “leaders” who shorted procurement in peacetime. It will instead be paid by Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines in blood, and by their families, who will have to deal with the losses.