The Marines Are Running Out of Fighter Jets
The service is running short of planes to fight wars and train its pilots. But the problem is one of the Marines’ own making.
The U.S. Marine Corps has got an air force problem. Its current fleet of fighter jets, purchased from the 1980s to the mid-1990s, is in poor repair. And a new fleet of of vertical-launching F-35 stealth fighters that the Marines have been waiting years to put into action is coming on-line too slowly to keep up flying units’ strength.
The slow-motion collapse of the combat squadrons could, in some future conflict, expose Marine infantry on the ground to enemy air attack—something that hasn’t happened in generations.
The Marines’ air fleet isn’t small, at least on paper. It consists of 276 F/A-18 Hornet fighters, more than two-thirds of the Marines’ combat-capable jets. But on April 20, Lt. Gen. Jon Davis, the Marines’ deputy commandant for aviation, told the Senate that just 87 of those Hornets were flightworthy—a mere 32 percent.
Yet the Marines say they need 58 percent of their F/A-18s to be ready for flight in order to have enough planes to fight America’s wars while also training new pilots and giving trained pilots enough flight hours to maintain their combat prowess.
The statistics, as bleak as they are, mask the true extent of the crisis. The Marines keep around 40 Hornets deployed to the Middle East and the Western Pacific for airstrikes on ISIS and for patrols near China and North Korea. Another 30 F/A-18s belong to basic-training squadrons.
That leaves just 17 Hornets for the potentially hundreds of pilots who aren’t currently bombing ISIS or keeping an eye on the Pacific, but who still need to fly a couple times a week just to keep up their skills. There simply aren’t enough flyable jets to go around.
“I am concerned with our current readiness rates, both in equipment and personnel,” Davis wrote in his most recent annual report on Marine aviation.
Davis and other Marine leaders know have practically pleaded with Congress for financial help to solve the problem. In March, the service sent legislators a so-called “unfunded priorities” request—basically, a wish list of things it would like to buy in the next year’s budget that it didn’t actually include in its formal spending proposal. The military circulates these unfunded-priorities lists every year in the hope of convincing lawmakers to add money to the president’s budget.