Marine Corps Digging Itself Out of Aviation Readiness Hole

By Jon Harper

The Marine Corps is in a “difficult place” when it comes to the readiness of its aviation fleet, the service’s top officer said Aug. 9.

While the ground forces, particularly the infantry battalions, are in relatively good shape after receiving $5 billion from Congress to reset their equipment, the same can’t be said of the service’s air component, according to Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller.

“On the aviation side we’re in a little more difficult place,” he said at a conference hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “We’ve flown our airplanes a long time. We’re in the middle of recapitalization of every model, type and series. We’re trying to reset through the depots the legacy aircraft we have.”

Meanwhile, air squadrons continue to face a high operating tempo, he noted. The F-18 Hornet fighter fleet is especially challenged on the readiness front, Neller said.

“There are some issues with the F-18s because the Harrier took longer to field than we thought and we’ve had some issues with the depots,” he said. “Although we’re starting to see now slow, steady improvement, I’m not going to spike the ball because we’ve got to get more airplanes on the ramps so our air crews can fly more hours.”

The CH-53 Super Stallion heavy-lift helicopter inventory is also facing maintenance problems, he noted. The service made a mistake by leaving CH-53s and other rotary wing aircraft in Iraq and Afghanistan for “intermediate maintenance” rather than bringing them back to depots in the United States after each deployment for more thorough overhauls, he said.

“I would recommend to my successors to never do that again,” he said. “The money was there to fly those airplanes back, put them through the depot. And we should have done that and they would have been in a better state than they are now.”

“Now we’re having to do that and … it’s going to take some time” to get them ready for operations, he added.

The Marine Corps is planning to buy new CH-53K King Stallions to replace the aging CH-53Es. The new aircraft is doing “very, very well” in testing, Neller said, but it isn’t ready to be fielded.

“We’ve got to get the airplanes we have back through depot,” he said.

The service is still in the process of fielding the MV-22 Osprey tilt rotor troop transport. The acquisition program of record is 360 aircraft. The Marine Corps currently has about 287, Neller said. Bringing new assets into the aviation fleet creates challenges, he noted.

“Every time you take a squadron and transition it to a new airplane, you have to stand them down for 18 to 24 months” while air crews and mechanics are trained on the new platform, he said. The rest of the force has to pick up that deployment tempo, he said.

Last year, the Marine Corps declared initial operating capability for the F-35B joint strike fighter. The multi-role aircraft is expected to replace the AV-8V Harrier ground-attack plane, the Hornet and the EA-6B Prowler electronic warfare jet, Neller noted.

“We thought we were going to get that airplane a little bit earlier but we didn’t,” he said.

The service recently stood up its second F-35B squadron. The aircraft will finally begin to deploy overseas next year, he said.

Despite the challenges, aviation readiness trends are heading in the right direction, the commandant said. The Marine Corps is starting to see “gradual, steady increases” month by month in what the service calls “ready basic aircraft,” or RBAs.

“The number of RBAs is going up — not as fast as we would like — but it’s going up,” he said. “We’re on a course and we’re just going to keep grinding on this. And it’s a combination of putting legacy aircraft in the depot, getting them out, getting better parts support to fix the airplanes that are on the ramp, and replacing … the old airplanes with new airplanes.”

Photo: Two U.S. Marine Corps F/A-18 Hornet aircraft (Defense Dept)

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