Top Naval pilots, congressmen rally to protect aviation budget

By James K. Sanborn, Staff writer

The Marine Corps’ top aviator took to Capitol Hill in a plea to protect funding he called critical to the service’s ability to maintain and modernize its taxed aircraft fleet, which is still reeling from the effects of massive 2013 budget cuts.

Lt. Gen. Jon Davis, the deputy commandant for Marine aviation, said scant budgets, delayed depot maintenance and the looming possibility of another round of across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration make it difficult to man, maintain and deploy aircraft in anticipation of global crises.

The service is now 19 percent below its minimum acceptable number of operational aircraft.

“We will go when the balloon goes up, it is just making it harder and harder every day,” Davis said.

Davis spoke as part of a panel presentation hosted by the Navy League in early June. Rear Adm. Michael Manazir, the Navy’s director of air warfare, and a slew of congressmen who sit on defense-related committees also participated. Each rallied to bolster the naval aviation budgets.

Speakers at the event, billed “Pushed to the Brink: U.S. Navy-Marine Corps Aviation,” named China, Russia and the Islamic State group as their top national security concerns. They cited Chinese efforts to extend territorial claims in the South China Sea, Russian fighters’ recent buzzing of a U.S. Navy ship in the Black Sea, and the prominent role naval aviators are playing in carrying out air strikes against IS militants as top reasons to protect the service’s aviation budgets.

The combination of foreign aggression and a high operational tempo that includes disaster relief missions in places like Nepal have strained aviation resources to the breaking point as aviators work on a 1:2 deployment to dwell ratio, meaning they spend six of every 18 months deployed.

Davis said he ensures every aviation unit that deploys has the aircraft and personnel it needs, but that comes at the cost of training units and imperils aircraft maintenance and modernization.

Manazir, the Navy’s air warfare director, cited 2013 budget cuts as the reason many Marine and Navy aircraft are grounded. As delays in developing and fielding the next-generation F-35 joint strike fighter mounted, the services were forced to extend their old aircraft well beyond their original lifespan. F/A-18 Hornets were extended from 6,000 flight hours to 10,000, but maintainers have found worse corrosion than expected that will require significant depot-level maintenance.

That maintenance was thwarted by sequestration. Just as those aircraft were set to hit the depots, technicians and engineers were furloughed. Not until this year, with increased budgets, is the Navy Department able to buy back that workforce, Manazir said. It will take the Navy and Marine Corps until about fiscal 2018 to complete maintenance, meaning sequestration will ultimately have a five-year negative effect on readiness.

If funding levels dip below the fiscal 2016 proposed budget, he warned, it will become impossible to meet current and future threats from abroad.

That would be unacceptable said several lawmakers, including former SEAL Team 6 member Rep. Ryan Zinke, a Montana Republican, who retired as a Navy commander. In the face of an aggressive China and “a Russia trying to rekindle Soviet Union dominance,” the nation must support efforts to keep existing aircraft deployable and speed the rate at which we procure new technology, he said. The Chinese are able to take things from blueprint to fielding in just a few years — something it can take the U.S. nearly 20 years to do under the current procurement process, he added.

“The world is not getting safer, and defending it is not getting cheaper,” he said.

Calls to protect Navy budgets came from both sides of the aisle with Rep. Scott Peters, a California Democrat whose district includes the Corps’ West Coast recruit depot, echoing Zinke’s sentiments

“There are certain levels below which we just cannot go.” Peters said.

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