GAO Report on Gaps in U.S. Military Aircraft Readiness

The following is the Nov. 10, 2022, Government Accountability Office report, Weapon System Sustainment Aircraft Mission Capable Goals Were Generally Not Met and Sustainment Costs Varied by Aircraft. From the report GAO examined 49 aircraft and found that only four met their annual mission capable goal in a majority of the years from fiscal years […]

The following is the Nov. 10, 2022, Government Accountability Office report, Weapon System Sustainment Aircraft Mission Capable Goals Were Generally Not Met and Sustainment Costs Varied by Aircraft.

From the report

GAO examined 49 aircraft and found that only four met their annual mission capable goal in a majority of the years from fiscal years 2011 through 2021. As shown below, 26 aircraft did not meet their annual mission capable goal in any fiscal year. The mission capable rate—the percentage of total time when the aircraft can fly and perform at least one mission—is used to assess the health and readiness of an aircraft fleet.

Comparing fiscal year 2011 to fiscal year 2021, the average mission capable rate for the selected aircraft has fallen for the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps, to varying degrees. The average mission capable rate for the selected Army aircraft has risen.

For fiscal year 2021, GAO found that only two of the 49 aircraft examined met the service-established mission capable goal. More specifically, for fiscal year 2021, 30 aircraft were more than 10 percentage points below the mission capable goal in fiscal year 2021; and 17 aircraft were 10 percentage points or less below the mission capable goal in fiscal year 2021.

Many of the selected aircraft are facing one or more sustainment challenges, as shown below. According to program officials, these challenges have an effect on mission capable rates.

Operating and support (O&S) costs totaled about $54 billion in fiscal year 2020 for the reviewed aircraft—a decrease of about $2.9 billion since fiscal year 2011 after factoring in inflation using constant fiscal year 2020 dollars. Maintenance costs became a larger portion of O&S costs—increasing by $1.2 billion since fiscal year 2011. Air Force and Army O&S costs have decreased, while Navy and Marine Corps O&S costs have increased. Based on our analysis and information provided by the program offices, these trends have largely been driven by changes in the size of aircraft inventory and reduced flying hours. Additionally, O&S costs have varied widely across aircraft fleets. For example, the total fiscal year 2020 O&S costs for the systems we reviewed ranged from about $97 million for the KC-130T fleet (Navy and Marine Corps) to a high of about $4.3 billion for the F-16 fleet (Air Force). Based on our analysis and information provided by the system program offices, cost variances were based on aircraft type and factors such as age of the fleet, the number of aircraft included in the inventory, and the number of flying hours flown by a fleet.

The Department of Defense (DOD) spends tens of billions of dollars annually to sustain its weapon systems in an effort to ensure that these systems are available to simultaneously support today’s military operations and maintain the capability to meet future defense requirements. This report provides observations on mission capable rates and costs to operate and sustain 49 fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force.

Download the document here.

USS Abraham Lincoln Return Marks End of Second High-Tempo Carrier Deployment in WESTPAC

ABOARD AIRCRAFT CARRIER USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN, OFF THE COAST OF HAWAII – When aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) pulls into Naval Air Station North Island on Thursday, it will cap off a busy deployment to the Western Pacific. Lincoln’s deployment saw the carrier largely operating in U.S. 7th Fleet, where it had the chance […]

An F-35C Lightning II, assigned to the ‘Black Knights’ of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 314, flies over USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) on July 30, 2022. US Navy Photo

ABOARD AIRCRAFT CARRIER USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN, OFF THE COAST OF HAWAII – When aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) pulls into Naval Air Station North Island on Thursday, it will cap off a busy deployment to the Western Pacific.

Lincoln’s deployment saw the carrier largely operating in U.S. 7th Fleet, where it had the chance to drill with both Japan and the Philippines ahead of the biennial Rim of the Pacific 2022 exercise in Hawaii.

It’s the second consecutive high operational tempo aircraft carrier deployment to WESTPAC, as the U.S. Navy increases its emphasis on operating in the region to counter China.

“Our activities into the South China Sea as well as East China Sea were important to send a signal to China, North Korea, Russia of our commitment to the region, as well as our willingness to fly, sail, or operate wherever international law allows,” Rear Adm. J.T. Anderson, the commander of Carrier Strike Group Three, told USNI news in a recent interview.

While the carrier participated in a wide range of exercises, the deployment also marked the first U.S. Marine Corps F-35C Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter squadron deployment on an aircraft carrier and the second for the CMV-22B Osprey.

Capt. Amy Bauernschmidt, Lincoln’s commanding officer, told USNI News that the crew applied many of the takeaways from USS Carl Vinson‘s (CVN-70) recent deployment in the region to Lincoln’s time in WESTPAC.

“We took onboard a lot of their lessons about … where to base, and how to operate. We did build upon those lessons and learned a few of our own. We were fairly fortunate in that while we covered a vast amount of space in 7th fleet – some days it was a long flight for the CODSPREY – but we were able to remain mostly based out of one location for most of the deployment, which at least facilitated the flow of people and parts to one location,” Bauernschmidt said.

Dynamic Environment

USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) sails in formation during Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2022, July 28, 2022. US Navy Photo

The early days of Lincoln’s deployment saw the carrier operating in the South China Sea – including amid People’s Liberation Army Air Force incursions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone – and the Philippine Sea.

Anderson echoed remarks Vinson crew members made to USNI News during a trip earlier this year to Vinson at the tail-end of its deployment, in which sailors described a more dynamic environment in U.S. 7th Fleet compared to deployments over the last two decades in U.S. Central Command.

“We spent a lot of time maneuvering around not only the Philippine Sea, but also in the South China Sea and well as the East China Sea. And the dynamic maneuver wasn’t just exclusively maneuvering around to avoid certain things, but it was also that that’s our best way of being able to compete in that space, as well as provide a strong presence throughout the region,” Anderson said.
“If we were to just simply maintain our location in one general location, I don’t think we were necessarily doing our job, right, in terms of providing a sustained presence throughout the region.”

Bauernschmidt acknowledged the difference between operations in U.S. 7th Fleet versus U.S. 5th Fleet.

“I would say a vast majority of folks that have deployed in the Navy got very comfortable and used to 5th Fleet operations and this is obviously not 5th Fleet operations. And so it is a much larger area than we would typically operate in and … it’s not just about one entity. It’s about China, Russia, [North] Korea. It’s about multiple different actors and being able to respond to any of those,” she told USNI News.
“Because it’s a large area of operations, being able to strategically place yourself to answer whatever mission we’re called upon is very important.”

Because of the size of the Indo-Pacific region, Bauernschmidt said she had to change how she thought about the carrier’s operations.

“I personally also had to think a little differently about each and every night what the sea space looked like, what we were being tasked with, what we were being asked to accomplish, or to just think ahead about where we may want to position ourselves in the event we were tasked with a different mission,” she said.
“Because unlike operations in the 5th Fleet that you can get where you needed to be in a half a day, in a fairly short amount of time, we have a lot more sea space to cover. And so being able to think strategically, position yourself where you need to be, understand the constraints and the restraints of ourselves, our aircraft, and other forces was important.” 

Lessons Learned from Vinson

An F/A-18E Super Hornet, assigned to the ‘Tophatters’ of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 14, prepares to make an arrested landing on the flight deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) on June 3, 2022. US Navy Photo

Lincoln’s deployment to the western Pacific followed a similar one last year by Vinson, which sent the first U.S. Navy F-35C squadron and CMV-22B Osprey squadron out to sea. Lincoln deployed with 10 Marine Corps F-35Cs that make up the “Black Knights” of Marine Strike Fighter Squadron (VMFA) 314 out of Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif.

Ahead of the deployment, Bauernschmidt said Lincoln had the authority to install a double-decker mezzanine at the back of the hangar bay.

“What that allowed us to do was get some of the material that was normally in hangar bay 3 up into that mezzanine,” she said.

“We also took a good look at all of the support equipment and really tried to optimize where maybe we had duplicates, or we had the ability to truly ensure that the support equipment for the aircraft that we had was the right quantity, the right number, and the right ability,” Bauernschmidt added.

Instead of basing out of the U.S. Air Force’s Kadena Air Base on Okinawa, like Vinson’s CMV-22B Osprey detachment, Lincoln’s detachment was based out of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma. This helped with parts and maintenance because the U.S. Marine Corps’s MV-22B Ospreys were also at Futenma.

“It is always helpful when there’s extra bodies, extra parts. So there was a little bit easier flow because there was already an established flow for most of their parts,” Bauernschmidt said.

Cmdr. Daniel Hutton, an aircraft intermediate maintenance department officer aboard Lincoln, said the carrier’s crew used takeaways from the Vinson deployment to tweak what equipment Lincoln brought. This allowed the crew to make more space in the hangar bay and be more strategic with what equipment it needed or did not need. As a result, the crew placed more gear in hangar bay 3, which made for more space in the middle of the carrier and in the forward part of the ship.

“Being the second air wing ship team to go out to sea with that type of aircraft, there’s a constant learning process that takes place between the ship, the supporting entities ashore, and then being able to adjust and take into account what things break,” Hutton told USNI News.

Hutton said they will continue to make tweaks depending on what happens throughout the deployment.

Since Vinson‘s crew had the chance to test out the deck density aboard the carrier with the Navy F-35Cs and the CMV-22B Ospreys, Lincoln could take those lessons and alter what they brought to sea. As a result, Bauernschmidt said Lincoln decreased its deck density.

An CMV-22B Osprey, carrying the U.S. ambassador to Japan, Hon. Rahm Emanuel, Japan Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hayashi Yoshima, Commander, U.S. 7th Fleet, Vice Adm. Karl Thomas, Commander, Navy Region Japan/Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Japan Rear Adm. Carl Lahti, lands on Naval Air Facility (NAF) Atsugi following an official visit, to the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) on April 23, 2022. US Navy Photo

“Because we had a lot of Vinson’s lessons learned, we were able to sit down and take a very thoughtful look at how we were utilizing space in the hangar bay to try to ensure that we didn’t have anything we didn’t need, but we did have everything that we were going to need so that it opened up extra space for aircraft and a little bit of extra maneuver space to maneuver them around,” she said.
“And we got our deck density down quite a bit from where Vinson was and into a pretty good place. And then we were still able to provide a little bit more feedback for follow on carriers so that they can learn from what we kind of figured out as well.”

Bauernschmidt said she also took advice from Vinson‘s commanding officer about how to perform replenishments at sea to maximize the carrier’s ability to respond to missions if necessary.

“He talked about some of the pluses and minuses with different locations – impacts of sea space, or how flight operations worked. We try to ensure that we were postured very well to be able to react to anything that we needed to react, like we do every day,” Bauernschmidt said. “But when you’re alongside another ship, we were very careful about planning it so that we were – several times we launched aircraft while we were alongside replenishing to be able to respond as necessary and then we were able to continue about the mission.”

F-35C Operations

Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Equipment) 2nd Class Justin Mancha, from San Antonio, signals an F-35C Lightning II, assigned to the ‘Black Knights’ of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 314, as it takes off from the flight deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) during Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2022 on July 14, 2022. US Navy Photo

After employing the Navy and Marine Corps F-35Cs at sea, officials aboard both Vinson and Lincoln say they want more of the aircraft operating within a carrier strike group.

Anderson, when asked why he would like more F-35Cs, pointed to the fighter’s sensing capabilities. Both Bauernschmidt and Anderson described “seamless” integration of the F-35Cs into the carrier air wing.

“It’s the tremendous capability that the aircraft provides from an ability to generate information, the sensors that it has onboard, as well as its ability to distribute that information, not just to other aircraft but to the rest of the force,” Anderson told USNI News.
“It’s a testament to the platform and the folks that fly it too that it can integrate so well in with the rest of the air wing. We don’t have to do unique things with the schedule, the cycle lengths, etc. in order to accommodate it.”

Despite concerns ahead of the first F-35C deployments, Bauernschmidt said at-sea operations disproved some of those worries.

“I think like any new platform that’s introduced, there’s a little bit of angst about how it’s going to go. And I think what ended up happening when we got them was the realization that it was again a fairly seamless integration, regardless of whether it was Marine Corps or Navy,” she said.
“But I think in terms of the noise and some of the things they were concerned about from whether it was a deck density standpoint, or parts availability, or maintenance that they were going to be required to do, I think there were a lot more concerns that were fairly unfounded once, you know, now that we’ve gotten through this deployment [and] we’ve been able to see and operate with them.”

GAO Report: Navy, Air Force Declining Aircraft Mission Capable Rates

The following is the June Government Accountability Office report, Air Force and Navy Aviation: Actions Needed to Address Persistent Sustainment Risks. From the report What GAO Found  Mission capable rates—a metric used to assess the health and readiness of an aircraft fleet—and other related maintenance metrics trends have worsened since fiscal year 2015 for eight […]

The following is the June Government Accountability Office report, Air Force and Navy Aviation: Actions Needed to Address Persistent Sustainment Risks.

From the report

What GAO Found 

Mission capable rates—a metric used to assess the health and readiness of an aircraft fleet—and other related maintenance metrics trends have worsened since fiscal year 2015 for eight selected aircraft.

While the Air Force and Navy have initiatives to address unit-level maintenance challenges, neither service has mitigated persistent fixed-wing aircraft sustainment risks. A statute enacted in 2016 requires the services to conduct sustainment reviews for major weapon systems to assess their product support strategy and performance, among other things. GAO found, however, that the Air Force and Navy have not completed these sustainment reviews for all aircraft (see figure). Both the Air Force and Navy have plans to complete the required sustainment reviews by the end of fiscal years 2025 and 2035, respectively.

Without the Air Force and Navy prioritizing the completion of required sustainment reviews and updating their schedules to complete the reviews in a timelier manner, the services are missing opportunities to identify maintenance and other risks to aircraft availability. Further, neither the Air Force nor the Navy have completed mitigation plans to remedy maintenance challenges, risks, or related impacts identified in any sustainment reviews. As a result, the Air Force and Navy cannot fully address unit-level aviation maintenance challenges affecting aircraft availability required for training and operations. If Congress required the Air Force and Navy to submit mitigation plans to Congress related to maintenance challenges and risks to aircraft availability found in sustainment reviews, it would enhance the services’ accountability for taking the necessary and appropriate actions to address persistent challenges to aircraft availability.

Download the document here.

Navy Will Endure Strike Fighter Gaps Until 2031, Lawmakers Say

Despite recent projections that it would eliminate strike fighter gaps in the next three years, the Navy now won’t have enough jets to train and deploy efficiently until 2031, two lawmakers said today. Rep. Donald Norcross (D-N.J.) and Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.), the top lawmakers on the House Armed Services tactical air and land forces […]

Navy F/A-18 Hornets on North Island, Calif., on Feb. 15, 2022. USNI News Photo

Despite recent projections that it would eliminate strike fighter gaps in the next three years, the Navy now won’t have enough jets to train and deploy efficiently until 2031, two lawmakers said today.

Rep. Donald Norcross (D-N.J.) and Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.), the top lawmakers on the House Armed Services tactical air and land forces subcommittee, disclosed the new timeline during the panel’s hearing today.

Norcross, the chairman of the panel, noted the committee was “skeptical” of the Navy’s previous projection that it could get rid of its fighter gaps by 2025.

“And one year later our skepticism proved warranted and the Navy now informs us that the strike fighter shortfall will not be resolved until six years later in 2031 because of further unplanned reductions in F-35 purchases [and] the reduced aircraft inductions into the F/A-18 modification program,” Norcross said, referring to the Block II F/A-18E-F Super Hornets entering the Service Life Modification program meant to upgrade the aircraft to a Block III configuration.

Hartzler, the ranking member of the panel, said the Navy would “have a strike fighter shortfall through Fiscal Year 2031.”

“With China on a determined path to match and surpass the capabilities and capacity of western air forces, sacrificing operational readiness and accepting exceptional near-term risk for future longer-term modernization development is unfortunately no longer a luxury that the united states possesses,” Hartzler said.
“The large number of proposed near-term aircraft divestments coupled with decreased procurement numbers in both the Air Force and Navy budget proposals in [the Future Years Defense Program] raise concerns that the services are being forced to use their tactical aircraft fleets as bill payers for other modernization priorities,” she added, referring to the Pentagon’s five-year budget outlook.

Asked what the strike fighter inventory would be in 2027 or 2028 should a hypothetical conflict with China occur, Rear Adm. Andrew Loiselle, the head of the chief of naval operation’s air warfare directorate (OPNAV N98), said he could not provide a number. But Loiselle did acknowledge the projection for eliminating the strike fighter gap had changed from last year.

“We were at zero in ’25 last year. This year, we’re at 13 [in 2025]. We redo those numbers every month,” he said.

Navy officials as recently as March continued to say the service could mitigate the fighter gaps by 2025. That goal had moved up a previous projection by five years, from 2030.

But the House Armed Services Committee has not been convinced of the Navy’s math for some time and included language in the Fiscal Year 2022 policy bill calling the analysis into question. The committee has cited the Service Life Modification program’s backlog, the removal of 104 aircraft from the SLM program, fewer F-35C Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter purchases than previously predicted, and the delayed timeline for the F/A-XX program as reasons why the Navy’s math in eliminating the gap by 2025 did not add up.

Meanwhile, the number of F-35Cs the Navy is seeking to buy in Fiscal Year 2023 decreased from prior projections. The Navy is asking for a total of 13 F-35Cs in FY 2023. But last year the service projected buying 20 F-35Cs in FY 2023, according to a summary of the FY 2022 projections reviewed by USNI News. In that summary, the Navy predicted it would buy 20 F-35Cs a year from FY 2023 through FY 2026. But last month’s FY 2023 budget proposal showed the Navy buying 19 F-35Cs each year between FY 2024 and FY 2026.

The Navy also took away the combat-coded mission from its reserve squadrons, a move that a HASC aide previously told USNI News was a way for the service to reduce its force structure requirement for strike fighters and mitigate the fighter shortfall sooner.

Asked about the reserve squadrons on Wednesday, Loiselle said the Navy would instead use off-cycle aircraft to meet missions and deploy as needed.

“Our predominant response — should reserves be required — are to take a squadron or an aircraft from an off-cycle air wing that is outside of their sustainment window and utilize those aircraft as necessary to support frontline air wings. They all go through their maintenance cycle,” he said.

More F-35s, Spare Parts Included in Navy’s $4B Unfunded Priorities List

The Navy is asking for more missiles, spare parts and F-35C Lighting II Joint Strike Fighters in its $4 billion unfunded list of priorities to Congress as part of the Fiscal Year 2023 budget rollout, according to a copy of the report reviewed this week by USNI News. At the top of the list is […]

An F-35C Lightning II, assigned to the ‘Argonauts’ of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 147, launches off the flight deck of Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) on Jan. 6, 2022. US Navy Photo

The Navy is asking for more missiles, spare parts and F-35C Lighting II Joint Strike Fighters in its $4 billion unfunded list of priorities to Congress as part of the Fiscal Year 2023 budget rollout, according to a copy of the report reviewed this week by USNI News.

At the top of the list is $23 million to convert more than 100 early SM-6 missiles into combat-ready weapons and $33 million for 11 additional Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) over the 60 requested in the FY 2023 budget.

The Navy is also asking for $346M for ship spare parts across the fleet and training exercises as part of the Pacific Deterrence Initiative as the second and third priority items.

Lower down, the Navy has asked for six Lot-17 F-35Cs for $708 million.

The Pentagon cut F-35 acquisition across the Air Force, Marines and Navy from a planned 94 to 61 total tails. The Navy requested 13 F-35Cs and 15 F-35Bs in its FY 2023 budget proposal.

“The numbers did come down from a previous budget view and that simply reflects the balance of this budget request as you look at our portfolios increasing for ship construction, in [research and development] while focusing readiness,” Rear Adm. John Gumbleton, the Navy’s deputy assistant secretary for budget, told reporters during a Monday briefing.

In the unfunded request, the Navy said the Lot-17 F-35Cs would bring an 8000-hour airframe to the fleet, along with additional weapons capabilities.

The Navy wants two additional E-2D Advanced Hawkeye for $399.9 million to add to the five in the FY 2023 budget request.

The service has a requirement for 86 of the E-2D airborne early warning aircraft however is set to end the line at 78. The two additional tails will bring the fleet up to 80.

“This addition maximizes industrial capacity and will increase readiness, aircraft availability and reduce operational risk,” reads a description from the list.

The Navy is also requesting $446.2 million for three KC-130Js to create a squadron to replace the legacy C-130T aircraft as an intra-theater transport, specifically to move F-35 engines in support of resupply for embarked carrier strike groups.

USS George Washington (CVN-73) leaving dry dock on Sept. 27, 2019. HII Photo

Additionally, the service wants $43 million to complete the refueling and complex overhaul of USS George Washington (CVN-73). The Navy extended the delivery of the ship from December 2022 to March 2023.

The request, “funds $25M re-delivery cost and $20M in time related services totaling $45M. This is in addition to the $62M cost-to-complete funded in PB23 request based on updated re-delivery date shift after PB23 submission,” reads a description of the line item.

There is an $11.2 million line-item to expand the capacity of the Independence-class Littoral Combat Ship to use its Twin-Boom Extensible Crane to launch and recover the Mine Counter Measures unmanned surface vessel (USV).

“Funds enable Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) to launch (and recover) a fully-fueled ordnance-loaded Mine Countermeasures (MCM) Unmanned Surface Vessels (USV) from the Twin-Boom Extensible Crane (TBEC) through Sea State 4 conditions,” reads the request.

The Navy is also asking for $25.3 million to increase its marketing and advertising drive. The service stopped advertising on television in 2019., reported USNI News at the time.

“The operational recruiting landscape has changed following the pandemic and Navy is challenged in identifying and reaching high quality candidates, particularly in hard to fill enlisted ratings and officer designators. Individual propensity to serve remains low and these resources will allow Navy to reach a larger segment of the market that might not otherwise have considered service in the Navy,” reads a description of the line item.

Absent from the list are any funds to support keeping the Freedom-class Littoral Combat Ships in the fleet in any capacity. The Navy is set to decommission the nine Freedoms currently in service due to a combination of failures of the anti-submarine warfare package and costs to fix a class-wide issue in the ship’s propulsion system, Navy officials said on Monday.

A Generational Change in Naval Aviation Has Begun Amidst Tight Budgets, Fighter Gaps

NAVAL AIR STATION NORTH ISLAND, Calif. – The Navy is making the first major changes to the carrier air wing in a generation. The service just wrapped up the first carrier deployment of the F-35C Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters – the first new fighter jet on a carrier in 20 years – and is […]

A U.S. Navy F-35C Lightning II, attached to Commander, Joint Strike Fighter Wing, the ‘Argonauts’ of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 147, completes a flight over Eglin Air Force Base in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., Feb. 1, 2019. US Navy Photo

NAVAL AIR STATION NORTH ISLAND, Calif. – The Navy is making the first major changes to the carrier air wing in a generation. The service just wrapped up the first carrier deployment of the F-35C Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters – the first new fighter jet on a carrier in 20 years – and is a few years away from introducing the first unmanned aircraft into the air wing.

But while the Navy is moving ahead with new platforms and ways of fighting, it is still wrestling with maintenance gaps and a fighter inventory too small to deploy and train efficiently. The service is also shifting its strategy to focus on the Indo-Pacific, a vast region for the carrier air wing to operate in, after two decades of providing close-air support for combat missions in the Middle East and Central Asia.

In an interview last month with USNI News, Vice Adm. Kenneth Whitesell, the commander of Naval Air Forces and Naval Air Force Pacific, laid out his vision for blending fourth- and fifth-generation aircraft into the future carrier air wing and the transition to future sixth-generation systems.

Whitesell is also focused on remediating the backlog of Super Hornets waiting to enter the Service Life Modification program that will upgrade the aircraft and extend their service lives; implementing lessons from the first F-35C deployment to inform the future of carrier aviation; and ensuring it has enough fighters to meet its air wing requirements by 2025.

Vice Adm. Kenneth Whitesell, Commander, U.S. Naval Air Forces (CNAF), speaks at the West 2022 conference at the San Diego Convention Center, Feb. 16, 2022. US Navy Photo

“We’ve got a [master aviation plan]. We’ve got a strategy and the funding piece. We just worked last week with NAVAIR for program management – N98 for money coordination,” Whitesell said in a recent interview at his office. “As we build the MAP, we know where our deployments are roughly going to be and the modifications that have to be on the carrier and the modifications that have to be so that the air wing itself syncs – the capabilities, the [command and control], all the systems sync. So I’m pretty happy – I’m okay with where the strategy is right now. The lynchpin is going to be the funding piece.”

From modernizing the fourth-generation F/A-18E-F Super Hornets, to the ongoing integration of the F-35Cs into the carrier air wing, to a 2022 emphasis on cost-saving measures, Whitesell says U.S. naval aviation is on a path to eliminate fighter gaps in the next three years, while achieving new mission-capable rate goals affordably.

“We can’t afford the ultimate numbers that we have at this price that we’re paying today. We have to squeeze efficiencies out. And that is the 2022 focus for naval aviation, is the cost transformation,” Whitesell said, referring to the mission-capable rates the Navy uses to evaluate the readiness of its aircraft.

But Congress remains skeptical of the service’s math on its strike fighter shortfall, which the Navy says it can eliminate by 2025, five years sooner than anticipated.

‘Air Wing of the Future’

Two F-35C Lightning II fighter jets, attached to the “Argonauts” of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 147, fly in formation for a photo exercise in Lemoore, Calif., Nov. 16, 2018. VFA-147 is the first U.S. Navy Operational F-35C squadron based out of Naval Air Station (NAS) Lemoore. US Navy photo.

The Navy’s future carrier air wing will include a mix of both fourth- and fifth-generation aircraft, with the F-35C and the Super Hornets making up the strike fighter fleet. The recent F-35C deployment aboard USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) – the first fifth-generation aviation deployment on a carrier – featured a squadron of 10 aircraft, so the Navy could get the F-35 operating forward quickly.

“The primary driver right now is [to] get the maximum capability in fifth-generation platforms forward into the Western Pacific,” Whitesell said.

That’s why the next Navy F-35C deployment by the “Warhawks” of VFA-97 from Naval Air Station Lemoore, Calif., will include 14 planes – the number currently planned for F-35C squadrons.

“As Lockheed Martin continues to build, there is potential to go to 20 total [Joint Strike Fighters]” deployed on a single carrier, Whitesell said. “And now we have to decide whether that’s going to be a single squadron or whether it’s going to be two squadrons, or if [Next-Generation Air Dominance] comes along faster, exactly how we’re going to build JSF out.”

While increasing the number of F-35Cs and EA-18G Growlers in the air wing is a possibility, Whitesell pointed to numerous factors to consider – including the carrier’s “deck density,” the planned introduction of the MQ-25A Stingray unmanned tanker into the air wing, the new Ford-class aircraft carriers and the manning required for operating 20 F-35Cs.

Lt. Gavin Karski signals to a E/A-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft, attached to the ‘Zappers’ of Electronic Attack Squadron (VAQ) 130, as it launches from the bow catapult aboard aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) in the Arabian Sea on April 19, 2021. US Navy Photo

“We’re also looking at resizing what the helicopter community’s going to look like on the carrier, because as I plus up from 10 to 14, as I add five MQ-25, [keep the] Growler EA-18G at seven platforms, and then start to think about manned-unmanned teaming, now we have to wait until we transition to Ford-class,” he said. “The difference in the loading from a Nimitz-class to a Ford-class – we just did the experiments up in Lakehurst about three or four weeks ago – and the loading on Ford-class gives us a ton of different options on what future air wings are going to look like. Moving the island aft, having more capacity for storage, Gerald R. Ford is going to be a game-changer for us when it comes down to capability and numbers on a flight deck.”

Vinson’s recent deployment included seven Growlers, two more than the typical five in an electronic attack squadron, and Carrier Strike Group 1 commander Rear Adm. Dan Martin said the crew wanted more after seeing how the platform operated in the U.S. 7th Fleet area of responsibility with the F-35C.

“It’s a brand new aircraft with advanced sensors. So we like to pair them with the Growler to complement each other and when you fly around that theater, collection operations become a big deal,” Martin said of the F-35C during a recent USNI News trip aboard Vinson.

Now that Vinson has completed its deployment to the Indo-Pacific, Whitesell will hear feedback from the first Navy F-35C and CMV-22B squadrons to deploy. The “Argonauts” of VFA-147 Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) from Naval Air Station Lemoore, Calif., will be key to understanding how the F-35C operated in a maritime environment.

Whitesell said learning how the Afloat Spares Package maintenance kit worked aboard the carrier and how the squadron managed in the Joint Strike Fighter’s global supply chain is at the top of his list of questions now that the first deployment is complete.

“With our international coalition partners flying the platform too, when we ask for a part, did we lose out to another country when we were on deployment? Where were we on the pecking order? Right now, it looks like we fared well, but I need to talk to Lockheed Martin since they run the ASP and the global spares program – [Hybrid Product Support Integration],” he said.

The Air Boss said he also needs to look at the F-35C mission-capable rates during the deployment and see if the numbers are attributable to the supply of parts or maintenance aboard the ship.

A forklift offloads cargo from a CMV-22B Osprey, assigned to the ‘Titans’ of Fleet Logistics Multi-Mission Squadron (VRM) 30, on the flight deck aboard Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) on Sept. 4, 2021. US Navy Photo

“For that generation five fighter to be fully full-mission capable, what was the percentage rate – which right now looks on paper starkly low, but now, what systems were not up? And how did it really affect – if we had to go into conflict, what would that be? And then what do we have to do to fix it?” Whitesell said.

“Is it a supplies-based system or is it us talking to Lockheed Martin and their subprimes to understand what – through reliability control boards – what parts need to last longer? And then it also goes back to us – we don’t wait on just-in-time delivery of parts on the carrier. We stock the carrier and we have some repair capability on the carrier. What can I do to improve the range and depth of supply items? And then what can I do to potentially repair things on the ship as we move towards that model?”

During the recent deployment, the F-35C squadron found that some seals on the aircraft did not function as planned in the at-sea environment.

“There’s already [a] new design coming out of Lockheed Martin for the new seals,” he said. “So there’s some learning that’s been done. But those platforms have to be remeasured against the baseline to find out how they fared on this deployment.”

Strike Fighter Gaps

Navy F/A-18 Hornets on North Island, Calif., on Feb. 15, 2022. USNI News Photo

While quickly moving the F-35C out to the fleet will help the Navy mitigate the strike fighter shortfall, the service is also working its way out of a backlog for Super Hornet modernization.

The Navy’s stated goal is to eliminate the strike fighter shortfall by 2025, an objective Whitesell described as having several moving parts. According to the service, the current shortfall is 35 aircraft.

The Navy is required to have nine carrier air wings and has called for each air wing to include 44 strike fighters for a total of 396 combat-coded aircraft, according to a 2020 summary reviewed by USNI News. In addition to the strike fighters earmarked for air wings, the Navy says it needs 263 for training and development and 126 in long-term maintenance for a total of 785 fighters. These numbers do not include attrition reserve aircraft. The shortfall is the difference between the number of aircraft in the Navy’s inventory and the number of combat-coded strike fighters it says it needs to meet its missions, or 396.

“As a result of reforms implemented through the Naval Sustainment System—Aviation and Performance-to-Plan initiatives, the U.S. Navy has steadily reduced its strike fighter shortfall over the past several years from 65 in 2018 to less than 35 in 2022,” Whitesell recently told USNI News in a statement. “While the strike fighter inventory has been effectively managed to ensure that operational requirements have consistently been met, a further reduction in strike fighter shortfall will decrease the burden on our fleet maintainers.”

The Navy projected the shortfall would be 44 aircraft in 2022, 40 in 2023, 22 in 2024 and falling to 0 in 2025, according to a briefing provided to Congress with the FY 2022 budget submission and obtained by USNI News.

Working out of the backlog of Block II Super Hornets entering the Service Life Modification program will also help decrease the gap in Navy fighter requirements. The service is currently performing preparation work to ensure Boeing receives aircraft to upgrade in a timely manner and at an appropriate cost.

“We’ve done pre-SLM work based on what Boeing has seen. Now we’re in pre-SLM maintenance corrosion work – and those are the jets that are butting up against 6,000 hours – and once they get done, they don’t go back to the fleet. They go right to Boeing. We’ve completed 19 of those,” Whitesell said.

“We’ve done something called maintenance reset,” he added. “And that is, again, taking the data that we’ve found from Boeing … and we’ve gone back through and put jets through maintenance reset. And we’ve got about 40 jets – Block IIs – that are in maintenance resets. Now those will go back to the fleet, for those birds.”

Boeing’s SLM upgrades are meant to increase the flight hours of the Super Hornets by several thousand, and enable them to transport more weapons at longer ranges, with a little more stealth, bringing them up to Block III configuration. Boston Consulting Group also helped Boeing evaluate how to improve the SLM project so it could quickly move the Block II Super Hornets through the upgrade line and mitigate the backlog.

But the SLM backlog is a concern for Congress, particularly the House Armed Services Committee, which has cited the program for its skepticism of the Navy’s goal to eliminate the shortfall by 2025. Report language accompanying the House’s version of the Fiscal Year 2022 defense authorization bill cited the removal of 104 aircraft from the SLM program, the delayed timeline for the F/A-XX program, and fewer F-35C procurements than previously projected in calling the Navy’s math “highly circumspect.” Prior Navy projections said the service would eliminate the shortfall by 2030.

Aviation Structural Mechanic (Equipment) 2nd Class Teresita Joyce, left, from West Covina, California, Aviation Structural Mechanic (Equipment) 3rd Class Nathaniel Tucker, from Gilbert, Arizona, and Aviation Structural Mechanic (Equipment) 3rd Class Jmilriyon Jacobs, from Newport News, Virginia, de-arm a canopy for an F/A-18E Super Hornet attached to the ‘Gunslingers’ of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 105, aboard the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) on Feb. 8, 2021. US Navy Photo

A HASC aide recently told USNI News that the Navy appears to have reduced its force structure requirement for strike fighters, in part by taking away the combat-coded missions from the reserve squadrons, to mitigate the shortfall sooner.

“They also make rosy assumptions … about the performance of the Service Life Modification line in that it’s going to start putting out jets on the schedule that they’re planning for, but they haven’t yet actually executed to date yet, in terms of the time to go through the line,” the aide said.

Whitesell said the Navy is increasing the number of hours the Block III Hornets and the Block II aircraft are slated to fly each year. The service originally planned for each Super Hornet to fly between 210 and 230 hours per year, but now the Navy is increasing that number to 300 hours per year, Whitesell said. With the SLM initiative to upgrade the Block II Super Hornets from 6,000 total flying hours to 10,000, and then increasing the number of hours each aircraft flies per year, the Air Boss said he has a cushion between when the Super Hornets eventually retire in the 2030s and when the Navy’s Next Generation Air Dominance family of systems begins to enter service.

“We did not expect [legacy Hornets] to have to go beyond their service life. And there was no plan. That’s why we were stuck [with] more sand coming out of the hourglass than coming in. Now we’ve planned for it,” he said. “SLM has been a planned process by the program office. Now we have some capacity for Next Generation Air Dominance and F/A-XX development. So it built some space.”

An F/A-18F Super Hornet, attached to the ‘Red Rippers’ of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 11, lands on the flight deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75), Jan. 7, 2022. US Navy Photo

By increasing the number of hours the new Block III aircraft and the upgraded Block II aircraft can fly each year, the Super Hornets’ service lives have been extended by roughly 13 years, Whitesell said.

Eliminating the shortfall by 2025 is also contingent on Lockheed Martin delivering the F-35C on time.

“We’ve already had 15 deliveries out of SLM from Boeing, so the deliveries have already started – the fact that Lockheed Martin will ramp up their deliveries when it goes into the model, that’s why Adm. Loiselle has said that by ’25 … we won’t have a strike fighter inventory shortfall. And that’s the model,” Whitesell said, referring to the director of the chief of naval operation’s air warfare directorate (OPNAV N98).

But HASC is not convinced. A second committee aide noted that the Navy’s FY 2022 projections for F-35C procurement decreased from its FY 2021 projections. The service’s FY 2022 outlook showed it purchasing 20 F-35Cs each year between FY 2023 and FY 2026, while the prior year’s projections showed a buy of 22 F-35Cs in FY 2023, 22 in FY 2024 and 24 in FY 2025, according to the summaries reviewed by USNI News. The changes amount to a decrease of 8 aircraft through the year the Navy says it will eliminate the shortfall.

The summaries also show the shortfall projections increasing between FY 2021 and FY 2022.

“Overall, they decreased their strike fighter requirements in their inventory, which kind of had an artificial effect of ‘oh look … we don’t have as many strike fighters that we need to replace now,’” the first committee aide said.

“Basically they’re decreasing their force structure and then marketing it as, ‘oh look we’re resolving our strike fighter shortfall five years early,” the aide added.

Asked how the Navy would go from a 22 aircraft shortfall in FY 2024 to 0 in FY 2025, a spokesman for Naval Air Forces pointed to the Navy’s decision to use U.S. Air Force F-16 Falcons and Swiss Air Force F-5 Tigers for the service’s adversary squadrons.

“[I]n PB22 the Navy changed the Adversary Recapitalization Plan so that F/A-18C/D Hornets in two adversary squadrons will now be replaced with F-16 Fighting Falcons from the U.S. Air Force and F-5 Tiger IIs from the Swiss Air Force, instead of transitioning to Super Hornets in FY25,” Cmdr. Zachary Harrell told USNI News in a statement. “This resulted in significant savings in operational cost to our adversary units [F-16s and F-5s are less expensive to maintain and operate than F/A-18E/Fs] and a reduction in 20+ Super Hornets required in the U.S. Navy strike fighter inventory [i.e. a 20+ reduction in the SFSF by 2025].”

“Future budgets may affect strike fighter inventory management, but the Naval Sustainment System—Aviation and Performance-to-Plan initiatives continue to make strides in returning long-term-down aircraft to the fleet and the current U.S. Navy strike fighter inventory is the healthiest it has been in the last 20 years,” Harrell added.

But the committee in the report accompanying its version of the FY 2022 defense policy bill also voiced concern over this plan because the F-16s and F-5s will not be capable of surging for combat if necessary. Like the reserve squadrons, the panel at the time wrote that the Navy is taking away the combat-coded mission requirement from the adversary squadrons to more quickly eliminate the strike fighter shortfall.

“[W]ith the Navy transitioning their adversary squadrons to F-16 and F-5 aircraft, they’ve eliminated a longstanding mission requirement of the adversary squadrons in that they could in the past be available and counted as combat-coded F-18 force structure if ever needed to support a warfighting contingency operation,” the first committee aide told USNI News. “Since F-5 and F-16 aircraft they plan to use will not be combat-capable, the Navy has less combat coded strike-fighters in their inventory to be concerned about keeping relevant and crews proficient.”

Mission-Capable Rates

Aviation Ordnanceman 3rd Class Amber Krolicki makes adjustments prior to mounting ordnance onto an F/A-18E Super Hornet fighter, attached to the ‘Gunslingers’ of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 105, aboard the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) in the Arabian Sea on May 31, 2021. US Navy Photo

While addressing the strike fighter shortfall will help the Navy deploy more F-35Cs to the U.S. military’s priority region of the Indo-Pacific, the service also remains focused on the readiness of aircraft in its inventory.

More than three years after Defense Secretary Jim Mattis set a requirement for the Super Hornet fleet to achieve an 80 percent mission-capable rate, the Navy has increased the readiness goals for the strike fighters. While 341 mission-capable Super Hornets was the previous goal, Whitesell said the Super Hornets’ new objective is 360 jets.

“We’re pushing up in the 350s – the high 340s to 350s – and we’ve touched 360 about nine times since we’ve changed the number to 360. What we have found is that it’s not the NSS process that needs changing,” Whitesell said, referring to the Naval Sustainment System program, which adopts commercial aviation’s best maintenance methods to make Navy aircraft sustainment more efficient.

NSS is working, Whitesell said, but the impediment to hitting 360 mission capable Super Hornets is the logjam of Block II aircraft waiting for Service Life Modifications.

“We’ve found that the jets that are in our reporting inventory – the jets that are going into SLM, the ones that are in backlog at SLM – those numbers have been the biggest driver [determining if] we get to 360,” he said. “Once we get it moving so that it gets to the 12- to 15-month delivery, it gets down to the $6 to 8 million cost for delivery, and we start that assembly line of SLM birds coming out – it’s the inventory, not the process, that’s driving the road to 360.”

The Navy also now has a consistent method for calculating these mission-capable numbers based on operational planning and combatant commanders’ needs, whereas before, the service lacked a standardized formula for determining the rates.

“We applied it to two different reference models. One was the most tasking [operational] plan and the other was a set of plans that are run by the Joint Staff. So we didn’t trust one model. We calculated it both ways and we found out the numbers and the methodology for calculating MC – we could come up with a standardized set of numbers that, number one, was approved by the combatant commanders and, number two, with any MC number, there’s money attached to that because you’ve got to maintain it. So now we found something – a capability, or capacity – in building MC that [the office of the chief of naval operations] could agree with because they’ve got to pay for it,” Whitesell said.

The Navy has defined “north star” numbers, or a target number of mission-capable aircraft, for each platform. The objectives are 86 EA-18G Growlers, 34 E-2D Advanced Hawkeyes, 77 P-8A Poseidon aircraft, 128 MH-60S helicopters, 126 MH-60R helicopters, and 16 CMV-22Bs.

EA-18G Growlers, assigned to the ‘Black Ravens’ of Electronic Attack Squadron (VAQ) 135, and a P-8A Poseidon, assigned to the ‘Fighting Tigers’ of Patrol Squadron (VP) 8, taxi down the flight line at Misawa Air Base on Jan. 6, 2021. US Navy Photo

The P-8s and MH-60 helicopters are currently above their respective target mission capable numbers, while the Growlers and Ospreys are each fewer than 10 below their targets, Whitesell told USNI News in a statement this month. Whitesell noted the Navy is still getting deliveries for the Osprey squadrons, meaning the target number for the platform is more than what the Navy has in its inventory.

The Marine Corps is also following the same methodology to determine the mission-capable numbers for its aircraft.

“Now we’ve got numbers that apply to every platform in our inventory. And the Marine Corps bought off on a methodology to calculate their MC numbers too, and we’re using the same methodology across [the] Navy and the Marine Corps to determine what MC is like,” Whitesell said in the interview last month.

Finding Efficiencies

Navy Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Equipment) 2nd Class ShaMarie Martin, from San Diego, Calif., left, and Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Equipment) Airman James Luna, from Flint, Mich., signal to launch an F/A-18E Super Hornet, assigned to the ‘Blue Diamonds’ of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 146, from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) on March 11, 2021. US Navy Photo

Whitesell’s efforts within naval aviation come amid an unpredictable budget environment. While service officials have forecast flat budgets in the coming years, it’s unclear what the Biden administration’s upcoming FY 2023 submission will look like. USNI News recently reported that the Defense Department’s FY 2023 topline could be more than $770 billion, which would be about a $55 billion increase from FY 2022.

The Air Boss has been directed to look for money to maintain aviation readiness within his type command. Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Bill Lescher told Whitesell that any money he saves, he can keep within the naval aviation enterprise.

“Where can we find efficiencies, ruthlessly look at our processes, understand where we can do things faster, cheaper, we can make sure that parts are more reliable – working with primes, as well as other contractors,” Whitesell said.

“We can look at how we operate them on what we’re doing with some of the platforms and then how we can squeeze some of the money out. And we’ve found money to do that,” he added. “So this isn’t one where I just go with hat in hand saying, ‘If you want to have this requirement, you’ve got to pay me.’”

One area where the Navy could find efficiencies, according to Whitesell, is in naval aviation’s partnership with Naval Supplies Systems Command.

“They do the reliability control boards. So they know what we’ve bought, what the components are specc-ed to last for and then they do the analysis on every part in every platform that is a high priority part or a high fail time part. And then we try to understand why it fails,” he said.

For example, Whitesell said NAVSUP helped the Navy figure out what parts for the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye needed design tweaks or repairs.

“They found out why they were failing, [went] back to the contractors … and they’ve implemented some repairs on those components, or changed the engineering, changed the design form,” he said. “So time on-wing is what we’re measuring right now, and ultimately we just want the things to stay on the wing the way they were designed.”

Top Stories 2021: U.S. Navy Operations

This post is part of a series looking back at the top naval stories from 2021. Naval operations this year once again saw the United States Navy balancing presence in multiple theaters, as the U.S. withdrew from the war in Afghanistan and continued emphasizing the Indo-Pacific region. In addition to a U.S. presence in the […]

Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Dewey (DDG-105), front, and Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) transit the Pacific Ocean on June 13, 2021. US Navy Photo

This post is part of a series looking back at the top naval stories from 2021.

Naval operations this year once again saw the United States Navy balancing presence in multiple theaters, as the U.S. withdrew from the war in Afghanistan and continued emphasizing the Indo-Pacific region.

In addition to a U.S. presence in the Indo-Pacific, 2021 saw several U.S. allies send ships to operate in the region, giving American ships and crew the opportunity to drill with both European and regional allies.

While the U.S. Navy kept a steady warship presence in the Middle East, this year was the first in several in which the Navy did not have an aircraft carrier consistently operating in U.S. Central Command.

This year also saw the Navy’s first deployment of its new CMV-22B Osprey carrier onboard delivery aircraft and the F-35C Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters.

Meanwhile, the introduction of the COVID-19 vaccine helped the service ease some of its pre-deployment restrictions on sailors and resume some normal aspects of deployments like port calls.

The Navy also continued to grapple with the fire that led it to scrap the former USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6) and its pressing maintenance backlogs at the public shipyards.

Indo-Pacific

Sailors man the rails aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) as the ship passes by the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-70) while returning to Naval Air Station North Island, Calif., on May 25, 2021. US Navy Photo

The Navy kept a largely consistent carrier presence in the Indo-Pacific this year, as the new Biden administration sought to continue the prior administration’s emphasis on the region and China.

In its second deployment within a year, USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) spent the first several months of 2021 operating throughout U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. The aircraft carrier deployed at the end of last year with two of the escorts from its first deployment earlier in 2020.

 

The Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group transits in formation with the Makin Island Amphibious Ready Group in the South China Sea on April 9, 2021. US Navy Photo

In April, the TR Carrier Strike Group and the Makin Island Amphibious Ready Group drilled in the South China Sea amid heightened tensions between China and the Philippines. At the time, Chinese maritime militia vessels gathered near the Whitsun Reef off the coast of the Philippines, an incident the Pentagon voiced concern over at the time. Several months later, in June, the Philippines for the second time paused its plans to terminate part of the Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States.

Meanwhile, U.S. Navy ships performed transits through the Taiwan Strait at nearly monthly intervals for much of 2021, including multiple transits that received protests from Beijing. The repeated transits came amid increased concern in the U.S. over tensions between Taiwan and China, and as China on multiple occasions flew jets into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ).

The service also performed several freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea this year.

Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Equipment) Airman Luis Correia, from Boston, pushes back an arresting gear cable after an EA-18G Growler attached to the ‘Shadowhawks’ of Electronic Attack Squadron (VAQ) 141 lands on the flight deck of the U.S. Navy’s only forward-deployed aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) on May 21, 2021. US Navy Photo

USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76), the Navy’s Japan-based forward-deployed carrier, operated in the Indo-Pacific for part of its 2021 spring patrol before getting diverted to the Middle East.

Since August, the Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group has been operating throughout Indo-Pacific Command, drilling with multiple countries’ navies, including the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, the United Kingdom’s Carrier Strike Group 21, the Germany Navy and the Royal Australian Navy.

The Vinson CSG deployment features the Navy’s most sophisticated air wing yet, with the first deployment of a combined air wing with the fifth-generation F-35C and the new CMV-22B Osprey.

Middle East

Sailor directs an aircraft on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN-68) Jan. 24, 2021. US Navy Photo

This year began with the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group operating in the North Arabian Sea for the end of its deployment. It was the second year in a row that started off with heightened tensions between the U.S. and Iran. After originally calling for the carrier to come home, the Pentagon – citing threats from Iran on the anniversary of the killing of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force Commander Qasem Suleimani – kept USS Nimitz (CVN-68) operating in the region through the rest of January.

Shortly after Nimitz’s departure from the region at the end of January, the Makin Island Amphibious Ready Group moved into the Persian Gulf and operated in Central Command until another aircraft carrier arrived on station in early April.

After operating in the Mediterranean, the Dwight D. Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group eventually took its place in U.S. Central Command. It was the second deployment within a year for Eisenhower and one of its escorts – USS Vella Gulf (CG-72) – and one of two so-called double-pump deployments for the Navy this year, showing the continued strain on the carrier force.

Sailors from USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) hold US state flags on the bow of the carrier as it approaches Naval Station Norfolk, Va., on July 18, 2021. USNI News Photo

Eisenhower left for its deployment in February, allowing the Navy to offer its sailors the COVID-19 vaccine before they left Norfolk, Va. Around the same time, the service announced new guidance for sailors preparing for deployment to account for the availability of the vaccine. At the time, the Navy had been enforcing bubble methods and restriction-of-movement (ROM) sequesters to prevent sailors gearing up to deploy from catching COVID-19. But the February guidance allowed sailors who were fully vaccinated to remain at their own homes, instead of a hotel room or other housing, for the two weeks leading up to deployment.

IKE remained on station in the Middle East through the end of June, when the Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group entered Central Command to relieve IKE and support the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. It was the first time the Navy’s Japan-based carrier operated in the Middle East since the former USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63) supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Over the summer, the Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group also operated in Central Command to support the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

An MV-22B Osprey, attached to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 162 (Reinforced), takes off from the flight deck of the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima (LHD-7) during routine flight operations on Aug. 25, 2021. US Navy Photo

After the withdrawal concluded at the end of August, Reagan left Central Command in mid-September, having operating in the Middle East for almost three months. Iwo Jima also left the region in September.

Since mid-September, the Essex Amphibious Ready Group has been operating in the Middle East.

Atlantic

USS The Sullivans (DDG-68) has detached from the strike group and began her transit home on October 19, 2021. Royal Navy Photo

This year saw the U.K.’s maiden deployment for its new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08), which deployed with a multinational carrier strike group that included American destroyer USS The Sullivans (DDG-68) and Dutch frigate HNLMS Evertsen (F805).

In May, the U.K.’s CSG 21 operated in the North Atlantic with the Iwo Jima ARG for an exercise that combined the U.K.’s Strike Warrior drills with the United States’ Ragnar Viking drills that included multiple NATO allies.

That same month, NATO allies participated in the first phase of Steadfast Defender 2021, which featured 11 NATO countries drilling in the Atlantic.

The Navy this year also performed its Large Scale Exercise 2021, a massive drill that spanned both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters to test out the service’s operating concepts across staffs and time zones around the globe. During the two-week exercise, USS Kearsarge (LHD-3) performed a fueling-at-sea test in the Atlantic with USS Gonzalez (DDG-66).

Maintenance

Screenshot of YouTube video from May 31, 2021 of the hull of Bonhomme Richard arriving in the Port of Brownsville, Texas.

The Navy continued to deal with the fallout from the July 2020 fire aboard the former USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6), which was decommissioned earlier this year and sold for scraps to Texas-based International Shipbreaking LTD.

When the amphibious warship caught fire last July, it was was nearing the end of a maintenance period at Naval Base San Diego, where it was receiving upgrades to accommodate the F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter.

The Navy in July charged Seaman Apprentice Ryan Mays, who was working aboard Bonhomme Richard at the time, with aggravated arson and hazarding a vessel. The sailor’s Article 32 hearing took place last week and U.S. 3rd Fleet commander Adm. Stephen Koehler will decide how to handle the charges.

A guided-missile cruiser in port for maintenance experienced its own fire in July. USS Gettysburg (CG-64) was at the BAE systems repair yard in Norfolk, Va., when a small fire broke out onboard. USNI News reported last year that ships undergoing maintenance phases are at a higher risk for fire damage due to ongoing hot work and welding.

In response to fires the service has experienced over the years, earlier this month Naval Sea Systems Command announced it had created the Industrial Fire Safety Assurance Group (IFSAG) to thwart future fires and harness better practices can be used both during maintenance phases and when building ships.

USS Connecticut (SSN-22) Sea Wolf-class nuclear attack submarine leaving San Diego, Calif., on Dec. 15, 2021. San Diego WebCam Photo

Meanwhile, the Navy hit another hurdle that is likely to affect its maintenance woes when Seawolf-class attack submarine USS Connecticut (SSN-722) struck an unmapped seamount in the South China Sea in October. The collision damaged the ballast tanks and the forward section of the boat, USNI News previously reported.

The submarine earlier this week reached its homeport in Bremerton, Wash., where it will be repaired. But the public shipyards already face a submarine maintenance backlog and the Navy’s acting assistant secretary for research, development and acquisition told Congress in October that fixing Connecticut at one of the public yards would affect the logjam of work.

“If we ended up doing [the Connecticut work] in one of the public shipyards that would certainly cause perturbations in all the other work in the shipyards,” Jay Stefany told the House Armed Services readiness subcommittee at the time.

The Navy’s ongoing maintenance backlog has caught the attention of lawmakers, who have expressed concern about the service’s 20-year timeline for the plan to modernize the public shipyards. In response to this concern, NAVSEA chief Vice Adm. Bill Galinis said earlier this year that his team was assessing the potential to speed up the Shipyard Infrastructure Optimization Plan (SIOP) to a 10 and 15-year timeline.

USS Gerald R. Ford Needs Parts from Carrier Kennedy for Repairs; Navy Says ‘Cannibalization’ Won’t Delay JFK Schedule

The Navy is taking parts from an aircraft carrier currently under construction and placing them on USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) so the lead ship is ready to deploy next year, USNI News has learned. The parts are coming from the future USS John F. Kennedy (CVN-79), the second ship in the Ford class of […]

Carriers USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) and John F. Kennedy (CVN-79) at Newport News Shipbuilding on Nov. 12, 2021. USNI News Photo

The Navy is taking parts from an aircraft carrier currently under construction and placing them on USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) so the lead ship is ready to deploy next year, USNI News has learned.

The parts are coming from the future USS John F. Kennedy (CVN-79), the second ship in the Ford class of aircraft carriers that is currently under construction at Huntington Ingalls Industries’ Newport News Shipbuilding in Newport News, Va.

Capt. Clay Doss, the Navy’s acquisition spokesman, told USNI News the parts taken from Kennedy for Ford range from pumps to limit switches.

“Examples of parts include HMI screens for stores elevators as well as motor controllers, power supplies, small pumps, limit switches and valve actuators for various systems throughout the ship,” Doss said. “This is not unusual early in a program and will occur less often as supply support matures.”

Doss described the decision to take parts from Kennedy for Ford as a “project management tool” the service uses across programs.

“It occurred only after confirming the parts or materials were not available in the supply system and/or that alternate sources were not available,” Doss told USNI News. “A replacement plan was also required in each case. None of the parts transferred to CVN 78 are projected to impact the CVN 79 construction schedule.”

In a separate statement, Naval Sea Systems Command said the procedures were in line with Navy maintenance rules.

“In accordance with the Navy’s Joint Fleet Maintenance Manual, cannibalizations are being used as part of the process to augment readiness of CVN 78, and are only initiated after non-availability of materials has been established in the supply system or verification that alternate sources are not available,” Naval Sea Systems Command spokesman Alan Baribeau told USNI News in a statement.

Ford, the lead ship that has faced multiple delays and struggled with the reliability of several new technologies aboard, is set to deploy in 2022, USNI News recently reported.

A spokesperson for HII said the shipbuilder and the Navy are creating a supply network for the carrier class so the ships have access to spare parts.

USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) on Nov. 12, 2021. USNI News Photo

“A common shipbuilding practice for the first ship in class is to share parts between ships in order to maximize readiness until a class-wide supply system is established,” Duane Bourne told USNI News. “A relatively small volume of materials from the aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy (CVN 79) has been used on first-of-class U.S.S. Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) without impacting schedules. We are working with our Navy customer to build a supply system to include spare parts for the Ford class.”

The ship is currently in port for a six-month maintenance phase known as a Planned Incremental Availability after wrapping up shock trials over the summer.

“Everything is on track. We’re still looking to get out as scheduled after the six-month availability. No big show-stoppers that they’ve come across at all. So very, very positive news coming from the captain and from the shipyard. And then as we come out of that, I think we’re going to be set very well to get back in that operational mindset and get ready for the deployment,” Rear Adm. Gregory Huffman, the commander of Carrier Strike Group 12 who will lead the Ford CSG on its first deployment, told USNI News in an interview last month.

While the Navy previously planned to take delivery of Kennedy in two different phases as a cost-saving measure, last year the service shifted to a single-phase delivery approach. Under the new plan, the Navy will accept Kennedy with all of the modifications necessary to accommodate the F-35C Lighting II Joint Strike Fighter. The shift came after lawmakers included a provision in the Fiscal Year 2020 defense policy bill requiring that Kennedy be able to deploy with F-35Cs prior to finishing its post-shakedown availability phase.

“Under a single-phase delivery, Kennedy is scheduled to be [delivered] in 2024 with its complete warfare systems and with the Joint Strike Fighter (F-35C) capability that is required by the NDAA,” Bourne told USNI News.

Top Stories 2020: Marine Corps Operations

This post is part of a series of stories looking back at the top naval news from 2020. 2020 was a turning-point year for the Marine Corps. After previewing changes to come in his Commandant’s Planning Guidance released last year, Commandant Gen. David Berger released a Force Design 2030 document this year outlining major changes […]

Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Austin McBain, a fire support specialist with 1st Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company, I Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) Information Group, monitors a radio during exercise Summer Fury 20 in Yuma, Ariz., on July 14, 2020. US Marine Corps Photo

This post is part of a series of stories looking back at the top naval news from 2020.

2020 was a turning-point year for the Marine Corps. After previewing changes to come in his Commandant’s Planning Guidance released last year, Commandant Gen. David Berger released a Force Design 2030 document this year outlining major changes in how the service would operate and equip itself. No longer would the Marine Corps be a service schlepping around tanks for sustained ground operations; rather, it would be light and mobile, using small ships to maneuver around islands and shorelines to attack an adversary from all angles and challenge their ability to track and target the small and on-the-move units.

And Berger didn’t stop at just releasing the plan: divestments are starting, new units are forming, wargames and exercises are reflecting new concepts of operations.

“In my professional opinion, we have to change. We have to move out now,” Berger told lawmakers recently.

Force Design 2030

U.S. Marines with Charlie Company, Infantry Training Battalion, School of Infantry – West, fire an M98A2 Javelin guided missile system during a field-fire demonstration as part of the Anti-Tank Missileman Course at Range 204B on Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, Jan. 22, 2020. ITB trains, develops and certifies Marines as riflemen, as well as their primary military occupational specialty within the infantry field, before sending them to join the Fleet Marine Force. US Marine Corps photo.

Berger released Force Design 2030 in March, laying out the first iteration of his vision of what the Marines needed to morph into to be successful in the future: a focus on maritime campaigning; close integration with the Navy, especially in sea control and sea denial missions; an emphasis on small units that could maneuver around islands and shorelines and bring with them logistics, anti-ship missiles, surveillance equipment, or whatever else the joint force needed dispersed throughout the battlespace.

In some ways, this vision was a culmination of everything the Marines had been working towards: many of the concepts relied on using the KC-130J on expeditionary runways and using the F-35B’s vertical takeoff and landing capabilities to get into remote areas. But in some ways it was wholly new: no longer would the Marines conducting these island-hopping missions start out aggregated on an amphibious warship, drop out the back of the well deck in a connector and then move ashore for operations; instead, the concept would rely on Marines on small ships that don’t exist today, such as a Light Amphibious Warship (LAW) that is habitable for the crew for longer durations of time but can also directly beach themselves to put Marines ashore.

The release of Force Design 2030 wasn’t the end of the effort, but rather the beginning of a massive wargaming, modeling and simulation, and live exercise bonanza that will stretch into next year.

U.S. Marines with Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 3d Marine Regiment, traverse through water during an amphibious assault exercise, Marine Corps Base Hawaii, May 28, 2020. Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 3d Marine Regiment, and Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 3d Marine Regiment, conducted an amphibious assault exercise and military operations in urban terrain to increase littoral mobility proficiency in 3d Marine Regiment and advance the goals of the Commandant of the Marine Corps 2030 Force Design. US Marine Corps photo.

So far, the first Marine Littoral Regiment was stood up in Hawaii to start experimenting with things like long-range ground-based anti-ship missiles, as well as either LAW prototypes or surrogates to start understanding what operations might look like with these new units and new capabilities. The service also entered into Phase III of the Force Design effort, described as a “campaign of learning approach” where teams will basically stress test the plan as it exists today by asking difficult questions of it and seeking answers through wargaming and experimentation. Much of this learning will culminate in a massive 2021 Large Scale Exercise that will involve multiple carrier strike groups and amphibious ready groups and will focus on the new operating concepts: Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO), Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment (LOCE), and Expeditionary Advance Base Operations (EABO).

Though much is still to be learned through the ongoing campaign of learning, Berger is sure enough that they’re heading in the right direction to call for a restructure of Marine forces in the Pacific, to spread out beyond hubs in Japan and South Korea. While deterring China in the Pacific is his main focus now, later experimentation may look at creating alternate unit formations better tailored to challenging Russia in the North Atlantic, for example.

Of course, this is all coming at a time when defense budgets are expected to be flat or declining, so Berger said all along that he’d create a plan that the Marine Corps could pay for within its current topline. To do so, the service has taken a “divest to invest” strategy, announcing that “by the year 2030, the Marine Corps will see complete divestments of Law Enforcement Battalions, Tank Battalions and associated Military Occupational Specialties (MOS), and all Bridging Companies. Additionally, the Corps will reduce the number of infantry battalions from 24 to 21; artillery cannon batteries from 21 to 5; amphibious vehicle companies from 6 to 4; and reduce tilt rotor, attack, and heavy lift squadrons.” A further review would be conducted to see if the aviation reductions – specifically, limiting F-35 squadrons to just 10 aircraft each instead of 16 – should lead to a reduction in the planned buy from contractor Lockheed Martin.

F-35 Operations

F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 211 and the 617 Squadron sit on the flight deck aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth at sea on Oct. 6. 2020. US Marine Corps Photo

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter was among the best examples this year of the Marines pivoting in stride and refocusing towards Berger’s vision. Though fielding the F-35B and C jets has been decades in the making for the Marine Corps, ongoing F-35B and nascent F-35C activities this year nested well into the priorities of Force Design.

After spending 2019 learning how to incorporate the vertical takeoff and landing F-35B into the Marines’ island-hopping EABO concept, they took it a step further this year: incorporating the carrier-based F-35C into those plans.

The Marines’ first F-35Cs began flowing into Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif., in late January to support Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 314, the first squadron to transition to the next generation of carrier-based Marine aviation. In March the squadron was certified “safe for flight,” meaning they could train on their own without the supervision of the fleet replacement squadron, and earlier this month the squadron reached initial operational capability. Among the first things the squadron did after achieving IOC: demonstrating the ability to quickly rearm and refuel at expeditionary land bases, a centerpiece of EABO that will allow the Marines to stray far from their aircraft carriers and conduct stealthy missions on behalf of the joint force.

U.S. Marines with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 314 and Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 352, Marine Aircraft Group 11, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, conduct a new expeditionary landing demonstration with M-31 arresting gear Interim Flight Clearance (IFC), on Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif., on Dec. 3, 2020. US Marine Corps Photo

Noting an expected deployment in late 2021 aboard aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72), Maj. Robert Ahern, a pilot with VMFA-314, explained the urgency of the expeditionary landing and refueling, saying that as early as next year “we may be called upon to execute expeditionary advanced base operations. We need to be able to do this. This is something that hasn’t been done yet with the F-35C.”

A second tenet of future military concepts that the Marines’ F-35 community has focused on this year is interoperability and close collaboration with allies. In September, the “Wake Island Avengers” of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 211 flew to the United Kingdom to begin training ahead of a joint deployment aboard aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08). The U.S. Marines and their U.K. counterparts conducted a group exercise and participated in NATO exercise Joint Warrior off Scotland.

“With a total of 14 jets and eight Merlin helicopters, it’s the largest concentration of fighter jets to operate at sea from a Royal Navy carrier since HMS Hermes in 1983, and the largest air group of fifth generation fighters at sea anywhere in the world,” the Royal Navy said at the time.

VMFA-211 will deploy with Queen Elizabeth in the spring.

Major Events

Recruits with Alpha Company, 1st Recruit Training Battalion, wait in line at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego, Sept. 22, 2020. US Marine Corps Photo

Despite the global COVID-19 pandemic – and the relative ease of blue-water navy exercises compared to the greater precautions needed for amphibious warfare and other ashore training drills – the Marines kept busy this year around the world.

Perhaps most challenging was the rotational deployment to Darwin, Australia, which was put on hold in March due to the growing pandemic.

In May, the service announced it would resume its annual rotational deployment after Australia agreed to grant an exemption to its COVID-19 travel restrictions. The Marine Rotational Force-Darwin (MRF-D) would involve about 1,200 Marines – just half the originally planned 2,500, due to COVID – who would train in the Northern Australia region. All were required to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival in Australia, with COVID tests being given at the beginning and at the end of the quarantine period.

Though a smaller group than originally planned, with no manned aviation assets deploying this year – but some unmanned aircraft for intelligence-gathering – the group worked with their Australian counterparts on increased interoperability in command-and-control, fire support coordination and aviation planning.

U.S. Marine Corps Capt. David Reece, a joint terminal attack controller with 1st Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company, looks over his notes during Exercise Iron Fist 2020 on San Clemente Island, California on Feb. 6, 2020. US Marine Corps Photo

Prior to the pandemic, the annual bilateral Iron Fist exercise at Camp Pendleton, Calif., took place in January and February to help improve the capability of Japan’s first Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade, which stood up in 2019 and will reach full capability next spring. About 310 Japan Ground Self-Defense Force soldiers came to California to operate off USS Pearl Harbor (LSD-52) and USS Portland (LPD-27), with an emphasis on infantry, amphibious assault vehicle, reconnaissance and medical training.

Japan established the ARDB to better position its self-defense forces to thwart off and defend incursions into its 3,000-plus islands — particularly in the southwest, including the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.

Later in the year, Marines out of California were involved in fighting historic wildfires up and down the West Coast. In September Marine Wing Support Squadron 373 deployed to support the aerial firefighting mission on the Slink Fire, which spread onto training areas of the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center north of Yosemite National Park. Later in the month, 7th Engineer Support Battalion under 1st Marine Logistics Group at Camp Pendleton was trained for ground firefighting and divided into strike teams that would be paired with a corpsman and an experienced professional firefighter. The Marines ended up at the August Complex Fire, where they were given extra responsibilities such as protecting a helicopter landing pad from the encroaching fire.

Accidents and Safety

Marine Corps AAV-P7/A1 assault amphibious vehicle driver with Bravo Company, Battalion Landing Team 1/4, 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, drives an AAV-P7/A1 up the well deck ramp of the amphibious landing dock USS Somerset (LPD 25) during training to increase Navy-Marine Corps interoperability in the eastern Pacific on July 27, 2020. US Navy Photo

Eight Marines and a sailor died when their amphibious assault vehicle sank off the coast of California on July 31.

Fifteen Marines and a sailor from 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit were aboard the AAV that had been training on San Clemente Island and then swam into the water to return to USS Somerset (LPD-25). They reported taking on water, and while eight Marines were recovered immediately – one of whom was pronounced dead at the hospital shortly afterwards – seven Marines and the sailor were still missing.

Submarine support ship HOS Dominator was brought in the next day to assist in the search and rescue, and the Marine Corps paused all AAV operations. By Aug. 2, the Marine Corps declared the missing men presumed dead and transitioned to a recovery operation.

The sunken AAV and human remains were located on Aug. 4 and recovered Aug. 8.

Two investigations were launched – a Naval Safety Center Investigation and a Command/Line of Duty Investigation – and Commandant Berger said at a recent hearing that the command investigation was nearing its conclusion but that it hadn’t reached his desk yet. Still, in October the commander of the battalion landing team was relieved of command.

A Marine KC-130 crash lands in California Sept. 29, 2020.

In Marine Corps aviation, a KC-130 and a F-35B collided in air on Sept. 29 during a mid-air refueling. The F-35B pilot safely ejected. In a feat of fantastic flying, the KC-130 pilot from Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron (VMGR) 352 lost two engines, had a potential fire onboard, had just partial control of the aircraft, and yet landed safely in a farm field and saved all Marines onboard.

An MV-22B Osprey belonging to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 163, based at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, was extensively damaged while parked at a general aviation airfield near the U.S.-Mexico border. While the aircraft was unattended, a skydiving plane rolled into it, damaging the left engine compartment, wing and landing gear and both propellers.

Marine MV-22B Osprey after being struck by a Twin Otter skydiving plane on May 30, 2020. City of San Diego Photo

In March, two Marine Raiders were killed in northern Iraq while supporting Iraqi Security Forces in the fight against ISIS.

In July, an early morning shooting at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif., temporarily locked down the training grounds. After investigating, police determined a Marine died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.