The US Navy’s nine carrier air wings (CVWs) are undergoing one of their most challenging times in modern history, writes Mike Crutch in Combat Aircraft’s new January issue, out now. Set against the service’s Optimized Fleet Response Plan (OFRP) — introduced in 2014 to define a new 36-month prepare/deploy/sustain/repair tiered readiness cycle for aircraft carriers and their assigned CVWs — the availability of full mission capable (FMC) aircraft has dwindled to levels that are approaching critical.
The backbone of the air wing — the Boeing Super Hornet and Growler family — is perhaps the worst hit with readiness woes. To illustrate this; in 2017, two of the Navy’s Super Hornet-equipped squadrons could only muster around six ‘up’ aircraft each during their critical pre-deployment phase — such a level should only be typical for a squadron in its OFRP maintenance phase.
With Super Hornets having served in the fleet since 2001, airframes have seen higher than foreseen mission rates due in part to participation in various extended campaigns in the Middle East theater of operations. Squadrons have been forced to cannibalize aircraft for parts on a frequent basis to provide serviceable airframes on the flight line or carrier deck on any given day. Although this practice has been commonplace for many years, a much greater demand has led to a rise in the overall number of aircraft formally designated as Long-Term Down (LTD). As defined under the current Naval Aviation Maintenance Program, LTD aircraft have not flown for 90 days or more.
The Navy has sought additional Super Hornet purchases in successive budget rounds in recent years to enable the removal of the tired F/A-18C from its front line order of battle, thus removing a major maintenance burden.
Set against the challenges of readiness and manpower shortfalls, the Navy’s tactical air forces are undergoing an intense leap forward in technology, not just with the advent of the F-35C. Warfighting experiences over the last 20 years have yielded new requirements, large and small, and these — in the most part — are now seeing a flow of funding from the Pentagon.
To read the full feature, see our new January issue, out now.