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GAO: Military aircraft missing readiness target

An F/A-18 Super Hornet comes in for a landing on the deck of the carrier USS Lincoln. (Rob Ostermaier / Daily Press/TNS)
November 26, 2020

Key U.S. military aircraft, including some of the most common ones flown around Hampton Roads, have been missing goals for their readiness to fly missions for years, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reports.

The agency said the Navy’s Navy FA/18E and F Super Hornet fighter jets, its E2C Hawkeye early warning aircraft and C-2A cargo planes did not meet annual goals for the total time they can fly and perform their mission at any time between fiscal years 2011 and 2019.

The Air Force’s F22 Raptors also missed their annual goals for all of those years.

The Navy’s E2D Advanced Hawkeye, which is to replace the E2C, missed its goal in each of the six years since its introduction. Navy F/A 18 A- to D Hornets met their goal once in the nine year period.

“The average annual mission capable rate for the selected Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps aircraft decreased since fiscal year 2011,” the GAO said.

Analysts inside and outside the military have warned for years that a shortage of people and replacement parts could affect air operations and make the aircraft less safe.

The GAO’s review of 46 military aircraft found only one, the Air Force’s UH-1N Huey, reached its goal every year. Most missed their goals a majority of the time, with 24 never making the target and five hitting their goals only once.

For the Navy’s workhorse F/A 18E and F, with an average age of 12 years and time aloft averaging 3,526 hours, unexpected repairs, parts shortages and components that are no longer useful or are no longer being made were significant problems, GAO reported.

Maintenance costs account for $700 million of the Super Hornet’s $3.29 billion annual operating cost in fiscal year 2018.

The Navy has a contract with Boeing to extend the service life of the Super Hornet from 6,000 to 10,000 hours through modifications, but that comes with big maintenance cost increases since several life-limited components, such as particular surfaces on the aircraft, require replacement at 6,000 flight hours,

The Navy’s older F/A-18A-D fighters, with average ages of more than 27 years and average of 7,585 hours in the air, are operating beyond their planned service life, and the Navy aims to address the maintenance and supply challenges that come with that by allowing maintainers to work overtime to reduce backlog, and streamlining repair processes. GAO said.

For the other fighter jets regularly seen in Hampton Roads skies, the Air Force’s F22, the systems and structures that make the planes harder to detect and spare parts shortages have been challenges, GAO said.

Maintenance costs rose from $1.04 billion to $1.59 billion between 2011 and 2018, GAO said, citing constant increases in contractor support costs.

The Air Force is contracting to increase repair capacity for those “low observable” systems and structures and is securing additional funding for spare parts.

Besides its fighters, the other Navy planes vital to carrier operations are also aging.

The E-2C planes, some of which are 30 years old, are also operating beyond planned service life. while demand for the limited number of these aircraft keep them in the air a lot.

And the E-2D slated to replace it also faces maintenance and supply challenges, which the Navy is tackling by troubleshooting component failures and cannnibalizing parts.

Some of the downtime for these planes was due to an increase in inspections and maintenance needs and some because inadequate funding for spare parts when the planes are first fitted out, the Navy told GAO.

The C-2A, which brings supplies to aircraft carriers while they are at sea, is also operating beyond its planned service life, after modifications from 2004 to 2011 extended flight hours from 10,000 to 15,000 and landings from 16,020 to 36,000.

These planes with average age of 32 years and an average of 10,677 in flight, needed unexpected and extensive repairs to landing gears and outer wing panels.

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