Thursday, August 13, 2009

US Navy Faces Critical Shortfall of Combat Aircraft



Currently, the US Navy has only one fixed wing combat aircraft, the F/A-18 Hornet. Originally fielded in numbers in the early '80s, A, B, C, D, E, and F model Hornets have been manufactured. All A and B models have been retired from frontline service. Some of the lower time A models have been modified into A+ models. Many C models are running out of airframe life, and are on the short leash to retirement. D models (two seaters) are used for training purposes only. E (single seat) and F (two seat) models are called Super Hornets, and are currently being manufactured by Boeing - however the last of these aircraft on order will come off the production line soon. For now, the numbers of Hornets (around 600 aircraft) are sufficient to fill the Carrier Air Wings with their full complement of strike/fighter aircraft, and all of the ancillary squadrons in the Navy that require the jets (though it requires using the A+ rebuild airframes to meet the needs).

The F-35C is due to come into squadron service with the Navy in 2012. the Navy's version is specific for carrier based operation - it is a very different version from the Air Force's version, or the Marine's vertical takeoff version. The Navy is currently planning on buying 360 of the jets, which are intended to replace all of the Hornets except for the E and F models. 2012 is a very optimistic date - no new aircraft has reached operational status according to the original schedule in many, many years.

What this means is that the Navy will experience a shortfall in fighter aircraft, beginning this year, and growing each year until 2020 at least. The numbers vary, according to who you listen to, but the most credible ones I've seen place the shortfall at around 240 aircraft by 2018. An operational Navy squadron has 12 aircraft in it, so this is equivalent of being short 20 full squadrons of aircraft. There are only about 40 front line operational squadrons at present ..... do the math ....

The Navy currently has 11 carriers. This figure will stay the same for many years - the future launching of the latest carrier, the USS Gerald Ford, will allow the USS Enterprise to finally be retired. The Navy has 10 Air Wings to deploy on those carriers. 11 Carriers and 10 Air Wings has been a handicap in this era of two conflicts - equipment is wearing out, personel are deploying much too often. The projected aircraft shortfall will mean that 5 of these carriers will have no combat aircraft to deploy on them.

Some members of Congress and Boeing (the Hornet's manufacturer) want to build more E and F model airframes, to help offset this shortage, and plug the gap until the certainly to be delayed F-35 comes on line. Other members of Congress and Lockheed are fighting this suggestion, afraid that it will take funding away from the F-35 program.

The Navy and its carrier force are the most mobile, most deployable force projection tool our country has. Every President, Republican or Democrat, gets constant updates on where the carriers are, what their availability is - so they can be used to protect American interests around the world. This pending shortage situation is going to severely hobble, if not cripple, that capability.


Title photo - F-18A+s of VFA-201, NAS Ft. Worth, photographed shortly before the squadron's disestablishment due to budget cuts in 2006 - by yours truly.

1 comment:

AP80 said...

Well said. I believe that our country is running on borrowed time. As you have so aptly put, without the squadrons, equipment and personnel to man these great fortresses of the sea, without investing in R&D required to keep pace with those who would attack our shores, our country will find out just how incapable we have become at protecting our freedom when the bluff is called.