Aging airplanes, a shortage of airframes and delays in the multi-service joint strike fighter are forcing the Navy to carefully manage its fleets of F/A-18 Hornets. Meanwhile, the Marine Corps, with an even older and less numerous Hornet fleet, is slashing two squadrons to keep the rest fully equipped.
The Navy flies approximately 350 F/A-18A/B/C/D Hornets in 20 fleet squadrons and about 270 new F/A-18E/F Super Hornets in 16 squadrons. Three training squadrons also fly Hornets. The last remaining F-14 Tomcat squadron and three Navy F/A-18C squadrons are slated to receive Super Hornets by 2008.
The Navy is currently in the middle of its second multi-year Super Hornet procurement. Production of legacy Hornets ended in 1999. The service plans to acquire no fewer than 460 F/A-18E/Fs.
The Marines fly just over 200 A through D models in 16 squadrons. Marine Corps Hornet acquisition ended in 2000 when it accepted eight D-models originally intended for Thailand. There are no tactical jets in production for the service.
In May, the Marine Corps unexpectedly announced that, in March 2007, it would decommission the all-weather Fighter-Attack Squadron 332 that is flying F/A-18Ds, and Fighter-Attack Squadron 134, which has the F/A-18A. It plans to redistribute the airplanes to other squadrons.
Squadron 332 had just returned from a six-month deployment to Al Asad, in western Iraq, where it flew close air support missions. For two years, the Marines have maintained Hornets at Al Asad--a commitment that effectively monopolizes a three-squadron force. In addition, the 2002 "tac-air integration" initiative requires the Marines to frequently provide Hornet squadrons to Navy carrier air wings. The Navy, in turn, occasionally sends Hornet squadrons to Japan to support the Marines' unit deployment program. The result is an unprecedented demand for Marine Corps F/A-18s.
"Any time you increase demand with a fixed inventory, you're going to use those assets more," says Lt. Cmdr. Marc Preston, who oversees readiness for the Navy's legacy Hornets. "Having a permanent requirement for Operation Iraqi Freedom for the Marines has increased demand. Demand for Navy airplanes has gone up as well."
The result is more wear and tear on F/A-18s, especially those belonging to the Marines. After several years of intense operations, fatigue-induced retirements have reduced the Marines' Hornet inventory to a level below that required to support the existing force structure, according to Lt. Col. Scott Fazekas, a Marine Corps spokesman.
"Obviously [JSF introduction] is a moving target, but it has slid to the right [past 2010]," Preston says. "Every time it slides, it affects Marine aircraft more than it affects Navy. Their issues are a little harder than ours because the Navy bought [Super Hornets] and Marines didn't with anticipation that the JSF would be on time."
Despite the overall health of the Navy's tactical air force compared to the Marines', a shortage of legacy Hornets requires careful fleet management, official stress. …