Photo courtesy: ABC News
US Capitol, Photo courtesy: ABC News

Congress understands the desperate need to increase aviation readiness levels and they are targeting acquisition reform as a key function to help in the effort.

Bob Simmons and Chris Brose, staff directors of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees (majority) respectively, spoke yesterday about how to improve warfighter readiness through the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).  The NDAA is the annual bill that Congress uses to set policy guidance and spending authorization for the Department of Defense.

“We are simply not getting the warfighter what he needs when he needs it,” said Simmons. “Today the average Marine pilot flies 4-6 hours per month.  To put it bluntly, we fly about as much as North Korean pilots and about three times less than Chinese pilots. We don’t have aircraft [ready to fly for those back at home station]”.

Simmons noted that of 271 strike aircraft in the US Marine Corps inventory, 64 were flyable for a roughly 23% readiness rate. He emphasized the USMC is able to achieve readiness levels for those aviation forces deploying.  However, remaining pilots and maintainers suffer a “permanent loss of career experience” because they simply cannot train while back at their home station. Current USMC plans are to refurbish F/A-18’s from long term storage, known as the “boneyard”, in an effort to increase Hornet availability.

Troop caps in Afghanistan are also a hindrance for aviation readiness efforts in the Army. Current Army aviation forces deploy without maintenance teams because the Army is limited on how many soldiers can be taken overseas. The Army instead uses contract maintainers while in theater.  This results in spending an additional $101 million dollars above and beyond their normal budget.  Additionally, the maintainers left at home station see little to no training because their aircraft are in theater.

The two committee Directors are focusing on an incremental approach to acquisition as a key tenet of the 2017 NDAA. Congress wants to avoid huge quantum leaps with innovative weapons that incur operational delays and gaps in weapons systems availability rates (see F-35). Instead, the incremental approach says to slowly add to current war fighting capabilities and systems. The end goal is to get weapons systems to the warfighter in a timely manner.

Examples of this incremental approach might include the Infrared Search and Track System (IRST) for the F-18 Super Hornet. IRST is a game changing airborne capability that has yet to be added to the Super Hornet, even though the aircraft has been around for 15 years. The US Navy finally gave Low Rate Initial Production authorization for the IRST early last year.  Unfortunately, many of the aircraft are already halfway through their lifespan.  It must also be noted that there is a training lag time for pilots to learn how to effectively use the IRST.  No current Navy Hornet pilot has ever operated an IRST unless they flew F-14 D’s back in the early 2000’s.

Super Hornet with IRST Pod Photo: Lockheed Martin
Super Hornet with IRST Pod
Photo: Lockheed Martin

Simmons humorously noted that the current sluggish acquisition process has been a product of many years of layered reform. “The Berlin Wall came down and we adopted their [Soviet style] acquisition system.”