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Weathering a Perfect Storm: Outgoing 3-Star Assesses Marine Aviation

Lt. Gen. Jon M. Davis, Deputy Commandant of Aviation, visited Marines with MAG-11 aboard Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif., Nov. 18, 2016 (U.S. Marine Corps/Lance Cpl. Jacob Pruitt)
Lt. Gen. Jon M. Davis, Deputy Commandant of Aviation, visited Marines with MAG-11 aboard Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif., Nov. 18, 2016 (U.S. Marine Corps/Lance Cpl. Jacob Pruitt)

Lt. Gen. Jon "Dog" Davis will retire this month after presiding over one of the bumpiest eras of Marine Corps aviation in recent history. During his tenure as the Corps' deputy commandant of aviation, which began in June 2014, the enterprise began to experience grave consequences due to a decade-and-a-half of combat. Hard-flown airframes received emergency overhaul, pilot flight hours plunged as flyable aircraft became scarce due to maintenance needs and parts shortages, and officials in 2016 resorted to pulling aircraft from the "boneyard" at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona to accomplish vital missions.

On top of that, the Marine Corps experienced a rash of high-profile aviation tragedies, most notably a January 2016 collision of two CH-53E helicopters off the coast of Hawaii that claimed the lives of 12 Marines.

Ahead of turning over his post to Maj. Gen. Steven Rudder, outgoing commander of 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, Davis sat down with Military.com at the Paris Air Show in late June for a brief interview in which he reflected on the current state of the Marine Corps and its future challenges. Some answers have been edited for brevity.

Q: You now have three weeks left at your post. How do you compare and contrast Marine Corps aviation when you came in versus now: what's different, what's changed?

A: Marine aviation, we're always in a quest for better readiness. I think we've done five, we're in our sixth independent readiness review right now, basically just, I think, understanding the science of readiness. I think [we had] kind of a perfect storm -- I think some of the fiscal hits, the budget hits were just kind of dumping at the time that we came in. It's understanding that, really going back and explaining to our elected leadership and others, understanding what that does to you.

And then for the Marine Corps, being good stewards of the taxpayers' money and taking care of our stuff. I would say it's not just the materiel readiness, it's the personal readiness of our enlisted maintainers. So things that I've learned as deputy commandant for aviation is the imperative to have high-quality enlisted, highly trained motivated incentivized marines in the right density, right qualification density, to make your readiness requirements.

And then the imperative to have your readiness accounts filled up. You can't operate at 20 percent of the 80 percent requirement for a long period of time and expect to be a force in readiness. So the imperative to go fill your enabler accounts, which we did, spare parts accounts with this budget cycle, five years out ... filled all those up. We paid a little bit of a price for that, but that's going to pay big dividends a couple of years from now. So we're working hard to make readiness for Marine Corps aviation. I'm very proud that we got our flight hours up. We still have some work to do with some type-model-series but we're getting better by hook and crook.

Q: So you came in during a perfect storm ... is the storm over?

A: I think we're doing what we need to do to be as efficient as we can be with the resources we have to make the readiness we need. I think that, as long as our elected leadership stays the course ... I think a continuing resolution would be a disaster for the Marine Corps. We need the help that's kind of projected to stay on track and if we don't have that, we're going to have a very hard time to get the nation's force in readiness.

So I think there's an imperative right now to get this right. If we can accelerate any of that, we should accelerate that. That would be buying the new stuff faster. Our stuff's older than anyone else, certainly our [tactical air], heavy-lift helicopters.

Q: What was your goal for where you wanted flight hours to be at your point of retirement, and where are we now in comparison to that goal?

We're shy. We're shy and frankly, the only way it would be possible to be better was to have more money three years ago dumped into the budget so I could buy more stuff faster. But that didn't happen. I think Congress has been very helpful with, 'hey, we codified our requirements, we used independent readiness reviews to lay out exactly what we needed to do,' ... but it still takes time to get some of the things laid in there. And then all the enlisted manpower stuff the officer stuff that we had to do to make changes to basically shore up the base from a foundational perspective, that just took time.

I didn't underestimate the time, I knew it was going to be difficult, I just like to close the deal and be as healthy as we need to be. I would love to be able to turn over to Gen.Rudder and [Marine Corps Commandant] Gen. [Robert] Neller the fully ready Marine Corps aviation department that they need today.

I'll be shy of my objective. But we're on the right path to get there and I've got the perfect guy coming in to replace me. Steve Rudder, he's really a phenomenal talent, great guy, very focused. We've got exactly the right commandant to put this together and recover that readiness and keep it on track. While we're a little shy of the finish line, we'll get to the finish line. But I would rather be at the finish line, and I'm not.

Q: What is the Marine Corps' average for pilot flight hours right now?

A: They are 16.9 per pilot. [By comparison, some communities were averaging under ten hours a month last summer.] You say, 'wow, you're making your goals, but I would say, some communities are a little bit above the target and F-18 [Hornets] are a little below. They're still about two hours shy of where they should be. And that won't get better until the inventory numbers get better in F-18 and the reliability gets better with the old airplanes. Right now we have a pretty high break rate on the legacy F-18.

Now we have an independent readiness review being run on the legacy F-18, both Navy and Marine Corps, being run by a retired Air Force 3-star, somebody who has never flown an F-18. We hired an outsider to look at it, and he'll tell us what we need to do to get the reliability up on the legacy Hornets and get our numbers up. We're going to get out of legacy F-18 faster, not as fast as we can, but I can't just walk away from our requirements. I've still got additional metal I've got to put on the line for these units.

Q: What does faster mean?

A: We changed up the sequence of squadrons that we're going to transition [to the F-35] a little bit inside the margins. So the next five TacAir squadrons to transition will be F-18 squadrons. So that will go from 11 Hornet squadrons to six, which we think with the inventory that's remaining will be a lot more doable than what we have right now.

With declining inventory, aging airplanes ... [we] police up the last good airplanes and fly the snot out of them until the end. That could be right now designed as 2030, but if Congress gives us more airplanes a little bit faster, the ramp rate could move back to 2026, which I think would be the perfect time to get out of legacy F-18s and legacy [AV-8B] Harrier totally.

Q: While the Navy has grappled with physiological cockpit episodes affecting pilots, the Marine Corps seems to have been fortunate in that regard. Do you believe that's accurate, and if so do you have any thoughts as to why?

A: The F-18 A through D has been primarily pressurization challenges. I think we're now attacking that holistically, pressurization stuff. On [on-board oxygen generation system] contamination, we're not flying [F/A-18] Super Hornets, but T-45 [Goshawk] we are, so we're very concerned about that. We do have Marines who have been impacted by that, and we're aggressively attacking that. That box inside the T-45 is same box inside AV-8B [Harrier]. But we pull air from a different part of the motor, we don't know why that's happening. But there's no better admiral than [Commander of Naval Air Systems Command Vice Adm.] Paul Grosklags to figure that out. He's a good friend; he's really good at what he does, and he's attacking it really aggressively.

Q: Finally, what do you think the biggest challenge for Marine Corps aviation is going to be in the next five years?

A: Manpower retention's going to be a big issue for us. It takes me a long time to build flight leads, instructors. I think the demand signal from the airline is going to continue to pull our guys if deployment tempo stays high. We're fixing the readiness bit, that will help. But I think the demand from the airlines is going to be something we're going to have to deal with to keep our people in the cockpit that have the qualifications, to keep our training base strong.

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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