The Marines put all their tacair eggs in one basket when they decided, in the early 1990s, to pass up the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and wait for a vertical take-off plane instead. That plane turned out to be the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter, and the Marines have committed to buying as many as 500 to replace around the same number of single- and two-seat F/A-18 legacy Hornets, AV-8B Harriers and EA-6B Prowlers -- necking down to one tactical airframe and saving loads of cash in the process.Sounds great, right?The problem is that the F-35 initial operational capability keeps sliding right thanks to weight, software and engine problems. It's unlikely the Marines will be able to field a squadron before 2012, several years later than originally planned. Meanwhile, in Iraq, the Marines are flying the life out of all their airplanes, putting as many hours on a deployed jet in just seven months as they would in two years back in the States.By the time the JSF enters Marine Corps service in large numbers, the service's jets will be around 25 years old on average. That's old for a naval jet. But when you talk about aircraft age, there's calendar age and then there's fatigue age. What with all the hard use in hot, sandy Iraq and on the Navy's carriers (to alleviate Navy force cuts, the Marines contribute several Hornet squadrons to carrier air wings), the Marines jets "feel" a lot older than they actually are.The result is premature retirement for dozens of tired jets, mostly Hornets. As the fleet shrinks without a hot production line to replace losses, the only way the Marines can keep its squadrons fully equipped is to decommission a few squadrons and redistribute their jets. Which is exactly what will happen in March 2007, when the Corps shutters VMFA(AW)-332 and VMFA-134 flying the F/A-18D and F/A-18A+, respectively.I embedded with 332 in Iraq this year, reporting on the great work they were doing supporting the ground troops in restive Al Anbar province. 332 is a fine unit with one of the best safety records in the entire Marine Corps, having last crashed a jet around 30 years ago. It'll be a shame to see them go.On the other hand, these force structure cuts themselves don't actually reduce the number of jets in Corps service. They just consolidate the existing jets into fewer, larger units that can fly and maintain the planes more efficiently. This is making lemonade out of lemons from trees planted a decade ago when the Corps pinned all its tacair hopes on a paper airplane that is only now taking shape, years late.Here's to hoping the F-35 pans out. If it doesn't, the Air Force can buy new F-16s and F-15s from production lines sustained by foreign sales and the Navy can boost its Super Hornet order (as has already been rumored), but the Marines are screwed. As long as nobody at HQMC is interested in the Super Hornet, there's no contingency plan.Pay 332 a tribute by checking out some of their Iraq snapshots at Flickr.--David Axe
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