The other major topic up for discussion at yesterday’s hearing of the Senate Armed Services AirLand subcommittee was the Navy’s “strike fighter gap.” Senator Joe Lieberman noted that the projected gap, which really hits out at around the year 2017, has fluctuated wildly between as many as 267 aircraft and as low as 125.
Marine Corps aviation chief Lt. Gen. George Trautman, admitted that the models used to calculate that gap are a bit shaky and susceptible to wide variations depending on the inputs. Critical variables include: JSF deliveries, force structure, usage rates, life limits, depot turnaround time, catapult launches and arrested landings and field landings. In 2009, the Navy estimated that the shortfall, or gap, to be 146 aircraft.
He thinks that with careful management of the legacy F-18 fleet, by which he means service life extension, close air support burden sharing between the Navy and Marines, and finding “depot efficiencies,” that fluctuating fighter gap number can be trimmed to no more than 100 in 2018. If JSF can be kept on track, that number can be reduced even further, he said.
The management “levers” the Navy has identified include: accelerating the transition of five legacy F/A-18C squadrons to F/A-18E/F; transitioning two additional F/A-18C squadrons to F/A-18E/F using the remaining attrition F/A-18E/F reserve aircraft; and reducing the Navy Unit Deployment Program (UDP) and Marine Expeditionary F/A-18A/C/D squadrons from twelve aircraft to ten aircraft per squadron
The F-18 fleet includes 400 Super Hornets and 635 legacy A through D Hornets. The 2011 budget requests $1.8 billion to buy 22 F/A-18 E/F Block II aircraft; the program will complete the planned buy of 515 aircraft in 2013. The Hornet production line is scheduled to shut down in 2015. All Super Hornets are being fitted with the APG-79 Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar system.
At the hearing, Vice Adm. David Architzel, the Navy’s point man on research and procurement, said additional F/A-18A-D SLEP options are under review as well as opportunities to minimize depot turn around times.