WASHINGTON – The U.S. Navy is slowly making progress to restore to fighting condition its hard-worn fleet of F/A-18 Super Hornet fighters, which last year had just one in three of its fighters ready to deploy.

Today, almost half of the Navy’s 546 Super Hornets are considered “mission capable,” a sign that the readiness investments made in the Mattis era are beginning to bear fruit.

In an Aug. 7 media roundtable, Navy Secretary Richard Spencer told reporters the Navy had been chipping away at long-term down aircraft that had been clogging the aviation maintenance depots. The Navy started 2018 with 241 fully mission capable aircraft, and that number is now at 270, he said.

Spencer credited the budget increases from the last two years for the turn-around, but also attributed the success to finding new processes that save time.

Specifically, he highlighted a program called the Depot Readiness Initiative. As part of that program, Spencer said, the Navy is letting the depots perform regular calendar maintenance as well as depot-level maintenance at the same time, a move that cuts out redundant work by performing scheduled and depot maintenance at the same time.

In the roundtable, Spencer said he was stunned at how badly degraded readiness was in the service when he took over.

“I didn’t have a full appreciation for the size of the readiness hole, how deep it was, and how wide it was. my analogy is you have a thoroughbred horse in the stable that you’re running in a race every single day.

“You cannot do that. Something’s going to happen eventually. … If you look at where we are now, I can tell you we’re a more ready and lethal force today than we were last year.”

Digging out

The Navy has been deeply concerned about the level to which readiness has fallen among its Super Hornet fleet. In February, Vice Chief of Naval Operations Bill Moran took a trip down to Naval Air Station Oceana to see firsthand the issues at the depot.

In an interview with Defense News, Moran said the problems stemmed from overuse as well as budget choices made during sequestration.

“We kind of lost our way a few years back when we were all doing everything we could to get airplanes and ships forward into the fight,” Moran said during the trip. “Then it went on and on and on, and I think that’s where the stress of not only the people and the equipment but also the processes started to break down.”

Getting money for spares to the fleet was going to make a difference, but said it would be hard to say when the investments would show significant results.

“I think for all of us it’s more up jets,” Moran said in a later interview. “We’ve got to have more up jets. One, two, 10, 100. That has to be the call to arms.”

Boeing, which manufactures the Super Hornets, has been a major beneficiary of the Navy’s fight to bring back readiness.

In May, the Defense Logistics Agency awarded a five-year, $427 million contract for Super Hornet parts and spares to begin working through a backlog of down jets.

Boeing also recently inducted of the first Super Hornet into a service life extension program that will eventually see Boeing working on 40 to 50 F/A-18s per year in its facilities in St. Louis, Missouri, and San Antonio, Texas. That program will fix Hornets in the worst condition.

The Navy is also adding new Super Hornets to the mix. The President’s 2019 budget request included 110 new Super Hornets planned across the five-year future-year defense plan.

David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.

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