A shortage of skilled workers and repair parts is causing backlogs in maintenance depots for Hornets and Growlers, creating headwinds in the Navy’s efforts to put more aircraft in the air, the Government Accountability Office found.

The Navy, which is chipping away at a readiness crisis among its fighters and electronic attack aircraft, is being hampered by a lack of skilled workers and capacity, specifically at depots on the West Coast at Whidbey Island, Washington, and Lemoore, California. Furthermore some parts needed to repair the Hornets and Growlers were manufactured by suppliers who have gotten out of the business, significantly slowing the process and forcing the Navy to cannibalize parts on aircraft to offset the delays, the September report found.

One challenge pointed out by the GAO is the distance between where aircraft are based and maintained and where parts are repaired for the E/A-18G Growlers. The Growlers, largely based at Whidbey Island, many of the components that need fixing must be repaired at the depots in Lemoore.

“However, according to officials, Lemoore’s depots have limited capacity to repair these aircraft, creating a maintenance backlog,” the report found.

The issue of manufacturers getting out of the business was at least in part caused by the Navy’s shorting of repair parts accounts during Obama-era budget cuts. A recent study found that between 2011 and 2015, as many as 17,000 suppliers left the defense industry. The Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Bill Moran discussed the supplier issues with Defense News in April, saying stable funding should get suppliers to come back into the pool.

“Stable funding is critical to an industry that needs stability in programming and budgeting so that they’re actively working to make sure they have the capacity to fill the resourcing of parts, spares, consumables and all the things that go with that,” Moran said. “If you are going to do ‘a couple of these here, a couple of those there,’ the vendor base here in the U.S. is not going to want to participate in that.

“So when we have down years in funding it makes it really difficult to contract on a timeline that satisfies the fleet’s needs. … That stability is now in the budget. What we now have to see is performance against that stability by our vendor base, by our primes and by our own teams in the fleet."

For now, the Navy is doing everything it can to fix the parts shortages with the workers it has in place at the depots, the GOA found.

“The Navy’s ongoing and planned actions include locating another vendor source, reverse engineering, cannibalizing parts (i.e., removing serviceable parts from one aircraft and installing them in another aircraft), or waiting until the part is available,” the report found.

Making progress

The Navy is making progress in its fight to bring up more jets, which last year had just one in three of its fighters ready to deploy, an issue driven mostly by high operational demand in the fight with ISIS.

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.

The Navy is also working with Boeing to repair the worst of its hard-worn jets.

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.