Engineers and mechanics are working furiously to keep enough of the Marine Corps' aging planes and helicopters flying longer than originally intended until the service gets new aircraft to replace them.
Years of war and maintenance delays have worn out many Marine airframes. That, combined with delays in the controversial F-35 joint strike fighter program, has left the Marine Corps with a shortage of flyable planes and helicopters.
"Our readiness numbers are ticking up, but they are still shy of what they should be," Lt. Gen. Jon Davis, deputy commandant for aviation, told Marine Corps Times. "We're not satisfied at all. We have a ways to go before we achieve full readiness recovery."
As of July 31, 465 of a total of 968 Marine aircraft are flyable, said Marine Corps spokeswoman Capt. Sarah Burns. The Marine Corps' plan to boost the number of flyable aircraft and the flight hours that pilots get calls for having 589 out of 1,065 fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft flyable by July of 2019, Davis said.
Last month, Davis ordered all non-deployed squadrons to stand down for 24 hours. The move followed three F/A-18 Hornets crashes between June and August. Two Marine pilots were killed in the accidents.
"Enough things came together for me to go: I want everybody to take a knee and tell me what they see from their foxhole," Davis said. "Everybody did that. We didn't see anything systemically wrong with that squadron or the F/A-18."
The Marine Corps’ aviation readiness crisis has gained national attention this year. Marine Corps Times reported in April that only a third of the Corps’ Hornets could fly. Later, the Marines had to take Hornets out of storage from "the Boneyard" in Arizona.
Currently, 90 of the Marine Corps’ 273 F/A-18 Hornets are able to fly, in part because of deep "sequestration" budget cuts that deferred maintenance when depots had to shut down and many civilian artisans who repair Marine aircraft quit.
U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Brian Zollars with the 242nd Fixed Wing Marine Fighter Attack moves quickly to attach a fuel hose to an F/A-18 Hornet Feb. 15, 2016.
Photo Credit: 94th Airlift Wing.
Under its readiness recovery plan, the Marine Corps expects to have 162 flyable Hornets by mid-2017 or early 2018, depending on how much work the planes need in depot, Davis said. But the demand for Marine aircraft may pick up before then -- in January, a new president will take office, and he or she may decide to increase airstrikes over Iraq, Syria, Libya and elsewhere.
Davis said the Marines would send all available aircraft to support an increase in combat operations, but he added, "I think it would stress the system to do that" because the Marine air component has been at war since Operation Desert Storm in 1991.
Davis constantly keeps track of how many planes and helicopters are flying. He has a chart that shows the number of flyable aircraft per month that he shares with members of Congress and Marine Commandant Gen. Robert Neller.
"Gen. Neller, he sees this chart all the time," Davis said. "This is my scorecard. This is how I'm doing as a [deputy commandant for aviation]."
Of all Marine aircraft, the CH-53E Super Stallion fleet faces the most serious readiness problems, Davis said. About 27 percent of the Marine Corps 146 CH-53Es are unable to fly because they need spare parts. Along with the AV-8B Harrier jump-jet, Marine helicopters like the Super Stallion have the Corps' highest mishap rates, according to Naval Safety Center data from fiscal years 2011-2015.
Over the next three years, the Marine Corps will repair all of its CH-53Es, he said. The process is expected to yield 16 refurbished helicopters every 110 days. The Marine Corps also plans to replace the CH-53Es with 200 brand new CH-53Ks between 2019 and 2029.
One way the Marine Corps hopes to speed the healing process is by asking Congress for money to buy more F-35s and CH-53Ks per year as part of the service's unfunded priority list, Davis said.
"If I could buy F-35s faster, I could stand down first Hornet and then Harrier squadrons," he said. "If I got 53Ks faster, I'd be able to get a little bit faster out of the 53E."
Davis also wants to make sure that the Marine Corps is keeping its best pilots, aircrew and maintainers, whom he worries could be lured away by the high-paying private sector.
"I see what the airlines are doing," he said. "They are hiring a lot of folks. Their demand signal for pilots and maintainers is pretty astounding and concerning."
Overall, the Marine Corps has enough pilots, but certain communities such as MV-22B Osprey squadrons need more enough qualified pilots and maintainers, Davis said.
"We're actively leaning forward at Gen. Neller's direction to make sure that we get out in front of a potential problem," he said. "I worry about everything, but that's one of the things I worry about a lot."
While Davis is confident that the Marine Corps will meet its goals of getting more aircraft flyable, he stressed that this push is more than a wing and a prayer.
"I don't use the word 'hope,'" Davis said. "If I said 'hope,' [you] can slap me around a little bit. Hope is not a method. We have a plan that drives us to that."
Looking to the future, the Marines are looking at new ways to use the K-MAX remotely piloted helicopter, which was used to move cargo in Afghanistan, Davis said.
Ultimately, the Marine Corps wants to develop a ship-based unmanned aircraft similar to the Air Force's MQ-9 Reaper, which can fire Hellfire missiles at targets, he said.
"I'd actually like to get a better capability than the Reaper but with a vertical takeoff and land capability that we can put aboard a ship," Davis said. "We've got about three prototypes that are in development right now."
Staff reporter Meghann Myers contributed to this report.