For the first time in six years, the Marine Corps wants to offer retention bonuses to pilots, the three-star general in charge of Manpower and Reserve Affairs told Congress on Wednesday.
"The commandant is going forward, requesting from the secretary of Navy and the secretary of defense authority to pay a retention bonus in three communities: F-35, F-18 — because the legacy platforms are our most challenged platforms right now — and then the V-22," Lt. Gen. Mark Brilakis said. "F-35 and V-22 are currently growing communities. We don't want be to caught short in those aviation communities."
Brilakis did not tell lawmakers how many pilots will be eligible for bonuses in fiscal 2018 or how much money they might receive. Separately, the Corps plans to offer experienced maintainers a financial incentive to re-enlist for four years, during which they will stay in their current squadron for two years, he said.
"This bonus is going to take that hard-won experience at the senior sergeant, staff NCO level, retain it in the squadron at certain numbers so they can train the next generation in those certification requirements," Brilakis told the House Armed Services Military Personnel subcommittee.
The moves come as the Marine Corps struggles to keep aging planes and helicopters flying amid nonstop combat missions and budget cuts.
When the Marine Corps shrank from 202,000 to 182,000, it ended up with fewer company grade officers than it needs in its tactical squadrons, Brilakis said.
"We want to make sure that we have the opportunity and leverage to maintain those young officers as they come out of their required commitment to us," Brilakis said.
Lawmakers are expressing growing concern about the militarywide pilot shortage and aviation readiness crisis, which could become even worse if Congress passes a temporary spending bill for the rest of fiscal 2017.
Half of the Marine Corps' 20 tactical aircraft squadrons will have to stop flying this summer if Congress does not pass a spending bill for the fiscal year, the head of Marine aviation said in a separate hearing on Tuesday.
The temporary budget funding the military ends on April 28. If Congress decides to pass another temporary budget, six Marine Corps F/A-18 squadrons and four AV-8B Harrier squadrons will have to cease flying operations, said Lt. Gen. Jon Davis, deputy commandant for aviation.
"I think that's a debilitating gut shot to the nation's force and readiness," Davis told the House Armed Services Tactical Air and Land Forces subcommittee. "That's the last thing I want to see."
The Marine Corps is flying some of the military's oldest aircraft, and budget cuts combined with problems with getting spare parts have left aviation readiness rates "unacceptable," Davis said.
"Of the about 326 aircraft I should have on my flight line, I could get airborne in about 146," he said.
Davis is particularly concerned about the Marine Corps' fleet of F/A-18 Hornets, which are showing their age.
"The F-18s I'm flying today, they got a 55 percent break rate," Davis said. "That means they're up in the morning, but they go off in the sortie — that first sortie of the day, they come back, and they're down. Usually we get two or three sorties out of those airplanes back in the day. We can't do that right now."
As of last month, Marine Corps F/A-18 pilots flew an average of 9.1 hours per month, but they are supposed to be flying 16 hours per month, Davis said. That lack of flying time will have an impact when today's pilots become tomorrow's squadron commanders, he said.
"I worry about five years from now, where we are, that we don't have the experience base to go, 'That doesn't look right,' and, 'Here's how you fix that,'" Davis said. "That's the debilitating impact of not having enough flight hours to generate for our youngsters right now."
The challenges facing Marine aviation could result in higher casualties if Marine pilots have to fight an enemy with sophisticated fighters and anti-aircraft defenses, Davis said.
"In a higher-end threat, we could have a hard time being as successful," Davis said. "We'll still go fight, because we like to fight. We'll go and we'll go with great aplomb, but I think we could have some additional losses we weren't anticipating."