A shortage of critical spare parts for the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet strike fighter fleet might’ve been helped by conducting logistics assessments that are supposed to take place every five years. according to a a report by the Defense Department’s Inspector General.
But the sea service undertook no such assessments from 2000 to 2018, IG found.
“Had Navy officials performed an overall independent logistics assessment as required for the Super Hornet Program from 2000 to 2018, the Navy would have identified causes for the deficiencies in obtaining spare parts and given the Navy the information needed to develop plans to correct the deficiencies,” the report states.
Today, the fighter fleet is plagued by a lack of key components that are either back-ordered, obsolete or rarely available at any price.
Manufacturers are either slow to repair parts or refuse to share technical data with the Navy so the service can create in-house solutions or buy new supplies from rival contractors, according to the report.
Some maintainers are cannibalizing jets to avoid sending future requests for parts high up the chain of command, IG determined.
IG warned that back-orders and cannibalization efforts might prevent the Navy from meeting “sudden increases in operations mission readiness requirements.”
Federal watchdogs reviewed five critical Super Hornet components — the center cockpit display, a precision-targeting sensor, a communication antenna, a rudder actuator and the system that generates the jet’s electrical power — and found the Navy and the Defense Logistics Agency failed to obtain enough parts to respond to demand and resolve back-orders.
It’s not a new problem and Naval Air Forces officials insisted to investigators that they’re implementing reforms to solve it, but the IG report published last month details the challenges the service faces in hiking mission-readiness rates for the fighter fleet.
When it comes to obsolete parts, investigators pointed to the display glass for the center cockpit display as one example.
The manufacturer only had 68 pieces of the glass left as of last December to support the repair contract, according to the IG.
Navy officials said they are working to approve a new type of glass for a display replacement.
There is only one vendor able to make the Super Hornet’s communication antenna and it “experienced delays in getting the production line running” when it moved from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania, leaving DLA without “a contract in place to obtain the antennas for a 13-month period,” IG found.
When a contractor can’t meet the Navy’s demand for repairs, the service can go find another company to do the job. But officials need to share technical data with a prospective new contractor and often the initial firm refuses to hand the information over, investigators determined.
Some contractors won’t even reply to Navy requests for the data or they charge prohibitively expensive fees to sue the data, further hampering the service’s efforts to develop in-house repair capabilities, according to the report.
When parts run short, maintainers begin cannibalizing jets, ripping out components and installing them in other planes, sometimes moving between several aircraft in the span of a few weeks, IG determined.
To chart how often that happens, IG pegged the number of cannibalization jobs per every 100 operational flights.
“From October 2016 through December 2018, for the E and F models of the Super Hornet the average cannibalization rate was about 10 percent of operational flights for the E model and about 12 percent of operational flights for the F model,” investigators found.
The IG report notes that each cannibalization of an aircraft’s part sucks up a maintainer’s time and raises risks for the jet or the component that’s being reused.
Parts get broken while being moved from one aircraft to another, and a jet’s guts often get exposed to the elements during the process, raising the chance for corrosion and other problems.
“Naval Air Forces Commander should review the Navy’s cannibalization practice to determine whether aircraft maintainers are using cannibalization to avoid approval from higher level officials as required by Navy cannibalization guidance and determine whether the Navy should make changes to the guidance,” IG wrote.
Navy officials said an assessment is underway.
Officials inside the Super Hornet program office blamed a lack of funding for some of the Navy’s spare parts woes.
But officials at the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations pushed back, saying that the program received reduced funding because it had “under-executed” its budget and all naval aviation funds were slashed from Fiscal Year 2013 to FY 2016.
During those years, the program office requested between $193 and $311 million, but received between $85 million and $136 million.
“Chief of Naval Operations officials explained that all budgets were reduced and that during that time…sustainment funding for naval aviation programs was not the priority with the limited funds available,” IG wrote.
Naval Air Forces agreed with IG’s recommendations to figure out which parts are obsolete, plans to minimize that impact and develop contracting sources to mitigate part delays.
Officials also agreed that they need a strategy to obtain technical data owned by contractors to increase the service’s in-house repair capabilities.