During the deployment, two briefing papers circulated on board. The first was prepared for Vice Admiral John J. Mazach, Commander, Naval Air Force, U.S. Atlantic Fleet (ComNavAirLant), to deliver at the Air Board concerning an "expectation gap" between the readiness we expect to see in the fleet and the support that the Navy buys. The second was given at a supply conference by the ComNavAirLant Force supply officer and his Pacific Fleet counterpart regarding naval aviation support.
The briefs illuminated the fiscal and logistical challenges faced by Navy supply. The expectation gap stems from the difference between the Chief of Naval Operations's proposed full-mission-capable/mission-capable (FMC/MC) aircraft rates--which vary depending on whether the squadron is in a post-cruise standdown, working up, or deployed--and the rates that operational commanders require to meet tasking.
Fleet F-14As are difficult to maintain. The aircraft remain in service because of the budgetary compromises that borrowed F-14D money to pay for other programs. Without A-6Es, and until F/A-18E/Fs and Joint Strike Fighters (JSFs) become available, adequate numbers of all three F-14 variants (A, B and D) will be critical to maintaining a full deck of capable strike-fighter aircraft. Although our F-14As required considerably more parts support than did a representative F/A-18 squadron (one of three on board), the percentage of time that Nimitz had to go off-ship with a requisition was comparable in both cases. Overall, the ship did an outstanding job of providing F-14A parts.
Enhancements such as LANTIRN and the digital imagery improvement to the Tactical Air Reconnaissance Pod System (TARPS) have made the F-14 almost indispensable. Our squadron deployed with nine LANTIRN- and five TARPS-capable aircraft. The latter were not modified to carry LANTIRN, but aircraft in either configuration remained capable of pure air-to-air missions. The LANTIRN system, with its ability to discriminate among the most difficult-to-acquire targets, made it the wing commander's choice during the weapons-of-mass-destruction impasse. The digital TARPS, the ship's only organic reconnaissance asset, proved its worth daily, especially during several large-scale simulated interdiction missions where imagery of real-world targets was relayed to the ship within minutes--and then forwarded to the desk of the Commander Joint Task Force/Southwest Asia. We also deployed with a cadre of specially trained forward air controllers (airborne).
Prior to the carrier's arrival in mid-October 1997, Iraq routinely violated the no-fly zone. It took a lot of flying to enforce the no-fly zone restrictions--although rarely can crews fly enough to fulfill all training and readiness requirements. Most F-14 and F/A-18 strike-fighter crews will agree that as proficiency increases in one warfare skill, proficiency in others declines.
Do the CNO's goals for deployed FMC/MC aircraft reflect real-world requirements? If the full mission capable goal is 55% and the percentage of aircraft utilization goal is 43%, the FMC goal appears to be more than adequate. What is not so obvious is that utilization can spike dramatically when aircraft start coming back from sorties with down gripes and spares must be launched to fill subsequent events. What looked like a schedule requiring six aircraft (out of 14--a utilization rate of 43%) rapidly turns into one requiring eight (a 57% utilization rate) plus a ready spare--which translates into nine aircraft.
In a perfect world, the only variable influencing the repair cycle would be a component's mean time between failure: a part fails, the failure is identified, and a comparable ready-for-issue component is installed while the failed component awaits repair. The Navy's readiness-based sparing concept stocks spares based on historical failure rates and tailors an Aviation Consolidated Allowance List (AVCAL) of spares for each carrier according to her mix of aircraft. Theoretically, this is a sound approach to minimizing costs while maintaining readiness but the model is not always flexible enough to account for variations within the period of each AVCAL review.
Sometimes, parts are not the issue at all. Numbers of Sailors and their training can have a great effect on individual component repair cycles both on a squadron level and at the Aircraft Intermediate Maintenance Department (AIMD) level. While we were deployed, they were the biggest factors in aircraft readiness.
Table 4 shows the staffing of our aviation electronics technician (AT) work center; it is representative of the others. The work center averaged 13 hours of documented maintenance per man per day for the first month of deployment and an average of 10 per man per day for the remaining months.
Obviously, we did not have enough Sailors. Many, including several senior petty officers, had no previous F-14 experience. When asked, all listed lack of schools and training as serious factors impeding their ability to troubleshoot, diagnose, and repair discrepancies. Senior petty officers recalled when their aviation fire control training track (AQ--now part of the AT rating) consisted of 19 weeks of instruction that included troubleshooting and repair in classroom simulators and on actual aircraft. Today, the average AT en route to his first command attends a five-week course that is barely more than a familiarization. Later, he may attend another five-week course that many consider inadequate for the real world of fleet squadrons. We had excellent weapon systems, but our Sailors paid the price in terms of workload.
Poor reenlistment rates are another reality. It is a vicious circle: the high workload helps drive Sailors out; the same workload must be borne by fewer, less experienced Sailors; more get out. Replacements, including senior petty officers come from other communities. Although these individuals are motivated technicians, schooling and experience remain critical. Surveys indicate that at least one year of experience is required to troubleshoot and maintain the F-14 weapon system, and it is obvious that system knowledge is a critical factor in minimizing down time; we have lost that long-term experience. On-the-job training is a necessary building block, but we saw first-hand that it is no substitute for a sound base of theoretical knowledge backed by hands-on experience.
Given that initial training has been cut short, sending Sailors back to school for additional training immediately after their first cruise is crucial, because they will form the nucleus of technical experts for the next workup cycle and deployment. Personnel flow should be such that a stable group of maintainers is on board prior to workups and is sustained throughout the deployment. Our squadron lost 70 Sailors just prior to this deployment and a significant portion of those losses were unplanned.
Compounding the problem has been the loss of permanently assigned technical representatives. Their day-to-day presence was invaluable on deployments, where they not only fixed aircraft but also helped train our less experienced Sailors. Today, Tech Reps are provided on an as-required basis. Our demands were met (a Tech Rep joined us in the Gulf and remained on board two months), but the lack of continuity and the lag that occurs between request and arrival affect readiness and training.
The intermediate-level maintenance side of the house faces similar issues. Most of the F-14 test benches are older technologies that are as difficult to maintain as the parts they repair; slowly, these are being replaced by the Consolidated Automated Support System (CASS). In some cases, however, components that bench-checked okay did not work in the air; we experienced difficulties with an AWG-9 radar amplifier and the primary rear-cockpit radar display, often caused by similar manning and training issues.
Newer aircraft are not immune. The Lot 18 F/A-18C with the APG-73 Radar Upgrade is a state-of-the-art system, but the ship's intermediate-level maintenance department was inundated with so many bad APG-73 receivers that components were cannibalized from aircraft at Naval Air Station Lemoore, California, and shipped to the Nimitz because there were no spares. Air crews experienced reductions in radar performance that could not be duplicated on the bench. (It turned out that the CASS system monitored different parameters than the aircraft's.) The receiver failure rate was three times greater than its predicted mean time between failure, and spares were nonexistent. This part was consistently in the top five man-hour consumers category for AIMD, and at a cost of $200,000 per repair, it added up to $3 million per month.
Failure modes unfortunately do not announce themselves ahead of time, and a series of failures must take place before accurate trend data can be established to develop an accurate AVCAL model. F/A-18 cockpit video recorders experienced a mean time between failure of 100 hours on the cruise instead of the predicted 6,000 hours.
Reliability and low mean time between failure of components is an Achilles' heel for all aircraft--especially the F-14. Consider the ASN-92 Inertial Navigation System used by the F-14A and the S-3B. It was one of AIMD's highest repair-cost items; costs ranged from a low of $877,610 for 19 units in September to $2.65 million for 30 units in December.
The new ASN-139 ring laser gyro, which costs approximately $159,000, was a candidate to replace the ASN-92. The money was allocated, withdrawn, then a plan to install a next-generation embedded GPS/INS was considered; this went away because of recent funding constraints. Meanwhile, we spend millions repairing ASN-92 components, and aircraft operate with outdated technology.
The news is not all bad. Many of the parts and reliability issues discussed here are being addressed by the F-14 Operational Advisory Group and the Executive Steering Committee. During the past year, for example, the radar intercept officer's tactical information display and a modified computer signal data converter were installed in our aircraft during the workup cycle. In the past, the data converters were failing every three flights; during this deployment, however, we changed a total of 15 over more than 1,000 sorties. That is a measurable improvement.
As aircraft continue to age (the F-14B and D are scheduled to remain in service at least until 2010, and the EA-6B, S-3 and E-2C well past that), the greatest improvements to capability and safety, with corresponding decreases in maintenance time and expense, can be realized by bearing the upfront costs of replacing those items with the highest failure rates. Procurement regulations that prevent the replacement of an expensive-to-maintain navigation system with a new, precision embedded GPS/INS because the aircraft will not meet the five-year life requirement do not make sense when they cost us money. Capability, not cost, should be the driver.
Surprisingly, the difficulties inherent in flying from aircraft carriers seem little appreciated. A majority of surveys from maintenance Sailors indicate that aircraft spotting combined with cycle times reduced from the standard 1+45 of yesteryear greatly affect maintenance. On cruise, our Sailors often had 30 minutes or less to diagnose and repair a discrepancy. Given a limited number of aircraft to meet assigned taskings, this is where the rubber meets the flight deck. Maintainers often have to take an educated guess, order a part, install it, and rely on an aircrew to check the system in flight.
Although the demands of carrier aviation leave little room to alter this reality, the Nimitz crew did a tremendous job accommodating our needs. Inevitably, however, rushed squadron troubleshooters sometimes had to rely on intuition. Faced with a radar problem and no elevator immediately available to move a heavy transmitter to the flight deck, they might change a power supply instead of the transmitter; if they guessed wrong, a component was introduced into AIMD's repair cycle needlessly--and the aircraft discrepancy remained. In other cases, aircraft may sit and accumulate SCIR time when it cannot be respotted to accomplish a repair requiring a wing spread. These factors require further analysis to understand their true effects on readiness rates.
Finally, command philosophy and attitudes have a significant positive impact on readiness. Command attention to training issues and investing time in grooming aircraft during scheduled maintenance intervals paid large dividends in the long run. Serious attention to wiring integrity, connectors, and cannon plugs, for example, often eliminated discrepancies that appeared to be caused by a failed component. Our focus on these scheduled maintenance issues was a major contributor to the improvement of our readiness rates during deployment. But flying aircraft continually without going beyond superficial maintenance is a short-term solution.
"You can pay me now, or pay me later."
Lieutenant Porter is a radar intercept officer with VF-211.