The reliability of the new airplanes proved equal to or less than the old ones, however. The first six Lot 19s were delivered to VFAs-83 and -34 with a known engine problem. Being told to fly engines to the failure point to validate a warranty item caused my operational risk management alarm to go off, so I pulled the suspect engines on delivery to get some welding done. Nothing looks sadder than an airplane with less than ten hours on the airframe sitting in the hangar with two bare firewalls. Other problems nagging the new jets included: Fuel controls, mission recorders, accessory drives, and flight control actuators. I had a brand new aileron actuator fail at 15 hours on a basic fighter maneuvering flight-very exciting.
The new APG-73 radar works great, except for one thing. If an individual component fails, there are no replacement parts available in the supply system. The same goes for the other advanced gear in the jet: motors, displays, stores management systems, mission and flight control computers, weapons pylons, most flight control servos, and the canopy most of which is not interchangeable with older lots. When we go on detachment with the new jets, one stays at Cecil Field with its guts ripped out to provide spares for the others. The final insult came in August when the wing maintenance officer informed us that even repairable parts we turn in to Intermediate Maintenance for a quick return would have to wait until 1 October, because AFM money for the fiscal year had run out two months early. Why in God's green earth are we buying these airplanes without a commensurate amount of spare parts?
Finally, one last observation about the Lot-19s. They were delivered to the fleet prior to completion of the electromagnetic verification testing that guarantees safe operation around the carrier. Unfortunately, no one told me until a month after I took one to the Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) for ten traps. Similarly, we were informed one week prior to an air wing missile shoot detachment that new software in the Lot 19s had not finished testing to the point where we could shoot missiles. Emergency waivers burned up the message traffic. Again, why do we deliver an airplane that is not mission ready?
My first skipper told me not to gripe unless you had a solution, so stand by:
Stop the pain. We're cutting the infrastructure too thin. The Strike-Fighter Wing requires a finite amount of support in the form of a base, runways, arresting gear, Fresnel lenses (Cecil now has 3-4 for 8 runways), fuel farm, crash crew, aviation intermediate maintenance department (AIMD), supply, barracks, eating establishments, commissary, day care, inter alia. Cost-cutting aside, we are below the minimum infrastructure needed to support 11 Hornet squadrons at Cecil Field. We've cut away all the fat. We're well into the meat and close to the bone. The intangible costs of closing Cecil Field are being loaded on the backs of the group that can afford it least: Sailors.
Buy more spare parts. There are all kinds of predictive models that should show us the amount and types of parts needed to support a given aircraft buy. The bad news is that we routinely under-buy parts to save money in hard times.
Buy good parts. If a manufacturer says a hydraulic drive unit is good out to 1,500 hours before failure and it routinely fails at 50, find a new manufacturer and sue the old one.
More commonality is needed. When a new whiz-bang capability is introduced, it should be bought based on the ability and money to rapidly backfit it to in-service airplanes.
Quit fixing the books. Liars figure, and figures lie. Documentation plays a huge role with NavAir bean counters. If we rob parts without a maintenance action form, or mask our cannibalization rate for the sake of appearances, it screws us in the long run, because failures aren't documented, and the need for a specific part is never seen.
Organizational-to-Depot-Level Maintenance (O-to-D) doesn't work. Nothing can replace the on-site component repair capability resident in my friendly, local AIMD. Right now, under the O-to-D philosophy, if I break a cockpit video recorder, it gets shipped to the factory in Connecticut for repair, with no local replacement available. I am without that recorder until it gets shipped back. What do they do in the Persian Gulf? Same thing.
If I hear another word about the "stake in the ground" that we put at 12 aircraft carriers and 10 carrier air wings, I'm going to puke. The money we're spending (or not spending) on airplanes, parts, maintenance, and training is not supporting the squadrons in commission. If we're not willing to spend the money required for 11 squadrons in the East Coast Hornet wing, let's reduce squadrons, carrier air wings, carriers, and commitments overseas until we reach a level we can support.
Living on a shoestring is maddening for both operational commanders and the airmen who live in the un-air conditioned barracks. We've cut to the bone and beyond. There is no temporary additional duty (TAD) money. I can't send people to school. Our latest missile shoot/orange air detachment was in doubt until the last minute because of TAD uncertainty. People at VFA-106 (the Hornet Fleet Replacement Squadron) are spending 120 days a year at NAS Fallon, Nevada, on $6 a day while their Air Force counterparts head out into town. We're managing the number of aircraft we take on training detachments based on TAD funding and available racks. Permanent change of station money is faring no better. When I left the squadron, we were hanging on to July rollers until October for fiscal reasons. Once again, I found myself gerrymandering the paperwork, in this case the FitRep 500, in order to compensate for money woes.
One thing I've learned in 19 and a half years of flying Navy jets is that money is always tight, you can't switch "pots" of money, and that everyone will share the pain. We've committed to downsizing the force with a bare bones budget. Don't say "rightsizing" it's a stupid word that is the joke of the fleet. We need to reduce the size of our operational force in order to match what's happening to our budget and infrastructure. Commander, Naval Air Forces Atlantic was on the right track when he proposed shutting down three carrier air wings for the last quarter of 1997. For too long, we've been writing big checks with no money in the bank.
Commander Warfield was the commanding officer of Strike-Fighter Squadron 83. He is on temporary assignment to Commander, Joint Task Force Southwest Asia.