The Budget Control Act Is Killing Naval Aviation

By Ensign Alex Sanders, U.S. Navy

Budget cuts also have reduced flight hours for naval aviators. With reduced funding and a limited number of “up” aircraft, aviators are not receiving sufficient flight hours to stay qualified on their respective platforms. Over the past decade, annual pilot flight hours have fallen from an average of 200–250 per pilot to fewer than 180 today. 4 These deficiencies will compound over time as today’s junior pilots one day become instructors, department heads, and squadron commanders with hundreds of hours less experience than those who led before them. It is a readiness problem that, if not solved now, will have lasting effects well into the future.

While Navy pilots are flying less, Navy aircraft are compiling more flight time than ever before. Nearly all platforms are exceeding their projected operational tempo and/or will exceed their flight hour limits well before the ends of their projected lifespans. Between the Navy and Marine Corps, there are 609 FA-18C Hornets in service today. The Navy is working hard to extend these aircraft beyond the designed 6,000 hours of flight time. More than 170 of these aircraft already have exceeded 8,000 hours, and the department is looking to push them as high as 10,000 hours—a leading aircraft already has more than 9,550 hours. 5 Of the 547 FA-18E/F Super Hornets in service, the average airplane already has flown 45 percent of its designed 6,000-hour lifespan. The remaining service life will not adequately meet operational requirements through 2035. The Navy currently has a service life advancement plan (SLAP) under way to achieve 9,000 flight hours and an increase in arrested landings and catapults beyond the defined aircraft life limits. 6

On the electronic warfare front, the Navy has taken delivery of 114 of 160 ordered EA-18G Growler aircraft. Since their initial operating capability, Growlers already have expended approximately 16 percent of their 7,500-hour life per aircraft and performed nearly 5,000 combat missions.

The MH-53E is approaching 30 years of service life, and these aircraft have accumulated more than 87,000 flight hours during the past 12 years alone. These platforms have become increasingly costly to maintain, yet there is no viable replacement. The P-3C Orion remains in service because of difficulties with delivery and combat integration of the P-8A Poseidon. The FY2017 operational requirements call for 117 P-8A aircraft; however, budgetary decisions have resulted in just 109 aircraft for final delivery. The P-3 initially was designed for a fatigue life of just 7,500 hours on critical components, but the average airframe currently has logged more than 18,700 hours. 7


The second major crisis facing naval aviation is pilot retention. Department head retention has fallen below three-, five-, and ten-year averages, and the trend is expected to continue well into the future. The retention shortfall may be due in part to intense competition from commercial airlines—which are trying to hire naval aviators as the industry faces its own shortage of qualified pilots. Another factor may be pilot dissatisfaction with the Navy regarding limited aircraft availability, reduced flying hours and qualifications, and their impact on career progression. These detractors, combined with increased operational tempo (deployments), excessive administrative tasks, and low incentive pay have contributed to dissatisfaction within the community. 8

Demand for pilots from the civilian sector likely will continue to rise, especially given recent changes to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requirements regarding employment to fly commercial aircraft. In 2013, the FAA increased flight hours required to be eligible for employment from 250 to 1,500. Coincidentally, Navy pilots typically reach the 1,500 flight-hour mark as lieutenants, when their initial service obligations are approaching expiration. To combat hiring pressures from the civilian sector, the Navy has attempted to increase incentive pay for aviators of all ranks. Aviation incentive pay (AvIP) was increased to a maximum of $1,000 per month, up from $850. Furthermore, aviation bonuses (AvB) were increased to a maximum of $35,000 per year, up from $25,000. 9

The Navy also offers two retention bonuses for aviators at the lieutenant/lieutenant commander (O-3/O-4) and commander (O-5) career points. These are the aviation department head retention bonus (ADHRB) and aviation command retention bonus (ACRB). The ACRB was reduced by $10,000 for FY2010 and canceled in FY2012. Not coincidentally, the rate of post-command O-5s leaving the Navy has increased steadily since 2009. To combat these losses, the Navy reinstated the ACRB in FY2015; however, senior aviators continue to leave the service at an alarming rate. The strike-fighter (VFA) and electronic warfare (VAQ) communities have been hit hardest by the shortage of O-4s. The VAQ community has not had sufficient numbers to fill department head billets since 2011. For active-duty year groups 2004 to 2006, only 16 of the required 34 billets have been filled. The VFA community is facing a similar manning issue, having filled only 116 of 149 department head slots. 10


The third major issue facing naval aviation is modernization and acquisition of new airframes. Nearly every Navy and Marine Corps airframe is currently in a period of transition, leading to expanding costs and a need for better funding and maintenance capabilities to ensure operational capability. The F-35B and F-35C are set to replace the Marine Corps’ A/V-8B and F/A-18 aircraft during the next decade. During this transition, existing F/A-18A-F and AV-8B aircraft will continue to receive enhancements to sustain their capabilities. Other modernizations taking place are the replacement of the E-2C with the E-2D, the P-3C with the P-8A, the EA-6B with the EA-18G, and the C-2A with the CMV-22. 11

Many of these platforms have not yet been delivered in full and others are not yet fully capable of fulfilling the roles of their predecessors. There are currently 547 F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, with deliveries scheduled to continue through 2020. To date, 170 F-35s have been delivered to testing, training, and operational sites, with the Navy and Marine Corps contracted to receive 680 F-35 aircraft. The P-8 is currently conducting its fifth and sixth operational deployments, with all 12 P-3C squadrons scheduled to transition to the P-8A by FY2019. Unfortunately, because of budget constraints, only 109 of the required 117 aircraft will be delivered. The MH-53E continues to operate beyond its designed life cycle, and the Navy has yet to put forward a plan for any feasible platform to replace it. Expenses to maintain the MH-53E continue to skyrocket. All 260 MH-60S helicopters have been delivered, and the 280th and final MH-60R is expected for delivery in FY2018. 12


Years of surging operational tempo combined with reductions in funding have strained critical components of naval aviation. Navy aircraft and the people who operate them are at the lowest level of readiness in decades while emerging threats are perhaps at their greatest. Minimum flight hours to maintain qualifications are not being met, and a large majority of our training and non-deployed aircraft are grounded because of maintenance needs. Our pilots are leaving at an alarming rate and taking with them years of invaluable experience needed to fight and win our nation’s wars. Finally, delays to repairs and procurement of new systems have placed higher-than-expected operational demands on today’s aircraft, causing record maintenance costs and a dire need for replacement aircraft that simply do not exist or are not ready for operational deployments. Without a restoration of funding to pre-BCA levels, these negative trends in naval aviation will continue, creating even greater hardships in the years ahead.

1.House Armed Services Committee, Subcommittee on Readiness, Hearing on the Current State of the U.S. Navy, 115th Congress, 1st session, 2017.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Sarah Sicard,”The Military Has a Flight-Readiness Problem That’s Not Going Away.” Task & Purpose, 30 July 2016. .

5. House Armed Services Committee, Subcommittee on Seapower, Hearing on Navy and Marine Corps Aviation Programs, 114th Congress, 1st session, 2016.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. House Armed Services Committee, Subcommittee on Military Personnel, Hearing on the Military Pilot Shortage, 115th Congress, 1st session, 2017.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.

11. Senate Armed Services Committee, Subcommittee on Seapower, Hearing on the Navy and Marine Corps Aviation Programs. 114th Congress. 1st Session. 2016.

12. Ibid.

Ensign Sanders  was commissioned from the U.S. Naval Academy in May and will start pilot training in September 2017. 
Photo Credit: CDR Greg Sanders, U.S. Navy




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