Wicker Reviews Navy, Marine Corps Aviation Programs

Seapower Chairman Outlines Concerns With Aircraft Readiness, Gaps in Fighter Fleet

March 25, 2015

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Senator Roger Wicker, R-Miss., Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Seapower, delivered the following opening statement at today’s subcommittee hearing to review Navy and Marine Corps aviation programs:

“Well-respected expert witnesses have testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that our nation faces the most diverse, complex, and potentially dangerous threats to national security in recent history.  However, instead of strengthening our military, and ensuring our men and women in uniform have the comprehensive training and world-class equipment they need, sustained budget cuts and mindless sequestration are damaging our military’s force structure, modernization, and readiness.

“The stakes are high during these challenging times. For example, hard-earned gains in the Middle East are increasingly challenged by the extremists of the Islamic State; Vladimir Putin’s belligerence continues to test NATO’s resolve in Eastern Europe; and the People’s Republic of China continues to expand and modernize its military, threatening to alter the balance of power in the Pacific.

“Given these global threats, I hope our witnesses today will elaborate on the impact that sequestration would have on Navy and Marine Corps aviation programs, the Navy and Marine Corps’ ability to execute our country’s national security strategy, and the vitality of our aviation industrial base.

“This morning, our subcommittee will examine four key areas related to the Navy’s aviation programs.

“First, aircraft readiness. There are problems with the Navy’s inventory of 600 legacy F/A-18C strike fighters is in poor shape.  Half of the fleet is in “Out Of Reporting” status.  This means that the aircraft are not available to train our aviators or execute combatant commander requests for aviation support.  We face these challenges because of delays in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, budget reductions that have caused an acute backlog in aircraft depot maintenance, and an extremely high operations tempo.  This situation has led the Navy to fly its newer F/A-18E/F Super Hornets at higher rates than expected, accelerating the consumption of their service lives.

“Second, our subcommittee would like to learn more about gaps in the Navy fighter fleet.  The Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Greenert, estimates that the Navy needs up to 36 new strike fighters to help mitigate a current shortfall of 104 strike fighters, with a potential peak shortfall of 134 aircraft in 2020.  Although Congress has not yet received a Fiscal Year 2016 unfunded priority list from the Department of the Navy, I hope our witnesses today will be able to provide more details on unfunded requirements for multirole fighter aircraft.

“Third, we would like to know more about the Navy’s plans for its next-generation naval cargo aircraft. Admiral Greenert recently made the decision to propose the replacement of the aging COD aircraft with the V-22 Osprey. I understand this plan involves shifting some planned procurements of V-22 aircraft from the Marine Corps to the Navy.  We would appreciate the Navy providing this subcommittee with the details and ramifications of this proposal, including the ability of the V-22 to fulfill COD mission requirements.

“Fourth, I would like an update on the status of the Navy’s UCLASS unmanned aerial vehicle program.  I understand that program requirements are still in the process of being finalized.  Our subcommittee has a particular interest in learning why the Navy does not plan to support the continuation of the Navy Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstration program in the interim.  This demonstration program could reduce risk in technology development for follow-on programs such as UCLASS.  We have already invested $1.5 billion to develop and construct two cutting-edge aircraft.  Over 85 percent of the projected service life remains on these two aircraft.  So help us to understand the Navy’s reasons for ending this development program.

“Turning to Marine Corps aviation, our subcommittee is aware of the Marine Corps’ issues with their legacy fighter fleet.  Testing is underway in Yuma, Arizona, and other locations on the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter.  This summer, a significant milestone will occur with initial operational capability for the F-35B.  However, there are concerns about the war-fighting capability of these initial aircraft. For example, he Department of Defense’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, Dr. J. Michael Gilmore, observed in his annual report for 2014 that the initial software for these Marine Corps aircraft will be delivered with troubling capability shortfalls.  Our subcommittee would like our witnesses to elaborate on whether the Marine aviators flying the F-35B in hostile environments after declaration of IOC have the appropriate levels of safety, reliability, and combat effectiveness they need.

“Finally, I would like an update on Navy and Marine Corps munitions.  Earlier this month, Admiral Greenert and Commandant Dunford testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that Navy and Marine Corps munition inventories may not be sufficient to support combatant commander requirements.  This subcommittee needs to understand the nature of the shortfalls in air-to-air weapons, as well as air-to-surface munitions such as the Joint Stand Off Weapon and Advanced Anti-Radiation Guided Missile.  I am particularly concerned with the levels of risk associated with insufficient levels of these weapons, which are absolutely vital to the execution of our current and near-term contingency operations."