Jump to content
Sign in to follow this  

Op tempo hurts aircraft training, maintenance

Recommended Posts

By Kimberly Johnson - Staff writer

Posted : Tuesday Mar 4, 2008 12:13:24 EST


Combat deployments are stretching Marine air resources thin as the Corps prepares to ship more than two-thirds of its squadrons off to war at once and use those aircraft at more than twice the planned rate.


Rigorous combat deployment tempos for aircraft, pilots and crews have prompted the Corps to seek innovations in maintenance and training scheduling, while busy flight crews go without shipboard training and other routine practice, officials said.


The Corps will have about 70 percent of its aircraft assets deployed between its current Iraq operations and the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit in Afghanistan, Maj. Eric Dent, spokesman for Marine Corps Headquarters in Washington, wrote in an e-mail.


That operational tempo is up significantly from pre-Iraq rates, when only about half of the Corps’ aviation assets were typically deployed with MEUs, through unit deployment programs, forward deployments and tactical air integration with the Navy aboard carriers, he said.


With the increase in deployments comes a corresponding spike in operations. For example, the Corps’ fleet of AH-1W Super Cobras flew an average of 39.3 hours each in December 2007, more than twice the 16 hours planned. EA-6B Prowlers flew an average of 147.7 hours each that month, almost six times the planned rate of 25.3 hours.


The Prowler rates are striking, said Robert Work, of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.


“You’re just wearing that thing out,” Work said. “The figures are quite sobering. It just gives you a sense of just how hard it’s been to sustain these operations.”


The longer the tempo is sustained, the more maintenance becomes a burden and training starts to slide, he explained.


“At some point, the fear is that this would really start to cause long-term problems in the force,” Work said. “It’s already for certain that all these aircraft are wearing out much faster than anticipated.”


The Corps will either have to spend money for service life extension programs or speed up replacements, he said.


Moving the bulk of air operations to the war zone has meant plenty of deployments for air traffic control crews, as well. In 2006, the Corps reported 337,882 flights in Iraq, with 157,486 alone occurring at Al Asad Air Base in Anbar province.


By 2007, that number had grown by more than 10 percent, to more than 375,000 across Iraq with nearly 175,000 of those occurring at Al Asad, Dent said.


These operational demands are shortening time at home for aviation units, in some cases making the situation worse for aircrews than ground-pounders.


Of all Marine aviation assets, unmanned aerial vehicle squadrons are seeing the tightest turnaround time, averaging about 8.3 months home for every 10 months deployed from 2004 to 2007, about two fewer months stateside than most ground units enjoyed. Marine aerial refueler transport squadrons sit at the other end of the spectrum, however, averaging 28 months home for every 10 months deployed, Dent said.


Getting the Corps to a 1-to-2 deployment cycle — seven months deployed for every 14 months home — has been a top goal for Commandant Gen. James Conway since he assumed his post in late 2006.


“Our deployment cycles must not only support training for irregular warfare, they must also provide sufficient time for recovery and maintenance as well as training for other contingency missions,” Conway said in his Commandant’s Planning Guidance.


Seven of the Corps’ 10 deployed squadrons — not including the MV-22 Osprey squadron that deployed in 2007 — remain below the 1-to-2 deployment-to-dwell ratio, Dent pointed out.


“Things are getting better, but changes like [202,000] end-strength increases take time to have an impact,” he said.


Aviation officials know the tempo only can go on so long.


“As you get below that 1-to-2 threshold, you’re certainly surging. So where’s that red line?” said Lt. Col. Vance Cryer, aviation operations officer for Marine Corps Plans.


Maintain what you’ve got

Maintaining aircraft in the combat zone helps keeps the breaking point at bay, Corps officials said.


“We’re flying aircraft at twice the normal rate,” said Col. Pierre Garant, director of the Marine Corps’ aviation reset program, who acknowledged in a phone interview that the tempo pace and operating environment have created maintenance challenges.


Desert heat and fine, dustlike sand can cause friction and break down seals on hydraulic components, said Marine Corps aircraft maintenance officer Lt. Col. Charles Brown.


Phased maintenance is done on the squadron level and dictated by the requirements unique to each aircraft model, Garant said.


For example, F/A-18 Hornets flew about 107.1 hours in December, up from their planned 26.4 hours. Phased maintenance on the aircraft is scheduled every 200 hours, making maintenance requirements normally conducted every eight months necessary every two months, Brown said.


Those maintenance pressures have prompted the Corps to push depot-level capabilities into the combat zone, he added. Depot-level maintenance includes thorough on-site inspections of the aircraft and all its components, as well as preventative maintenance.


It’s a move that has required investment. The Corps spent $34.25 million in aviation combat sustainment in fiscal 2007 for aircraft inspections and contractor field teams to keep aircraft flying in Iraq, Dent said.


“We’re taking what we’ve learned across aviation [deployments in Iraq] as a whole,” Garant said, adding that the Corps is using the lessons learned to fine-tune maintenance schedules that are based on flight hours. “It’s all about readiness and mitigating the stress of the war. We need to take care of what we’ve got.”


Less training

Waning time at home between deployments is affecting training cycles, one official said.


Just as infantry battalions have been forced to pick and choose which nonessential training missions to complete during their precious few months back home, aviation units have also cut back on training that’s not vital to the war effort. One such casualty has been deck qualifications for shipboard operations, said Maj. Scott Clifton, aviation planner at Marine Corps headquarters.


“[Deploying squadrons are] supporting all the intelligence-gathering missions that they need to, but they’re not [currently] qualified to land on the boat,” he said.


With such a high operational tempo, the Corps is also likely not practicing air-to-air combat missions, Work said. The question then becomes: What type of long-term problems are being built into the force? If, for example, a conflict erupted on the Korean Peninsula, that “type of operations would require Marine air operations from the sea,” perhaps air-to-air combat, he said.


“The risk is, as long as something doesn’t pop up, planning on resetting after we draw down [in Iraq] is perfectly acceptable,” Work said.


Relief for the flight line

Relief is on the horizon with expansion of three communities — unmanned aerial vehicles, light-attack Cobra helicopters and heavy-lift CH-53K Super Stallions, Dent said. The next CH-53K unit will stand up later this year, and two Cobra squadrons will emerge by 2009 as the Marine Corps grows the fleet with 202,000 in mind, he said.


The Corps’ five-year aviation plan, laid out last year, also called for the creation of two new UAV units — one active and one reserve — which will help that community improve dwell ratios, Dent said. Tapping into Reserve aviation squadrons has provided some relief, but there are limits with that strategy as the units cannot, by law, deploy as often as active units, he added.


“Also, as the Marine Corps is now using the Shadow [unmanned aircraft systems] in Iraq, we may see some relief there as the equipment is new and requires a few less Marines to perform the same mission coverage,” he said.


“Over the course of executing the 2007 plan, there may be updates along the way to reflect challenges, but this plan offers our aviation planners a road map to keep Marine aviation and aviation support in the fight and postured to support the [Marine Air-Ground Task Force] and joint force commander of the future,” Dent said.

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
Sign in to follow this  


Important Information

By using this site, you agree to our Terms of Use, Privacy Policy, and We have placed cookies on your device to help make this website better. You can adjust your cookie settings, otherwise we'll assume you're okay to continue..