Marines plan to keep Hornets flying as F-35 slips, though V-22 could take a cut
As Washington weighs cuts from $450 billion to as high as $1 trillion to defense spending in the coming years, the U.S. is not as focused on starting new projects as it is on trying to protect those aviation programs already in development and production.
This is a contrast to its sister services, which face an uphill battle securing funds for such new projects as the Air Force Common Vertical Lift Support Program (CVLSP) Huey replacement as well as the Army Armed Aerial Scout (AAS) helicopter.
This week, industry executives are expected at a major Army conference here to push senior service officials to proceed with a long-expected technology demonstration for the AAS, a Kiowa replacement. Conventional wisdom is that a program is harder to kill once money is spent on it; this makes executives anxious to get contracts signed.
Industry has been eager to compete for the CVLSP program, but Air Force officials have put the competition on hold indefinitely pending budget talks; this could be the latest failure in years' worth of attempts to replace this nuclear-missile-field and executive-lift helicopter.
The Marine Corps' aviation plan relies largely upon continued work on the, which will replace its tactical attack fleet, and the tiltrotor, for transport.
The largest question looming for the Marines is the uncertain schedule behind the F-35B, which is now being tested onboard the USS Wasp (see p. 42).
U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Terry Robling, commandant for aviation, says he hopes to declare initial operational capability (IOC) in 2015 if possible. IOC had been slated for 2012 but slipped to 2014, owing to delays in development. The Marine Corps Aviation Plan, signed last year, calls for 10 F-35Bs equipped with Block IIB software, six aircraft capable of austere and/or ship-based operations, and a flight envelope of 7g and 50-deg. angle of attack to declare IOC.
The sluggish short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing (Stovl) testing and delayed delivery of aircraft to the fleet prompted then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates to declare a two-year “probation” period for Stovl. If the B model cannot be “fixed or gotten back on track” in two years, “I believe it should be canceled,” Gates said in January. This put intense pressure on, and the company has substantially improved work on the Stovl aircraft. Since Gates's departure, talk of a potential B-only termination related to technical problems has waned. “Unfortunately, we used the word 'probation,'” Robling said. “Probation has this negative aura about it . . . But we looked at it as a time to work issues.”
Industry officials note that since Gates left office this summer, little has been said about probation. The Office of the Secretary of Defense never released specific metrics to outline whether the jet would pass or fail. Now it seems that the biggest challenge for the program is not just keeping F-35B alive, but keeping all variant order numbers as high as possible in light of customer countries facing major economic problems.
Robling says the Pentagon is hoping for a “1.5 ramp rate,” meaning that year-over-year 50% more F-35s are ordered and delivered to customers. A slower ramp rate, however, would require that customers either assume risk in their ability to execute missions on the time lines expected or further fund more upgrades to existing fleets.
The Marine Corps' Harrier fleet is expected to last until 2024, he says. But, the service is in talks with the U.K. to purchase its aircraft for parts to keep the AV-8B flying until the F-35 enters service. Robling's main concern for the Harrier fleet is parts obsolescence, especially for the avionics and mission computers. “As decided in the Strategic Defense and Security Review, Harrier aircraft will be disposed of through whatever means will get best value-for-money for the U.K. taxpayer while ensuring appropriate future use of the assets. Discussions about options for disposal are ongoing,” according to a British defense official. Robling also acknowledges talk of extending the service life by two years beyond 2024.
By contrast, Marines are planning to extend the lives of up to 50 of theirA-D aircraft in order to bridge the gap until the F-35 is fielded, Robling says.
The combined Navy and Marine Corps shortfall is about 150 fighters, with a peak of 65 Hornets short in 2018, says Capt. Brian Block, a Marine spokesman. “We are in a very tight situation . . . . We've got to 'SLEP' those aircraft,” Robling says of the need for a Service-Life Extension Program for the A-D models up to 10,000 hr.
Each SLEP is expected to require about one year. “In some cases you find more than you thought you were going to find,” Robling says. “Every aircraft you bring in is going to be a little different.”
Additionally, the Navy is leading an analysis to determine whether life extensions are needed on the newer F/A-18E/Fs, which are still rolling off's St. Louis final assembly line.
While pushing hard to preserve plans for the transition to F-35, the Marines appear to grudgingly acquiesce that the rotorcraft plan could take a hit. A second multiyear proposal is on the table from Bell Boeing to sell 122 V-22s, including some CV-22 models for Air Force Special Operations Command. Such a multiyear buy must provide a 10% price reduction per standards set by Congress. And, once inked, it is very difficult to break; this means the buy could be protected from future budget cuts. Robling acknowledges that up to 24 airframes could be cut without jeopardizing the ability to achieve the savings target. “Hopefully, down the road I can buy them back.” Beyond that number, he suggests, the cost is more substantial. Though the buy could take longer than planned, he says the total number needed remains 360.
He adds that he is eyeing a larger multiyear buy with Bell that would incorporate the purchase of H-1s from Bell as well. The Navy is purchasing theattack helicopter as well as the lift and support rotorcraft. Such a deal could provide a stable, low price for both but it is “not so good for the department of the Navy, because then they can't use that for bill payers down the road,” Robling says.
Negotiations would start on a multiyear next March.