Last June, Marine Capt. Jeff Kuss was killed during a Blue Angels practice flight at Smyrna Airport near Nashville, Tenn. The 32-year old veteran pilot was preparing for a weekend air show when his plane crashed on takeoff.
Then on August 2, a Navy pilot had to eject after the jet fighter he was flying experienced an engine fire at Nevada’s Fallon Naval Air Station. In just four short months this spring and summer crashes involving non-deployed military units killed two pilots and destroyed five multi-million-dollar planes.
In all of the cases, the pilots were flying practice missions state-side in F/A-18 Hornets and F/A-18E/F Super Hornets – relics of the Air Force and Marines dating back to the late 1980s. The Hornets will continue to be used as workhorses of the U.S military until the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is fully activated in the coming years.
However, a Stars and Stripes analysis of Naval Safety Center data over the past six years shows the number of serious or fatal Navy and Marine mishaps has soared by 44 percent, from just 57 such cases in 2012 to 84 in 2015. There have already been an additional 82 serious plane accidents this year involving Hornets and Super Hornets, which puts the military on course for a new, depressing record.
While there are numerous factors that contribute to a plane disaster of this sort, some Navy and Marine Corps leaders began warning more than a year ago that across-the-board spending cuts mandated by the 2011 Budget Control Act may have cost pilots’ lives by reducing funding for non-combat training and airplane maintenance.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump on Wednesday called for the elimination of the sequester on military spending as part of his proposals for beefing up U.S. defense forces.
“As soon as I take office I will ask Congress to fully eliminate the defense sequester and will submit a new budget to rebuild our military,” Trump said in a speech in Philadelphia before his appearance with Democrat Hillary Clinton in a presidential town hall meeting on national defense broadcast Wednesday night by NBC News. “It [the military] is so depleted. We will rebuild or military. This will increase certainty in the defense community as to funding and will allow military leaders to plan for our future defense needs and most importantly, we will be defended because without defense we don’t have a country.”
Some Pentagon brass, lawmakers and military experts contend that the spike in crashes of the F/A-18s and F/A-18E/Fs coincided with the implementation of the budget sequester in 2013 that forced the Pentagon and scores of other departments and agencies to find savings to bring down the deficit. According to the Government Accountability Office, the Defense Department’s operations and maintenance account, which funds flight training and aircraft repairs, lost $20.3 billion that year.
The actual automatic cuts in the Defense Department’s operating budget never proved to be as deep as many defense hawks had feared, thanks largely to last minute intervention by Congress. In fiscal 2014, for example, the Budget Control Act mandated a $54.6 billion sequester cut to defense accounts. However, that cut was reduced by more than $20 billion as part of the Bipartisan Budget Act approved by Congress in December 2013.
However, the non-deployed squadrons of F/A-18s and F/A-18E/Fs absorbed the bulk of the remaining budget cuts, “through reduced training and delayed maintenance at home so the best aircraft personnel can be used on the front lines,” Stars and Stripes reported.
There are a number of ways the F/A-18 squadrons have felt the spending pinch ever since.
As combat demands on aircraft overseas remained high, that meant fewer hours available for flight practice at home to sharpen pilots’ skills while they waited for their next deployment.
Flight hours for non-deployed Marine pilots of the F/A-18 Hornet hit a low point last summer when they averaged 8.8 hours per month, Stars and Stripes reported. That was about 2.3 hours less than what was considered an acceptable average. The amount of practice time was raised to an average of 11.1 hours a month as of August 2016.
Another problem has been a shortage of fighter jets as the U.S. picked up its tempo in fighting ISIS and carried out other missions abroad. Some naval officers and members of Congress have said that aircraft has required more repairs because of increased use and many planes have aged aged-out because they’re longer useful. Maintenance of the Hornet and Super Hornet for non-deployment exercises has suffered as a result.
“It’s extremely clear what happened,” a California-based Navy F/A-18E/F Super Hornet pilot told Stars and Stripes. “These aircraft have reached their life span, and they continue to extend their life spans for another few thousand flights hours, which hasn’t worked for them due to significant budget decreases. They continue to run these jets that have caused catastrophic incidents.”
The most recent F/A-18 Hornet crash at Fallon Naval Air Station in Nevada prompted some military experts to warn that Navy and Marine aviation was in serious trouble. Christopher Harmer, a retired Navy commander who is now a military analyst with the non-profit Institute for the Study of War, said on Wednesday that naval aviation could be headed for “systemic failure.”
“What I mean by that is procurement spending for new aircraft training, spending for Pilots and Readiness, spending for spare parts and maintenance on existing airframes has not kept pace with operational spending,” Harmer said in an email.
“We are operating our Fleet of aircraft much faster than we are procuring replacement airframes or training new pilots or maintaining existing qualifications for current pilots or fixing the airframes we have. There is a significant mismatch between operational commitment and the procurement training and readiness funding required to sustain that level of operations.”