An F/A-18C Hornet with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 122 soars after dropping an M76 practice munition during airborne forward air control training with the Philippine air force during Exercise Haribon Tempest 2013 in June. (Cpl. Vanessa Jimenez/Marines)
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Approximately seven months after wrapping up a deployment at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, members of Fighter Attack Squadron 122 found themselves back in Japan, the latest sign of the increasingly quick turnarounds being asked of F/A-18 and other aircraft squadrons across the service.
The “Werewolves,” a Hornet squadron based out of Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, S.C., returned to Japan on March 10 “after a short turnaround of seven months and 13 days,” said Lt. Col. Douglas DeWolfe, the unit’s commander, in a service news release. He noted that due to training exercises, holidays and a change of command, the squadron’s prep time was cut to roughly five months.
“We lost about half of our fleet and had to accept new aircraft just to get out here,” said Gunnery Sgt. Steven Clayton, the squadron’s maintenance chief. “A typical [Unit Deployment Program] squadron will have all their aircraft two months prior to leaving; we were receiving aircraft three days before coming out here.”
The squadron also underwent a 50 percent turnover in personnel, said Clayton.
Due to the automatic, across-the-board federal budget cuts known as sequestration, and other factors such as the delayed fielding of the Marine Corps variant of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, service leadership has been forced to tinker with dwell time, placing additional stress on pilots and ground crews.
Most Marine aviation is now at a dwell time of about 1.2 to 1, Lt. Gen. Robert Schmidle, deputy commandant for aviation, told Marine Corps Times on March 26 after testifying before the House Armed Services tactical air and land forces subcommittee. So, for every six months squadron members are deployed, they can expect a little more than seven months at home. But the F/A-18 squadrons now have an even lower dwell time, he said.
The 1.2 to 1 dwell “is what we will be at as a sequestered force of 175,000,” he added, referring to the end-strength figure the Corps expects it will have to hit by 2017 if sequestration continues.
A higher dwell — 1.3 to 1 — “is the goal, but we can [financially] afford 1.2, so we’ll eventually get them back up to that,” he said.
Marine Corps aviation combat readiness stands at about 65 percent today, down from 73 percent in 2013, Schmidle told lawmakers .
Service leaders estimate that sequestration reduces flight hours by roughly 10 percent every year and that by 2021, only a quarter of the Corps’ aviation fleet will be at “ready to go to war” status, Schmidle testified.
The budget cuts have also had an impact on the service’s ability to buy new aircraft as well as modernize its existing ones, he said. For example, about half of the Corps’ F/A-18s “are not on our flight lines” and are awaiting maintenance, according to Schmidle.
“Sequestration comes in and takes a bite out of each of the program elements, and we don’t have a lot of choices right now,” the three-star said. “We have to pay the bills somehow.”
Aviation leaders are taking steps to mitigate the breakneck turnaround speed for Marine aviation units, including deploying a Harrier squadron in lieu of a Hornet squadron, Schmidle said. He did not specify which unit that was.
The following Iwakuni deployment was particularly quick “because of the demand signal right now for the fixed-wing F-18 squadrons,” Schmidle said, citing commitments in the western Pacific region. In addition, about half of the Marine Corps’ F/A-18s are being modified, he said.
“I go around and talk to [aviation squadrons] all the time that this is just how it’s going to be from the time you’re in the fleet until we dig ourselves out of this,” Schmidle said.■