EXCLUSIVE: Since 1775, the U.S. Marine Corps has prided itself on being “The Few” and “The Proud.” But while the Corps takes pride in doing more with less, senior Marine officers are warning that the Corps’ aviation service is being stretched to the breaking point.
Today, the vast majority of Marine Corps aircraft can’t fly. The reasons behind the grounding of these aircraft include the toll of long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the fight against ISIS and budget cuts precluding the purchase of the parts needed to fix an aging fleet, according to dozens of Marines interviewed by Fox News at two air stations in the Carolinas this week.
Out of 276 F/A-18 Hornet strike fighters in the Marine Corps inventory, only about 30% are ready to fly, according to statistics provided by the Corps. Similarly, only 42 of 147 heavy-lift CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters are airworthy.
U.S. military spending has dropped from $691 billion in 2010 to $560 billion in 2015. The cuts came just as the planes were returning from 15 years of war, suffering from overuse and extreme wear and tear. Many highly trained mechanics in the aviation depots left for jobs in the private sector.
“Quite honestly, it is coming on the backs of our young Marines,” Lt. Col. Matthew “Pablo” Brown, commanding officer of VMFA(AW)-533, a Hornet squadron based at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort in South Carolina. “They can do it, and they are doing it but it is certainly not easy.”
Brown’s squadron is due to deploy to the Middle East in the coming days.
Lack of funds has forced the Marines to go outside the normal supply chain to procure desperately needed parts. Cannibalization, or taking parts from one multi-million dollar aircraft to get other multi-million dollar aicraft airborne, has become the norm.
To get one Hornet flying again, Marines at Beaufort stripped a landing gear door off a mothballed museum jet. The door, found on the flight deck of the World War II-era USS Yorktown, was last manufactured over a decade ago.
“Imagine taking a 1995 Cadillac and trying to make it a Ferrari,” Sgt. Argentry Uebelhoer said days before embarking on his third deployment. “You’re trying to make it faster, more efficient, but it’s still an old airframe … [and] the aircraft is constantly breaking.”
Maintaining the high-performance Hornets is a challenge with 30,000 fewer Marines, part of a downsizing that has been ongoing since 2010.