WASHINGTON • Almost two out of three Navy F/A-18 fighter jets built in St. Louis are “not flyable” on any given day, a top admiral said, and there are indications the Pentagon is considering boosting the number of the St. Louis-built Boeing planes on its “unfunded priorities” list to two dozen.
“The facts are that for our entire Hornet fleet, that’s the Hornets and Super Hornet fleet, we have 62 percent (that are not fit to fly) on a given day,” Navy Vice Admiral Bill Moran told a Senate Armed Services subcommittee last week.
He characterized the situation as part of an overall struggle in dealing with multiple global defense challenges with a much smaller Navy than existed on the day of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks
In a letter to Acting Navy Secretary Sean Stackley, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said she had learned that the planes have been “effectively grounded because they are undergoing necessary maintenance.”
She lauded defense industry reports that said the Navy is considering raising to 24 the number of new F/A 18s, which are built by Boeing in St. Louis.
Last February, the Navy said that 14 new F/A-18 EF Super Hornets were on its “unfunded priorities” list.
A Navy spokeswoman said, however, that reports of the Navy raising the number of Super Hornets on its wish list were premature.
“We have only submitted one official unfunded priorities list, and that was last February with our budget submission,” Lt. Kara Yingling said. “That list included 14 F/A-18E/Fs. Any other numbers would be speculative and pre-decisional at this time. “
An updated number on the Navy’s wish list could appear when President Donald Trump unveils spending requests in the coming weeks. Trump has promised to bulk up the military, in part by negotiating new contracts more favorable to the government with defense companies such as Lockheed-Martin, maker of the rival F-35.
“We have the greatest people on earth in our military, but they don’t have the right equipment and their equipment is old,” Trump said at his Thursday press conference. “It’s depleted. It won’t be depleted for very long.”
On Friday, speaking at a Boeing plant in South Carolina, Trump said of the Super Hornet: “We are looking at a big order.”
But, he added, Boeing President Dennis Muilenburg is a “tough negotiator.”
McCaskill’s letter to Stackley, obtained by the Post-Dispatch, said a “high operational tempo” in the use of the Boeing-built planes in the war against terror targets “has placed an unexpected level of stress on the tactical aircraft fleet, which is now facing systemic maintenance issues that are nearing crisis levels.”
Moran told the Senate subcommittee that “the smallest Navy we’ve had in 99 years can only answer 40 percent of combatant commander requirements today.”
“On (Sept. 11, 2001) we had 316 ships and over 400,000 sailors. Today, we have 275 ships and nearly 90,000 fewer sailors,” Moran said. “And yet the world has become a lot busier place today.”
McCaskill’s letter to Stackley asks that “as you work to develop a budget, I hope you will take steps to address the shortfall in the Navy and Marine Corps’ tactical aviation fleet.”