Richmond, Va –
The Navy's first strike-fighter, the F/A-18 Hornet, has been involved in every major U.S. military conflict since the 1980s. The twin engine, mid-wing, multi-mission tactical aircraft made its combat debut with strikes against Libya. While the Marines will continue to fly the F/A-18 A-D legacy model Hornets through 2023, the Navy is actively transitioning to F/A-18 E/F model Super Hornets exclusively and projecting to fly them through at least 2050.
Chuck Bloom has been supporting the F/A-18 almost since its first operational flight. Bloom, who retired as a Navy lieutenant commander in 1996, worked as a supply officer for Naval Supply Systems Command, Weapons System Support Philadelphia, when it was the Navy Aviation Supply Office, building spares lists for aircraft carriers and air stations for the earliest F/A-18 models.
Today, he serves as the Defense Logistics Agency Aviation’s F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet and EA-18G Growler weapon systems program manager, working within the Navy Customer Facing Division of the Customer Operations Directorate, overseeing the health of DLA consumable support. Support for the F/A-18 A-D legacy model Hornets is provided by the Marine Corps Customer Facing Division.
The Super Hornet is also called the “Rhino” because of a rhino-like protrusion on the front part of the aircraft’s radome. A radome is a structural, weatherproof enclosure that protects a radar’s antenna.
“Sailors began calling the Super Hornet the Rhino to distinguish it from the Hornet during aircraft carrier flight operations,” said Bloom.
The Super Hornet, capable of breaking the sound barrier with a top speed of 1,190 mph, was designed with a 6,000 flight hour service life. At the time of their introduction, most carrier sorties averaged around two hours. After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, aircraft demands changed dramatically. For the last 17 years, most sorties have been from aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf or North Arabian Sea into Afghanistan or Iraq and could last five to six hours.
The expanded use of both A-D and E-F models pushed many of the workhorse jets into Navy depots for a service-life extension. “Both services planned to retire the older A-D models by 2023,” said Bloom. “However, with no reduction in the operational requirements for carrier strike groups in the U.S. Central Command’s Area of Responsibility, the Super Hornet experienced an even higher operational tempo as the older F/A-18 A-Ds were removed from carrier air wings.”
Adding to sustainment challenges, former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis initiated a dynamic force employment initiative in 2018 and the Navy’s Air Boss Vice Admiral DeWolfe Miller, III, commander, Naval Air Forces/commander, Naval Air Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet, set a goal to increase Super Hornet readiness from around 270 mission capable aircraft on a mostly traditional deployment schedule to 341 Super Hornets deployable at any given time.
In his address to Congress on the 2018 National Defense Strategy, Mattis said, “We are also changing our forces’ posture to prioritize readiness for warfighting in major combat, making us strategically predictable for our allies and operationally unpredictable for any adversary.”
“Having more air wings ready to deploy to strategic locations at random intervals vice a long-term, repeating schedule that deployed carrier strike groups to the same places at the same times over and over, was a big change and required a significant boost to readiness from the last 12 years,” said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Josh Millner, F/A-18 E/F & EA-18G weapon systems project officer, Navy Customer Facing Division, DLA Aviation. “Part of the initiative is to be unpredictable. So you have to have airplanes operational and ready on a moment’s notice.”
According to Millner, the Navy had long-term down aircraft that hadn’t flown in up to seven years that needed extensive supply and maintenance. Working with the Navy on its Rhino Recovery efforts, DLA Aviation initiated an internal forecasting process called Digital Demand Dial-up to account for “ahead of need” investment in response to projected increases in flight hours and utilization rates across the fleet. Having material available in advance of the requirement would be essential to achieving and sustaining mission-capable aircraft.
The Navy’s fleet readiness centers are operating at full capacity performing service-life extensions on the legacy A-D model aircraft. Naval Air Systems Command, in coordination with The Boeing Company, set up a Super Hornet Service Life Modification program last year to extend the service of Super Hornets in the fleet from 6,000 to 10,000 flight hours. The E/F models work will be done in Boeing facilities. As many as 50 aircraft per year will undergo SLM. The aircraft will not only have their service life extended to 10,000 flight hours, but they will also undergo numerous upgrades to bring them to the latest configuration which the Navy is procuring as part of a Navy purchase of an additional 134 Super Hornets over the next five years.
DLA’s strategy to help rebuild the fleet to meet increased readiness demands involved taking an initial financial risk in order to have materials on hand when the Navy needed them.
“Last year, DLA came up with three investment strategies totaling approximately $101.4 million that were implemented in increments,” said Millner. The strategies included buying stable and high demand parts in support of retail resupply and direct order fulfillment; investing in 538 national stock numbers focused on low-performing, flight line degraders; indirect investments in industrial support safety stock levels; and additional contractor support at DLA Aviation’s industrial support activities on naval air stations.
DLA Aviation is also participating in an Aircraft on the Ground Cell focused on readiness that gathers all the stakeholders, including engineering, maintenance and supply experts to craft immediate and targeted supply chain solutions.
“The cell targets aircraft with fewer than five parts holding them up from being mission capable,” Millner said. “We are after quick-turn maintenance solutions for quick turnaround results. Many of these aircraft would not be under anyone’s microscope because they aren’t on carriers. These are shore-based aircraft.”
Since its November 2018 inception, the AoG Cell has returned 65 mission-capable aircraft to the fight resulting in reduced down-time across the fleet.
Each of these targeted investments in human capital and wholesale inventory levels have contributed to realize a return of investment in the form of improved material availability year-over-year from 85.29 percent in January 2018 to 90.2 percent in January 2019; reduced backorders from 7,027 to 6,456 during the same time period despite increased order volume across air stations and depot activities; and improved the zero-three day fill rate from 75 percent in January 2018 to 83 percent in January 2019.
“Such short-term gains put the right parts in the hands of fleet maintainers in a timely manner, reducing part cannibalization actions and improving fleet material sustainment,” said Millner.