- The Washington Times - Monday, February 21, 2000

The Air Force and Navy are producing combat pilots of "degraded skill and quality" due to aging aircraft and a shortage of flying hours, a congressional report charges.

"At our premier air combat training facilities we have too few instructor pilots, too few aircraft for them to fly; old, sometimes structurally failing aircraft …," said the report compiled by a senior Senate defense staffer.

"These aging aircraft are inadequately supplied with spare parts and they routinely lack basic weapon system components that student pilots will be required to use in combat."

The report, now being circulated to key lawmakers as they write the fiscal 2001 defense budget, was based on the Senate defense staffer's inspection of the Air Force's and Navy's key air combat training centers in Nevada: Nellus Air Force Base and Fallon Naval Air Station, home to the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center. These two desert bases provided pre-deployment pilots vast airspace to practice demanding aerial combat and air-to-ground warfare.

The Pentagon has been beset with combat readiness problems since 1997, when an increased number of overseas missions and shrinking defense budgets combined to create personnel and equipment shortfalls.

Today, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen and the service chiefs contend the downward cycle has been reversed by two straight years of arms budget increases.

But the Senate defense staffer found the new money has not trickled down to these two important bases.

"Student pilots, while highly professional, are coming to these training facilities with less flying experience and proficiency than previously, and more and more time is used to bring them up to minimum levels of skills," the report states. "Given the inadequate material support and the diminished time routinely available to give pilots complete combat-ready skills, we are producing a combat pilot cohort that, while not second-rate, compares poorly to what the Navy and Air Force have produced in the past."

Among the report's findings:

* Air Force pilots are missing their normal training rotation at Nellis because they are on peacekeeping duty abroad.

* Neither Nellis nor Fallon has an adequate number of "aggressor" aircraft to mimic enemy tactics.

* Nellis' contingent of F-15E ground-attack fighters can generate only half the daily flights needed. "A-10s [tanker killer jets] are all quite old and are experiencing frequent engine and gun problems. The aircraft in better shape are frequently sucked out by operational units… . The spare parts to keep these maintenance-hungry aircraft operating are simply not available."

* Both bases lack sufficient numbers of high-tech targeting attachments so pilots can drop laser-guided bombs.

"At Nellis, instructors emphasized the importance of using real munitions in air-to-ground operations, not training rounds and certainly not simulations. The budget, however, simply does not allow it… . Both Navy and Air Force pilots are sent back out to operational units without sufficient amounts of experience in delivering basic types of live guided munitions."

The report concludes that millions of readiness dollars appropriated by Congress the past two years have yet to show up in the form of new spare parts. And, rebutting Pentagon claims, the report says operational units are facing some of the same parts shortages as rear-echelon forces.

The report said cannibalization rates taking parts from one airplane to fix others is on the increase militarywide.

Mr. Cohen conceded before the Senate Armed Services Committee this month that it's taking 18 months to two years for spare parts to start showing up at the unit level.

"It has a very demoralizing impact when they have to cannibalize various pieces of equipment to keep things running," he testified. "We are trying to address that by continuing to put money into spare parts and to try to narrow that gap in terms of the spare parts. Part of the problem is that some of the suppliers are no longer in business. So it requires the start-up of a new company with the new types of tooling, and it takes time to get that into the field."

The spare-parts lag time has caught the attention of two powerful House Republicans, Rep. C.W. "Bill" Young of Florida, House Appropriations Committee chairman, and Rep. Jerry Lewis of California, who heads the panel's defense subcommittee.

The two asked the General Accounting Office to investigate the spare parts shortfall, saying it's the prime complaint of troops.

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