- The Washington Times - Friday, November 3, 2000

The Navy has sent a message to Atlantic Fleet air units that states budget shortfalls and inadequate spare parts are reducing combat readiness.

The memo states a data cockpit display on the F-14, the Navy's front-line air-to-air fighter, breaks so often it is one of the "highest readiness degraders throughout the F-14 community."

The mission-capable rates for E-2 radar planes fell 12 percent in the last three months alone because the units lacked money to buy parts to keep all planes flying.

The October message also states that air bases at Oceana in Virginia Beach, and Norfolk began the new fiscal year Oct. 1 short $16 million to buy crucial spare parts and instituted "drastic cutbacks in spending."

"Present aviation spare parts funding is not adequate to support the level of planned aviation operations," reads the message, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Times.

The message came from the Navy's Mid-Atlantic regional command and was sent to Naval Air Force, Atlantic Fleet. The command oversees 1,300 aircraft and their squadrons deployed on carriers at sea or stationed at naval air stations. The message focused on the woes of units in the Tidewater region awaiting a next deployment.

Mike Maus, a spokesman for Naval Air Force, Atlantic Fleet, said he did not know how many planes are not functioning due to parts cannibalization.

"We're still meeting our missions," he said. "We're not leaving planes behind for deployment because they can't deploy. Everything that is supposed to go on deployment is going."

He said the memo was meant to inform units they have to keep an eye on spending.

Combat readiness has become an issue in the presidential race, with Texas Gov. George W. Bush accusing the Clinton administration of mismanaging the military. Vice President Al Gore argues the military never has been in better shape.

One naval aviator who reviewed the message says it paints an "abysmal" picture.

Said another who read the memo: "The long and the short of this is that air crew aren't happy because they are not flying, and maintenance troops aren't happy because they are doing double work for half the results. This is what causes people to leave. Frustration."

The Navy's Atlantic command message is particularly critical of the F-14 fighter's "detailed data display," or DDD, which is crucial to firing the jet's weapons.

"Maintenance actions indicate the high rate of failure of numerous components in the DDD makes it one of the highest readiness degraders throughout the F-14 community," it reports. "This failure rate combined with known reliability of the DDD directly impacting overall fleet readiness."

Paying the bills promises to get even worse this fiscal year. The price tags for major components have jumped more than 50 percent for some items, the memo states.

A propeller for the E-2 Hawkeye aircraft has jumped from $156,000 to $211,000. A helicopter blade that cost $30,000 last year now is $49,000.

"Increased [operational tempo], more expensive parts and lower funding are driving up per-hour flying costs and reducing the number of days" aircraft are air worthy, the memo states. "The inability to replenish stock assets had a direct negative impact on the readiness of" units. "The shortfall in 4th quarter money required drastic cutbacks in spending to the point where only high priority requirements were requisitioned."

The memo reports squadrons coming off deployment "are swapping parts at unprecedented levels just to maintain status quo."

When the carrier USS George Washington returns from deployment, the message states, "many of the jets are expected to require extensive repairs and maintenance from six months of carrier operations."

The memo also states Oceana Naval Air Station had to cut back on flight hours so planes could participate in Virginia Beach's Neptune Festival Air Show in September.

Said one aviator: "It doesn't seem to be the kind of thing we ought to see our guys do if we're having trouble fixing airplanes."

But Mr. Maus said such air shows are important to the Navy mission.

"Air shows and flight demonstrations are still a very vital part of the Navy," he said. "They are very, very beneficial to the recruiting effort."

Other alarm bells have sounded concerning the deteriorating state of Navy aviation, a decline attributed to increased overseas operations and spare parts shortages.

The Navy recently released an inspector general's report that said the aviation community has "big problems" primarily due to wear and tear on fighters and support aircraft.

Readiness woes also afflict West Coast-based aircraft.

Vice Adm. John B. Nathman confronted the problem during a speech as he assumed command of Pacific naval air forces.

"To me, the fact is that we have reached such a low level of funding it will soon be impossible to meet the expectations of this nation in executing our operational tasks and completing the mission," the fighter pilot said. "There is a fundamental disconnect between the value we provide and the willingness of the richest nation on Earth to pay for its demands."

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