- The Washington Times - Friday, September 15, 2000

The Navy has "a big problem" in the degraded readiness of its aviation fleet.

A new inspector general's report reveals that budget cuts and fast-paced deployments that used up spare parts have left crews overworked and pilots insufficiently trained.

The shortfalls had real-life impact on pilots' ability to hit targets during last year's bombing campaign against Serbia. More than half of Navy-dropped laser bombs missed their target, said the report by Vice Adm. Lee F. Gunn, the Navy inspector general, who retired this month.

"The fleet needs to hear from the boss that, yes, we have a big problem in naval aviation, that you, our people, are the reason we have been able to accomplish what we have; that the Navy leadership is working hard to put things right," said his report to the chief of naval operations.

"From captains to airmen, we heard grave concern that Navy leadership is either out of touch or uniformed, or just does not care enough to address the plight of our people in meaningful ways," the report states.

Adm. Jay Johnson, former chief of naval operations, ordered the extensive review last winter. A Navy official agreed to brief a reporter about the review's findings on the condition he not be identified. He said Adm. Johnson's order came after an influx of $788 million apparently failed to correct the problems as quickly as anticipated.

Investigators visited shore-based squadrons and training centers where aviators prepare for their next sea deployments.

Adm. Gunn's report was completed in April, and was recently made available by the Navy to reporters.

The official said Adm. Johnson responded to the report in July by assembling a task force, which sent 29 corrective recommendations in an "action message" to the fleet.

Adm. Johnson has since retired, succeeded as CNO by Adm. Vernon Clark.

The official said the Navy is seeing some improvements in recent months, but, "They still are below in most cases where we'd like them to be."

Adm. Gunn's investigators uncovered disturbing patterns.

Shore units missed training hours because their planes were cannibalized for parts to keep carrier fighters and bombers flying. Units lacked sufficient numbers of maintenance experts. The quality of sailors dropped, in the opinion of commanders, as the Navy worked to reach recruiting goals after missing the mark in 1998.

The health of naval aviation is important to the nation since it is those fighters and light bombers that often are first called upon in an international crisis. Naval planes were instrumental in air campaigns against Iraq and Serbia, and they fly air patrols over southern Iraq.

Among Adm. Gunn's specific findings:

• Pilots lack sufficient numbers of the target-imaging systems used in learning how to drop laser-guided bombs from F-14 Tomcats and F-18 Hornets. As a result, pilots are forced to learn the system during actual combat. Aircraft hit less than half of their laser targets during the 1999 bombing of Serbia.

Lack of realistic training "has resulted in strike-success rates in Iraq and the former Yugoslavia far below those that should be achievable," the IG quoted trainers as saying.

• Navy pilots were thoroughly beaten in an exercise against Israeli fliers. "An air wing commander was proud the Israelis only achieved a 6-to-1 kill ratio during simulated air-to-air combat maneuvers against a carrier air wing during a recent exercise, instead of the 20-to-1 kill ratio initially claimed," the report says.

• Morale is low among pilots and support crews. "Naval aviation's morale degraders [or morale depressants] are, unfortunately, not just tied to the [lack of] spares and readiness issues. Dilapidated hangars and other infrastructure problems degrade the quality of the workspace… . All of these issues are, we believe, having a cumulative negative effect on our sailors and Marines as they are making career decisions."

• The Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center at Fallon, Nev., where pilots prepare for deployment, have no Tomcats or Hornets that are representative of models they will fly in the fleet.

• The rate at which squadrons remove parts from one plane to keep another one running nearly doubled from 1995 to 1998.

"The Navy is wearing out its aviation fleet," the report says. "Our airplane inventory is older now than at any other time in the history of naval aviation, yet, through programmatic decisions and budget cuts, we have decimated the very engineering and logistics support efforts we now desperately need to sustain our aging aircraft into an increasingly uncertain future."

The state of U.S. armed forces has emerged as a heated debate in the presidential race. Republican George W. Bush charges that President Clinton caused readiness and morale to drop by overworking the force at the same time he slashed the Pentagon budget.

Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic nominee, counters that our military remains the world's finest and that the president has proposed more spending to halt the slide.

The IG report suggests the problem runs deep and fixes will not happen overnight.

It says, "We found that the vast majority of the shortfalls precipitated by hard decisions made in Washington and exacerbated by the system's shortcomings described above, translate down to debilitating levels of frustration and morale [and] crushing drudgery at the operational unit level. We are literally making up the difference on the backs of sailors and Marines, and squandering our most precious human capital."

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