by DAVID AXE
In late 2002, the U.S. military was mobilizing for war in Iraq. In a rare move, the Navy activated one of its reserve fighter squadrons—VFA-201, flying early-model F/A-18 Hornets from Fort Worth, Texas. VFA-201 launched 210 strike missions from the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, dropping 110 tons of ordnance on Iraqi targets.
It was a triumphant deployment for a reserve squadron. Reserve units are less expensive than their active counterparts and arguably less glamorous. They include many part-time personnel but also possess, on average, older and more experienced people. But the Navy’s reward to the hard-fighting VFA-201, just four years after it pummeled Iraq, was to shut it down—part of deep and ongoing cuts to the reserve branch.
Today the Navy Reserve has four fighter squadrons—two with F/A-18As and two with F-5s. Both of the F-5 units and one of the Hornet units are strictly non-combat organizations. They fly “aggressor” missions, simulating enemy fighters in mock air battles with other squadrons.
VFA-204—the “River Rattlers,” based in New Orleans—is the only reserve fighter squadron with a combat role. It’s fighting to avoid VFA-201’s sad fate … and thus save the reserve’s war-ready jet fighters from total extinction.
But the sailing branch’s top brass seem ambivalent toward the squadron’s struggle.
Like many military reserve units, VFA-204 operates old, second-hand warplanes. Its dozen twin-engine F/A-18As rolled out of McDonnell Douglas’s St. Louis factory between 1989 and 1991. They’re some of the oldest fighters in the Navy—and badly outdated.
As originally built, early Hornets were good for 6,000 flight hours. The Navy and Marines have already extended that to 8,000 … and are trying to add another thousand hours, in order to keep at least some of their roughly 600 first-generation F/A-18As and F/A-18Cs in the air until 2030. Adding the extra hours requires a Hornet to spend as long as a year in deep maintenance.
“We’re in uncharted territory, trying to coax another 1,000 hours out of jets that already have been overflown by 2,000 hours,” Cmdr. Brian Hennessey, then the River Rattlers’ skipper, explained in 2013.
Even with the life-extension, half the River Rattlers’ Hornets will age out between 2018 and 2022, according to a presentation by Rear Adm. Mark Leavitt that War Is Boring obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
Leavitt is the chief of the Navy Reserve’s flying squadrons. He warned that all of VFA-204’s F/A-18s will be “dead” by 2028.
The old Hornets also lack the latest weapons, software, electronic protections and communications that the Navy’s other fighters possess. The River Rattlers’ F/A-18s are so outmoded that America’s regional commanders have stopped including them in normal war plans—they’re too vulnerable.
“Non-deployable” is how the Navy Reserve has described the planes. Since it’s unsuitable for combat, VFA-204 has joined the other three reserve fighter squadrons in solely flying aggressor training missions.
Twelve years ago, a Navy Reserve fighter squadron went to war in Iraq. Today, none of the surviving reserve fighter units are war-ready—even though one of them should be.
Indeed, the Navy could really benefit from a fully deployable VFA-204. The sailing branch’s carrier air wings are short several fighter squadrons. If the River Rattlers possessed reasonably modern planes, the unit could help alleviate the shortfall, Leavitt pointed out in his presentation.
But despite the reserve jets’ age and irrelevance and the air-wing shortfall, the Navy and Navy Reserve—both of which have their own accounts for purchasing warplanes—have no firm plans to replace the VFA-204 Hornets. And that bodes poorly for the River Rattlers’ future.
But the squadron refuses to go gently. Leavitt and the unit have been pushing the Navy Reserve to buy VFA-204 and the other reserve Hornet squadron an allotment of 24 F/A-18E Super Hornets, the bigger, more powerful fighters that Boeing currently builds for the active Navy.
The Super Hornet is actually pretty cheap by the standards of current warplanes. The F/A-18E retails for $55 million, around a third the price of the F-35C stealth fighter that the active Navy is buying from Lockheed Martin.
Even so, the Navy Reserve has rebuffed the Super Hornet entreaties, instead preferring to spend its money on transport planes such as the C-40 and KC-130J, costing $73 million and $88 million, respectively. Perhaps not coincidentally, Vice Adm. Robin Braun—current commander of the Navy Reserve—is a former C-130 pilot.
To be fair, the active Navy could also buy extra Super Hornets and gift them to VFA-204. Or, as an alternative, the active Navy could keep the Supers, assign them to a squadron possessing, say, late 1990s-vintage F/A-18Cs and then give the displaced C-model jets to VFA-204 to replace the much older F/A-18As.
But it’s more likely that the Navy would donate any F/A-18Cs it frees up to the Marines, as the Corps has recently announced its intention to keep its own rather weary Hornet squadrons flying until 2030, partially compensating for the Marines’ very slow acquisition of the very expensive F-35B stealth jet. Leavitt admitted that he “assumed USMC priority for ‘left-overs.’”
In any event, the window of opportunity for buying Super Hornets for VFA-204 could close soon. The Navy paid for its last Supers in its 2015 budget and is now shifting funding into a protracted purchase of F-35s for active-duty squadrons. Barring additional orders, Boeing’s F/A-18E line could shut down in 2017.
The Navy Reserve has a little over a year to save the River Rattlers, its last combat fighter squadron.
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