North Island repair shop busts Navy's budget

Audit targets $1 billion backlog of costly fixes for aging aircraft

An F/A-18C Hornet launching from an aircraft carrier
  • An F/A-18C Hornet launching from an aircraft carrier

A big backlog of unrepaired fighter jets has been growing at the Navy's Fleet Readiness Center Southwest on North Island, and the cost of fixing the issue is likely to be steep.

So shows a June 30 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office regarding Navy aircraft repair operations in San Diego and two similar centers in Cherry Point, North Carolina, and Jacksonville, Florida.

The problem, the audit says, boils down to too much work for too few parts and staffers, and not enough budgeting.

"To the extent that the [centers] do not complete work ordered and funded by year-end, the work and related funding will be carried over into the next fiscal year," the report explains.

Auditors discovered that "actual adjusted carryover exceeded allowable carryover in 10 of 11 fiscal years reviewed because orders exceeded work performed by more than expected."

As a result, the total backlog at the three centers "grew to about $1 billion at the end of fiscal year 2014."

In October 2012, the report says, North Island, which bills itself as the birthplace of naval aviation maintenance, "accepted an order totaling $1.8 million to perform inspections and repairs on 5 high flight hour F/A-18 Hornet aircraft."

According to the audit, "This order was amended 14 times in fiscal year 2013 to increase the number of aircraft to 21 and increase funding to $8.0 million."

But the San Diego center "did not complete work on any aircraft on this order in fiscal year 2013" because it was "already working on other high flight hour aircraft from prior year orders."

As a result, the repair center "carried over $6.3 million on this order into fiscal year 2014."

Continues the audit, "In fiscal year 2014, the order was amended twice, the number of aircraft was reduced from 21 aircraft to 20 aircraft, and the funding was reduced to $7.6 million."

Progress was made, but barely.

"As of the end of fiscal year 2014, [North Island] carried over $3.7 million on this order into fiscal year 2015 and still needed to complete work on 18 of the 20 high flight hour aircraft.”

The first aircraft in the Navy's aging fleet of Hornets was "manufactured in the late 1970s and became operational in the early 1980s," the report notes, and thus the planes demand special handling.

"As an aircraft ages, it incurs additional inspections and structural repairs when required. One of those additional inspections occurs when an aircraft reaches 8,000 flight hours."

Says the report, "The high flight hour aircraft inspections and repairs contributed to carryover because (1) structural repairs generally require more time to complete than nonstructural repairs and (2) work on the high flight hour aircraft delayed work on other F/A-18 aircraft because there were not enough...engineers and artisans, support equipment, and facilities."

Fixing crashed planes added another wrinkle.

"These crash-damaged aircraft incurred damage from incidents that included midair collisions, fire/heat damage, combat damage, accidents causing wing and fuselage cracks, and arresting/landing gear mishaps," the document says.

"For crash-damaged aircraft, the requirements to repair the aircraft are largely unknown prior to inspection."

In addition, the planes "required nonstandard repairs that necessitated long lead time for parts to perform the work."

Making the problem yet more difficult to account for, the audit says, was the Navy's practice of obtaining waivers from the Pentagon regarding backlog growth.

"The amounts of carryover that exceeded the allowable amounts," from fiscal years 2004 through 2013, says the report, "ranged from less than $1 million in fiscal year 2005 to $121 million in fiscal year 2011."

Concluded the auditors, "Our analysis of total carryover (without adjustments) shows that the Navy [repair centers] total carryover gradually increased from $602 million in fiscal year 2004 to $1,008 million in fiscal year 2014—a $406 million increase."

Added the report, "Navy officials acknowledged that the [repair centers] had difficulty accurately budgeting for new orders."

The auditors' recommendation, that the Navy conduct "a trend analysis" of "actual order information that affects carryover and adjust budget estimates as necessary," was accepted by the Pentagon.

"Actions to improve the budgeting for and the management of carryover noted in the draft report are underway," wrote undersecretary of defense John P. Roth in a June 1 letter to the GAO.

But based on the audit's findings, there likely will be even more unspecified new costs.

North Island "identified a lack of artisans and engineers as the constraint and 43 as the optimum number of aircraft to be worked on at one time."

Officials there "informed us that it hired 5 engineers and 29 artisans in fiscal year 2014 and plans to hire 28 engineers and 66 artisans in fiscal year 2015," according to the audit.

"In addition, [North Island] is renovating a hangar to provide additional work space for the work flow of the F/A-18 Hornet."

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Comments

It's incredible that the US Navy's Not-Quite-Ready Fleet Readiness Center over on North Island keeps upping the ante and raking in more and more cash while significantly "underperforming" -- i.e. making contracted necessary repairs on aging fighter jets. And this is apparently a pattern dating back at least as far as 2004! (Wasn't that even before Twitter?) But apparently full employment for engineers and "artisans" will prevail in this fiscal year and maybe that will make a dent in the backlog of broken F-18 Hornets. Thank you, auditors and Reader sleuth, Matt Potter. Without you, we'd never have known.

While Matt has made a thorough report on the matter I see it quite differently than did the headline writer. The toll on aircraft from thirteen years of war in Afghanistan and about a decade in Iraq, plus all the other commitments of the Navy and other services around the world have to be recognized. My take is that the Navy has underfunded and expected far too much from the operation at North Island. If this past decade had been peacetime, then this sort of thing would be justifiably criticized. But we have been at war, folks, and war has a huge cost.

Then there's the matter of the size and capability of the military force that the US had on the eve of 9/11. The Army was below a half-million, smaller than it had been since before the Korean War, and the other services were similarly undersized. Oh, we were supposedly the sole remaining "super power" in the world, and yet our forces were smaller than those in a number of other insignificant nations, such as North Korea.

It is now time to rebuild and reequip the military services. Repairing the beaten-up F-18's should be done as rapidly as possible, as should all sorts of other repairs for the other services. Our military is still woefully inadequate in numbers and equipment to meet the commitments we have around the world. Paying enough to get those jets back in the air isn't insignificant, but needs to be done. If all this is busting anyone's budget, just whose budget are talking about?

Welcome to San Diego, Senator McCain! You are right: war has a huge cost.

An awful lot of that expense is going to be for administration, bureaucrats, multiple layers of procurement people, etc. Any government program becomes an enormous rice bowl, with hundreds or thousands of people all dipping their beaks in. Hammers and toilet seats don't cost the government $600, but that's what they wind up paying after all these layers get involved.

I remember when it was called Naval Air Rework Facility (NARF), then Naval Aviation Depot (NADEP). I worked at NARF/NADEP North Island, then NADEP, Norfolk, VA on F-14's until it closed in 1996. It was easy to get hired there after coming off Navy active duty. These were great places to get experience and thus get hired at Boeing in WA state after I left Norfolk.

Perhaps the delaying of these maintenance costs will now allow the Navy to spend its money on next generation fighters, which includes major upgrades to current aircraft, instead of "just" inspection and/or repairs of older generation aircraft.

US Navy Poised To Order New Boeing Fighters, F/A-18 Super Hornet Jets Could Be Ordered Soon http://www.ibtimes.com/us-navy-poised-order-new-boeing-fighters-fa-18-super-hornet-jets-could-be-ordered-2168862

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