Navy, Air Force officials tell Congress that aircraft fixes to help curtail crashes are underway
WASHINGTON – Navy and Air Force officials told a panel of House lawmakers Friday that a series of aircraft fixes are underway to address a rash of fatal crashes.
The officials made the comments during a House Armed Services Committee subpanel hearing focused on C-130 accidents and other aircraft concerns.
“We have some challenges ahead,” Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on seapower and projection forces, told the Navy and Air Force officials. “But we want to make sure we are on track with the upgrades with existing aircraft and modernization with aircraft replacement and making sure that we stay on track.”
Manned fighter, bomber, helicopter and cargo warplane accidents rose nearly 40 percent from fiscal year 2013 to 2017, resulting in the deaths of more than 130 servicemembers, Wittman said.
Of those crashes, more than 20 percent of the fatalities occurred in three incidents involving a Marine Corps Reserve’s KC-130T, a Navy C-2A Greyhound aircraft and a Puerto Rico Air National Guard’s C-130H Hercules.
In July 2017, a Marines KC-130T crash in Mississippi left 15 Marines and one sailor dead. In November, a Navy Greyhound crashed into the Philippine Sea, leaving three sailors dead. And in May, the Puerto Rican Guard’s Hercules crashed in Georgia during a retirement flight after 60 years in service, leaving nine dead.
The Navy has yet to recover wreckage from the November crash, which is located in 18,000 feet of water.
“There have been an alarming rise in non-combat aviation accidents,” Wittman said. “Considering these three mishaps involved legacy intra-theater aircraft, it is my fervent belief that the services must do everything possible to ensure the safety of flight. To this end, among the things this committee must consider is the recapitalization and modernization of the oldest and most vulnerable legacy aircraft.”
In addition, there are also concerns with how the services responded to the Marine Corps crash of its KC-130T and Puerto Rican Guard’s C-130H, with the Navy and Marines grounding their fleets, while the Air Force chose to keep flying those aircraft, Wittman said.
Military officials told lawmakers that work is underway to address aircraft crashes with fixes such as upgrades to existing aircrafts and new purchases. However, challenges remain.
Lt. Gen. Jerry Harris, Air Force deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and programs, told lawmakers that the service has reduced most of its fleet during the last decade. For example, its C-130 inventory has fallen from 400 to 300 during that time. The C-130 is a workhorse that handles tactical airlifts, resupplies, evacuations, natural disaster relief, search and rescue, firefighting duties and special operations support, he said.
“We would like to do more and go faster when it comes to modernization of our C130 fleet,” Harris said. “But we’ve had to make hard choices, declining budgets… we just haven’t been able to get to it all.”
A review of the Air Force’s intra-theater airlift portfolio shows the service is on track to replace its regular component units with C-130J aircraft, Wittman said. The service recommends its reserve and Air National Guard retain significant capacity in legacy C-130H aircraft and pursue new upgrades to lengthen service life, he added.
Meanwhile, the Marine Corps are on track to fully replace their aging KC-130T fleet with 79 new KC-130J aircraft by 2023, Wittman said.
The Navy plans to begin replacing its legacy KC-130T fleet of 25 aircraft by procuring its first three new aircraft in 2023, he said.
“With that said, questions remain as to the level of effort being placed in the pursuit of this program by the Navy and Air Force reserve sponsors as they seek to balance the needs of competing service priorities,” Wittman said.
The Navy has guidance from the National Defense Strategy that gives the service priorities, said Rear Adm. Scott Conn, director of air warfare for the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. But tough choices still have to be made, even with recent congressional increases in defense funding, he noted.
“We will always have more requirements than resources. It will always come down to prioritization,” Conn said. “I just don’t want to come back to where we have to make a false choice of readiness or modernization or recapitalization… we’ve been there before and we shouldn’t go back.”
Conn also updated lawmakers on the Navy’s investigation of its Philippines crash. He said the service now has 22,000 feet of Kevlar cable to help recover the lost aircraft. However, it could be six months or more until then, he said.
“The investigation is still ongoing,” Conn said. In terms of salvage and recovery, “we are going to have to wait for the seas to abate. Our best estimates right now …we are looking at late spring, early summer of next year.”