Local officials pushing to get new jets for Navy strike fighter squadron in Belle Chasse

Jamie Mailman spent much of Wednesday morning on the wings of a Navy fighter jet that’s almost as old as she is, applying what she described as an “icky” black sealant to keep moisture out of the electronics that help launch missiles.

Mailman, 30, is a petty officer assigned to Strike Fighter Squadron 204, a unit of about 250 people at the Naval Air Station-Joint Reserve Base in Belle Chasse.

For every hour pilots spend flying the squadron’s fighter jets — by far the oldest in the Navy’s fleet — sailors like Mailman spend about 12 hours maintaining them.

On newer jets, the ratio is evenly matched: an hour of maintenance for every hour of flight.

“It is an ongoing challenge … to keep these aging aircraft airworthy,” said squadron Cmdr. Rigel Pirrone.

Now, local officials, with the help of U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, are pushing to get 12 new Super Hornets to Belle Chasse to ensure the squadron remains vital and to protect the air station from becoming a target in the event of future base closures.

As a strategic reserve unit, Strike Fighter Squadron 204 — also known as the River Rattlers — is on standby in the event of a war. But when at home, the unit is used as “adversary support” for combat training, serving as the bad guy in flight exercises with active-duty pilots. The air station frequently hosts these mock battles in airspace over the Gulf of Mexico.

Some fear that the squadron’s old jets — F/A-18A+ Hornets built as early as 1989 — could hinder the air station’s ability to host such exercises because the squadron plays a key role in them. The Louisiana Air National Guard’s 159th Fighter Wing, equipped with F-15C Eagles, also hosts the exercises in Belle Chasse.

The Navy Reserve has 26 Hornets in its inventory and only two squadrons that fly them: the River Rattlers and a sister unit in Virginia.

Equipping the River Rattlers with the larger, more powerful F/A-18E/F Super Hornets could extend the squadron’s life, military supporters believe.

“Getting these new Super Hornets will help prevent the airbase from being closed,” said Michael Hecht, of GNO Inc.

Thus far, Congress has been hesitant to shut down bases, despite the Pentagon’s requests to do so in an effort to save money by shedding unneeded infrastructure. Defense Secretary Ash Carter asked for another round of base closures as recently as March, but none appear imminent.

The last time the Defense Department announced closings was in 2005, when it decided to shutter the Naval Support Activity in New Orleans, which employed 4,600 people. State and local officials were able to salvage a small military presence in Algiers, in what is the Marine Corps Support Facility. The 29-acre compound is adjacent to the Federal City mixed-use redevelopment of the site of the former Navy base.

Luckily, the air station in Plaquemines Parish, where the Strike Fighter Squadron has been based for 37 years, survived the 2005 closure round.

The Navy Reserve, meanwhile, is trying to squeeze as much life out of the old Hornets as possible. Although they were designed to fly 6,000 hours, that lifespan has already passed. The Navy Reserve is now pushing these jets past 9,000 hours, meaning some could still be flying until 2025, said Rear Adm. Mark Leavitt, who commands the Navy Air Force Reserve.

For years, the Navy Reserve has recognized a need to equip the River Rattlers with Super Hornets. But it has ranked the acquisition relatively low in its annual list of unfunded equipment requests. In the 2016 request, however, the Navy Reserve ranked the Super Hornets as its second-highest need.

In Congress, Cassidy is working to keep the purchase of 12 Super Hornets in the 2016 defense authorization bill specifically for the Navy Reserve. Lawmakers included more than $1 billion in the bill earlier this year to purchase the jets, but the Navy asked to cancel the order and use the money elsewhere.

Cassidy spokeswoman Jillian Rogers said the senator “is aware of the aging airframe problems that the Navy Reserves and Belle Chasse are facing,” and is working to bring the planes home.

The state is backing Cassidy’s attempts, said Louisiana Economic Development Secretary Steven Grissom.

“It keeps a reserve flying mission alive in the Navy, and we are confident the Navy sees value in that,” he said.

Leavitt, the rear admiral who heads Navy Reserve aviation, tempers the worries.

“There is no plan to convert, shut down or move (the River Rattlers) at this time,” he said.

Leavitt added that the air station is home to other strategic reserve units and has the Gulf of Mexico airspace, and that they “support active-duty training missions, which help solidify its importance as a strategic base.”

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