By Andrea Shalal
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Marine Corps has launched a major drive to pump up the readiness of its aircraft after calculating that 158 of its helicopters, fighter jets and other planes - assets valued at $8.4 billion - are not ready for military use.
Deputy Commandant for Aviation Lieutenant General Jon Davis told Reuters he was meeting with FedEx Corp, Boeing Co and other commercial firms, as well as military officials from Britain, as part of a concerted effort to speed up maintenance and get more use of its aircraft.
The service is also looking at training, staffing levels, and use of performance-based logistics contracts in which private firms service aircraft under fixed-price contracts, to address the situation, Davis said in an interview.
"My readiness is not what it needs to be. We're going to fix that," he said, noting that about 19 percent of Marine Corps aircraft were unavailable for commanders to use.
Top U.S. military officials from the Marine Corps and the other services have warned lawmakers repeatedly that recent budget cuts have eroded readiness, and their ability to respond to crises could be in jeopardy if additional cuts are imposed.
Davis said budget cuts, inadequate funding for spare parts, and underperforming depots had combined to create the problem.
He said it would cost about $330 million over the next three years to buy needed spare parts and pay for maintenance to rectify the current shortfall - a fraction of what it had paid for planes that are now sitting idle.
Davis said an 82-point plan was already in the works to improve the readiness of the Marine Corp's AV-8B Harrier jump jets, and initial reviews were planned this week for the CH-53E heavy-lift helicopters, Davis said.
He said some of the Marines' aging CH-53E helicopters remained grounded after the Navy mandated expanded inspections of wiring and fuel lines that were ordered after a January 2014 crash that killed three crew members. He said the services were learning a great deal as result of the expanded inspections, but it would take several more months to resolve those issues.
He said the Marine Corps would also look at ways to improve the readiness of its fleet of V-22 Ospreys, tilt-rotor planes built by Boeing and Textron Inc's Bell Helicopter unit, which take off and land like a helicopter, but fly like a plane.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Richard Chang)