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Interview: Jim McArthur

Chairman Centennial of Naval Aviation (East) Committee

James D. “Jim” McArthur, Jr., joined Lockheed Martin  (LM) in October 2007 and is the vice president for the Center for Innovation.

The Center for Innovation, located in Suffolk, Va., is referred to as “The Lighthouse.” The Center is a dedicated facility and environment for the purpose of advanced concept development and rigorous experimentation within LM and with government partners. It provides the core functions of systems engineering, integration management, operations analysis, information technology, modeling and simulation, and collaboration between engineers and operators.

McArthur is a native of Bennettsville, S.C., and graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1972. He served on active duty for 35 years with the U.S. Navy, retiring as a vice admiral and as the commander, Naval Network Warfare Command. His previous assignments were as the director of operations (J-3) at the U.S. Space Command and the director of global operations (J-3) for U.S. Strategic Command.

During his Navy career, he flew carrier-based tactical aircraft and then later served on operational staffs responsible for space, nuclear, network, cyber, and overall information operations. He served as commander of the Harry S. Truman Battle Group during significant operations in the Arabian Gulf in early 2001. McArthur also held several senior strategic planning and policy assignments on the Navy staff and joint staff.

He and his wife, Elaine, reside in Suffolk, Va. In a phone interview, he discussed his chairmanship of the Centennial of Naval Aviation (CONA)-East Committee, his own career flying naval aircraft, and the future of naval aviation.

Air Power at Sea: A Century of U.S. Naval Aviation: What’s been the best aspect of being involved with the CONA celebrations so far?

Jim McArthur: I’ll tell you exactly what it is. Walking through the gates of Naval Air Station Oceana and looking aviators, wearing flight suits, in the eye – and seeing their enthusiasm, their energy, their dedication. It brings back fond memories.

There are great people to work with on this committee. But to be associated closely with the active-duty naval aviators – again, seeing their enthusiasm, their energy, their dedication and their professionalism – is pretty neat to see again.

How did you become involved in the Centennial?

Hampton Roads has about 40 percent of naval aviation assets when you consider the aircraft carriers, the big-deck amphibs, all the different squadrons, and the major commanders and staff. I happened to go to a meeting, and I was asked if I would be willing to volunteer for the committee chairmanship. Since retirement in 2007 I hadn’t done much with the Navy, so there was a feeling of obligation. The love, the reverence, and the association with naval aviation were the driving factors.

How different would you say naval aviation is today compared with the time when you were going on your first deployment?

I think it has fundamentally stayed the same in terms of operations on an aircraft carrier. The complexity, the intensity, the teamwork, the precision, the shared risk – and that’s your maintenance people, it’s the flight deck crews, it’s the aircrews – have all pretty much remained the same. So has the pursuit of excellence; that every day you’re out there trying to be perfect because that’s what keeps you safe. We operate on the edge and the teamwork is everybody keeping an eye on each other in the air or on the flight deck. I think those are common characteristics that are enduring.

Now changes: Obviously, there are newer weapons, newer aircraft. They’re digital. They are much more capable. The threat or the employment concepts are similar, although the employment concepts have been changed somewhat to capitalize on the full capability of the airplane.

You mentioned some of the things that endure: Is there a particular experience, mission, or accomplishment that stands out for you in memory as being a time when you thought, “I’m really glad that this is the career that I’ve chosen?”

Well, I think the enduring nature of it is exactly what we’re celebrating in the Centennial of Naval Aviation. The enduring element of naval aviation is the contribution to our national security, and you can go back to the war in the Pacific and World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam War, the Cold War, Desert Storm, Iraqi Freedom, Enduring Freedom … the common element there is the contribution of naval aviation. The significant contribution of naval aviation to our national security helped win the Cold War. What we could do from the fjords of the Norwegian Sea to the Northern Pacific and off Kamchatka Peninsula helped put the squeeze on the Soviets, and helped in a big way to deter and influence our enemy in the Cold War and also to support our friends and partners.

What is the most difficult aspect of being a naval aviator?

One of the hardest things about it is that it’s unyielding. Naval aviation is just unyielding in terms of the challenge. It challenges you every day, whether you’re taking a closed book NATOPS test, or on night vision goggles at 4:00 in the morning looking for an Air Force tanker, or in a joint operating area with multidimensional threats around you trying to support ground troops.

When you use the word “difficult” maybe it has a connation of being “not good.” But I look at it as the constant challenge. The unyielding demand is the hard thing of naval aviation, but it’s a hard thing that we confront and it makes us even better at what we do. If you assume that you live on the edge, operate on the edge, there’s a certain amount of shared risk and individual risk, but if you understand that you have to challenge yourself every day it makes you good at what you do.

What was the best part of your service as a naval aviator?

I liked the mission. I liked the sense of purpose. I liked the fun, the thrill, the camaraderie, the shared risk. I liked the unyielding standard of performance, the collective pursuit of excellence. I guess those are just some of the things I look back on.

What’s the strongest memory you have of your service in the Navy?

There are many, but I think the best thing about naval aviation is the positions of leadership, responsibility, and accountability that young people have. It could be enlisted on the flight deck. It could be enlisted in the QA shop of the squadron, or it could be strike leader qualifications; but the responsibility, accountability, and expectations of leadership that we’ve put into young people endures. We train them to get to that point. It’s the discipline, it’s the competency, it’s the professionalism to do it. It’s pretty neat to see.

I also think a good thing to talk about is the autonomy that those individuals have. When these young people qualify for whatever position they’re in, that leadership position, whether it’s a catapult crew, a maintenance crew, weapons loading crew, or a section leader or a strike leader, we ask them to make decisions. We rely on them to make decisions and we back them in their decisions. We support them in their decisions.

Can you tell me something about flying the Tomcat that most people don’t know? Do you think there was anything about it that maybe a layman didn’t get?

I think it was a hard airplane to fly; very hard, particularly in the early days, with the performance characteristics that it had. It was always underpowered. It didn’t have digital flight controls in it and it had some unique aerodynamic characteristics so you just had to learn how to fly it and get a feel for it.

Is there anything you’ve learned that’s new or that you’ve been surprised by in being involved with the Centennial of Naval Aviation?

You know, you enjoy it so much, but it’s so demanding when you’re a part of it. But now, I’m able to step back and look at naval aviation as a whole – carrier-based, patrol and surveillance aircraft, the helicopters and all the capability they have. It’s pretty neat to be able to drop back and look at it holistically and see how technology has advanced. If you look at the SH-60 Romeo – the sensors that it has on it, the communications and networks that it’s a part of, the physical capabilities in terms of attack and strike – are amazing. The same thing goes for the Joint Strike Fighter and the Super Hornet. So, being able to drop back and look at all the communities, look at the history, and then look at how technology has made a difference, and, I think, other than that, how the innovation of our air crews has made a difference, has been a great learning experience.

With respect to CONA, what has working with the Hampton Roads Navy League been like in contrast to what you knew during the time you were serving?

Well, while in uniform, I would attend Navy League events and would be the beneficiary of the Navy League’s generosity. But, I didn’t realize the dedication of individuals who make up the Navy League. They participate because they have a passion for the Navy, a passion for supporting sailors, a passion for being, in their own way, part of our national security architecture, and I think you can draw that linkage pretty easily. So, it’s for love of country, for love of families, it’s for love of Navy, but that passion really comes out by just being associated with it. It is just incredible what the outcome is and what the results are in terms of Navy League goals and objectives.

This interview first appeared in Air Power at Sea: A Century of Naval Aviation 1911-2011.