In 1996, NAVAIR headquarters was moved from Arlington, Virginia, to a new building at Pax River.
The 21st Century
Naval doctrine was already undergoing a dramatic shift when, on Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by a small group of al Qaeda-backed terrorists took nearly 3,000 lives on American soil. The asymmetrical conflict that ensued, focused on Afghanistan and Iraq but sometimes involving terrorist targets in other nations, required unprecedented speed, flexibility, and lethality from U.S. armed forces.
Over the course of what became known as the War on Terrorism, the organization and operation of naval aviation was restructured to reflect the changing nature of its missions. Carrier battle groups were redesignated carrier strike groups, flexible operational formations that could operate on the open ocean or in confined waters, day or night, in all weather conditions. The change from “battle” to “strike” groups signaled a greater emphasis on projecting the Navy’s air power ashore.
The model of this kind of flexibility in the naval aviation fleet has been the Hornet and its latest variant, the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, which deployed on its first operational cruise in 2002. True multimission aircraft, all Hornet variants can perform either fighter or attack roles, or both. The Super Hornet, with 11 weapons stations, can carry a much larger array of air-to-ground ordnance than its predecessor, the F-14 Tomcat, which was retired from the fleet in 2006. The Tomcat itself, developed as a fleet defense fighter, was transformed late in its life by NAVAIR into what some called a “Bombcat,” and played a large role in the initial attacks against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan, having the range to fly from carriers at sea and deliver precision munitions over the battlefield. In 2005, NAVAIR began to develop the Multimission Maritime Aircraft (MMA), now known as the P-8 Poseidon, capable of anti-submarine warfare (ASW), anti-surface warfare (ASUW), shipping interdiction, and electronic signals intelligence. The Navy received the first P-8 in 2012, and NAVAIR proceeded with full-range production of the P-8, with upgrades to be phased in until 2020.
Another tool for rapid-strike capability to evolve in the 21st century has been the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV); the Navy opened its first permanent hangar designed and built specifically for a UAV in 2000 at Pax River’s Webster Field Annex. The RQ-8 Fire Scout, an unmanned autonomous helicopter designed to provide reconnaissance, aerial fire support, and precision targeting support, began its flight test program at China Lake in 2002; the first Fire Scout to land autonomously on a moving Navy ship landed on board the USS Nashville in 2006. The RQ-4 Global Hawk, a winged surveillance UAV, made its first flight in 2004 and evolved into the Triton, which was unveiled in 2012 and is intended to replace the Navy’s aging fleet of manned P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft. One of the most sophisticated UAVs to date, the X-47B – a demonstration unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) designed specifically for carrier-based operations – first flew in 2011, and in the summer of 2013 made the first arrested carrier landing at sea by an unmanned aircraft. The X-47B proved the concept that is today being developed into CBARS, the Carrier-Based Aerial Refueling and Strike unmanned system.
Meanwhile the aircraft of the Navy fleet increased their capabilities with a new generation of air-to-ground weapons. The AGM-84K SLAM-ER (Standoff Land Attack Missile-Expanded Response), a precision-guided air-launched missile, became available for duty and integrated into the P3-C Orion, the F/A-18 Hornet, and Super Hornet; the missile will also be integrated into the P-8. In July 2007, two F/A-18D Hornets form Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 destroyed Iraqi insurgent vehicles with an AGM- 65E Maverick air-to-ground missile and a GBU-51/B laser-guided bomb equipped with the BLU-126/B low-collateral damage explosive – the Navy’s first drop of the BLU-126/B in battle. The following year, NAVAIR announced the delivery of Laser Joint Direct Attack Munition (LJDAM) kits to the fleet. The JDAM program, launched in the late 1990s, allows the addition of a JSOW-like precision guidance system to existing “dumb” gravity bombs; the laser JDAM adds a moving target capability to the proven JDAM.
The 21st century has also seen the largest program in DOD history – the Joint Strike Fighter, or JSF – grow to maturity. The JSF program has its roots in a series of studies that began in 1993, supporting the idea of a merger between two programs: the Common Affordable Lightweight Fighter (CALF) program, a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency/Navy project to combine requirements that could meet the V/STOL needs of the Marine Corps and foreign customers; and the Joint Advanced Strike Technology (JAST) projects, designed to support development and production of next-generation strike weapon systems for the Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and allies.
In the Navy fleet, the F-35B STOVL and F-35C CV variants will replace both the AV-8B Harrier II and the “legacy” F/A-18 Hornet. Two F-35Bs – the short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) variant of the JSF – completed the first formation flight of this aircraft at Pax River in 2010, and, in 2015, the Marine Corps declared the aircraft – the world’s first supersonic STOVL stealth aircraft – had met initial operational capability.
While Pentagon and Navy leaders continue to debate the F-35’s tactical readiness for the real world, there’s no question the aircraft is the very emblem of the speed, flexibility, and lethality U.S. naval aviation brings to the free world’s defense – and of all the moving parts, encompassed by an ever-evolving Naval Air Systems Command, that combine to make it possible.