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Challenge in Transition

Four leaders articulate the future of Naval Aviation

Of all the presentations at the 2011 Navy League’s Sea-Air-Space Exposition in Washington, D.C., perhaps the most interesting was the professional development seminar: “Naval Aviation Centennial: What is the Future of Naval Air?”

During the two-hour seminar, four of naval aviation’s current senior leaders – Vice Adm. David Architzel, USN, commander, Naval Air Systems Command; Vice Adm. David J. Venlet, USN, program executive officer – F-35 Lightning II Program; Lt. Gen. Terry G. Robling, USMC, deputy commandant for aviation; and Vice Adm. John P. Currier, USCG chief of staff – reflected on the last century of naval aviation and articulated its future.

P-8A Poseidon Flight to Pax River

The P-8A Poseidon is expected to achieve IOC in 2013 on its way to replacing the veteran P-3 Orion. Photo courtesy of The Boeing Company.

While the next 100 years will present both obstacles we expect and those we cannot yet envision, all agreed the primary near-term challenge in naval aviation was the transition from late 20th century weapons systems and operational doctrine to true 21st century platforms and integrated warfare tactics. Complex in its own right, this transitional era will unfold in the context of flat or diminishing defense budgets and rapidly evolving threats.

Architzel succinctly summed up the panel’s view with his opening comment that “there are challenges that abound,  but the next 100 years of naval aviation will be even better than the first.”

His declaration should inspire anyone enamored with naval aviation, because its first century was pretty spectacular. In the beginning, it also needed “all hands,” the Coast Guard’s Currier said.

“Early in naval aviation’s history we were almost equal partners. As we started to fly from decks, there was a paucity of engineers. The Navy actually reached out to our class at the Coast Guard Academy, who joined with them to help with the early development of flight from the decks of ships.”

Currier, a 6,500-hour rotary- and fixed-wing pilot, reminded the audience of Cmdr. Elmer Stone, who became the first Coast Guard (USCG) aviator and Naval Aviator No. 38. Stone piloted the famous Curtiss seaplane NC-4, under the command of Navy Lt. Cmdr. A.C. Read, on its seminal 1919 trans-Atlantic flight. Currier also pointed to the Coast Guard’s pioneering rotary-wing efforts and individuals like Cmdr. Stewart R. Graham, the USCG’s second helicopter pilot. Graham received his pilot’s license from Dr. Igor Sikorsky, and made the first shipboard helicopter landing. He also was instrumental in the development of helicopter rescue hoists, pop-out floats, and medevac techniques.

UH-1Y Venom light attack helicopter

A UH-1Y Venom helicopter from Marine Light Attack Helicopter Training Squadron 303 flies over the Picacho State Recreation Area, Calif., March 3, 2010. The Venom marks a huge jump in capability for the light attack community. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Aaron Diamant

“We grew to a certain size,” Currier explained. “Navy/Marine Corps aviation grew exponentially following World War I, but we stayed closely tied. Along with the development of the seaplane and search and rescue procedures, the Coast Guard was instrumental in law enforcement in the context of Prohibition. That was followed in the 1970s and ’80s by the interdiction of drugs from the Caribbean and later the cocaine anti-narco/terrorism operations that are still going on.”

Robling commented on the Marine Corps’ present by looking to its past and likely future.

“The [USMC] commandant has called us the ‘nation’s middleweight force’ and I agree. We’ve always been able to fight at that medium-threat spectrum, but we can also punch above our weight if we need to. Or we can go to a lower weight class and conduct point operations. We also do that in a frugal way. When I was a junior officer, I used to call us a ‘cheap service.’ Now that I’m more mature and wise I say [we have] a ‘tradition of fiscal austerity and responsibility.’”

Fiscal responsibility is a facet of naval aviation that has never been more under the microscope than today, but the assembled flag officers also emphasized that the pace of advancement in naval aviation has never before been so rapid.

The sustainment of legacy platforms and transition to technologies that will take naval aviation into the future was neatly encapsulated in 2010 and early 2011, Naval Air Systems Command’s (NAVAIR) commanding officer explained.

The new UH-1Y “Yankee” helicopter completed its second operational deployment in 2010 and started 2011 with its third deployment. The Yankee’s attack-oriented stablemate, the AH-1Z “Zulu,” was approved for full-rate production in November 2010 and achieved initial operational capability (IOC) in February 2011. The Zulu is expected to see its first deployment this year.

The vitally important EA-18G Growler was designated “safe-for-flight” in 2010 and quickly made its combat debut in the skies over Iraq, Afghanistan, and more recently, Libya. The F/A-18E/F Super Hornet continued its role as the backbone of naval strike fighters and one example, an F/A-18F dubbed the “Green Hornet” flew supersonic on a 50/50 blend of JP-5 and Camelina-based bio-fuel. In April, the 500th Super Hornet/Growler was delivered to the fleet.

CF-2  F-35C Lightning II test flight

CF-2, the second F-35C Lightning II carrier variant flight test jet, completes its first flight on April 29, 2011. Lockheed Martin photo by Liz Kaszynski

The MH-60R/S saw their first deployment aboard USS John C. Stennis and USS Abraham Lincoln, where they immediately began providing search and rescue service while adding FLIR and Hellfire weapon systems capability. The MV-22 Osprey “hit full stride” in 2010, Architzel declared, as deliveries continued and Ospreys deployed to Afghanistan and supported humanitarian relief operations in Haiti. An MV-22 was central in rescuing a downed Air Force (USAF) pilot in Libya in late March.

In July 2010, the CH-53K passed its critical design review and is on track for an early 2019 IOC. The Marine Corps is already reviewing opportunities for integrating its technology into existing CH-53Es.

The Navy’s P-8A Poseidon celebrated its milestone C decision in 2010 and the first LRIP, or low-rate initial production, contract for six aircraft was awarded in January 2011. The P-8 is expected to achieve IOC in 2013. The E-2D Hawkeye continued development and carrier suitability work in 2010 and made its first carrier landings and catapult takeoffs in early 2011.

Unmanned systems were rapidly developed and fielded in 2010, with the Tethered Aerostat (blimp) radar surveillance system supporting bases across Afghanistan after a rapid prototyping effort by NAVAIR in cooperation with the Army and other agencies in response to urgent warfighting requirements. The MQ-8 Fire Scout conducted counter-piracy missions and is deploying to Afghanistan as part of the ISR Task Force.

The Navy’s Small Tactical Unmanned Aircraft System (STUAS), which is to provide persistent maritime/land-based reconnaissance/surveillance, was awarded a Tier II contract in July 2010 while its BAMS-D (Broad Area Maritime Surveillance-Demonstrator) managed more than 110 sorties and 2,100 flight hours. Ninety percent of those sorties were combat missions, and 2011 will be BAMS-D’s third year deployed in support of operations in U.S. Central Command. The Unmanned Combat Aircraft System (UCAS) X-47 Demonstrator made three successful flights in 2010 and a second prototype will make its first flight in mid-2011.

X-47B flight testing

The X-47B began flight testing in early 2011. Photo courtesy Northrop Grumman

Aircraft support systems advanced too, with Block 1A JPALS (Joint Precision Aircraft Landing System) testing continuing through the year. In December 2010, the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launching System (EMALS) catapulted its first aircraft, an F/A-18E, off the deck at Naval Air Station (NAS) Lakehurst, N.J., Functional demonstration testing continues and aircraft compatibility testing will go forward in 2011. The new Advanced Arresting Gear (AAG) system continued engineering development in 2010 and made its first dead-load wire pulls at NAS Lakehurst in late March 2011. AAG will join EMALS on the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78).

With these new and recent systems come new capabilities but also a need to maintain current readiness, Architzel stated.

“Today we’re bringing out a myriad of products at a pace never seen in naval aviation, but with that comes a need to maintain our legacy assets. There are challenges like sustaining the P-3; challenges maintaining the legacy Hornet; challenges maintaining the H-46s until we fully bring the V-22 forward. Those are all being attacked through the work of people who don’t get much notoriety – the engineers, testers, and logisticians who work through NAVAIR and the Naval Aviation Enterprise.”

Robling cast the naval aviation transition in terms of necking-down platforms and type models, a process under way in the Marine Corps for the last 15 years. He pointed to the Marines’ air tanker fleet. The Corps’ active squadrons have almost fully completed the transition from the KC-130R/T to the KC-130J, and the service’s two Reserve squadrons flying the Hercules will be equipping with -130Js this year. On the East Coast, the Corps has completed transitioning its CH-46E squadrons to MV-22s. Three squadrons on the West Coast are under way with the transition and USMC vertical-lift squadrons on Okinawa and the Pacific are next up. The heavy-lift squadron in Hawaii will shift from CH-53Ds to CH-53Es in 2013, and by 2016 the Corps will begin receiving the first six CH-53Ks.

The arrival of the AH-1Z/UH-1Y Cobra/Huey helicopters exemplifies the jump in capability offered by new platforms, Robling said.

“I was in Iraq during Iraqi Freedom with a UH-1N on a 100-degree day with two machine guns and two aircrew and we couldn’t put any more people in that aircraft. I couldn’t take the division commander and put him out there on a recon in a helicopter that was built to do that. With the new Yankee, you’ll literally fill it before you out-weight it, even in the temperatures I’m talking about. It’s a generational change. Along with that, we get the Zulu, almost 30 knots faster than the Whiskey version, with increased targeting and better precision weapons.”

F-35B short takeoff/vertical landing jet BF-2

The second F-35B short takeoff/vertical landing jet, BF-2, descends to a vertical landing on Jan. 12, 2011, at NAS Patuxent River, Md. Lockheed Martin photo

Replacing the AV-8B Harrier, EA-6B Prowler, and legacy Hornets with the F-35B and C will, by itself, save the Marine Corps more than a billion dollars in operations and support costs, according to Robling. The F-35B’s short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) capability is pivotal to the Navy/Marine Corps’ operational concept, he added, citing the fact that available runways around the world’s littoral regions shorter than 3,000 feet outnumber runways suitable for fast jets by a ratio of 12-to-1. Furthermore, the F-35B’s STOVL qualities allow it to expand the number of decks from which naval airpower can be projected.

“Instead of 11 capital ships, it gives the nation 22 capital ships with TacAir [Tactical Aviation] capability in those littoral areas.”

Venlet agreed, and told the audience that “the A-team of test, acquisition, and logistics support is present on the F-35 program – from NAVAIR to [USMC] Aeronautical Systems Command to industry.”

Venlet explained that in 2010, the program was deeply assessed.

“It was important that we grounded our view of the future in realism and fundamentals in test, engineering, production, and sustainment. Yes, it’s probably as complex a program as has ever been developed. That manifests itself in concurrency; testing while you’re building – developing while you’re fielding. This is the first year in which concurrency [hits] as we deliver production aircraft to the fleet to train. Adding to that, we’re doing it with not just one but three models, and we’re doing it for 10 international partners at the same time.”

With the F-35’s development program extended and its production ramp adjusted, Venlet said his confidence in the new plan was based on the fact that it could absorb “the normal learning and discovery that occur in development without driving the program into the ditch.”

As of early April, the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program had logged 702 flights across all three models and a total of 1,045 flight hours. That very day Venlet said the program had seven aircraft in the air (four As, two Bs, one C) and stressed that “we’re not just logging flight hours and counting test flights. We’re counting progress to meaningful milestones.”

One of those, he revealed, would be getting the F-35B to initial sea trials by the fall of 2011, which was accomplished in October 2011. Beginning land-based carrier suitability testing of the F-35C is another year-end goal. All three models are on the assembly line at Fort Worth, Venlet confirmed, and major components are in production at Northrop Grumman’s Palmdale facility and at other supplier locations. The final F-35A test aircraft was delivered in January, and the last F-35B and two F-35C test aircraft were to be delivered by the end of spring. The possibility of delivering the first 16 production aircraft to the USAF and Marines by year’s end was at hand as well.

The development of a rotary-wing air intercept capability is among the newest missions Coast Guard air has undertaken,  and Currier stressed the cooperation that protecting the National Capital Region from small, low-flying threats required with NORAD and the Air Force.

Like his counterparts, Currier cited affordability as one of the biggest challenges for naval aviation. Though he said his biggest budgetary concerns lay in shipbuilding rather than aviation, he stressed that one of the keys to acquisitions affordability would be stable requirements.

“Our job is stable requirements, and I think you’ll see more of that. Requirements-creep is a cost driver. My read on Congress is that if they perceive [a weapons system] to be ‘gold plated’ or a moving target, it will likely not be funded.”

EA-18G Growler USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77)

An EA-18G Growler assigned to Electronic Attack Squadron (VAQ) 141 lands during flight operations aboard the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77). U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Eric Tretter

Likewise, risk management will be paramount in the future, both for government and industry. Despite the current appetite for fixed-price contracts, Currier does not believe they are a panacea.

Robling echoed Currier’s sentiments regarding requirements and systems capability. “We’re not going to ask for anything more than we need, even though there are a lot of things out there that would be nice to have.”

The challenge then becomes explaining the services’ “must-haves” to a new crop of lawmakers. “It’s an education for those new to Congress who haven’t been around the military as much,” Robling said. He also explained that the Marine Corps would likely deal with the budget crunch through a reduction in manpower (by approximately 15,000) and assets (striking 6,000 vehicles from its fleet).

Grappling with the largest defense acquisition in history, Venlet acknowledged  that getting production costs under control today would make or break the JSF program.

“Folks in the industry team know that they’ve got to have an inflection point on the cost curve to keep the airplane within a price range that those 10 nations can afford. If this is going to be a 3,000-plus production run, it’ll have to be at a price that aging inventories can be replaced at.”

Life cycle costs and acquisition cycle times need to be reduced and better understood, according to Architzel, who pointed out that while the nominal costs of acquisition make headlines, systems development and procurement represent only 10 to 15 percent and 25 percent respectively of overall life cycle cost. The rest is in sustainment, typically 60 to 65 percent. Given its share of overall cost, Architzel said sustainment costs must figure in the speed with which weapons systems are acquired.

“You can go fast, but you’d better know where you’re going. We need to understand not just the speed with which we deploy and field systems but their efficacy and suitability when deployed. That may cause you to take a little slower route at first to make sure you get it right at the end.”

For this transitional period, each of the flag officers was asked which single platform presented the greatest challenge. Robling answered quickly – the Corps’ fleet of F/A-18B-D Hornets is his biggest headache.

“We’ve got a shortfall of TacAir aircraft to get us to JSF. The legacy Hornet is a very capable airplane that’s getting to the end of its service life. It was built to be a 6,000-hour aircraft but we’ve done inspections and some things that may get it to 8,000 hours. With a lot of work and more money, we may be able to get it to 10,000 hours. Keeping these aircraft, relevant and keeping readiness high is my biggest challenge.”

Robling added that the AV-8B Harrier is also challenging to keep operational and that the Marine Corps is looking at sourcing appropriate parts and aircraft from the U.K. as it retires its Harrier fleet over the next year.

Interestingly, Currier said that his challenge is not legacy aircraft sustainment but mission employment.

C-130-H HC-130J  coast guard

A C-130H displaying an historic color scheme (foreground) to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the C-130 in Coast Guard Service flies in formation with a new HC-130J from Air Station Elizabeth City, N.C. Air Station Elizabeth City received the first operational J models. The Coast Guard has been using a version of the C130 since Air Station Elizabeth City took delivery of the first one in December 1959. Coast Guard photo by Dave Silva

“What I need are two classes of unmanned vehicle for maritime surveillance, because we’re inappropriately using C-130s and helicopters for all of our maritime domain awareness. We really have a need for an unmanned broad-area maritime surveillance aircraft. Our problem is not so much maintaining the aircraft as it is inappropriately tasking them in a vital mission.”

Finally, Architzel raised his concern about the intellectual energy and workforce that will propel naval aviation into the future.

“What’s the follow-on to the MH-60 Sierras and Romeos? Where is that technology today in our industry and government? I also look to the future of the NAVAIR workforce and I realize we have a mean age over 40. We have to look at the nation and ask, ‘Where is our STEM [science, technology, engineering, mathematics] education? Where is the base that’s going to produce engineers of the future?’ It’s not just in aviation. We design an aircraft carrier every 50 years and we have to have the engineering talent to do it. One of my main concerns is the workforce.”

But along with those concerns is a shared recognition of how far naval aviation has come. The distance has literally been on view as a replica of the Curtiss Pusher flown by naval aviator Eugene Ely in 1910 has toured the country. The replica’s presence at SAS reminded Architzel that “the greatness of naval aviation is the sum total of all the pioneers who came before us, all those serving today, and those who will stand where we are in the future.”

This article was first published in Air Power at Sea: A Century of U.S. Naval Aviation.


Eric Tegler is a writer/broadcaster from Severna Park, Md. His work appears in a variety...