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NAVAIR: 50 Years of Equipping the Fleet





To accommodate the many changes underway within NAVAIR, Pax River underwent a major reorganization in 1975, making the Naval Air Test Center (NATC) the command’s principal site for development testing: the Flight Test, Service Test, and Weapons System Test divisions were disestablished, and new directorates formed to evaluate aircraft by type and mission: Strike Aircraft, Antisubmarine Aircraft, Rotary Wing Aircraft, and Systems Engineering Test. Other command directorates – Computer Services, Technical Support, and the U.S. Naval Pilot Test School – remained intact.


The Cold War Ends

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, many aircraft and weapons projects, such as the earlier XC-142A, involved the Navy’s cooperation with the Air Force or Army, in the spirit of “jointness” that lay behind many Department of Defense (DOD) reorganization efforts. In its formative phase, for example, the Osprey V-22 V/STOL aircraft was known as the Joint-Service V/STOL Experimental (JVX) aircraft. From the beginning, it was designed to meet the requirements of the Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Army. A V-22 prototype flew for the first time on March 19, 1989. Throughout the 1980s, F/A-18 Hornets began to replace F-4 Phantom II fighter-bombers and A-7 Corsair attack aircraft in the carrier fleet.

agm-123 skipper ii with a-6 intruder

An A-6 Intruder aircraft launches two AGM-123A low-level, laser-guided bombs. DOD photo


At China Lake and Point Mugu, missile development kept pace with these innovations. The Tomahawk long-range cruise missile began to demonstrate, in the early 1980s, that it could search for, locate, and attack targets both on land and at sea. In 1983, development began on the AGM-88 High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM), an air-to-surface missile designed to home in on electronic transmissions from ground radar systems. Radar- and laser-guided variants of the Hellfire air-to-ground missile were also evaluated, and the Hellfire II, the laser-guided variant, was developed in the early 1990s. The Skipper II, a short-range laser-guided missile developed at China Lake, debuted in battle in the Persian Gulf in 1988, when at least two Skipper missiles, launched from A-6E Intruders, contributed to the sinking of an Iranian frigate. HARM and Skipper missiles were also used against Iraqi ships during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. Today the Skipper looks primitive by comparison with the Joint Standoff Weapon (JSOW) or Standoff Land Attack Missile, but it was a necessary and useful step in the evolution of precision munitions.

tomcat and tomahawk navair

A Tactical Tomahawk Block IV cruise missile is escorted by a Navy F-14 Tomcat fighter during a controlled test over the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) western test range complex in southern California. During the second such test flight, the missile successfully completed a vertical underwater launch, flew a fully guided 780-mile course, and struck a designated target structure as planned. U.S. Navy photo.

One of the most successful weapons development programs of the 1990s was the AGM-154 JSOW, a precision-guided weapon capable of engaging defended targets from beyond the range of standard anti-aircraft defenses. The JSOW’s guidance system couples GPS with an inertial navigation system for midcourse navigation, and infrared imaging and a datalink for terminal homing onto targets. The first combat deployment of the JSOW occurred over southern Iraq in 1998 when a single weapon, launched from an F/A-18C from Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 312, struck a target in the outskirts of Baghdad.

v-22s pax river

Four V-22 Osprey aircraft on the NAS Patuxent River flight line during testing. NAVAIR undertook extensive flight testing of the V-22 after early mishaps. U.S. Navy Photo

The 1990s saw a historic shift in the world order, and the organization of the U.S. military evolved to reflect these changes. The collapse of the Soviet Union and its Eastern Bloc nations ushered in an era of regionalized conflicts and growing instability in the Middle East. The Defense Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Commission began its periodic overhauls of the military enterprise, and many naval aviation squadrons were consequently disestablished, consolidated, or reorganized.

These reorganizations had a profound effect on NAVAIR. By the mid-1990s, it had established the Naval Air Warfare Center (NAWC), with three divisions:

  • The NAWC Aircraft Division (NAWCAD), which assumed responsibility for aircraft, engines, avionics, and aircraft support, was established at NAS Pax River. NAWCAD became the Navy’s full-spectrum research, development, test, and evaluation (RDT&E); engineering and fleet support center for air platforms. Several activities, including those of the Philadelphia-area installations, were absorbed into NAWCAD; the Naval Air Propulsion Center, for example, was moved from Trenton to Pax River, where it was renamed the Propulsion System Evaluation Facility (PSEF).
  • The NAWC Weapons Division (NAWCWD), headquartered at China Lake and Point Mugu, with a facility at White Sands, New Mexico, assumed responsibility for all aircraft weapons and weapons systems, targets, and simulators.
  • The NAWC Training Systems Division (NAWCTSD), in Orlando, Florida, retained the mission of the Naval Training Systems Center: to research, develop, acquire, test and evaluate, manage and support all aviation, surface and subsurface training devices and systems for the Navy, and all aviation systems for the Marine Corps.

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Craig Collins is a veteran freelance writer and a regular Faircount Media Group contributor who...