2-Star: Air Wing Has To Evolve

Future missions rest with carriers and the F-35

(NAVY TIMES 20 MAY 13) … Christopher Cavas

The leadership of the Navy’s aviation community has been out in force in recent months, advocating for the future of its warfare community and restating its view of the supremacy at sea of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.

The threats are both domestic and foreign— the cost to buy the F-35 joint strike fighter will eat up much of the acquisition budget, particularly late this decade when full-rate procurement sets in, and the price of new CVN 78 Gerald R. Ford-class carriers will gobble up a major chunk of the shipbuilding budget. China’s development of the DF-21D Dong Feng anti-ship ballistic missile, aimed at pushing U.S. carriers far away from Chinese shores, has in the minds of some observers threatened the very existence of the carrier— something U.S. military planners strenuously deny.

But the future isn’t far off. The Ford will be delivered in 2016, and the F-35C carrier variant is aiming for an initial operational capability in 2018. Other new technologies are rapidly coming, none more spectacular than the X-47B carrier-based unmanned demonstrator aircraft, now testing at sea.

Defense News, Navy Times’ sister publication, discussed the future of naval aviation with Rear Adm. Bill Moran, the director of air warfare, and his deputy, Rear Adm. Rich Butler.

Excerpts, edited for space and clarity:

Q. Is the current budget crisis changing your vision for naval aviation’s future?

Moran. Fiscal constraints being what they’ve become, we have to adjust to that. But the overarching theme is about the core of naval aviation being the carrier and its air wing. It’s not like we’re going to be able to change significantly the capabilities that are already out there and that are coming. But how do you mix them together to provide the most value for what we’re spending on the carrier and the carrier air wing? That’s where we are tweaking with the size, shape and function of the air wing on the carrier. And then when you bring in the Ford class, it allows us to think even differently about how we operate off the carrier.

That part is missing in the vision, but it’s a part of what we’re trying to go to in our story, and how we describe what naval aviation is going to do in this new fiscal environment. It could potentially drive changes to how we operate.

Q. What kind of tweaking are you talking about? How is the air wing evolving?

Moran. There are a couple of separate discussions. One is that the air wing will have to evolve to meet affordability challenges in the future for whatever carrier it operates off of.

And then, what options to operate off the Ford might be different from [current Nimitz-class carriers]?

The second part is one that we’re studying.

We’ve got analysis going on right now to assess that, to look at how you can surge capability to a much larger flight deck that is more efficient and has more opportunity for surging capability to a hot spot. With Nimitz, you’re more limited in your ability to do that.

It doesn’t have as much margin for added capability, whether it’s adding your sensors, adding new aircraft or adding new capability.

We’ve kind of run out of the margins on Nimitz.

Q. But you have 10 Nimitz-class carriers. With a 50-year life span, they’ll remain the core of the fleet for the next 30 years. What limitations do they have?

Moran. We’re talking about in the not-too-distant future about adding unmanned capability to our air wings. They’re going to have to operate with and be a part of that carrier air wing, and you need to have some margin on the flight deck and the hangar bay to operate efficiently with that capability. We feel very comfortable with the Ford because of its size that we can integrate that easily. It’s going to be more challenging with the Nimitz, but it’s going to be doable. The air wing structure today is smaller than it was 10, 15 years ago. It’s smaller than it was 30 years ago in terms of total numbers. The aircraft are bigger, generally speaking, and the sortie generation rate is about the same. Ford allows you to generate more sorties.

Q. Will the future unmanned carrier-launched airborne surveillance and strike aircraft be limited in terms of the Nimitz class?

Moran. No, not at all. The X-47B is in the ballpark in terms of size. If you put a number of those on a Nimitz-class carrier today, we’ve got to make room for it. It’s doable, and we’re all looking forward to that capability.

Q. Will something have to come off?

Moran. I don’t think that anything comes off. We could fit it today. It just gets more congested; it’s going to be a squeeze. When I’m talking about capability, it’s not just the physical airplane; it’s being able to add in the control systems, sensors and manpower, all of those things that accompany new capability, whether it’s UCLASS or something else.

Nimitz has kind of run out of margin for electrical power, heating, cooling and all of those things that accompany new capabilities. Ford’s got excess capacity, significant capacity to allow us to bring new capabilities forward.

Q. It’s hard to escape the plethora of articles and interviews on naval aviation appearing lately. What’s behind this?

Moran. I think what you’re seeing is just that we’re anxious to talk about the vision. What’s always missing from the discussion about the carrier is the air wing.

I’m really anxious to talk about the air wing of the future and how we’re going to try to put the right mix together. There is a classified version to this [vision] that goes into far more detail about the capability improvements to the air wing and why they’re in there. We’ve made very conscious trades in capability and force mix to keep the core air wing and the carrier capable in the future under some pretty tough budget conditions. It’s only going to get harder. So we’re trying to keep the core very tight and very capable, recognizing that we might have to do things differently.

Q. The fleet’s operational tempo has been very high for the last 2 1⁄ 2 years. Back in the 1990s
and 2000s, a similar op tempo meant the Navy used up flying hours on its F/A-18A and C Hornets much faster than planned. Is that happening again with your new E and F Super Hornets?

Moran. The net result is that our utilization rate on Super Hornet performance has come down significantly in the last three to four years. “Utilization” is kind of a rollup of the number of hours you operate and how much fatigue you’re putting on the [landing] traps, [catapult launches] and high-G maneuvers. When you start reducing that, how much you use up the life of that airplane comes down. We’re able to buy more life back just by how we operate them.

I’ll use a great example. In the P-3 community, when I was growing up, it was not unusual for instructors like me to practice takeoffs and landings on the order of 30 to 40 per pop. Today it’s roughly half that. We found out you need a certain number to be proficient, and beyond that number, it’s experience. What we have now are instruments and metrics and systems that track every flight, every hour, every G-load on every airplane. So we can determine more accurately how long those aircraft are going to live. And we can also determine how much a certain event has taken fatigue life away from that airplane, so we may not use that airplane as much tomorrow.

We’ll use a different one. We’re able to manage the whole fleet.

We stretch the whole population of airplanes out further.

Q. Adm. Jon Greenert, chief of naval operations, was recently asked in the Senate what his biggest concerns are with the F-35. He said, “I need a tailhook, a helmet and a program that will deliver weapons equivalent to a Super Hornet.” Can you address those issues?

Moran. Absolutely. The tailhook had issues with snagging the arresting cable. The bottom line is that the design was flawed, so a complete redesign has been completed. A preliminary critical design is done. The engineers for the Navy have confidence in that design. We’re going to begin testing that.

Q. Is the hook being repositioned on the aircraft?

Moran. No. We changed the hold-down damper, and we changed the hook design, which previously was more of a blunt-nosed hook. It was kind of a bulbous nose and it wasn’t scooping. I know— it’s hard to defend this one.

Butler. When the [aircraft’s] wheels go over the wire, it bounces, and that bounce happened to hit right as the hook was coming over where the wire was on the deck. So it was a combination of the distance between the main mounts and the hook point, and the fact that the hook point wasn’t shaped quite right.

It wasn’t hugging the flight deck close enough.

Moran. The helmet had a variety of issues with it, green glows and jittering in maneuvers. Vice Adm. Dave Venlet [former JSF program director] decided to compete the helmets to try to drive competition, and in my view, that strategy has worked well.

We’ve seen vast improvements in all of the problem areas I just described, and it’s undergoing further tests now. We’re pretty confident the helmet’s going to be just fine. The Marine Corps is paying very close attention because they get the Generation II Helmet, which is the current version. We get the Gen III Helmet when it comes out, so we’ll have even more improved [infrared] camera capabilities with whatever design improvements come with the current testing. So in many ways we’re the beneficiaries of being the last to the table on this one. I don’t have any deep concerns about helmets.

But the software piece, we do have concerns about. We’re getting into the very complex builds of the software now.

We are watching the software burndown rates with Lockheed Martin and the Joint Program Office to continue to assess whether it is going to make it in terms of its capability and the time to match up with when we need the airplane at the end of this decade. That’s probably my biggest concern, watching the software development.

I have a lot of confidence in the structural and design pieces of the airplane. I think that the production itself is going much better than it has been. The further we get into the software development and with more capability that comes with it, the harder the software, with more code. It’s something we have to watch very closely.

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