Air Boss’ Talks Progress On F-35C, P-8

(NAVY TIMES 17 MAR 14) … Mark D. Faram

SAN DIEGO – Naval aviation is zooming into its second century by harnessing technological revolutions – from unmanned carrier planes to the electromagnetic catapults that will one day fling them from the decks of Ford-class supercarriers.

Developing these future systems while overseeing the world’s finest sea-based air force falls to the Navy’s “Air Boss” – Vice Adm. David Buss.

Buss, who heads Naval Air Forces, discussed these developments in a wide-ranging interview Feb. 18 at his Naval Air Station North Island, Calif., headquarters.

Questions and answers have been edited for brevity.

Q. What is the status of the Prowler-to-Growler transition?

A. The Marines will still fly the EA-6B Prowler for the foreseeable future; they won’t sundown probably until the mid-2020s.

For the Navy, we’ve completed the transition for all our expeditionary Prowler squadrons, so all three.

The last Navy Prowler squadron just left on deployment with [Carrier Air Wing] 8 and the George H.W. Bush strike group. This will be the last one and by the middle of 2015, roughly this time next year, we’ll have sundowned Navy EA-6Bs, so the last two squadrons will now transition into Growlers. This transition has gone very well. We haven’t even begun to scratch the surface on what the EA-18G will be able to do for us in the future.

Q. F-35C – Officials have said the tailhook issues have been worked out. But there’s still uncertainty about the jet’s future. What’s the long-term future of this program?

A. We are gaining momentum on the program. I really believe that the Navy is the beneficiary of being the third service in line for an initial operating capability with this airplane.

The Air Force and Marines have plowed some significant ground in front of us with the F-35A and B models.

We have formally stood up this past October [Strike Fighter Squadron] 101, the F-35C replacement training squadron, at Eglin Air Force Base [Fla.]. We’ve got three jets down there now, and the fourth one is due to arrive soon.

Later on this year, we’ll take that aircraft to sea to test it in the difficult environment on board the USS Nimitz, and we’ll learn a lot from that.

All the indications I’ve seen with the tailhook design right now are very positive.

The other pacing item is the software development. … [I’m] cautiously optimistic with the software development. Quite frankly, there’s still a lot of work that Lockheed Martin needs to do with testing that software.

Q. Last year, officials announced the first fleet of F-35 squadrons will be on the West Coast – have you figured out where?

A. There’s Option 1 and Option 2, and I don’t think we’re at liberty to disclose yet where we think we’ll end up. We’re still waiting; there’s environmental impact studies that are being wrapped up. Obviously, we’re not going to show up at a brand-new base.

This is part of the rebalancing to the Pacific, to the extent that we can bring a new capability to the Pacific theater first in the future, we are doing our darn best to make that happen, and F-35C is a good example.

Q. The debate rages on about whether we should build F-35Cs or just build more Hornets – where do you stand?

A. As I look into the future, for quite some time, F/A-18E and F Super Hornets and EA-18G Growlers will be working side by side for carrier strike groups – obviously enabled by E-2D [Hawkeyes] playing as the quarterback of the fleet. But the center of mass for naval aviation sensors and weapons employment and the ability to carry weapons with some reach to them will be F-35s and Super Hornets working side by side, supported by Growlers.

Q. But many are calling for truncating the F-35 and buying more F/A-18 Super Hornets. Would you support that?

A. There’s still an awful lot of development that has to happen for the F-35C for it to be a viable and integral participant in our strike group operations of the future. But it’s an airplane we need in the fleet. I needed it yesterday, quite frankly.

We’ll learn a lot when we get it out there and start operating it in the test community and then in the fleet. I think we’re going to look for options to have perhaps a more tailored carrier air wing mix-and-match in the future.

Q. Speaking of future capability, the aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford is in the water. How soon will she go to sea?

A. We’re building the crew. The captain’s already back there and at last count, we’ve got about 500 members of the crew coming together and starting to train and take responsibility for spaces onboard the ship. She’ll be ready to go to sea when sea trials are scheduled, I think at the tail end of 2015 or the early part of 2016.

She’s making very good progress. Obviously the first thing is to take her out for builders trials. After that, the crew gets her hands on her for sea trials. Then we can get her to the fleet and start workups for a first deployment.

Q. How about JFK? When will you lay her down?

A. The laydown at Newport News [Shipbuilding] is very unique. They have two dry docks that can take a carrier there. One is the new construction dry dock, which Ford is still in. And at some point later on this year, she’ll be moved from the dry dock down to the outfitting pier. The other dry dock is the refueling dry dock; that’s where Lincoln is right now.

We need to move Ford to the outfitting pier and then they’ll empty the dry dock and start the construction of the John F. Kennedy. But major hull sections are already in place, and the prefabrication work continues for John F. Kennedy.

Q. The first P-8 Poseidon squadron is on deployment and the second one is spinning up, although they are only doing basic missions. What have you learned so far?

A. [Patrol Squadron] 16 is on deployment now in Kadena [Air Base on Okinawa]. They got there in early December and are about 21⁄ 2 months into a scheduled six-month deployment, and all the reports I’m getting back from 7th Fleet are very positive.

I would remind everybody that we’re still early on [in the process]. These are low-rate initial production aircraft. As we have with F-35, these aircraft don’t have the full combat capability that we will eventually get in P-8. It’s the core load in the mission computers and the weapons load and release capabilities – high level [anti-submarine warfare] capability. It’s things that are being developed.

It’s a little bit like comparing apples and oranges, making side-by-side comparisons with a P-3 squadron andVP-16 because of the type of aircraft they’re flying. But I will say they are exceeding expectations. They are involved every single day in missions.

Q. You say it’s exceeding expectations, though it’s really just doing the same mission as the P-3, correct? And it hasn’t begun to take tougher missions. Can you discuss that?

A. Given the capabilities the aircraft currently has and knowing that we’re going to continue to expand on that as we go into full-rate production with weapons release and sensors and so forth, we’ll continue to grow the aircraft. But based on what was delivered to VP-16 and what we trained to do and what they’re actually performing on missions in theater, they’re exceeding the expectations we had.

This is how the P-3 community has operated for many years. They deploy to a hub and then they spoke out from there with detachments, and we will do that again with P-8 as well.

Q. Where is the MQ-4C Triton unmanned vehicle, which was designed to operate with the P-8?

A. That’s a little more difficult to pin down. We’ve been flying Triton as [a Broad Area Maritime Surveillance- Demonstration aircraft] over in 5th Fleet for a number of years. It was a great concept where we took a demonstrator and gave it to a fleet commander and said, “See what you can do with this thing.” Once it got over there, we never got it back. That’s not a bad thing.

So Triton, just in the last few months, has gotten into its more formal test program.

I don’t see any hiccups with that program at all. Once we get through with the test program, we’ll start to build. I think we’re about a year away from deploying Triton and deploying it side-by-side with P-8.

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