Naval Aviation Continues to Evolve as an Affordable and Capable Force

Like most Americans, I’m watching the national fiscal debates in Washington with great interest and a good deal of trepidation. It’s my job to ensure that we man, train and equip a naval aviation force that is ready to fly, fight and win whenever and wherever our forward military commanders around the world need that capability. It’s also my role to put in place the policies that will ensure that naval aviation endures as a vital and relevant part of our Navy and the broader national security framework.

Working with other leaders in the community, we developed a vision for naval aviation that will help us ensure a whole, capable and affordable force. That vision, though still important, is in jeopardy due to the across-the-board nature of looming cuts resulting from the potential of a full-year continuing resolution and sequestration.

The chief of naval operations has given us directions to act now in the face of these pending cuts. As we make choices of where and how to cut in the limited way we’re able in this circumstance, it’s important to note that all of our processes are interconnected. Once we begin pulling levers to move the big machine, there will be impacts across the entirety of naval aviation. Some of these impacts may not be immediately apparent today, but they will impact our future in the near and far term, and may not be easily reversed.

I understand that in almost any conceivable circumstance there will be fewer resources available. This reality has informed our vision and is driving how naval aviation must organize, man, train and equip as a whole to successfully perform its missions today and in the future. Achieving combat effectiveness — which is what we are fundamentally all about — requires the judicious management of manpower, supplies and training dollars to safely and effectively operate Navy and Marine Corps aircraft to be ready for whatever the nation asks of us, whenever we are asked.

Naval aviation has embraced affordability, which I see as generally driven by two elements — the acquisition cost to develop and buy our platforms, and the operating and sustainment costs to bring the full throw weight of our aviation force to bear over their entire service life.

The Navy is in transition to a new, more capable platform in nearly every aircraft community today. We must continue these transitions if we are to meet the evolving security threats of tomorrow. We are completing our strike-fighter transition into the FA-18E/F Super Hornet. We are well into transition with our electronic attack community out of the older EA-6B Prowler and into the extraordinarily capable EA-18G Growler. We are also well into our rotary wing transition into the lethal multimission MH-60R and MH-60S Knighthawks, programs that, by the way, saved taxpayers (you and me) billions of dollars through multiyear procurement strategies.

Our legacy P-3C Orion squadrons have begun transition into the remarkable P-8A Poseidon, an aircraft based on the concept of leveraging a reliable, already proven low-cost platform that carries an array of sensors, networks and weapons designed to operate in an “open architecture” warfighting environment.

Another way in which we’re trying to make our Navy’s aviation force more affordable for the future is by reducing the number of types, models and series of aircraft within the carrier strike group.

For example, in 2005, a carrier strike group may have deployed with as many as 10 different models of aircraft, which collectively required eight different engine types, each with their own maintenance and supply support requirements.

In our new vision, a carrier strike group in 2025 would deploy with as few as five different models of aircraft with five engine types, significantly reducing our “life cycle” costs to own and operate those Navy aircraft. Think about it — fewer range of parts that we need, with more commonality, and a higher probability of finding the part you’re looking for on the shelf when you need it.

There’s more to affordability than simply designing and buying better aircraft, though. The cost to operate our present and future platforms — combined with advanced capabilities that are rapidly exceeding the capabilities of our current training ranges — demands that within naval aviation we become much more innovative in combining live, virtual and constructive training.

Flight time in the cockpit or crew station will always matter for our naval aviators, but our potential adversaries’ capabilities are evolving to the point where much of our most realistic training in the future may be done in a high-fidelity simulator, linked with an array of other simulators in a high-tech, high-threat environment that can’t be replicated anywhere else. And flight hours are likely to become more scarce under budget cuts.

Our live training ranges today may not provide the level of high-end training we need to be able to fully practice our warfighting skills. We are at the cusp of innovative thought and action in determining the right mix of live, virtual and constructive training for our future … and bright young aviation minds are leading the charge here.

I’ve provided just a few examples of ways naval aviation is doing all we can to deliver value to the American people even in these austere times. And although we place affordability at the heart of everything we do, we will never lose sight of our true mission: providing combat-ready aviation forces forward where, and when, they are needed most — today, tomorrow and in the future. That mission may be harder to achieve moving forward, but we will do everything we can to achieve it.

Vice Adm. David Buss is commander of Naval Air Forces, based in Coronado.

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