Twilight of Manned Flight?

Proceedings Magazine – April 2016

The writing is on the wall: The next century of carrier aviation will be one of continued relevance, but considerably different composition.

The National Defense Authorization Act of 2016 did much more than reform the military pension system. While the retirement plan adjustments garnished the most attention and evaluation, buried deep in the legislation were two changes to U.S. Code that should pique the attention of military aviators. The legislation, signed into law by the President in November 2015, reformed the authorized flight pay and aviation bonus. It seems like a trivial change—a proverbial drop in the bucket in a law that allocates more than $607 billion to all four armed services in the Department of Defense. The implications and repercussions of this minor change, however, should give anyone looking at the long-term strategic value of airplanes pause.

By law, as of this year, military officers are authorized a maximum monthly “flight pay” of $850—unless you fly drones. If you are a drone pilot you are authorized $1,000. The legislation also changed the maximum bonus. If you are a pilot, after completing your initial commitment your respective service secretary is authorized to give you an annual bonus payment of $25,000. Again, unless you fly drones. If you are “performing flying duty relating to remotely piloted aircraft” you are authorized $35,000 a year.

The changes were buried on page 115 of the 585-page bill. TITLE VI, Subtitle B, Section 617 made the following changes to Title 37, “Pay and Allowances of the Uniformed Services”:

Aviation Bonus.—The Secretary concerned may pay an aviation bonus under this section to an officer in a regular or reserve component of a uniformed service who is entitled to aviation incentive pay.

Maximum amount.—The Secretary concerned shall determine the amount of a bonus or incentive pay to be paid under this section, except that aviation incentive pay under subsection (a) shall be paid at a monthly rate, not to exceed $1,000 per month for officers performing qualifying flying duty relating to remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) $850 per month for officers performing other qualifying flying duty.

(B) an aviation bonus under subsection (b) may not exceed $35,000 for officers performing qualifying flying duty relating to remotely piloted aircraft; or $25,000 for officers performing other qualifying flying duty.

So to be clear, if you are a forward-deployed Air Force F-16 pilot and flying in combat you are authorized less “flight pay” than someone of the same rank living in Las Vegas and operating unmanned vehicles from an office building. Similarly, if you are a Navy lieutenant in Patuxent River performing “duty relating to remotely piloted aircraft,” law authorizes the Secretary of the Navy permission to pay you a bonus of $35,000 a year. If you deployed at sea in combat on board the USSNimitz (CVN-68) flying the E-2 (a 30-year-old plane off of a 40-year-old aircraft carrier) your bonus is capped at $25,000.

Congress, of course, is not passing judgment on organizational value. The aviation bonus and flight pay are not by any means compensation for hazardous duty, nor are they meant to alleviate the hardships imposed by extended family separation and repeated duty-station changes. Conversely, they are not adequate enough compensation to inspire a current pilot to forgo the opportunity of a post-military airline career and become a drone operator. The adjustment to the law addresses a uniquely 2016 problem: There is a significant shortfall in recruiting and retention for personnel operating unmanned systems.

Despite the short-term motivation of the legislation, military aviators should nevertheless take notice. As of 25 November 2015, U.S. Code instituted a higher value on drone operators than pilots. Though directed at our sister service, the irony of that date should not be lost on naval aviators. Last fall, for the first time since 2007, the United States lacked an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf. A few short months prior, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus remarked that the F-35 “should be, and almost certainly will be, the last manned strike fighter aircraft the Department of the Navy will ever buy or fly.” Meanwhile, the F-35 delays continue, and military advances languish in the defense-acquisition process while civilian technology gets faster and cheaper.

These unrelated events should alarm those involved in carrier aviation. The naval aviation enterprise successfully implemented the core business principles of accounting, supply-chain management, and human-resource allocation. Perhaps in 2016 we should begin to look at the sobering aspect of capitalism—most, if not all, businesses eventually fail. We can either wait for a catastrophic end or we can strategically and methodically manage the unmanned and autonomous vehicle takeover. In either event, it is happening.

On 19 January 2012, Kodak filed for bankruptcy. At the time, the film manufacturer employed 13,000 people and its stock was trading at about 35 cents a share. The bankruptcy was not a surprise but instead the culmination of a decades-long downward spiral. Kodak was a 130-year-old company that at its peak employed more than 65,000 people. It made aggressive moves in acquisition, advertising, research, and development. It was a part of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, paid a dividend, was the dominant player in its market, and was by any measure a mature “blue chip” company. In the mid-1990s the stock peaked at $94.75 a share.

Kodak was also willing to invest in new technology. In 1978, a young Kodak engineer named Steve Sasson patented the “Electronic Still Camera.” Sasson’s invention (soon known as the “digital camera”) was a disruptive technology Kodak could not incorporate into its business. Expanding digital would cannibalize Kodak’s primary profit sectors—film and development. Kodak could not reconcile these conflicting interests. Eventually, as we all know, Kodak failed to adapt to the changing habits of its consumers.

Four months after Kodak went bankrupt, two 20-something Stanford grads, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, had a small company named Instagram. They, like Kodak, were in the business of photography and documenting memories. They had 13 employees, had never turned a profit, and had been in business for 18 months. On 8 April 2012, they sold Instagram for $1 billion to Facebook, itself a company in existence for less than a decade. Recent Instagram price-evaluation estimates put its value closer to $15 billion.

Bankruptcy is not pretty. It is a bad way for a business to end. If carrier aviation were to go “bankrupt,” it would look very similar to Kodak—a century of growth, then a short period of slow, steady decline, followed by a cliff. The main advocates of carrier aviation make the case for “presence.” “Presence matters,” as the slogan says. The main detractors make the case about cost. The first-in-her-class USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) is surpassing $14 billion and deploys Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) squadrons at $135 million a pop. It is not that presence does not matter. It is just that presence is expensive.

So what would “bankruptcy” look like? It looks very much like the fall of 2015 when the U.S. Navy did not have a carrier in the Persian Gulf. During the ISIS attack on Paris, as Russia deployed into Syria, as Iran began compliance with the P5+1 nuclear deal, and as the Syrian refugee crisis continued to explode, there was no aircraft carrier in the region. President Bill Clinton is famously quoted as saying, “When word of a crisis breaks out in Washington, it’s no accident that the first question that comes to everyone’s lips is: ‘Where’s the nearest carrier?’” Unfortunately, in the fall of 2015, that answer was Norfolk, Virginia.

Meanwhile, a month after the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) left the Persian Gulf and two months before the USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75) arrived, a strike in Syria killed the British militant Mohammed Emwazi. Dubbed “Jihadi John,” Emwazi rose to infamy as the masked member of ISIS seen executing hostages on several propaganda videos. An unmanned remotely piloted drone carried out the strike. It is not that a carrier could not have conducted the strike, it was that someone else was there to do it more cheaply, more quickly, and with less risk.

In 2012, people were still taking pictures. They were just doing it more cheaply, more quickly, and without film.

Manned flight on board an aircraft carrier will end by 2030. Just ask Google.

Google is one of the leaders in “driverless car” technology. Imagine flight-school students at Pensacola, Florida, 15 years from now. Like aviators from the previous century, they are right out of college, young, ambitious, and aggressive. Except now, instead of buying a corvette they buy a brand new driverless Tesla. The car is great. It drives them safely home on Friday night from the FloraBama, and drives them to flight school on Monday morning where they get in the simulator and learn to manually fly an airplane.

That makes no sense and will never happen. If the technology exists to autonomously drive a car, why would we spend the time and money to train a pilot to manually fly a plane? Nobody will ever ride in a driverless car to U.S. Navy flight school and learn to manually operate an airplane. The fact is, we cannot afford to teach them.

The Naval Safety Center is quick to point out that the primary cause of aviation mishaps is human. Mechanically, the shortfalls are also often related to the proverbial “man in the machine.” The most prevalent mechanical gripe in all models of the FA-18 Hornet is not with the hydraulic sytems, airframe, or fuel. It is with the oxygen generation.

With finite resources, the military must embrace the safest and most cost-effective tactical platforms. You do not get extra credit for degree of difficulty. If we can fly a drone off an aircraft carrier and conduct the same mission as a manned aircraft, we must do so.

Figure 1: “Naval Aviation Safety & the Cost of Aircraft” was published by the School of Naval Aviation Safety. Overlaid on the chart is the cost of aircraft. Adjusted for inflation, $51,000 in 1954 would be worth $449,000 in today’s dollars. The 776 aircraft destroyed in 1954 would be the equivalent financial loss of two JSFs. In other words, a midair collision between two F-35s would be more expensive than losing more than 700 aircraft in the 1950s.

Nobody is arguing that manned aviation is not effective. We need to be as effective for less money.

If Secretary Mabus is correct, that the JSF will be the final manned fighter, when will the last flight be? By Air Force standards we could still be a century away. The B-52 is scheduled to remain in service through 2040. Amazingly, there have been generations of pilots who have all flown the same aircraft—grandchildren taking the controls of literally the same bureau-numbered aircraft as their fathers and grandfathers. Those days are over. Despite its forward thinking, the JSF is already a ten-year-old design. By the time it gets to the fleet it will be 15 years old. Imagine giving a high schooler a 15-year-old cell phone. That is not how technology works in 2016.

If the JSF is around for 15 years, we would be lucky. If that date is correct, that the last aviator will fly on board a carrier in 2035, that means the last naval aviator is in elementary school right now, her air group commander is in flight school, and her admiral is the executive officer of a squadron. This is not science fiction. The transfer to autonomous and unmanned platforms is very much a current event.

In 2010 the lead engineers and contractors for the Navy’s unmanned aircraft program attended the Landing Signal Officer Operations Advisory Group. Hosted in Key West, Florida, the purpose of the event was clarification of the program’s requirements. The engineers gave the 30 pilots in attendance a brief on the capabilities of the jet and then opened the floor to questions.

“How does it taxi?” asked one enthusiastic pilot.

“It can’t taxi. After an arrested landing it will shut down and be towed out of the landing area,” came the response from one of the lead engineers.

The pilot was appalled. “That won’t work!” he proclaimed. “During carrier qualification you can’t shut down between landing and launching! We need to train quickly and efficiently. You need to get the thing straight over to the catapult and launch it again!”

The engineer looked embarrassed. “Sir, I don’t think you understand. This is a robot. It will always be qualified and doesn’t need to train. It is always ready.” Twenty minutes later another pilot declared, “Well, this is all fine and good, but how has the performance been at night? Night operations at the carrier are incredibly dangerous, so I’d like to see what the safety record would look like then.”

“Sir,” the engineer again sheepishly relied, “We haven’t done any testing at night. Again, the aircraft is a robot. It doesn’t have eyes, and can’t tell whether the sun is up or not. It’s autonomous. There is no pilot. It can’t see because it doesn’t have to.”

Not surprisingly, there were no further questions. Naval aviators are no more likely to incorporate and innovate unmanned systems into their operations than Kodak was to incorporate digital cameras. In today’s Navy aviators command aircraft carriers, run the aviation office in the Pentagon, and test our future systems. Initiatives by the Pentagon to foster innovation miss the point. It is not that large successful organizations—Kodak, Ford, IBM, or, for that matter, carrier aviation—do not want to innovate; it is that they cannot innovate. There is a reason Tesla made a more successful electrical car than Ford, Google was not a division of IBM, and Kodak did not take advantage of digital cameras. Asking pilots to incorporate unmanned and autonomous technology into carrier aviation is not only unproductive but also impossible.

The mission of the Naval Aviation Enterprise, according to its website, is to “sustain required current readiness and advance future warfighting capabilities at best possible cost.” Naval aviation can expand and ensure future readiness by incorporating three additional principles of successful adaptive organizations:

Acquire. The true skill of Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook is the immediate recognition of their own flaws. While the average American still thinks of Facebook as a technology company, Zuckerberg recognizes that its time has already passed and that the future of technology is to be created by the next generation of young men and women in their dorm rooms. Since its public offering, Facebook acquired not only Instagram but also messaging service WhatsApp (for $22 billion) as well as more than 50 other companies and properties.

The Navy acquisition process is not in a position to facilitate incorporation of unmanned systems. We cannot be writing “requirements” for incorporation of unmanned and autonomous technology. If the carrier of 2030 is to remain operational, manned platforms should be adapting to the capabilities and limitations of our unmanned counterparts.

Consolidate. The carrier air wing of the 1990s had the S-3, A-6, EA-6B, FA-18C, and F-14. The air wing of 2016 has consolidated all of those platforms into a single Super Hornet airframe. Despite the technological similarities the Navy is just beginning exploration of opportunities for efficiency. Only by aggressively finding solutions to manning shortfalls and cross-platform capability will carrier aviation operate efficiently enough to remain a viable national asset.

Cannibalize. Never hesitate to cannibalize your own market share. In the late ’90s AOL was a subscription service and incredibly profitable. It had the opportunity to change its business model but did not. Though now it appears like a no-brainer, Apple took significant risk when it developed the iPad. At its introduction tablets risked taking market share from the personal computer. With a lower price point, Apple risked reducing profits in the personal-computer market.

Leaders and operators of manned airplanes should embrace the opportunity to work with and deploy with autonomous and unmanned vehicles. The most adaptable vision of carrier aviation incorporates autonomous, unmanned, and assisted platforms.

Carrier detractors tend toward the financial argument—“too expensive, too complex, too risky for today’s world.” Carrier proponents rely on presence—“presence matters whatever the cost.” The truth is, without a doubt, more nuanced. Carriers are expensive, and presence does matter. Only by reconciling those two competing thoughts will the platform stay viable for another hundred years.

Aircraft carriers will always be relevant. However, they can only be effective if they are deployed and prepositioned for immediate crisis response. The core capability of carriers is indeed presence. It can only be achieved if it is cost-effective and adaptable. Those characteristics will require the use of manned, unmanned, and autonomous systems. This operational triad must work together safely, efficiently, and tactically. Lest we bankrupt the naval aviation enterprise, it needs to happen sooner rather than later.

Congress is justified in paying more money to officers “performing qualifying flying duty relating to remotely piloted aircraft.” If carrier aviation is to remain relevant past 2030, however, every aviator should fully embrace the future of assisted, unmanned, and autonomous technology. All aviators—those strapping into machines and those operating remotely—should buy into a future combined and consolidated force that acquires new technology and efficiently adapts to the long-term changing economic pressures.


Commander Stickles is the executive officer of Electronic Attack Squadron (VAQ) 130. He has more than 2,500 flight hours and 350 traps in EA-6B, F/A-18, and EA-18G aircraft. A 1999 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he has an MBA from the University of North Carolina and a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University. During his career he spent only one year out of the cockpit, and despite what he says in this article will never, under any circumstance, fly a drone.

Back to Top