Naval Aviators: Why So Underappreciated by Washington?

Navy jets have been on duty around the clock in the Persian Gulf, dropping laser-guided bombs on Islamic State militants in Iraq. Marine Corps Osprey aircraft last month helped rescue Yazidi refugees who were stranded on a mountaintop in Northern Iraq.

At last week’s Tailhook reunion in Reno, Nevada, naval aviation leaders showered praise on the fleet for these accomplishments. They also lamented how little recognition they get from the outside world, particularly from Washington policy makers. Playing key roles in these big-news stories is, apparently, not enough for the Navy to secure political support for big-ticket weapon systems or extra money for pilot training and aircraft maintenance.

Of the Navy’s 10 carrier strike groups, five have been deployed at any given time over the past 12 months. And yet, it is becoming harder to sell naval aviation in Washington, said Rear Adm. Michael C. Manazir, the Navy’s director of air warfare at the Pentagon.

“I need help,” he told a standing-room only crowd Sept. 6 at the Tailhook Association convention. The annual gathering brings a mix of senior naval aviation officials, junior officers and retired pilots.

Manazir said his office is struggling to secure funding to modernize the fleet and blamed that in part to a public relations problem.

The audience at Tailhook “understands why the nation needs us,” Manazir said. “But I cannot get that story told in Washington, D.C. … I cannot get anyone on the Sunday morning talk shows” to explain the value of naval aviation as an instrument of national security. “I am not saying naval aviation is under attack, but I will tell you that I’m on the defensive every single day in Washington, along with other champions of naval aviation,” said Manazir. “We need influencers.”

The budget battles on Capitol Hill threaten major weapon systems, including aircraft carriers, fighter jets and electronic warfare systems that are the linchpins of the Navy’s fleet, he said. “We have some great ideas for the future. … But it is a constant battle to buy the future of naval aviation.”

As committees on Capitol Hill haggle over the 2015 budget and try to avoid another government shutdown, the military is harboring hope that it can avoid another round of sequestration cuts. The Navy just submitted its 2016 funding proposal to the Defense Department and plans to begin drafting its 2017 plan in November.

Critics such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, have blasted the Navy’s newest carrier, the USS Ford, for its $13 billion price tag. Manazir called on major defense contractors to help make the case for the next-generation carrier. “If someone says HII [Huntington Ingalls Industries] carriers are too expensive, I need the people who put airplanes on top of those carriers to say, ‘No, we need all that,’” he said. “The Northrop Grumman’s, the Boeing’s, the Lockheed Martin’s, the BAE’s, the Sikorsky’s ought to say we need those carriers.”

Manazir has been “amazed every day when I go light a fuze on the story about the value of naval aviation, and the fuze goes out after about five seconds.” His suggestion: “Let’s have a collective determination to tell the story.”

A similar plea came from Lt. Gen. Jon M. Davis, the Marine Corps’ deputy commandant for aviation. “We have to tell the story of sustainment to congressional overseers and staffers,” he said. Having enough airplanes ready to fly on a moment’s notice should not be taken for granted, he said. The Marine Corps also needs to shore up political support for the F-35B version of the Joint Strike Fighter and for the V-22 Osprey vertical takeoff and landing aircraft, said Davis. “Get me out of the legacy birds as quickly as I can.”

The Marine Corps is equipping its older aircraft with digital radios so they are interoperable with the newer F/A-18s and with drones. There is a dire need for new technology on airplanes, said Davis, who is also a general aviation pilot. “General aviation does this a lot faster than the Marine Corps.” His goal is to shrink the normal five-year cycle for upgrading military aircraft down to one year.

The Navy’s aviation maintenance organization has spent the past several years looking for less costly and more efficient ways to support the fleet, said Vice Adm. David Dunaway, commander of Naval Air Systems Command.

“We have to change the way we do business,” he told the Tailhook convention. Years of putting off modernization is now coming back to haunt the Navy, he said. Hornet fighter aircraft that were designed to fly 6,000 hours are now expected to fly 10,000 hours, which has created a corrosion problem as the airplanes spend more time at sea. “We’re not very good at working corrosion,” he said. Sequestration budget cuts and furloughs at aviation depots have pushed the fleet to the edge. “It’s going to take five years to recover from this.”

The Navy’s top aviation officer, commander of Naval Air Forces U.S. Pacific Fleet Vice Adm. David H. Buss, said he worries about continuing “fiscal issues.” The budget deal that spared the Defense Department from draconian cuts in 2015 was good news, but there is no certainty about what will happen in 2016, Buss said. “We’re in very good shape for this year and next year, but my palms are very sweaty about 2016,” he added. “We saw this movie last year.”

He was happy to share with the crowd some bit of good news, though. After two years of “tough slogging,” the Navy approved last week the restoration of the “aviation command retention bonus” for commanders and captains. Younger officers, meanwhile, didn’t fare so well. An unusual number of lieutenants in the aviation community failed to get promoted to lieutenant commanders. Navy personnel chief Vice Adm. William F. Moran, said that was partly the result of senior officers staying in the service longer. “The Navy now has tremendous retention,” he said. “That congests our ability to move people up in the organization.” More commanders and captains are serving for 30 years, he said. “We have to make sure we have vacancies created that allow us to pick up more people.”

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