Naval Aviation Leaders Detail Focus on Improving Readiness, Increasing Lethality
By OTTO KREISHER, Seapower Correspondent
RENO, Nev. — The clear focus of the leaders of carrier-based naval aviation during the three days of the annual Tailhook conference was on improving readiness to be able to “fight tonight,” followed by increasing the lethality and survivability of the carrier air wings.
The leaders expressed confidence that despite an erosion of the traditional U.S. technological advantage against rising peer competitors their emerging new aircraft, sensors and weapons, and, most importantly, the talent of their pilots and crew members, will enable them to win in an era of great power competition.
When considering the priorities for any future warfight, “I think about full-up, mission-capable aircraft, people and readiness,” said Vice Adm. DeWolfe Miller, commander, Naval Air Forces, or the “air boss.”
“We’re all aligned throughout the Navy, and Marine Corps” to get the things needed for the fight, Miller said at a panel of his top leaders. “Our focus is really ... to provide the aircraft our JOs [junior officers] need to win the fight.”
“Our primary contribution to the readiness recovery piece is that before we buy any airplane, any piece of equipment, we look at building the readiness rates,” said Lt. Gen. Steven Rudder, the deputy Marine Corps commandant for aviation.
That means making sure the aircraft repair depots, the intermediate maintenance centers and the supply system have the money to provide the good airplanes and the spare parts needed to gain readiness, and “to give the line commanders what they need to fly airplanes,” Rudder said.
“The leaders up here cannot forget our JOs are flying combat today,” he added, listing every type of aircraft his Marines are flying. “We owe it to them to do our jobs.”
The leaders of the support elements Rudder cited were on the panel and joined in the pledge to do what was needed to reverse nearly a decade of declining combat readiness in the Tailhook forces, and gave generally positive statements on the progress being made with the recent increases in defense funding.
Two earlier panels of lower-level commanders and program sponsors described the current and upcoming aircraft and systems that will make up the future carrier air wing, with considerable emphasis on the need for sensors, command and control platforms and secure networks that will allow those air wings to fight “farther, faster, more lethal,” said Navy Capt. Michael Wosje, branch head for carrier-based aircraft and weapons.
In the near term, the air wings will look a lot like the current ones, with F/A-18 Super Hornets having replaced the few remaining legacy Hornets, the EA-18G Growler electronic warfare jets with a next-generation jammer, the improved E-2D succeeding the C model, updated MH-60R and MH-60S helicopters and, within two years, the fifth-generation F-35C adding enhanced sensors, data analysis and sharing capability, as well as a strike and counter-air role.
But future decades will see the arrival of the MQ-25 unmanned aerial refueling aircraft, which is expected to have some reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities, and perhaps other platforms to enhance manned-unmanned teaming. There also is the longer-term prospect of products of the Future Vertical Lift program, led by the Army, replacing the H-60s. And, at an undetermined date, the possibility of a sixth-generation tactical warfare aircraft, which may be manned, unmanned or optionally manned.
As proof of the valuable role that the current H-60s play in the carrier air wing, Tailhook included for the first time in its 62 years a panel of rotary-wing aviators. Introducing the panelists, Rear Adm. Daniel Fillion, a rotary-wing veteran now a manpower manager, said their appearance was evidence that “you young aviators are completely integrated in the air wing. … You represent a component of the air wing that has no match on the planet.”
The H-60s are the sole antisubmarine warfare asset on the carrier, and provide antisurface warfare and sea control, search and rescue, ground forces and special operations airlift and ground interdiction capabilities. They also contribute to the increasingly vital collection, processing and distribution of sensor information and extended command and control, which was emphasized in nearly every presentation at Tailhook.
The need for more extensive collection of sensor data, quicker processing — aided by artificial intelligence and machine learning — and distribution to everyone needing that information, including allies and partners, clashes directly with heightened concerns about cyber security, jamming and electro-magnetic management. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, carrier air wings are being trained to operate in “emcon” conditions, which can mean no transmissions by radio, radar or other active electronic emitters.
“In the old days, we operated in emcon. We’re going to be again. It’s old school, but real school in the 21st century, Fillion said.