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This year marks the centennial of the U.S. Navy’s aviation program. From the early craft used in World War I all the way up through space exploration and the unmanned aircraft used by the modern military, there is a legacy of naval aviation the nation can be proud of.
However, what can be learned from its history going forward through examining the progress made? On Sept. 17, 2011 on the ground of the U.S. Naval Academy, leading experts convened and addressed those subjects.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles vs. Manned Aircraft: What Will Today's Midshipmen Be Flying?
Though focused on the history of naval aviation, the conference took a look at what today’s midshipmen would be flying in the future. Will they be flying like their courageous predecessors or will their engagement be behind the scenes, operating unmanned vehicles from afar?
Professor Robert "Barney" Rubel, dean of the Center for Naval Warfare Studies at the U.S. Naval War College told the audience that to date there has been a tendency to create unmanned versions of manned vehicles. According to Rubel it will be important to avoid pigeonholing these technologies into the manned categories that may soon become obsolete.
“One of my concerns is that we not fail to take advantage of new technologies because we try to fit and put them into categories that we’re comfortable with,” Rubel said explaining that his latest focus is how to use ships to increase the efficiency of UAV. “I think there is a new/old role that the carrier can perform because of the capabilities of UAVs, and that is as the eyes of the fleet.”
Former Top Gun instructor and commander of an F-14 Tomcat fighter squadron, Dave “Bio” Baranek, was less optimistic about the prospect of UAV taking over where pilots-dependent vehicles currently dominate. According to Baranek, UAV likely will not be the main fighting force for at least another generation.
“Virtually all new systems have an Achilles heel and will have a rocky development process,” he said recalling the flawed design of the F-4 Phantom, which did not have guns in its basic design. “There are going to be dead ends, things that are envisioned – go back and look in the past 20 and 30 years at the artists concepts of new weapons systems and how many of those either don’t happen or don’t do what they expected. But then look at those systems that do get fielded and after a few years they are used in ways that were not conceived. ”
Barakek likened the UAV to how flight simulators and noted that such inactive “flying” is not as effective – noting the fact that without skin in the game operators could experience less accuracy and efficiency. Barakek warned that the Navy should proceed with “cautious progress.”
LtCol Mikel Huber, USMC, commanding officer, Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron Two, MCAS Cherry Point provided a unique perspective having seen both sides of the manned/unmanned issue first hand as a pilot in command of a UAV squad.
Huber told the audience that the progress the technology is and has been making has been rapid. Currently, UAV are only being used in low-risk situations, as the technology is not yet trusted enough for the more sensitive operations.
“I think there are a number of areas where UAVs can be effective, but it is certainly in a complimentary role in the world of manned aviation right now, rather than a one or the other,” Huber said. “The other thing that is really interesting or exciting about where UAVs are right now is the pace of change. Dave [Barakek] mentioned that there are certainly times when we have to be cautious moving forward but the pace of the technology is changing right now in the world of aviation. I think there are wonderful opportunities that allow us to bring capability to the battlefield in the unmanned world much quicker than we get it to the battlefield in the manned world.”
To date Huber says the UAVs are best in a complimentary role, with the manned vehicles.
Mr. Hill Goodspeed, historian and artifact collections manager at the National Naval Aviation Museum, moderated the panel and pointed out that a lot of the impetus behind moves to brining more UAVs into the Navy’s arsenal is money and public opinion. UAV’s are less expensive and public opinion is in favor of them.
Naval Aviation in Space
The general public might not first think of the U.S. Navy when it comes to space. However, naval aviators were instrumental to the early stages of manned space flight – indeed, space exploration makes up a significant part of naval aviation history and certainly will be a part going forward.
One of the instrumental figures in the American space exploration is CAPT James A. Lovell, USN (Ret.), a naval aviator, perhaps best known as the former Commander of Apollo 13.
Lovell, speaking on a panel with MajGen Charles F. Bolden Jr., USMC (Ret.) and CAPT Wendy B. Lawrence, USN (Ret.), offered the audience at the 2011 U.S. Naval Institute’s History Conference some thoughts about the evolution of naval aviation space over the years and what to expect going forward.
Lovell explained how the so-called “naval aviator bug” bit him and how he got involved. According to the former Apollo 13 commander, Lovell got involved at the end of World War II, a time when the Navy was shedding pilots. Lovell, who already had two years of college, entered the U.S. Naval Academy, graduated in 1952 and went directly into naval aviation.
Lovell eventually found himself at Cape Canaveral and despite failing a physical during his first attempt, two years later reapplied and found himself in the Gemini group, making two flights – Gemini 7 and 12. Lovell spent two weeks in space, setting the stage for a future moon visit.
“The Gemini program was an R&D program looking toward going to the moon,” he said. “After all, President Kennedy had already announced going in 1961 but we had to do things in earth orbit first to make sure we could accomplish those objectives before we ever go all the way to the moon.”
Lovell explained how the Gemini missions demonstrated that bodily functions could operate at zero gravity – which was essential for moon mission approval. Other obstacles the early astronauts had to overcome he said were working in a zero gravity environment, where he said they had to learn how to keep astronauts from working against themselves with space walks and working on the space modules.
But eventually Lovell made it to the moon and described the experience.
“I’ll never forget coming around the first time and looking up – and even though the moon was awe-inspiring as sort of forbidden, and nothing but craters and gray mass – what really inspired me and I think the greatest impression that I had was coming out of the lunar horizon was the earth,” Lovell said. “And the earth was the only color you could see – blue, blue oceans, the white clouds, the tans, the browns, the salmon colors of the deserts. You could not see green because that frequency is absorbed in the atmosphere coming through. Really a beautiful site, 240,000 miles away.”
He added that the earth seemed so small from his perch near the moon and described his thoughts.
“I could put up my thumb, I do this all the time but it’s kind of – you have to think about it, putting the earth behind your thumb – everything that you’ve ever known, your loved ones, the school, your country, all the countries, all the problems that they’re having at that particular time underneath your thumb – disappear.”
He added that it put the world’s calamities in perspective and meanwhile it also made him appreciate how the earth operates.
“It gave you kind of two thoughts, number one – how insignificant we really all – that I can put my thumb on something and make everything disappear,” he continued. “And the second thing I thought is how glad that we are, how fortunate that we are that we have what we have here on earth. The earth in reality is a spacecraft, whether you like it or not – you’re all astronauts. We have limited supplies and we have to learn to live and work together. And that’s the thoughts I had from Apollo 8.”
Lovell added on the way back, which happened to be Christmas Eve, the crew read the first 10 verses of Genesis from the Old Testament.
Lovell also talked his about his experiences from the Apollo 13 mission, a failed mission in which he led his crew back safely to earth. He said that although it technically was a failure, it was a triumph as well because there was a lesson to be learned from it.
“Things don’t always go the way they’re planned,” he said. “You’ll see that on your cruises. You’ll see that on your various assignments. You‘ve got to regroup. You’ve got to change the plan. You’ve got to determine how to get out of crisis and what you have to work for, do the job and get your solution. These are the things that I think [Apollo] 13 brought home to a lot of people – not just in the space program or not just in the military but a lot of people in business and government.”
MajGen Charles F. Bolden Jr., USMC (Ret.), now the NASA Administrator is the former pilot of the Columbia (1986) and Discovery (1990) missions and was also the commander of Atlantis (1992) and Discovery (1994). Nominated in 2009 by President Barack Obama and confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Bolden is the 12th Administrator o NASA and talked about the present state of space exploration in the United States.
According to Bolden, with the current shift of NASA to more commercialized space flight, there will be improvements compared to NASA’s shuttle program, but it won’t be a walk in the park.
“I always try to caution people,” Bolden said. “It is going to be better than having NASA own and try to operate the space shuttle. But don’t be fooled into thinking it’s going to be like going to buy a ticket you know on Continental Airlines and go from D.C. to San Diego. That is not the case. Space flight is dangerous, expensive, very demanding. Normal people can and should do it.”
Bolden told the audience to expect some significant announcements from NASA to be forthcoming, but admitted it has been a struggle, particularly with the political climate in the country. He said he expected man would set foot on Mar in the future and said he was looking to work with the international community, except for one nation: China.
“We can’t work with the Chinese right now,” Bolden said. “But I’m rooting for them. They’re probably going to put a spacecraft called Shenzhou into orbit here, hopefully by the end of the year. It’s going to be the first capsule of their space station. And the reason they are doing that is that we are not allowing them to be partners right now. So they’re going alone. They need to be successful to drive us.”
CAPT Wendy B. Lawrence, USN (Ret.), the third member of the panel, expressed a similar sentiment. Lawrence, an adjunct faculty member in the space studies program at American Military University logged more than 1,225 hours in space on four space shuttle flights and crew member on six shuttle flights Endeavour (1995), Atlantis (1997) and Discovery (1998, 2005), told the audience it was time to root on the Chinese.
“I think we’re in a very interesting period right now as Charlie Bolden has alluded to,” she said. “We are divided but if you look at the history of the space program and history very clearly shows what we can do when we are united. What will it take to get us united again? I have to agree with Charlie – it’s time to root for the Chinese because it just may be that we need a good swift kick in the pants to realize that if you want to maintain your position of prominence in the world, you know it’s like being a world class athlete. You got to train. You got to practice. You got to work hard. We have to continue to work hard, focus on technology development and the space program is a laudable place to do that.”
Naval Aviation in World War I, Dr. William ‘Bill’ Trimble
Dr. William “Bill” Trimble, professor and the former Chair of the Department of History at Auburn University in Auburn, Ala., and author of Hero of the Air: Glenn Curtiss and the Birth of Naval Aviation (Naval Institute Press, May 2010), addressed the conference on the evolution of naval aviation during World War I.
According to Trimble, World War I provided the impetus for aviation in the U.S. Navy and laid the groundwork for many of modern-day processes in the U.S. military including: appropriations, manufacturing and defense acquisitions - since establishing naval air-power for combat was such a massive undertaking.
“Generally speaking, people thought this war would go through 1918 and well into 1919,” Trimble explained. “That there would have to be 12,000 military aircraft procured – 12,000 of these aircraft. So we’re not talking about scores of aircraft. We’re not talking about hundreds of aircraft. We’re talking about thousands of aircraft.”
Trimble added the need for naval airpower, or “flying boats” as he called them, stemmed from the threat of the German U-boats interfering with maritime commerce. According to Trimble aircraft were considered the best way to combat the German submarines.
The Auburn professor further noted that the creation of naval aviation during World War I had implications for the workforce.
“Just to give you an idea of the scale of this – by 1919, the early part of 1919 – after the war was over, the Curtis Company had 18,000 workers in various factories and the produced something on the order of 1,200 airplanes of various kinds by the early part of 1911,” he said. “The Naval Aircraft Factory had nearly 3,700 workers and produced something like 250 airplanes of various sizes, mostly large flying boats during the war.”
The creation of an aircraft suitable for the U.S. Navy has social implications as well, providing advances for women in the workforce.
“One other point too was that women came into the aircraft industry in large numbers during World War I,” he added. “You think of ‘Rosie the Riveter’ in World War II, right? But large numbers of women came into the aircraft industry in World War I. About a third of the workforce at the Naval Aircraft Factory in Philadelphia were women and I’d be willing to bet that something like that was the equivalent in other manufacturing facilities as well. Not ‘Rosie the Riveter’ as much as ‘Sally Seamstress’ because a lot of this was fabric – not only sewing fabric, but also preparing the fabric for installation in aircraft at that time.”
Fmr. Secretary of the Navy John F. Lehman: How Naval Aviation won the Cold War
After World War II, the national defense posture of the United States was uncertain. Without the threat of the Japanese or the German regimes many thought the country would no longer need a massive naval fleet with airpower. Or would it?
At the conference, former Secretary of the Navy John F. Lehman, the honorary chairman of USNI, spoke of the evolution of naval aviation post-World War II and how it played an integral role in eventually winning the Cold War – but not without some challenges.
“Naval aviation and the Marine Corps came under major sustained policy attack, and during those post-war years, from ’45 to ’49, ’50 – the very existence of naval aviation and the Marine Corp was very much in doubt,” Lehman said.
Lehman explained that former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had been a big proponent of the U.S. Navy and naval aviation, but with his death of and the eventual presidency of Harry Truman, naval aviation faced specific threats.
“So Truman put in [Secretary of Defense] Louis Johnson with a mandate to gut the defense and especially the Navy department,” he explained.
He said the Truman administration had plans in the works to end naval aviation and make it a part of the new emerging U.S. Air Force. Johnson intended to decommission all but six of the U.S. Navy’s 106 aircraft carriers. But the Korean War changed that.
“There’s no question that our unilateral disarmament in the Pacific was a major, major factor,” Lehman said. “And so it looked like the end of naval aviation, but of course the Soviets saved the Navy by allowing North Korea to attack, suddenly they took over all of the peninsula except for the tiny enclave in the south – the Air Force, other than B-29s, which were no use for air superiority or close air support, there was only one carrier, the Valley Forge that was in the area.”
Once it was realized that naval aviation was indeed a needed component of the U.S. military, Truman fired Johnson and replaced him with George Marshall – who immediately changed the course of the U.S. Navy.
“Marshall was not an enemy of naval aviation and so carriers were brought back into commission,” Lehman explained. “All World War II aviators were called up from the reserves because there was a great many of them that had stayed in reserve.”
Lehman said ultimately it was the Navy that maintained the nuclear balance with the Russia until the advent of the ICBMs.
“Nobody knows this and nobody writes about it, but the fact is naval aviation carried the weight of the nuclear deterrent,” he said.
After the Korean War and leading up to and through the Vietnam conflict, naval aviation underwent growing pains with the implementation of jet-propulsion. Landing on carriers without modern technology proved problematic, according to Lehman.
But beyond that and after Vietnam, the Navy fought political fights on its home turf as well under the direction of former President Jimmy Carter. However, he noted one of the early lobbyists to act on behalf of the Navy was John McCain, now the senior senator from Arizona.
He went on to explain the Navy weathered that storm, and under former President Ronald Reagan, it played a role in the bipartisan plan for the United States to win the Cold War.
“We knew we were kicking [the Soviets] ass,” Lehman said. “And President Reagan knew. And that ladies and gentleman is how naval aviation won the Cold War.”
What is the Future of Naval Aviation?
With the introduction of new technology chaffing against a penny-pinching a government there is uncertainty ahead for the U.S. Navy’s airpower. Some of those concerns were address at the U.S. Naval Institute’s History Conference.
Up first was the president of the Naval Historical Foundation, VADM Robert F. Dunn, USN (Ret.), also an aviation consultant, chairman of the board of UT-Services - a research and development company-, and a contributor to the Washington Times. Dunn emphasized the need for power on the seas, which constitutes a large portion of the earth – not just on the water but also the air.
“So 70 percent of the earth is covered by water,” Dunn explained. “Most of that water is international space. The air above it is international airspace and is capable of supporting all kinds of operations, whether it be combat operations – offensive, defensive, humanitarian. The list goes on.”
Dunn explained that most of the country’s “potential adversaries” are in the other hemisphere and while the Pacific Ocean presents a barrier, the country needs to ensure it keeps the ocean under its thumb.
“We have to have the capability of defending our interests somewhere away from our shores, rather than waiting for any potential enemy to come to us,” he said.
In Dunn’s estimation, the best way to defend against that enemy is with airpower supported by aircraft carriers.
Dunn speculated that there would still be naval aviation in the year 2061, consisting of carrier-based and land-based operations - as would fixed-wing and rotary-wing craft. Nonetheless, he explained the occasional Ivy League or think tank study would attempt to explain away the necessity of such weapon systems. Still, ultimately he said the future’s U.S. Navy would be led by unmanned aerial vehicles on carriers stabilized electronically.
VADM David Architzel, USN, who currently serves as commander of the Naval Air Systems Command, headquartered in Patuxent River, Md., followed.
Architzel shared a particular interest in the transitory phase of the U.S. Navy, where capability is a goal, but overcoming the cost challenges remains an obstacle.
“The biggest challenge I face is this transition piece,” Architzel said. “It’s how we continue to bring on a very difficult capacity and capability and when we also have to keep our legacy until that capability is there. And the one of the one things we do struggle with is we have an appetite for capability and we want to have the best there is and the best there always will be. And there’s appoint where capability if we did a very simple x and y diagram – you have a capability that you can deliver across the x-axis but there’s a cost factor on the -axis but there’s a cost factor on the y-axis.”
Ultimately, he said, you would reach a point where the return would diminish, but the cost would escalate.
“You’re going to get as much for a very small increase in capability, you’re going to pay a substantial cost increase,” he said.
VADM John P. Currier, USCG, the Coast Guard's first Deputy Commandant for Mission Support spoke after Architzel. Currier is responsible for all facets of support of the Coast Guard’s diverse mission set through oversight of human capital, lifecycle engineering, acquisition, telecommunications, and information technology.
Currier summed up the need for carrier-based naval airpower as part of the future’s U.S. Navy simply by explaining there are not presently any other options.
“There is no other way to place sustainable strike power near anybody else’s shore,” Currier said. “If you were allowed to use nuclear weapons, you might could do with a submarine or Tomahawks, or something like that, but nuclear weapons don’t seem to be that much in the cards.”
As far as the use of UAVs to combat a threat, Currier said that while there may be benefits, eliminating the human element takes away a target identification ability machines don’t always necessarily have.
Finally, the panel’s moderator Thomas J. Cutler, the director of professional publishing for USNI, reminded the audience that although there is a focus on tactics, there is also a political component that remains to be addressed.
“I see a lot of nodding heads in here, which means we’re all pretty much in agreement on most of these issues, which is preaching to the choir,” Cutler said. “What we really need to do is figure out how to convince the rest of the nation and the Congress of these things. That’s where the real challenge lies.”
The Transition from Props to Jets
Growing pains are a natural consequence of technological innovation, but the transition of U.S. Navy’s air fleet from propeller engines to jet engines was and is a tough evolution.
During a lecture on the topic at the 2011 Naval Institute History Conference, CAPT E. T. Wooldridge, USN (Ret.), explained that change wasn’t easy. Wooldridge, who commanded a carrier fighter squadron and served on strategic plans and policy staffs overseas in the Navy Department and the Joint Staff of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, offered his thoughts on the transition.
According to the author of The Golden Age Remembered: U.S. Naval Aviation, 1919-1941 and Night Fighters Over Korea and the U.S. Naval Institute Author of the Year in 1998, the process has been interesting.
“The progress was amazing up to this point and obviously will be in the future,” he said. “But that progress might be difficult for modern-day pilots to understand.”
It is difficult for carrier pilots of later generations to appreciate the paths that faced many of the pilots of the late-1940s and 1950s, Wooldridge added.
“Many were often inadequately trained and the jet squadron sometimes led by pilots who did not understand what jet aviation was all about and they often placed their pilots in situations for which there was no safe way out,” he said.
It took this type of trial-and-error process to reach modernity Wooldridge said – one that took a decade.
“But the changes did come,” Wooldridge said. “The late-50s and the early 1960s, naval aviation was moving into its fourth generation of naval aircraft.”
Aircraft carriers were modernized for jet aircraft and that set stage for the next in naval aviation history.
Naval Air Power in Vietnam and the Gulf War: What Did We Learn?
After naval aviation made its transition from World War II class weapons systems, to the conflict in Korea to a modern-day air fleet, there were still lessons to be learned from the conflicts in which naval aviation was utilized - particularly Vietnam in the 1960s and the Gulf War in the 1990s.
According to 38-year U.S. Navy veteran ADM Stanley R. Arthur (Ret.), the lessons from conflicts were carried forward. He explained in his lecture to the 2011 U.S. Naval Institute History Conference that there were benefits from the past entering this phase of naval aviation history.
“When one looks at Vietnam, we had the benefit of the lessons learned from World War II and Korea,” he said. “We enjoyed a fleet of modern aircraft, as was just mentioned and all the aircraft had passed their initial introduction. So all of them had known aircraft capabilities.”
One achievement the U.S. military obtained and enjoyed in this phase was the introduction of laser-guided bombs into aviation. Although the U.S. Air Force had more sophisticated technology Arthur explained, eventually the U.S. Navy caught up.
“We learned a lot from that experience,” he said. “But sadly, the Air Force learned that lesson better than the Navy.”
The experiences from Vietnam and the use of this technology set naval aviators up for success in the early 1990s conflicts in the Persian Gulf against Iraq.
“Vietnam provided a great training ground that we were able to utilize in Desert Storm,” he said - which included the rules of engagement that, in Vietnam, didn’t allow naval fighters to shoot beyond their visual range, and the Navy’s ability to assess battle damage he said.
Almost all of the component commanders in Desert Shield and Desert Storm had served in Vietnam and were aware these lessons.
“There was a shared agreement among us that we were not going to screw this up,” he said. “There were plenty of parochial issues that came up, but in the end we made that the execution of the plan was best as possible.”
That execution was simple according to Arthur. Among the components were to get Iraq out of Kuwait and defend Saudi Arabia.
Arthur explained that though the country did not remember one of the many lessons from Vietnam, during Desert Storm, they eventually overcame the resulting problems.
“The other problem that started was the same thing that happened in Vietnam,” he said. “The campaign was starting to be planned in Washington.”
This changed under General Norman Schwarzkopf, the commander of the coalition forces in the Persian Gulf and gave the Navy more input than they would have had otherwise.
“We made it work,” Arthur said.
One particular success Arthur added, in the Persian Gulf conflicts, included the Tomahawk missile strikes in downtown Baghdad, which proved the Navy could participate from day one – in having missiles launched from submarines and ships.
“In the first 24 hours, Tomahawks hit 29 targets to the F-117’s 14,” Arthur said. “In the second 24 hours, the Tomahawks hit 18 and the F-117 one.”
The lesson Arthur took away from this: Stealth aircraft have trouble with weather.
To see the complete gallery of images from the 2011 History Conference, visit our Flickr set.