Naval Aviation's Second Century

By Vice Admiral Robert F. Dunn, U.S. Navy (Retired)

In the course of conversation one of the more senior Cougar pilots (the air group had Cougars, Panthers, Banshees, and Skyraiders) opined that his Cougar probably would be the last manned aircraft ever purchased by the Navy. They were just too expensive and, besides that, guided missiles were the wave of the future. After all, as an at-hand example, we did have a detachment from Guided Missile Group Two on board, ready to steer submarine-launched Regulus missiles to their targets. Nonetheless, that prediction about the Cougar being the last of its breed, of course, proved to be wildly wrong, but it serves to show that when one forecasts the future, even in 2011, a liberal application of caution is in order.

On the other hand, despite yesteryear’s predictions of flying cars and colonies on Mars, we can look back and see a number of successful prognostications. Dick Tracy’s wrist radio and Maxwell Smart’s shoe phone are with us in a multitude of guises today. So are rockets and nuclear power, largely subjects for comic books and Popular Mechanics in the 1950s. Steady evolution brought us from analog gunfire-control computers to digital computers in countless applications. Even in 1951, the concept of interplanetary travel using a combination of propulsion systems was envisioned. Remotely operated aircraft were flown as far back as the 1920s. So the problem of divining the future becomes one of sifting the probable from the possible, the most feasible outcomes from all the dreams, guesses, and conjectures of the present. For naval aviation’s tomorrow, here is what is most likely.

A Flight Deck in a Crystal Ball

Undoubtedly, naval forces, including naval aviation, will continue to have worldwide responsibilities, among them maintaining a forward presence, ensuring free access to that 71 percent of the planet covered by water, supporting frienvdly forces from the sea, countering the threats of others, and remaining ready to perform humanitarian missions around the globe. Still, in the world today and the world to come, very seldom, if ever, will naval forces be used by themselves. Instead, they will be used in conjunction with other American armed services or with allies, or with both.

Such use most certainly will include large-deck carrier battle groups. That sine qua non of the U.S. Navy, along with land-based naval aviation and rotary-wing aircraft embarked on both carrier and amphibious group ships, will remain. In addition, important roles will be filled by remotely piloted aircraft flying from all sorts of Navy ships, possibly including aircraft carriers. These ships and other units—and the people who operate and maintain them—will continue to serve worldwide, in all weather, in all seasons of the years.

Naval aviation, ever modernizing and adapting to emergent strategic and tactical imperatives and new technologies, will continue to be the key element in fulfilling the worldwide missions and requirements of the U.S. Navy through the next half-century and beyond. But readiness to meet any future circumstance requiring American capabilities is not just the responsibility of naval aviation, of course, and wherever possible and feasible such duties will encompass the capabilities and resources of sister services, allies, and civilian agencies.

Instances of naval aviation going it alone will be extremely rare. In preparing for the next 50 years one must ask, What operational and technological changes might be seen during that time? The answer must be that many of the more certain changes are already upon us. Consider that even in 2011 the use of unmanned aircraft of all sizes and capabilities and in all dimensions is widespread and growing. Communications are worldwide with both point-to-point and broadcast connectivity available to people in all parts of the world. Ever-increasing computational power makes possible almost instantaneous problem-solving both for the individual and the laboratory, both for civilian life and the battlefield.

Even the looming presence of the cyber-warfare threat can’t dampen enthusiasm for the high-tech spectrum’s potential, already outlapping the wildest expectations of just a few years ago. There are transportation and weapon systems below, on, and above the surface of the earth and on into space only dreamed of by Captain Nemo, Buck Rogers, and James Bond. Robotic systems of all sorts are becoming ubiquitous. Which of these cutting-edge technologies, or others, are most likely to come of age during the active-duty years of those just now entering the uniformed services? Which are most likely to meet possible threats at an affordable price?

Technology continues to explode in all dimensions, and the Navy must keep up and take advantage. Research-and-development and active intelligence programs are critically important. In an era of stringent budgets, R&D must be maintained.

Still a Large Need for Large Decks

The carrier strike group will continue to be the critical element of forward-deployed American naval power. Despite the end of the Cold War, conflict and unrest have continued in the world, and there has been no change in the demand from combatant commanders and allies, or even presidents, for deployment of carriers and their aircraft and supporting units.

Others (but never the aforementioned combatant commanders) cry for reducing the numbers of carriers or replacing them with some other kind of ship or system—but the basis for their cries is most often dollars, not capability or utility. These naysayers will cite the latest Chinese missile system or some exotic yet-to-be flown space system as the death knell of carriers, but never give credit to the numerous counter-systems already deployed in the carriers and the other strike-group ships and aircraft. These vessels and aircraft are products of continual evolution. The USS Nimitz (CVN-68) of 2011 is a far cry from the Nimitz of 1969, and the USS George H. W. Bush (CVN-77) of 2011 is a far cry from what will be the George H. W. Bush of 2041, when ensigns commissioned in 2011 are in charge of the Navy.

The large number of American flat-deck amphibious ships, LHAs, LHDs, and others to come are sometimes seen as a replacement for the large-deck aircraft carrier. Load them with short-takeoff/vertical-landing (STOVL) aircraft and there will be no need for the 100,000-ton aircraft carrier, say some. Conveniently ignored is the reason for the large-deck amphibious ships in the first place: deployment of a Marine Amphibious Ready Group. Are we ready to sacrifice that uniquely American contribution to world peace and stability?

Then too, there are just a few other problems with the concept. Loading the LHD with a useful number of STOVL aircraft would of necessity displace other aircraft, such as helicopters and Ospreys, important to the amphibious mission. The 20-knot maximum speed of the LHD, without any catapult assist available, would in most circumstances require launch of the STOVL aircraft at less than full load, either less fuel (and therefore less range and time on station) or less ordnance.

Besides, consider all that fossil fuel required by the LHDs’ turbines so much better used in aircraft. It’s doubtful that vegetable oil will make up for much of that. Thus, how will American forces and allies operating far from friendly bases receive any kind of support from the air? Seldom will mission transit-times, measured in long hours from the continental United States or even Europe or Japan, be feasible either in timeliness or quantity.

Large-deck aircraft carriers will still be critically important and with us 50 years from now.

The Unmanned Plus-Factor

In the future, ships such as the Bush and others yet to be commissioned will still be operating piloted aircraft like the F/A-18E/F, the EF-18G, the E-2D, and the F-35C for a majority of missions, but also on board will be a stable of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) suitable for even wider employment, including the unmanned carrier-launched surveillance-and-strike (UCLASS) vehicles now in early testing.

There are now and will be, for a considerable time, limits to UAVs, however. Being remotely operated, such aircraft rely on electronic communications susceptible to deception, interference, and system malfunctions, with no on-board human intelligence to make repairs and corrections. Add to that the problems of mixing piloted and unpiloted craft on a carrier deck, and the problem magnifies. True, that latter problem may well be solved in time—never underestimate the ingenuity of an aviation boatswain’s mate. But until it is solved, widespread use of UCLASS craft from carrier decks remains some time in the distant future.

On the other hand, we can anticipate growing use of UAVs from other strike-group decks; aircraft such as Fire Scout can be expected to increase in numbers, utility, and value. There might even be a sorely needed minesweeping UAV in the future. UAVs also will be launched from elsewhere in support of the carrier strike group and, not to be ignored, the threats of adversaries using UAVs against the carriers is upon us. Suffice it to say, UAVs of all sorts will gain in capability and improve in all dimensions as time goes on.

Hand-in-hand with new kinds of UAVs will come that new kind of maritime-patrol aircraft, the P-8A Poseidon. Carrying a smaller crew than its predecessor, the P-3 Orion, the P-8 is several times more capable. Not only will it come with longer range and on-scene dwell-time, but it will have an already proven enhanced-reliability electronics suite. Add to that the ability to augment and partner with (from a distance) not only the carrier’s new E-2D Hawkeye II but also reconnaissance and electronic-warning satellites and whatever systems the U.S. Air Force contributes to the planned AirSea Battle. Perhaps most important, the Poseidon will be capable of managing information from, and commands to, all sorts of reconnaissance and targeting platforms.

The Navy will continue its reliance on a naval aviation force integrated with the rest of the service and equipped with both sea-based and land-based manned aircraft increasingly augmented with UAVs.

Electronic Evolution/Revolution

From social networking to computerized commerce, our connectivity, our decision-making ability, and even the display screens fueling our communications revolution continue to grow more streamlined and sophisticated at a pace only dreamed of a few years ago. From a military standpoint in general and a naval aviation one in particular, these advances are profoundly significant.

Weapons launched from aircraft, whether air-to-air or air-to surface, will become more versatile; that is, the time will come when an aircraft will need carry only one type of weapon with its use and performance determinable by the aircraft commander or even ordered up by a ground commander in contact with an enemy. The secondary effects of such characteristics will work wonders in both costs and readiness in the fields of training and logistics. The Navy’s growing dependence on satellites will have to be reversed to reduce a host of vulnerabilities, but the way ahead in that area is yet to be determined.

Aircraft systems too will be continuously improved to take advantage of this ongoing advance in electronic automation. Flight in aerodynamic domains heretofore only described in textbooks will become commonplace and so routine that even carrier landings, today a major measure of talent among naval aviators, will become nothing more than a routine evolution. This will change the culture of carrier pilots, too. The skill of the pilot will no longer be measured in the number of traps in his or her logbook. Today’s carrier pilots may even be looked on as curiosities or crazy daredevils, much as those who once landed on straight decks, even at night, are looked on today.

Today, naval aviation leads in electronic warfare (EW). The EA-6B and now the EF-18G Growler are the preeminent electronic warfare aircraft in the world. As digital electronics proliferate and become more intrusive and adaptable, airborne electronic warfare will have to keep pace. We will need a modular, adaptable architecture that distributes antennas, power sources, transmitters, and processors across more than just a few platforms. With proper funding, naval aviation will continue to lead the way in this most important area of air warfare. Fortunately, many young men and women opting for flight training today have their eyes on the Growler. With their enthusiasm and impetus, we will see naval aviation continue to lead the way in airborne EW. Electronics will continue to change the world, especially in naval aviation.

On Seas Ever Perilous

Turning to more immediate problems, the Chinese have the 1,900-mile-range DF-21D antiship ballistic missile and make claims of territory in historically international waters. The North Koreans rattle their nuclear saber and periodically threaten South Korea. The Iranians and others will soon be capable of swarming tactics against our forces. Moreover, terrorists have not given up.

New threats will always be with us; such is the nature of warfare. Each threat can and will be countered. The counter may be found in the carrier battle group itself, or it may be found elsewhere; but found it will be, with chances being better than even that it will come on the back of naval aviation.

All of these prognostications can easily be knocked into a cocked hat by the budget, of course. If the people of the United States and their elected representatives don’t see fit to fund the evolutionary changes in defense that most assuredly would come about in the natural order of things, naval aviation will see the mid-1970s as déjà vu all over again. The nation must not mortgage the future just to solve today’s problems.

Equally important, if the people’s opinion of the value of the Navy continues to be as low as opinion polls show today, all bets are off. While it’s the duty of those in naval aviation to train, maintain, and be ready to do whatever the nation calls on them to do, leaders must convince U.S. citizens that naval aviation is critically important to their welfare and the welfare of their children for years to come. As it is now, these naval leaders have more work to do.

Spread the word. Don’t leave it to CHINFO. Don’t leave it to old retired people. Active-duty leadership must get out and talk about what the Navy, particularly naval aviation, does and can do for this nation. Unless this happens, the budget will not provide, and all the rest of the effort is pointless. An adequate naval aviation budget is imperative.

Much of the foregoing has forecast technological change. Such change will accrue to the good of American defense in general and naval aviation in particular, but such changes are effective for only short periods of time and are expensive. Nevertheless, in 2061, providing current leaders do their job, naval aviation will still be with us, still the centerpiece of the Navy, also critical to the Marine Corps and the Coast Guard, and still held up to the rest of the defense establishment as the model for other agencies to follow. Thus will be best ensured our liberty, our way of life, our ability to pursue happiness, and our leadership of the world in the establishment of peace everywhere.

Vice Admiral Dunn is the former Deputy Chief of Naval Operations (Air Warfare) and is currently the president of the Naval Historical Foundation.
 

 
 

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