Naval Aviation's Transition Starts With Why

By Lieutenant Commander Guy M. Snodgrass, U.S. Navy

As Rickey’s quote implies, the timing of the current wholesale swap-out in aircraft is the result of years of planning. A decade-long “procurement holiday” in the mid-1990s created a delay in bringing new aircraft to the Fleet, with the average age of the S-3 Viking, F-14 Tomcat, P-3 Orion, UH-46 Sea Knight, and SH-60 Seahawk aircraft steadily creeping upward. 3 Despite this pause in procurement, naval aviation planners continued to tirelessly develop plans for the next generation of aircraft.

Three primary factors underpin the current large-scale replacement of aircraft: service life, airframe capability, and cost. First, service life is unavoidable. More than 20 years of flight operations will create stress fractures, wing root cracks, and other structural problems that necessitate replacement. Second, airframe capability limits older aircraft since the rapid technological advances of the past two decades have far outpaced the capabilities of older platforms to support the new, digital systems of a modernized fleet. Finally, cost is deeply intertwined with the first two factors. Studies show that in many cases, it is less expensive to replace existing systems with new platforms than to extend the life of older airframes by retrofitting new systems and wiring.

Continually procuring new aircraft to provide increased capability, however, is costly and unsustainable, especially in our current and forecasted fiscal environment. Rapid technological innovation, precious budget dollars, and aircraft designed to last 20–25 years require airframes (platforms) to have the space, weight, cooling, power, and standardized interfaces that will allow future growth (payloads). This is the approach Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert is applying to all areas of Navy procurement. 4 We can no longer afford the Cold War–era mentality of designing aircraft for a single mission, such as the development of the F-14 Tomcat as a launch platform for the Phoenix missile. We need the flexibility that adaptable platforms provide.

Naval aviation’s new platforms improve on the post–Cold War trend of multi-mission capability first realized by the introduction of the F/A-18 Hornet in 1983. Overall, today’s new aircraft are much more adaptable and responsive to the needs of a changing global environment, preserving relevance throughout their planned life spans. With proper outfitting, each platform can adapt to meet a diverse set of missions—from antisubmarine warfare (ASW), strike warfare, and Fleet air defense to antisurface warfare (ASuW) and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR).

Aircraft with modular designs and multi-mission capability inevitably create a demand for a new mindset in naval aviation. The most appropriate way to describe the changes is by capability or mission, such as early warning or electronic warfare. The downside of this approach is that it can be confusing, since the lines between naval aviation communities increasingly blur as multi-mission platforms continue to operate and network with each other. For the sake of simplicity, the highly integrated carrier air wing is discussed by mission , whereas the last two sections are discussed as we traditionally view them: by community .

The Carrier Air Wing

Nothing embodies the flexibility of naval aviation, the strategic impact of forward presence, and the inherent benefits of modularity like a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. The USS Enterprise (CVN-65) was an adaptable platform that met the evolving needs of the nation, adjusting to a diverse set of missions and an ever-changing air wing throughout 51 years of service. 5 Similarly, Nimitz -class carriers are serving beyond their planned 30-year life span, with the last one projected to decommission in 2058.

While these vessels are a proven and successful ship class, the realities of a 40-year-old platform began to catch up in the 1990s. The Nimitz ships are rapidly exhausting their engineering margins for displacement, stability, and electric power, necessitating a redesign to address future threats and weapon systems. 6 A 2002 study by the Defense Science Board states that “the Navy must point toward a new carrier design that provides for maximum flexibility in adapting to change.” 7 Following a failed attempt to redesign the aircraft carrier through the CVN(X) program, the Navy found a winner with the Ford class.

The Gerald R. Ford is the first aircraft carrier redesign in over 40 years. The new class will incorporate a redeveloped launch-and-recovery system, increase sortie-generation capability by 25 percent, and provide nearly three times the electrical-generation capacity—all while reducing manning by 663 people, down to 2,628 for the Ford . 8 These improvements, among many others, will result in a carrier with significant growth potential while making possible $4 billion in savings over the ship’s planned life span, mostly from a reduction in manpower and maintenance costs.

The carrier air wing is also evolving and, due to its traditional interoperability, may serve as the best example for describing naval aviation using a mission-centric rather than platform-centric approach. While in-depth analysis of each air-wing platform is beyond the scope of this article, a brief discussion of the three basic capabilities of an air wing is warranted: early warning, interdiction/strike, and electronic warfare.

Early Warning: This is one area that typifies the blurred lines existing between platforms cooperatively performing the same mission; a common datalink inherently turns every platform into a sensor contributing to enhanced maritime-domain awareness. Non-traditional early-warning platforms such as the MH-60R, with its synthetic aperture radar and electronic-support measures (ESM) suite, can provide significant contributions to the operational picture via datalink. Other platforms, such as Hornets, Growlers, and the forthcoming F-35C, can also contribute to the Fleet’s situational awareness, expanding the scope and fidelity of the air wing’s early-warning mission.

The E-2C Hawkeye remains the primary asset used for early warning and will continue this mission until the introduction of the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye in 2014. The E-2D’s electronically scanned array will significantly improve its ability to detect and track contacts in overland, littoral, and cluttered environments while sharing this information simultaneously over Link-11 and Link-16. The addition of other Link-16-capable aircraft to the strike group increases the number of sensors that can contribute to the operational picture, improving the effectiveness of the Advanced Hawkeye’s early-warning capability.

In the not-so-distant future, the Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) aircraft will launch to provide a persistent maritime-surveillance capability following the recovery of the E-2D at the end of the flight day. Traditionally, MH-60R detachments assigned to cruisers and destroyers must assume responsibility for ISR when carrier aircraft are not airborne. This equates to late-night and early-morning flight operations and increased risk. UCLASS will significantly enhance the carrier strike group and joint force commander’s situational awareness, providing persistent ISR while the rest of the air wing remains safely on the flight deck.

Interdiction/Strike: The new platforms making their way into the Fleet incorporate datalinks, sensors, and payloads that turn every aircraft in the carrier air wing’s inventory into capable interdiction/strike participants. The Advanced Hawkeye will continue to merge information from on-board sensors and off-board sources into a coherent operational picture that can be redistributed to other platforms, including aircraft and surface ships. Networked, multi-mission air-wing platforms can then be employed based on operational needs and/or the threat environment: Seahawks, Growlers, Hornets, and Super Hornets can all provide varying levels of ESM, target detection/discrimination, and weapon employment. Legacy F/A-18C Hornets and newer F/A-18E/F Super Hornets will continue to provide the bulk of a carrier’s striking power, remaining the platform of choice for the air wing’s air-interdiction and long-range strike capabilities.

The F/A-18C Hornet is aging, however, and incorporation of the F-35 Lightning II into the air wing will introduce the first fifth-generation strike-fighter capability when it enters the Fleet in 2019. By combining stealth with reduced electromagnetic emissions, the F-35 will provide the air wing with a first-strike capability in contested, anti-access environments. Unlike current platforms, the F-35C’s payloads are all internal to the aircraft, greatly reducing its radar cross-section while lowering the probability of detection. This provides a “first-detect, first-shot” capability. 9 The F-35 also incorporates advanced passive (ESM, infrared) and active (radar) sensor suites, which can be fused in real-time. The assured access of the F-35C, coupled with its ability to share real-time situational awareness, turns the Lightning II into a “quarterback” capable of directing the actions of less stealthy platforms. For example, Hornets could employ standoff weapons using information from an F-35 deep inside contested airspace, increasing the survivability of both platforms.

The role of air and surface interdiction/strike is not limited to traditional fixed-wing platforms like the F/A-18. The concept of employing the most appropriate platform in any given interdiction/strike scenario will provide increased flexibility to naval commanders. Previously, decision-makers had preordained options based on the availability of platforms with singular missions. With the advent of multi-mission and networked aircraft, more nuanced employment options become available that can be appropriately tailored to meet the needs of the mission.

Electronic Warfare: With the outgoing EA-6B Prowler rapidly reaching structural limits, a platform was needed to retain the abilities of the Increased Capability III Prowler with its built-in radar warning, electronic support, and electronic intelligence sensors. Leveraging the proven F/A-18F Super Hornet provided a pathway to retain electronic attack capabilities at a procurement price that is economically feasible, simplifies supply-chain management, and increases air-wing commonality. The Growler improves on the range, speed, persistence, and flexibility of the EA-6B, while also incorporating a much-needed air-to-air self-defense capability. The Growler combines the active electronically scanned array radar of the Super Hornet with the passive ESM capabilities from the late-model Prowler, providing drastic improvements to detection of surface and air targets. Like the Poseidon, Seahawk, Hornet, and other networked platforms, this increased situational awareness can be shared with other aircraft over Link-16.

The air wing’s electronic attack capability will primarily reside with the EA-18G Growler once the transition is complete, though others can conceivably participate with the right payload. Approximately half of the electronic attack squadrons have already transitioned, with three of the five planned expeditionary squadrons and five of the ten air-wing squadrons complete. All squadrons are expected to complete their transitions by 2016, with each squadron composed of five aircraft. Increased capability will be introduced when the Next Generation Jammer reaches the Fleet, planned for 2020.

Broad-Area Maritime Patrol and Reconnaissance

The planned deployment of the six P-8A Poseidons of Patrol Squadron 16 “War Eagles” in December heralds a return to broad-area ASW search missions. 10 The P-8A, with its efficient turbofan engines, nascent high-altitude payload capabilities, and forthcoming sonobuoy sensors (dubbed “Multi-static Active Coherent”) will greatly increase the ASW acoustic-search capability of a single aircraft over the outgoing P-3C Orion. 11

Originally entering service with Patrol Squadron 8 in 1962, the venerable Orion is one of the few U.S. military aircraft to enjoy a 50-year service history. 12 Primarily designed for ASW, ASuW, and ISR, the P-3 has undergone two major variant changes and several upgrades to continually improve its ability to find, track, and counter submarines.

Of particular concern during the latter stages of the Cold War was the erosion of the P-3’s broad-area ASW search capability. As submarine-quieting technology and techniques improved, P-3 crews often found their effective acoustic search areas whittled from thousands of square miles to hundreds or even less. Improved quieting also necessitated that the aircraft patrol at lower altitudes, ensuring precise sonobuoy placement necessary for modern airborne ASW. While ASW aircraft maintain a degree of effectiveness at low altitude, use of non-acoustic sensors such as radar, ESM, and visual sighting are often sacrificed.

Reduced effectiveness and rapidly approaching airframe-fatigue limits created a dire need for a P-3C replacement that would meet or exceed its existing capabilities. Adaptation of the Boeing-produced 737 provided the optimal solution. Developed around a proven aircraft with large internal volume and future growth potential, the new P-8A is a superb example of a platform designed and developed to carry a wide range of payloads. The P-8A will rapidly meet or exceed P-3C capabilities over the next few years. It can transit faster, remain on station longer, and process more information, all while carrying more stores than the P-3 it is replacing. Moreover, the P-8A is also capable of remaining at high altitude during ASW operations, increasing its effective search area and improving its ability to employ non-acoustic sensors while reducing airframe fatigue. As a highly modular platform, the Poseidon will remain relevant throughout its service life by incorporating lower-cost payloads to adapt to changes in mission or environment.

Complementing the P-8A is the unmanned MQ-4C Triton, a heavily modified version of the Air Force’s Global Hawk Block 20 optimized for ASuW. The Triton’s predecessor, called the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance Demonstrator, is currently supporting forces in U.S. Central Command. Specifically designed for long-duration maritime-domain awareness, four MQ-4Cs are capable of sustaining, at a minimum, a 24/7 orbit at a distance of 2,000 miles from its airfield. The Triton is designed for operation by personnel from the maritime-patrol community and will provide a persistent ISR and surface-search capability using its active electronically scanned array radar and electro-optical/infrared sensors. The P-8A will capture near real-time MQ-4C feed, increasing situational awareness and aiding operations.

Current plans call for the Navy to purchase 117 P-8As with an expected service life of 25 years. 13 A total of 70 MQ-4C aircraft are currently planned to support five orbits positioned around the world. These acquisitions provide a greatly improved broad-area ASW search and persistent ISR capability for naval aviation.

The Rotary-Wing Transition

Despite the “procurement holiday” in the 1990s, requirement officers in the Pentagon crafted a roadmap that would replace multiple aging helicopter platforms with the following capabilities: ASW, ASuW, search-and-rescue (SAR), combat search-and-rescue (CSAR), heavy lift, Fleet logistics, and naval special warfare (NSW). Of particular concern was the void left in outer-zone ASW created by the retirement of the S-3 Viking in 2009, a role that rotary-wing aircraft assumed. In short, the Navy envisioned two replacement helicopters—one to support ASW and ASuW, and another to provide combined ASuW, Fleet logistics, CSAR, and airborne mine-countermeasures (AMCM) capabilities.

The MH-60R’s primary missions are ASW and ASuW, which it achieves by combining the dipping sonar capability from the SH-60F with the forward-looking infrared (FLIR) and ESM capabilities of the SH-60B. 14 Improved low-frequency dipping sonar enables a single MH-60R to cover an area equivalent to nine SH-60Fs. Additional increases in capability include multi-mode radar with automatic periscope-detection capability and improved line-of-bearing discrimination from onboard ESM. The MH-60R, with its detection and multi-targeting capability, is the “hunter” of the hunter-killer pair.

The MH-60S is the “killer” because of its increased weapon capacity over the MH-60R and ability to provide swarm defense. It can carry eight AGM-114 Hellfire missiles like the MH-60R, in addition to unguided rockets, a 20-mm chain gun, and a digital rocket launcher to provide a guided-rocket capability that is expected to reach the Fleet in 2014. Besides Fleet logistics, ASuW, SAR, and NSW, the MH-60S will also provide an AMCM capability with incorporation of the Airborne Laser Mine Detection System and Mine Neutralization System. The MH-60S is a key component of the littoral combat ship’s mine-countermeasures mission package and will share ASuW responsibilities with the MH-60R.

Timing for the rotary-wing transition wasn’t driven by need alone; opportunity also played a key role. In the late 1990s the Army was looking to reduce its purchase commitment of UH-60 Blackhawks from the Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation and offered the Navy an opportunity to buy into the production line. This resulted in significantly lower procurement costs for the new MH-60S, and it informed the decision to procure the MH-60R as a new airframe as opposed to extending the service life of the SH-60B for an additional 10,000 hours. The purchase of a proven, common airframe resulted in 80 percent parts commonality and nearly identical cockpit avionics and controls while reducing acquisition, maintenance, training, and life-cycle costs. The new airframes also incorporate substantial capability upgrades, including the ability to participate in shared situational awareness through incorporation of Link-16 and future Hawklink improvements.

Helicopter Strike Maritime (HSM) Squadron 71 and Helicopter Sea Combat (HSC) Squadron 8 were the first to put the “hunter-killer” concept into operation during a 2009 Western Pacific deployment with the USS John C. Stennis (CVN-74) strike group. Both squadrons highlighted the shift in mindset from a community-based identity to one of mission accomplishment and interoperability. As of 12 July, the Navy had delivered 168 of 289 planned MH-60Rs, and 228 of 275 planned MH-60Ss. Each airframe has an expected service life of 10,000 hours, or roughly 25 years.

More Change Required

Understanding why naval aviation is transitioning is just as important as what is occurring during the transition. The transition to new platforms is not just about replacing older ones nearing the end of their useful service lives. Instead, naval aviation is using the current period of recapitalization to break from the Cold War–era mindset of platforms designed to support a single, primary role. This break reflects the need to rapidly evolve missions and capabilities in a challenging strategic environment. These new, modular platforms will adapt to changing mission requirements while remaining economically acceptable.

Aircraft with modular designs and multi-mission capability also signal a need for a new way of thinking within naval aviation. Future conflicts and operations will increasingly rely on the full range of capabilities across all five domains: air, land, sea, space, and cyber. Squadron personnel must reorient themselves to emphasize missions over their platform, as multi-mission-capable platforms increasingly blur the lines between communities. The increasing ability to share situational awareness and cooperate among all naval aviation platforms—maritime patrol, rotary wing, and tactical air—reinforces this shift in mindset.

Naval aviation is more interconnected now than ever before, allowing substantially greater cooperation and information-sharing across platforms and communities. It is essential that we understand the reasons behind the shift in airframes, and what it provides the warfighter, to inform the next generation of operational concepts and tactical procedures. These new aircraft signal the beginning of a powerful, flexible, and extraordinarily capable new chapter in naval aviation.

1. Simon Sinek, Start With Why (New York: Penguin, 2011), 151.

2. “CVN 78: A True Leap Ahead for the Navy and Naval Aviation,” .

3. “The Ford-Class Carrier, The F-35C and ‘Spider Web’ War at Sea,” .

4. ADM Jonathan Greenert, “Payloads over Platforms: Charting a New Course,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , vol. 138, no. 7 (July 2012), 16–23.

5. Remarks by Admiral Jonathan Greenert to the American Society of Naval Engineers, 21 Feb 2013.

6. “Future of the Aircraft Carrier,” Defense Science Board Task Force Report, October 2002.

7. Ibid.

8. Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (OPNAV N98) document, “FORD-Class Technical Performance,” 28 July 2011.

9. Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (OPNAV N98) document, “F-35C Lightning II Capabilities” 25 July 2013.

10. “NAVAIR: P-8A Poseidon Ready For Deployment,” .

11. For an excellent description of the multi-static active acoustic system, see the following excerpt hosted by Global Security: .

12. “History of the Lockheed Martin P-3 Orion,” .

13. Capability Production Document for the United States Navy P-8A Poseidon Multi-mission Maritime Aircraft (MMA), Increment 1, 22 June 2009; Change 2, March 2012.

14. Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (OPNAV N98) document, “N98, Air Warfare: Navy MH-60R/S Capabilities” 6 May 2013.

Lieutenant Commander Snodgrass is an active-duty naval aviator currently serving on the Navy staff. He is the prospective executive officer for Strike Fighter Squadron 195 stationed in Atsugi, Japan.


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