In this era of fiscal austerity, the Department of Defense must restructure the force to do more with less. Budget cuts, ever-present operational tasking, a public weary from a decade of land wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and a “pivot” to an increasingly contentious Pacific Rim have challenged assumptions about how and where each service should deploy its forces.
The Navy’s maritime patrol and reconnaissance (MPR) community provides antisubmarine (ASW) and antisurface warfare (ASuW) as well as intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities to commanders stationed worldwide. For decades, MPR professionals have protected the Fleet from underwater threats, provided over-the-horizon imagery, and collected critical intelligence over land or sea. The ability to quickly position an asset and its sensors on-station is crucial throughout all theaters of operation.
As the Navy seeks to increase efficiencies by using forward basing, it must examine the MPR force’s current structure. A mixture of maritime-patrol aircraft based overseas and stateside reserve squadrons could buy identical forward presence and combat readiness for less money. The solution is to adopt a forward-basing policy for maritime patrol aviation.
The State of the MPR Community
Before examining how we can gain cost savings while retaining aircraft and combat capabilities, it’s useful to survey the current state of the patrol force. It consists of 12 active-duty squadrons augmented by two reserve squadrons. Each command operates approximately six P-8A or P-3C aircraft and has 12 aircrew teams of 8 to 10 aviators. This manning allows a squadron to keep an aircraft in a patrol box indefinitely while maintaining the ability to quickly launch an alert aircraft for urgent tasking.
At any given time, roughly 30 percent of the MPR force is fully combat-ready and operating forward. Four squadrons are deployed, with either all of their aircraft in one location supporting a particular combatant commander or their detachments spread over several locations. This model is based on rotating stateside squadrons to fixed sites that vary little from year to year for a six-month engagement. This requires commands to gear up during a 12-month training cycle, complete combat certification, and move all their aircraft and personnel to the other side of the world. If a command has not recently deployed to a particular area, they will spend their first several months in theater adapting to the procedures, nuances, and mission sets typical in that location. This deep knowledge of a particular area degrades if the squadron does not return to the same location on a subsequent deployment.
While four squadrons are flying overseas, eight squadrons remain stateside. Of those home-cycle squadrons, four have recently returned from deployment and have little combat capability, with high rates of personnel turnover as junior aircrew report from training and experienced personnel depart for shore tours. The remaining four squadrons are preparing to deploy, with varying levels of combat capability.
Two reserve squadrons round out the MPR force. These units are manned by full-time support personnel and selected reservists. While these units can be mobilized if needed, they do not provide time-critical combat capabilities. One special-projects squadron also operates the P-3C, but its mission tasking makes it irrelevant in the conventional force structure. Also, while the EP-3 aircraft technically fall under the command of the MPR community, its unique signals-intelligence tasking precludes it from this discussion.
Revitalizing the Forward Force
Rather than maintain its current pattern of training stateside squadrons, cycling them through a forward operating area and then demobilizing them on their return, the MPR force should have a permanent presence of four forward-deployed squadrons. These units would provide forward presence, engage in shaping the battlespace, and participate in the initial phases of contingency operations. They would be augmented by eight stateside composite squadrons and manned by a combination of active and reserve personnel. Active-duty personnel would act as a core of trained “key players” to facilitate reserve training and form the backbone of aircrew and maintenance leadership.
This force structure would ensure identical forward presence and support to combatant commanders while affording deep savings. Significant cost reductions could be made by minimizing active personnel costs and eliminating the need to train, mobilize, deploy, demobilize, and learn a completely new theater and set of threats. The MPR force would maintain the same ability to respond to commitments during contingency operations. The cost savings from implementing such a model could be used to invest in emerging sensor and weapons technology without sacrificing force structure or training funds.
For the sake of comparison, consider a notional force of four forward-deployed squadrons augmented by composite squadrons. The laydown of U.S. Navy forward bases will be as such: one squadron based at Naval Air Station (NAS) Sigonella, Sicily, to provide presence throughout the Mediterranean, participate in exercises with NATO and European partners, and support operations in Africa Command (AFRICOM). Another squadron will be based in Bahrain to support commanders in the Middle East. In line with the “pivot to the Pacific,” one squadron will be based at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, and another based at Misawa Air Base in Japan. Assuming that the personnel and aircraft from the existing two reserve squadrons have been rolled into the eight composite squadrons, let’s examine what this “forward force” would bring to the fight.
Ready for the Fight
The forward force would provide the same presence and ability to execute mission tasking as the current force structure. Detachments of aircraft and crews could be relocated from these forward bases to remote sites if needed. For example, the forward squadron at NAS Sigonella could easily support a permanent detachment of two aircraft and three aircrew teams at Dijibouti’s Camp Lemonnier in support of AFRICOM objectives. These forward squadrons could support mission tasking while still balancing family life and deployment cycles for our sailors. The role of a forward-deployed asset conducting short deployments is successfully demonstrated by Carrier Strike Group 5, centered around the USS George Washington (CVN-73) and based at Yokosuka, Japan.
The forward MPR force would result in deep familiarity with mission sets and particular regions, leading to increased mission effectiveness and reduced risk to combatant commanders. Concerns about having squadrons stovepiped into certain mission sets could be relieved by reallocating aircraft and aircrew. For example, if a commander thought his Bahrain-based pilots lacked sufficient experience prosecuting submarines, a detachment could be sent to a sister squadron in Kadena for ASW exercises with the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force. In light of concerns that a squadron’s new electronic warfare operators were unfamiliar with ISR operations, they could be sent to Sigonella to monitor radar systems in the Mediterranean.
The stateside composite squadrons would have an equally important role to play in the reorganized MPR community. The active-duty component of these squadrons would be staffed by experienced veterans of the forward squadrons. They would stay combat-ready to provide a concentrated force and be able to quickly bring their reservist squadron-mates up to speed once activated. They would handle the administrative business of the squadron and facilitate drill training, just as full-time support personnel back selected reservists today.
In the maintenance and administrative arenas, composite squadrons could make use of natural efficiencies. Maintenance functions could be performed by contractors, some of whom are also selected reservists. The MPR force has long contemplated contract maintenance support, where civilian mechanics service the aircraft, but ultimately decided against it due to the prohibitive costs of deploying these civilian personnel. In a forward-based system, deployment would only occur during contingencies in which many of these reservists could simply be recalled to active duty. The decreased turnover and elimination of the requirement to train junior sailors fresh out of “A” school would drive further cost savings. Pairing the military with contractors has worked successfully in training commands and reserve logistic-support squadrons, and should be mirrored by the MPR community.
In summary, composite squadrons would provide a force that is inexpensive to operate, eliminates wasteful flight hours, and could be mobilized to provide required forces for contingencies. The reduction in combat proficiency would be no different than the current shortfall in capability suffered by squadrons when they stand down post-deployment. A portion of the cost savings could be used to provide funding for emerging sensor and weapons technology to make the P-8A fleet more capable and lethal. These savings could also help ensure the full production run of P-8A aircraft and MQ-4C unmanned aircraft systems would still be purchased in the event of drastic budget cuts.
Addressing the Skeptics
Critics from inside and outside MPR aviation will offer several arguments about why a forward-based system is foolish or unfeasible. For example, aviators and MPR leaders may opine that it encourages stovepiping of expertise into geographic areas. Because squadrons do not routinely operate worldwide, they will lack experience in various mission sets. While this criticism is valid, such a system already exists. The six patrol squadrons equipped with the littoral-surveillance radar system naturally gravitate to ISR mission tasking, primarily in the Middle East and certain areas of Asia. Like it or not, the reality is that MPR squadrons already possess various levels of proficiency in ASW, AsuW, and ISR mission sets simply due to equipment and tasking requirements. In a forward-based system, this stovepiping would at least be countered by deep understanding of local areas and mission sets, leading to increased effectiveness during combat operations.
Others may counter that the cost of basing families forward would overwhelm the cost savings generated with a forward and stateside mix. This is highly unlikely due to the large reduction of active-duty force structure and attendant personnel costs. Additionally, the requirement to operate fewer aircraft, flight hours, and tasking in composite squadrons would save large amounts of money. Also, removing the need to mobilize and deploy would result in massive reductions in administrative overhead. The forward and stateside mixture buys the same presence for less money while still maintaining platforms for contingency operations.
Critics might also argue that such a model, which initiates savings by reducing the operations and maintenance (O&M) funding of composite squadrons, is unlikely to help the MPR force. They may claim that O&M funds are rarely reallocated to provide for acquisitions, and therefore, to trade flight hours and manning today risks a lack of funding tomorrow. While this may be true in the current fiscal environment, budget reductions will almost certainly be a reality given the current political landscape. The MPR force must reorganize to prevent and win future conflicts. In an era of global trade and “just-in-time” supply chains, secure sea lanes are the key arteries that enable our economy and allow us to meet our energy needs. Trading manning and flight hours for force structure is not ideal, but surrendering our ability to shape the battlespace, deter undersea threats, and project maritime power is not an option if stark budgets are set. P-8A aircraft and MQ-4C unmanned aerial vehicles are crucial sea-control support elements.
Such a radical restructuring of force laydown is also likely to meet deep resistance from the MPR community itself. It would necessitate a large reduction in active-duty officer manning, with aspiring aviators competing for the command of 4 forward squadrons rather than 12 active-duty squadrons. Leading a stateside composite squadron would not be as glamorous as commanding a traditional deployed squadron. However, the future force will probably be smaller and leaner by necessity. It is not acceptable to lose combat capability and assets simply to preserve prestigious command positions.
Others might assert that a forward-based posture would place undue stress on mission aircraft due to a constantly high operational tempo. However, such concerns are already mitigated by the management of in-theater airframes. It is quite common under the current deployment structure for MPR squadrons to bring new aircraft to forward sites or rotate them stateside when required. Aircraft are exchanged between squadrons to allow scheduled maintenance and an even distribution of flight hours and hence airframe fatigue. In fact, a forward-based posture would be made even simpler as the P-3C is retired and the P-8A fleet grows. The P-8A boasts a uniform network architecture and common sensor suite, in comparison to the P-3C, which has several variants with different sensors and configurations.
Lastly, logisticians may say that creating a more static force would be detrimental to the ability for the MPR force to mobilize in wartime. By not deploying once every 18 months, personnel could lose their familiarity with a complicated, resource-intensive evolution. In addition, they might argue that composite squadrons would not be able to quickly mobilize in advance of a conflict. In reality, the necessity to deploy would be infrequent and limited. Like all combat units, force structure is tied to requirements in times of crisis. In the case of the MPR force, this conflict would likely be a large-scale conventional maritime operation against a peer opponent. Despite decades of combat around the globe, reserve MPR squadrons have not been called back to active duty and surged as a complete force. With history serving as a guide, we should be confident that we can trade some operational agility while still maintaining forward presence and the capability to surge during wartime if need be. If faced with budgetary shortfalls, leaders should ensure that readiness is not preserved at the expense of acquiring the platforms, sensors, and weapons needed to fight in the event of a large conflict.
Our military and nation face the dual challenges of an increasingly chaotic world and shrinking defense budgets. Leaders must think creatively to maximize their ability to project power and support national interests with the resources at hand. Adopting the forward-based MPR force will buy identical presence with less money and resources. Leaders in this community—and naval aviation as a whole—should take advantage of this opportunity to reallocate these savings should budgetary reductions occur. We must recapitalize the Fleet with the platforms, sensors, and weapons needed to deter—and, if need be, decisively win—conflicts during the upcoming decade. The challenge is clear. The time for action and change is now.