The world is awash in change. A return to great power competition, increasingly aggressive actions from international competitors, flat defense budgets, and even coronavirus conspire to challenge the United States’ place in the world. Against this backdrop, the Department of the Navy—and naval aviation—are taking bold steps to ensure the past two years of readiness and lethality gains are preserved in 2020 and beyond.
In 2019, the newly created Naval Sustainment System resulted in an 80 percent mission-capable status for aviation assets for the first time in years, putting more planes back in the air. In a significant victory for aviation safety, the Navy’s Physiological Episodes Assessment Team used data analysis and predictive analytics to definitively diagnose and begin implementing mitigations to persistent physiological issues plaguing its T-45, F/A-18, and EA-18G communities. Numerous first-in-class platforms—including the aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78), the CMV-22B carrier onboard delivery aircraft, F-35B/C fighter aircraft, and unmanned vehicles—continued to reach major program milestones.
Former Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly’s first “SECNAV Vector” identified the Department of the Navy’s most pressing immediate objective: to “put all hands on deck to make the Gerald R. Ford ready as a warship as soon as practically possible.”
This statement provided clarity during a year in which the Navy took considerable criticism from both the Department of Defense and Capitol Hill regarding the $13 billion warship’s operational status. The advanced weapons elevators—designed to move up to 28,000 pounds of ordnance (twice the limit of Nimitz-class elevators) using electromagnetic propulsion—were of particular concern. As of November, the Navy had certified only 4 of the 11 elevators, and timelines for accepting the remaining 7 potentially extend into 2021.
Launching and recovering aircraft, however, was a bright spot for the embattled carrier. In January 2020, the Gerald R. Ford completed aircraft compatibility testing, launching and recovering 211 aircraft and five different platforms: T-45, EA-18G, E-2D, C-2A, and FA-18F. This critical testing enabled the Ford to provide carrier qualification support to student naval aviators in multiple pipelines. Flight deck certification was completed in late March 2020.
The second Ford–class carrier under construction, the USS John F. Kennedy (CVN-79), was christened on 7 December 2019. Scheduled for delivery to the fleet in 2022, the Kennedy is undergoing a construction phase focused on habitability assembly, mechanical assessments, and combat systems testing. Unlike the lead ship, which was fitted with the dual-band radar, all follow-on Ford–class carriers are scheduled to be furnished with a variant of the new AN/SPY-6(V) air and missile defense radar known as the Enterprise Air Surveillance Radar Suite.
The first four ships in the class are now accounted for, with the $15.2 billion multiship contract for the USS Enterprise (CVN-80) and USS Doris Miller (CVN-81) signed in January 2020. Construction on the Enterprise already has begun, and the Doris Miller’s keel laying is slated for 2026; the two aircraft carriers are slated for 2028 and 2032 deliveries, respectively. Notably, CVN-81 is named for Mess Attendant Third Class Doris Miller, who distinguished himself with courage under fire on board the USS West Virginia (BB-48) during the attack on Pearl Harbor. This is the first carrier named in honor of an African American as well as for an enlisted sailor.
F-35 Lightning II: The F-35B and F-35C provide stealthy all-weather air superiority and strike capabilities. In 2019, the Department of the Navy invested more than $450 million under the Continuous Capability Development and Delivery Program for Block 4 upgrades. The Navy’s first operational F-35C squadron, the Argonauts of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 147, achieved initial operational capability (IOC) in February 2019.
The Marine Corps continues to make strides toward F-35C carrier operations. Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 314, the first F-35C squadron for the Corps, was scheduled to achieve safe-for-flight certification in March 2020. At this pace, VMFA-314 is on schedule to meet its carrier deployment requirements as outlined under the Navy-Marine Corps Tactical Air Integration agreement.
In May, the Marine Corps announced a detachment of F-35Bs will deploy on board HMS Queen Elizabeth for her maiden deployment in mid-2021. Queen Elizabeth and her British Royal Air Force and U.S. Marine F-35B squadrons are scheduled to conduct training near Great Britain from fall 2020 to spring 2021, prior to deployment.
F/A-18E/F Super Hornet: The Navy’s premier strike and air superiority fighter regained mission-capable rate milestones in 2019. For the past ten years, only 250 of the 550-aircraft Super Hornet fleet maintained a mission-capable status, making training and operations difficult. In response to then–Secretary of Defense James Mattis’s 2018 direction to increase frontline fighter squadron mission capability rates to 80 percent, the Navy changed its maintenance and supply chain models, which allowed it to reach 341 mission-capable Super Hornets in September. Naval aviation now sustains, on average, approximately 340 mission-capable Super Hornets at any given time.
One key to achieving acceptable levels of readiness was the creation of a maintenance operational center. Based at Naval Air Force Atlantic headquarters in Norfolk, Virginia, the center centralizes representatives from supply, engineering, fleet readiness centers, industry, and naval aviation. Members collaborate to make decisions regarding both long-range strategic planning for the entire fleet and individual jet maintenance issues, prioritizing in real time the parts and labor needed to maximize and sustain fleetwide mission-capable status.
Next Generation Air Dominance Aircraft (NGAD): Formerly FA-XX, the NGAD program is a family of systems designated as the follow-on to the Navy’s F/A-18 and EA-18G platforms. In April, the Navy concluded its long-awaited analysis of alternatives for designs. Its Fiscal Year 2021 budget request proposes reprogramming money originally intended to purchase 12 Super Hornets per year from 2022 to 2024 (ending 20-plus years of Super Hornet procurement in 2021) to accelerate the NGAD effort. The budget submission states, “The decision to cease F/A-18 procurement after FY 2021 ensures the Carrier Air Wing will maintain capable strike fighter capacity to pace the most stressing threats through the 2030s.” Combining Super Hornet savings with additional research funding, the Navy plans to invest an estimated $4.5 billion between 2021 and 2025 to speed “development of [NGAD] and other key aviation wholeness investments.”
EA-18G Growler: An offshoot of the successful F/A-18F Super Hornet airframe, the Growler is optimized to conduct kinetic and nonkinetic operations in the electromagnetic spectrum. In March, the Navy received its last three Growlers, bringing total inventory to 160.
As part of Navy Warfare Development Command’s annual fleet experiment exercises held in September 2019, a joint Navy-Boeing team modified two Growlers to act as unmanned surrogates while being controlled by a third manned Growler. (Takeoffs and landings were performed by in-cockpit aircrew.) Exploring autonomous flight opportunities will extend an aircraft carrier’s mission sets and provide additional choices when flying into highly contested airspace.
E-2D Advanced Hawkeye: The Navy is quickly transitioning from the legacy E-2C to the E-2D. At the end of 2019, the airborne early warning aircraft inventory consisted of 35 E-2Cs and 41 E-2Ds, marking an inflection point for fleet capability. By mid-2020, the Navy plans to have five operational E-2D squadrons at three operating sites (Norfolk, Virginia; Pt. Magu, California; and Iwakuni, Japan) capable of deploying anywhere in the world. With its AN/APY-9 active electronically scanned, mechanically rotated radar, the E-2D is the centerpiece of the naval integrated fire control concept. This capability was enhanced in 2019 with the initiation of the fleetwide upgrade to Delta Software System Configuration 3. While specifics remain classified, this software processes received data for analysis and display to assist radar operators in mission execution. In addition, select E-2D squadrons began inflight refueling training this past year. Reflecting the steep growth in capability in the new variant, Hawkeye squadrons were rebranded from carrier airborne early warning squadrons to airborne command-and-control squadrons (the VAW acronym used since the 1950s, however, will be retained as squadron designator).
MH-53/CH-53: Both variants are descendants of the original 1960s designed Sikorsky S-65 heavy-lift helicopter and have a maximum range (cargo load dependent) of more than 1,000 nautical miles. The Marine Corps’ CH-53E Super Stallion is the Service’s only combat heavy-lift rotary-wing platform and deploys extensively with embarked Marine air-ground task forces on board the
Navy’s L-class amphibious ships. Designed to carry up to 32,000 pounds of cargo externally and a maximum gross weight of 73,500 pounds, the aircraft can be configured to accommodate 32 Marines and is capable of inflight refueling. The aircraft can be armed with up to three GAU-21 .50-caliber weapon systems and is equipped with a full suite of countermeasures. The internally transported tactical bulk fuel delivery system provides long range capability and enables the aircraft to serve as a rapid ground refueling platform for other aircraft and ground vehicles. This legacy platform is planned to remain in service through 2030. The CH-53K currently in development is its planned successor.
The Navy’s MH-53 Sea Dragon is the Navy’s only heavy-lift rotary-wing asset for internal and external vertical onboard delivery. It can carry up to 55 troops or 32,000 pounds of cargo. Unlike its Marine Corps cousin, however, the Navy variant deploys primarily to shore locations, flying required logistics runs to and from L-class ships and aircraft carriers. Notably, the Sea Dragon is the Navy’s most versatile mine-sweeping platform, capable of using sonar and magnetic mine sweeping sets (Mk 103, 104, and 105), the ASQ-24B mine detector, and the AN/ASQ-232A mine-neutralization system. With an aging fleet of 29 MH-53Es, the Navy has devoted considerable effort to improving the safety and reliability of this platform until its planned sundown in 2025. Without a direct replacement named, many of the Sea Dragon’s missions will be assumed by existing naval platforms.
MH-60R/S Seahawk: Both variants deploy with carrier air wings and expeditionary detachments ashore as well as on board cruisers, destroyers, L-class amphibious assault ships, littoral combat ships, and Military Sealift Command ships.
MH-60S tasking includes vertical replenishment logistics, antisurface strike, search and rescue, airborne mine countermeasures, and naval special warfare support. Introduced in 2002, 275 MH-60S were manufactured for the Navy; production ceased in 2016. The MH-60 is equipped with a combination of specialized avionics and weapons, including the multispectral targeting system, airborne laser mine-detection system, airborne mine-neutralization system, AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, Advanced Precision Kill Weapons System, 20-mm cannon, and crew-served weapons.
The MH-60R supports antisurface, antisubmarine, and electromagnetic warfare missions. As the only organic antisubmarine platform in the carrier air wing, the MH-60R is outfitted with the APS-153 radar, AQS-22 low-frequency dipping sonar, multispectral targeting system, tactical common data link, sonobuoys, and Mk-46/54 lightweight torpedoes. Ongoing capability upgrades include the purchase of automatic radar periscope detection and discrimination retrofit kits for the APS-153 radar and advanced data transfer system kits (common to the MH-60S), which incorporate an in-cockpit moving map and digital data recorder. With more than 290 aircraft in the Navy’s inventory, MH-60R deliveries are scheduled to continue through 2020.
Maritime Patrol and Reconnaissance
P-8A Poseidon: The P-8A is the Navy’s long-range maritime patrol follow-on to the P-3C Orion. Although the aircraft is designed primarily as an antisubmarine warfare platform, in 2020 the P-8A program office (PMA-290) solicited industry bids for integration of additional weapons, advancing the platform beyond the sub-hunting domain. Notable weapons included in the request were the AGM-158C long-range antiship missile, the joint direct attack weapon, the Quickstrike family of mines, and the maritime air-launched decoy. P-8s deploy to land-based locations, and two forward operating base stalwarts of the Cold War—Naval Air Station (NAS) Keflavik, Iceland, and NAS Adak, Alaska—are receiving renewed interest from the Navy’s maritime patrol community. In 2019, the Navy began looking into using Adak for future P-8 deployment sites; Keflavik has been a regular deployment site for P-8s since 2018. The Navy has a total P-8 force requirement for 138 aircraft, but budgetary pressures have limited procurement plans to 117.
CMV-22B: The CMV-22B—the Navy version of the V-22 Osprey—is in the process of replacing the C-2A Greyhound as the carrier onboard delivery (COD) platform. Retaining its vertical takeoff and landing tilt-rotor capabilities, this medium-lift platform has greater operational range, faster cargo loading/unloading, increased survivability, and enhanced beyond-line-of-sight communications compared to the C-2A. In October, the CMV-22 community took a significant step forward when it established the Fleet Logistics Multi-Mission Wing, the type wing responsible for manning, training, and equipping the fleet logistics multimission squadrons. In December, the first CMV-22B took its maiden flight, and the Blackjacks of HX-21 currently are performing testing on the aircraft at NAS Patuxent River.
The coming year stands to mark many firsts: The VRM-30 Titans, home based at NAS North Island, are scheduled to accept the first operational CMV-22B in summer 2020 and to achieve safe-to-operate certification by late September 2020. Until VRM-30 is certified for pilot instruction, Navy pilots train on Ospreys with the Marines of VMMT-204, located at Marine Corps Air Station New River in North Carolina. The CMV-22 is scheduled to achieve IOC in 2021 and to be fully operational in 2023. The Navy’s CMV-22B plan calls for 48 total aircraft.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles
MQ-4C Triton: Designed as a persistent intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance unmanned aircraft to complement the P-8A fleet, the MQ-4C is outfitted with the AN/ZPY-3 multifunction active sensor and incorporates a 360-degree active electronically scanned array radar optimized for maritime surveillance.
Although not planned to reach IOC
until 2021, Triton aircraft regularly
flew sorties in 2019 in the U.S. Central
Command area of responsibility (AOR).
Notably, on 19 July, an Iranian surface-to-air missile shot down one of the U.S.
Navy’s four Broad Area Maritime Surveillance Demonstrators, commonly referred to as BAMS-D. A precursor to the more advanced MQ-4C, the BAMS-D was operating in international waters south of the Strait of Hormuz, and the shootdown sparked the first period of heightened tensions between the United States and Iran for the year. Also, in February 2020, VUP-19 (the Navy’s sole UAS-only squadron) deployed two MQ-4Cs to Andersen Air Force Base in Guam, marking the first Triton deployment to the Indo-Pacific AOR.
MQ-8C Fire Scout: Northrop Grumman’s MQ-8C is based on the Bell 407 helicopter design and delivers twice the endurance and three times the payload capacity of the MQ-8B. In July, the Navy declared both IOC for the MQ-8C and ready-to-operate from the littoral combat ships (LCSs). The IOC certification came after the Navy earlier refined the mission of the MQ-8C from a frontline swarm-attack defense system to an airborne sensor suite focused on enabling over-the-horizon targeting for LCSs. A fleet of 38 MQ-8Cs is planned to complement the Navy’s current fleet of 30 MQ-8Bs.
MQ-25A Stingray: Designed as an unmanned airborne refueling tanker capable of providing up to 15,000 pounds of fuel, the first Stingray prototype made its maiden test flight on 19 September. Under Boeing test pilot control, the aircraft completed a taxi, takeoff, and two-hour flight, validating the aircraft’s basic connectivity and interactions with its ground control station. In early April 2020, according to USNI News, the Navy exercised contract options with Boeing valued at $84.7 million to buy three MQ-25A Stingrays. The three aircraft covered by the contract options are to be completed by August 2024. The Navy plans to procure 72 total Stingrays.
Weapons and Avionics
AGM-158C Long Range Anti-Surface Missile (LRASM): A derivative of the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile–Extended Range program, the LRASM is a long-range, precision-guided missile designed to use multiple sensors to target enemy warships operating within an antiaccess/area-denial environment. The missile achieved early operational capability (EOC) first in the U.S. Air Force on board the B-1B Lancer in March 2018. For the Navy, EOC was achieved in November 2019.
AN/ALQ-247 Next Generation Jammer (NGJ): The NGJ is the follow-on for the AN/ALQ-99 Tactical Jamming System. Designed as an external pod system, the NGJ employs multiple active electronically scanned arrays and an advanced deception techniques generator, bringing advanced electronic warfare capabilities to the battlespace. In August 2019, the Navy received from Raytheon the first NGJ mid-band pod, and in November the Navy announced a $403 million contract modification with Raytheon for seven additional mid-band pods and associated support equipment. IOC for the mid-band pod is planned for fourth quarter 2022.
Infrared Search and Track (IRST) Block II: IRST is a passive, long-range sensor incorporating infrared and other sensor technologies for highly accurate targeting. The IRST sensor is housed in the front portion of an FPU-13 drop tank designed to be carried on the centerline of the Super Hornet. To accommodate the IRST, the FPU-13 will carry only 330 gallons of fuel—a standard centerline drop tank holds 480 gallons. Currently in the risk reduction phase of development, the Block II IRST is expected to be delivered to the Navy in 2021 with IOC
occurring soon after.