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SOCOM Engineers Examining Capability Tradeoffs of ‘Iron Man Suit’
By Jon Harper
 


TAMPA, Fla. – Engineers at U.S. Special Operations command are in the process of sorting through the tradeoffs between size, weight and power as they seek to develop a revolutionary tactical assault light operator suit, according to program officials.
 
TALOS, also known as the ‘Iron Man suit’, is intended to protect special operators during raids and other missions. The armored exoskeleton needs to be thick enough to stop bullets but not limit the special operator’s mobility. The suit must also be supplied with enough energy to power the command, control, communications, computers and intelligence systems for extended missions, SOCOM officials have said.
 
Each of these requirements presents daunting technical and engineering challenges. When combined, the difficulties become even more acute. Improvements in one area can create problems in another. For example, increasing the armor or the size of the power supply system increases the weight of TALOS, placing strain on the exoskeleton and the operator, program officials said at a National Defense Industrial Association conference May 21.
 
Tradeoffs could be necessary. To get a better idea of how much a change in one aspect of the system will impact another, SOCOM is conducting a size, weight and power analysis for TALOS, the officials said. 
 
The first iteration of SWaP analysis, when completed, will be a critical step forward in the TALOS design process. “We haven’t defined those numbers,” said Cmdr. Anthony Baker, the program manager of Joint Acquisition Task Force-TALOS. “Engineers want finite numbers with which to work.”
 
Suzan Whiting, the program manager for mobility systems, told National Defense that the analysis, which will use modeling and simulation, is expected to be completed later this year in the “August timeframe.”
 
SOCOM officials are hoping to develop the TALOS system by August 2018.
 
Creating a sufficient power system that isn’t too heavy or tactically problematic is perhaps the biggest hurdle that TALOS engineers must overcome. It must be man-portable and packable so that special operators can carry it in the field. Baker said it needs to weigh less than 100 pounds to be “tactically relevant.”
 
Because the power requirements are so great and the size and weight limits are so restrictive, the energy density of the power source must be twice that of a lithium ion battery, according to Vikram Mittal, a SOCOM power systems engineer.
 
Technologists are looking at a number of potential solutions to the power problem, including the possibility of a hybrid system. “We’re not ruling anything out,” said Tyler Wagler, a SOCOM power systems engineer.
 
SOCOM officials are hoping that industry and academia can provide the breakthrough technologies that will solve the TALOS challenges. “There’s a lot of amazing technology out there,” Mittal said.

Photo: TALOS concept art (Defense Dept.)
Air Force’s Aging Bombers Get Digital Makeover
By Sandra I. Erwin



The Air Force is expected soon to award a multibillion-dollar contract to build a new stealth bomber. But while it waits for the next-generation bomber, the Air Force plans to continue to update its aging aircraft so they can stay in service until at least 2040.

At one of the Air Force’s largest maintenance depots at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, technicians have been removing Cold War-era computers and electronics from decades-old B-1 and B-52 bombers, and replacing them with cutting-edge avionics supplied by The Boeing Co. Between 2012 and 2020, the Air Force will spend upwards of $250 million to modernize up to 60 B-1B and 76 B-52H bombers.

Both fleets have been in service far longer than anyone imagined. Next month the Air Force will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Reagan-era B-1B bomber. The B-52H dates back to the Kennedy administration and is still flying in combat.

Under separate upgrade projects that started about three years ago, both fleets are being equipped with modern systems on a par with newly manufactured combat airplanes. They include digital cockpits and communications systems so pilots and crews have access to real-time intelligence feeds and are connected to the military’s tactical networks.

“When I first flew the B-1 in 1997, I recall debriefing using a handheld tape recorder, whereas today you go in the cockpit and have multiple screens with digital displays,” said Air Force Col. Jason Combs, commander of the 7thOperations Group at Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, one of two bases that house the B-1 fleet.

The B-1 was first delivered June 29, 1985. It was conceived as a strategic nuclear bomber but was converted to a conventional bomber following the 1991 strategic arms control treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union, and in the past decade was fitted with targeting pods to perform close air support missions in Afghanistan.

The new avionics upgrade, called the “integrated battle station,” is under way at Tinker Air Force Base. Boeing received a contract to produce 33 IBS kits and has delivered 18 so far. A new contract is in the works for an additional 27, said Rick Greenwell, B-1 program director at Boeing. There are about 2,400 pieces of equipment in each kit. The company makes the hardware and the installation is done by government workers at the Tinker maintenance depot. The Air Force to date has upgraded six bombers and expects to deliver the seventh next month.

The entire fleet of 60 B-1Bs is scheduled to be updated by 2019. “We are trying to make the B-1 viable and relevant to 2040 and beyond,” Greenwell said in an interview. “First, we have to make sure that structurally it will last. Also, that the avionics are current.”

The integrated battle station replaces 1980s-vintage avionics in both front and back cockpits, and combines three systems: a data link, a vertical situation display unit and a central integrated test system. “It’s a very large mod, with thousands of parts per aircraft,” Greenwell said. “It requires removing the wiring, the front and back seats, replacing the consoles with new equipment.” With this upgrade, he added, “It looks like a brand-new aircraft.”

After the hardware installation is completed at Tinker, bombers are sent to Dyess Air Force Base where they are put through combat-like tests by the 337th Test and Evaluation Squadron.

Separately, Boeing is putting the B-1 airframes through fatigue tests at a facility in Puget Sound, Washington. “We try to get ahead of the fleet in finding any structural problems,” said Greenwell. “We haven’t found any major issues so far.” The wings and other parts of the airframe are being hardened to make sure they hold out until 2040, he said. “We finished 53 of the 60 aircraft.

“I don’t think anyone really envisioned” how long this airplane would stay in service, he said. “It has been one of those aircraft that has been able to change as the environment has changed.”

Some of the electronics the Air Force is buying for B-1 bombers are shared with the B-52 fleet. Unique to the B-52 is a $76 million upgrade called combat network communications technology, or CONECT. It replaces 50-year old analog intercoms and obsolete displays, said Jim Kroening, B-52 development programs manager at Boeing. The first B-52 H-models were delivered to the Air Force in 1961.

The B-1 data link is the “cousin to the B-52 CONECT,” he said. “They are very similar technologies.”

With the updated electronics at satellite communications, the B-52 is a “viable platform beyond 2040,” he said. “It’s a testament to the engineering that was done well over a half-century ago.”

The CONECT system allows bomber crews to retarget weapons while in flight. It provides intelligence feeds that are displayed on moving maps. Bombers travel huge distances and often circumstances change after commanders launch a mission, so the Air Force wanted crews to have more awareness and knowledge of the situation at hand, Kroening said. Compared to the legacy systems, “It’s like going from a rotary dial phone to a smartphone.” Old B-52 mission computers have monochromatic displays, with green text on black background, and the only graphics are stick figures. Without this upgrade, mission information must be uploaded to a B-52 before a flight.

Boeing provides kits to Air Force technicians from the 565th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at Tinker who do the installation. The entire fleet of 76 bombers is scheduled to be modernized by late 2019, or early 2020. Boeing is under contract to provide 30 kits, and has delivered 10 so far. The company plans to submit a new proposal to the Air Force to provide the additional 46.

The airframes are regularly probed for fatigue issues, said Kroening. “The airframe is solid. It’s maintained regularly and analyzed. Unlike the B-1, the B-52 is used for both strategic nuclear and tactical roles such as close air support.

At this rate, it is conceivable that the B-52 could reach 100 years old. “That is not out of the realm of possibility,” said Kroening.

Last year the Air Force started to retrofit B-52 bomb bays to pack 50 percent more weapons. The new weapon release systems will be completed in March 2016. The B-52 will be able to carry two dozen 500-pound joint direct attack munitions or 20 2,000-pound JDAMs. Later updates will add the joint air-to-surface standoff missile and the miniature air launched decoy.

Boeing is modifying weapon launchers so the aircraft can carry weapons internally, instead of having to hang them on pylons on the wings of the bomber. “This is a big deal,” said Kroening. “There are many advantages of having a ‘clean wing’ from an aerodynamic perspective and also from not giving away the nature of the mission because weapons area not exposed.”

Photo: B-1 bomber Integrated Battle Station upgrade (Air Force)
Sikorsky S-97 Raider About to Take to the Skies
By Jon Harper
 


TAMPA, Fla. – Sikorsky’s S-97 Raider prototype is almost ready for its maiden flight, according to a company executive.
 
The high-tech helicopter was slated to take to the skies last year but its launch was delayed while Sikorsky did further development and testing. The wait now appears to be nearing an end.
 
“The first aircraft is going through ground runs right now. We’ll be flying within a two to three week timeframe,” Douglas Shidler, the head of Sikorsky’s joint multi-role technology demonstrator program, told National Defense May 19 at an industry conference in Tampa.
 
Demonstrations of the Raider are expected to begin next year following further testing and evaluation, Shidler said.
 
The Raider has a unique rigid rotor co-axis system and a propeller on its tail, which its designers believe will give it greater speed, maneuverability and survivability than other helicopters.
 
“As a result of the co-axis, you do not need a conventional tail rotor on it. The prop that’s on it enables you to go fast,” Shidler explained. “This configuration enables you to fly fast… but also retain all the [hover and maneuver] attributes of a helicopter.”
 
Described by Shidler as a “light gunship” with a cruising speed of 220 knots, the Raider is being pitched as an ideal armed aerial reconnaissance platform. The aircraft can be equipped with Hellfire missiles, rockets and a .50 caliber gun, according to Sikorsky.
 
The Raider could serve as an escort for the V-22 Osprey, a fast-moving, tilt-rotor transport aircraft that is one of the prized acquisition programs of the Marine Corps and U.S. Special Operations Command, he said.
 
“Nothing in the DoD inventory can fly as fast as the V-22 and still provide coverage,” he said.
 
With multiple manning options, the Raider could potentially be used as a drone. “This is a full fly-by-wire aircraft. And the architecture we’ve established for it enables some other missions or capabilities that we’re developing, such as optionally [human] piloted. So that could be a kit that we added on,” Shidler said.
 
Sikorsky hopes to eventually land contracts with SOCOM and other Defense Department components that might be interested in acquiring the Raider’s capabilities.
 
The company had a model of the aircraft on display at the National Defense Industrial Association conference in Tampa, where a multitude of SOCOM officials and industry representatives met to talk about future requirements.
 
The Raider, which Sikorsky began developing in 2010, was seen as a potential candidate to replace the Army’s OH-58 Kiowa. But budget constraints compelled the Army to shelve its plans for a new armed aerial scout program.
 
“We don’t have [an award] competition to compete for right now,” Steve Engebretson, Sikorsky’s director of advanced military programs, said in an interview May 20.
 
However, Sikorsky has teamed up with Boeing to develop a larger aircraft — the SB1 Defiant — for the Army's joint multi-role technology demonstrator program. The Defiant is based on a design similar to the Raider. While the Raider weighs 11,000 pounds and can carry six passengers, the Defiant weighs about 30,000 pounds and can carry 12 troops.
 
With a cruise speed of approximately 250 knots, the Defiant would be ideal for search-and-rescue operations or tactical assaults, Shidler said.
 
Sikorsky executives are hoping that the Defiant will be selected for the Army’s future vertical lift program, which is intended to replace part of the service’s aging helicopter fleet.

Photo Credit: Jon Harper
Secretary of the Navy: Cyber is the Future of Warfare
By Allyson Versprille



The Navy must improve cyber security protocols in everything from weapons to command-and-control systems to communications platforms as adversaries continue to invest in their network warfare capabilities, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus said May 20.

"Cyber is … the future's warfare," he said during a Defense One breakfast"Cyber is in everything now and it's not just weapon systems. It's in every system that we have."

The Navy is trying to be more realistic about how its weapon systems work and what the protocol is for when the network isn't available, he said. Russia's cyber assault before invading Georgia in 2008 is an example of how a network attack can leave a nation vulnerable, he added.

U.S. focus on cyber security is not limited to the military, he said. Electrical grids also have to be protected. That is one reason why the Navy is shifting to alternative fuels and finding ways to cut back on energy dependency, said Mabus. If the grid goes down the military can still do its job.

The service is also looking at philosophical issues such as what types of cyber attacks constitute an act of war, Mabus said. He posed a scenario of a plane crashing after the controls were seized in a cyber assault and asked whether that should be grounds for war. These questions are still unanswered, he said.

Mabus' statement coincided with the release of a memo by the People's Liberation Army (PLA), the military force of the People's Republic of China. The memo titled, "Cybersovereignty Symbolizes National Sovereignty," was published May 20 in China's PLA Daily. It stated that the "Internet has become the main battlefront for struggle in the ideological area," and stressed the importance of cyber security in ensuring national security.  

The memo expressed concerns regarding the influences of "hostile" Western forces who will try to "maliciously attack" China's current regime via the Internet, throwing the country into turmoil. "It may be said that without cyber security, there is no national security," the memo said.

"Whoever controls the network, will seize the commanding heights in the ideological struggle, and command the lifelines of national security and development in the information era," it said.

Photo Credit: Navy
Air Force Top Scientist Predicts Better Future for Drone Pilots
By Sandra I. Erwin



Military drone pilots are stressed and overworked for the most part because of crushing schedule and a chronic shortage of trained operators. But there are other reasons, such as their user-unfriendly equipment and poorly designed workspaces.

Air Force researchers and technologists are working to change that, said Mica R. Endsley, the chief scientist of the U.S. Air Force.

Pilots who fly Predator and Reaper remotely piloted aircraft at Air Force bases in the United States “have to go through great lengths to make the systems do what they need to do,” Endsley said. Their ground controls stations were not designed for the job they are now doing. Many of the current ground-based cockpits are cumbersome, she said, because they lack the “human systems integration” that typically goes into manned aircraft cockpits.

The Air Force is developing a new ground control station that will fix these shortcomings but it will not be ready until 2017. “The timelines are much slower than I would like to see. But we’re operating with extraordinarily limited budgets,” Endsley said May 20 during a meeting with reporters as she wraps up her two-year stint at the Air Force and prepares to return to her job in the private sector.

The Air Force has deployed teams of psychologists, physiologists and chaplains to help drone pilots cope with stress. It also has introduced new cash bonuses to motivate the force. Endsley believes that improvements in remote cockpit designs and other advances in autonomous systems also will help to relieve pilot stress.

Ground stations used today were patched together in a hurry in the months following the start of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and didn’t go through the traditional development cycle. “So there were no human factors built into them. They are hard to use, and extraordinarily stressful to operate,” she said. They also contribute to crashes. Unmanned aircraft experience a six times higher mishap rate than manned aircraft. “We have an opportunity to improve effectiveness, lower the stress and reduce the accident rate by redesigning ground stations.”

A program now under way will produce new, more ergonomically correct control stations for Predator and Reaper aircraft, but not for the high-altitude Global Hawk surveillance drone, although that fleet also needs them, said Endsley. “We really have to address our unmanned systems operations with technology, looking differently at how we deal with airmen who are deployed in place, disconnected from the war zone. We need to further study what it means to be deployed in place.”

Current stations, for instance, have vertically stacked screens that forces pilots to crane their necks. “They were developed by engineers for engineers, not for pilots.” Operators often have to wade through multiple screens of data to get what they need. “That can be very inefficient,” she said. There are typically multiple communications systems they have to juggle to connect with deployed units overseas, analysts and other parties. “It’s a kluged-together kind of thing to make it work.”

Before she leaves the Air Force to return to her job as CEO of SA Technologies in Arizona, Endsley will release a new study on the future of unmanned technology and how the military intends to exploit it.

“The focus is on autonomy and human system integration,” she said. The report is scheduled to be released in June.

The Air Force has zeroed in on autonomy as one of five “game changing” technologies, along with hypersonic weapons, directed energy weapons, unmanned vehicles and nanotechnology.

Advances in autonomy will not remove the human operator when it comes to key decisions like launching weapons, but it will make the operator’s life easier, said Endsley. The idea is to use autonomy to aid pilots, she added. Unmanned systems used in combat today are flown manually by pilots on the ground, but greater autonomy might help the military recover drones when they lose the satellite communications link. “We want to do new things with unmanned systems, deploy aircraft in dangerous areas. We can potentially use them in swarms, or in combination with manned aircraft.”

Autonomy is one of the technology fields that is advancing rapidly in the private sector and is being pushed aggressively in countries like China. The United States needs to pick up the pace, said Endsley. “We need more rapid prototyping and testing.”

Photo Credit: Air Force

Special Operations Command Outlines New Sensor, Platform Roadmap
By Jon Harper



TAMPA, Fla. – U.S. Special Operations Command leaders May 20 outlined a new roadmap for how it plans to buy and deploy its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms in the years ahead.
 
SOCOM uses ISR assets to gain situational awareness and destroy enemy targets. Col. Matt Atkins, the head of SOCOM’s intelligence capabilities and requirements division, said the demand for ISR is “insatiable.”
 
A recently conducted review of requirements, capabilities and resource constraints, has led SOCOM to the conclusion that it needs to realign its portfolio investments.
 
“In the post 9/11 environment there was really a dizzying investment in ISR as folks rushed capabilities to the field in huge numbers and often with not a lot of foresight,” Atkins said at a National Defense Industrial Association conference. “Now in the new more austere fiscal environment, we sort of have to make sense of what’s in the inventory.”
 
SOCOM had to “rethink” the way it does ISR. The command now recognizes that it doesn’t need “Cadillac” quality assets to do every job, he said.
 
“A field commander would say, 'Hey I need an MQ-9 high-end Reaper to do something that a far smaller and less capable platform could do.' So essentially there was no nuance in the way we did our requirements process,” Atkins said.
 
Going forward, SOCOM will buy more “Ford” quality platforms while focusing on sustaining and improving the capabilities of high-end platforms that are already in the fleet, he said.
 
SOCOM also wants to invest in more affordable, less-complex assets to facilitate ISR cooperation with international partners.
 
“We need an ability to create and purchase and field platforms that not only are affordable for our partners but are employable by partners," he said. An intelligence sharing agreement should be "baked in" when SOCOM buys a platform, so it can have a Nigerian sitting at a joint operations center as it chases Boko Haram with a small unmanned aircraft system, Atkins said.
 
Airborne assets currently account for about 80 percent of the command's ISR portfolio. To save money and diversify the portfolio, more investments will be made in ground-based and maritime-based platforms, as well as space and cyber capabilities.
 
“We need to reduce our reliance on airborne platforms,” Atkins said. “We’re going to be putting considerable energy into exploring and understanding our way to expand ground-based and maritime-based ISR… to buy down our chemical dependence on the airborne realm, which is not always available and it’s probably the most costly.”
 
Atkins told conference attendees that SOCOM needs help inform industry when it comes to developing better sensors and improving data transport between ISR platforms and the special operators who rely on them.
 
The command also wants to reduce the number of people needed for processing, exploitation and dissemination of collected intelligence, which is human capital intensive.
 
“We’re looking for technology to buy down that,” Atkins said.
 
SOCOM officials have visited Silicon Valley to explore the idea of using small and mini commercial satellites to improve the command’s ISR coverage.
 
“We’ve just started to scratch the surface on that,” he said. That kind of technology could potentially “fill the gap where our traditional intelligence sensors don’t have dwell just because of national demands. So SOCOM in particular is leaning forward on the commercial space sector, and we look forward to some pretty significant partnerships in space on that.”

Photo Credit: Defense Dept.
Industry Liaison Office Opens Door to Doing Business With SOCOM
By Jon Harper
 


TAMPA, Fla. – U.S. Special Operations Command awards $3 billion in contracts each year. For companies that have a product that could help special operators accomplish their missions, SOCOM’s technology and industry liaison office offers them a chance to get a piece of the pie.
 
TILO serves as a conduit between industry, academia, and the command. It can be especially useful for companies that that have never done business with the command, one of its leaders said at a National Defense Industrial Association conference in Tampa on May 19.
 
“We’re one of the primary ways [for businesses] to get into SOCOM,” said Shelvin Watts, a program support specialist at TILO. “It doesn’t matter if you’re mom and pop at home working out of your garage or a large multimillion dollar [or] multibillion dollar company.”

To be seriously considered, products need to that fall within one of the command’s listed “capability areas of interest,” she said.
 
“Know your customer [and] do your homework,” Watts said  “What we don’t want is for you to call or send us a white paper that says, ‘I build things. Tell me what you need and I’ll build it.’ We want to know what you’ve already built, what your capabilities are.”
 
Through the online portal, companies can submit a white paper. A good synopsis is key, according to Watts.
 
“A synopsis is what gets your white paper read. [The subject matter experts] look at that first to determine whether or not they want to go in and pull the whole paper and see it,” she said.
 
Length matters. Watts said 35 pages should be sufficient. “If it’s too long, no one is going to read it,” she cautioned. “Make it short, sweet and give them what they need.”
 
There’s no official white paper format that companies need to follow, but there are some key points to make. “Tell us what your value proposition is,” Watts said,” and “what is so unique about your widget that we gotta have it.”
 
The most important information is the technical specs. “You don’t have to be a great writer” and “you don’t need an engineer to write your white paper,” Watts said. “If you can just give us the technical details, we’ll be okay with that.”
 
Other important items to include: test results from any product testing that has occurred; a dissemination of control statement; and a list of government contracts the company received that are relevant to the proposal.
 
Items to leave out of a white paper: a company overview, personal biographies and copies of patents.
 
Putting the SOCOM emblem on your document is an especially bad move. “Never, ever put the SOCOM emblem on your paper,” Watts said. “It implies that we are endorsing your product your capability, and our lawyers are not very happy with that.”
 
Companies will typically hear back from SOCOM approximately 30 days after submitting their white papers, Watts said. If it generates interest, company representatives may be asked to meet with officials, which could lead to a product demonstration.
 
Even if SOCOM passes on an idea, TILO will still keep the rejected white papers on file for at least two years in case capability requirements change. “No interest today does not mean no interest tomorrow,” Watts said.

TILO's online portal: www.socom.mil/Sordac/Pages/SubmitYourIdea.aspx.

Photo: Shelvin Watts of
SOCOM’s Technology and Industry Liaison Office (NDIA)
SOCOM Leaders: We Need More Non-Traditional Technology Partners
By Jon Harper
 

Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of SOCOM

TAMPA, Fla. – U.S. Special Operations Command needs to find new partners among industry and academia to meet the challenges ahead, SOCOM leaders said May 19.
 
Gen. Joseph Votel, the commander of SOCOM, warned that his forces’ technological superiority is increasingly being challenged by state and non-state actors.
 
“We believe there are opportunities to continue to expand our partnerships with non-traditional and traditional DOD suppliers and innovation leaders. Ultimately the ability to introduce new capabilities to SOF at a rate that outpaces our adversaries will rely heavily on our collective efforts to attract this wide diversity of partners and technologies,” he told attendees at a National Defense Industrial Association conference in Tampa.
 
The special operations chief is looking for game-changing technologies and concepts, which makes having fresh eyes looking at SOF issues imperative.
 
“We must leverage industry to lean it forward and help it develop the technologies that are not just incremental improvements but monumental improvements, ones that revolutionize our capabilities,” he said.
 
James Geurts, the head of acquisition and procurement at SOCOM, said the command is looking at creating internships or fellowship programs for individuals within industry to come work at SOCOM.
 
He also sees award competitions as a useful tool for expanding the command’s network.
 
The command has used this method to move the ball forward on its Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit, also known as the “Iron Man” suit.
 
“That again attracts a different sort of players in here, a different way of looking at things,” Geurts said at the conference. “We’ve got other PEOs [program executive officers] right now looking at that model and figuring out how to incorporate that into their toolkit.”
 
He said “Thunderdome” brainstorming sessions with a more diverse set of partners to tackle vexing challenges would also be beneficial as the command seeks to “create environments where we get new combinations of players together to get new capability out there quickly.”
 
He encouraged industry and academia to host their own “Thunderdome” sessions and invite SOCOM officials to attend.
 
“I think that’s a missing piece right now because to me the technology offset I’m worried about is velocity and being able to transition any technology as quickly as we can as needed into the field,” he said.
 
This doesn’t mean SOCOM is looking to change the entire acquisition process and focus entirely on new players.
 
“There’s room for traditional acquisition as well,” Geurts said, but “I always look for how do we have the most tools we can in the toolbox and… not have one tool that we have to always kind of work around imperfectly to get to a solution.”


Photo Credit: Defense Dept.
Too Many Grounded Aircraft Put a Crimp on Marine Operations
By Sandra I. Erwin



At a time when demand for Marine aviation units is growing, the Corps is struggling to maintain and repair aircraft. Approximately 19 percent of the aviation inventory — or 158 aircraft — currently is grounded.

That number is “way too high,” said Lt. Gen. Jon M. Davis, Marine Corps deputy commandant for aviation.

If he were the CEO of a commercial airline with 158 airplanes out of service, he said, “I probably would be fired.”

Davis has a plan to improve the health of the fleet, but it will take several years to get all those aircraft back in service, he said May 19 during a meeting with reporters.

Aviation readiness is “what I spend most of my time thinking about,” he said.

The Marine Corps needs about $320 million to fix all 158 aircraft. Davis said Congress likely will approve enough funds to return 26  back to service in 2016.

The 158 grounded aircraft are a mix of heavy lift helicopters, V-22 Ospreys, attack helicopters, F/A-18 fighters and Harrier short-takeoff vertical landing attack warplanes. Some are sitting at maintenance depots waiting for missing parts. Others are in unit flight lines awaiting repairs. In many units, especially those that fly the V-22 Osprey, there are not enough maintainers to keep up with the workload.

“This impacts our ability to generate the readiness numbers we need,” Davis said.

The Marine Corps has launched several efforts to increase aviation readiness, he said. Some fleets will see improving numbers within a year and a half, but others will take more than four years to turn around. One immediate fix will be to allocate enough funds to buy spare parts. Other initiatives like training more maintenance crews take more time.

Davis said returning more aircraft to combat duty is an imperative not only because of the growing demand for airlift and close-air support, but also for financial reasons. A $320 million bill to put 158 aircraft back in the air is reasonable considering that is $8.4 billion worth of inventory, he said. “It drives me crazy to have 158 airplanes that are perfectly good airplanes that we’re not flying right now that we could be flying for relatively little investment on the dollar.”

To expedite repairs, Davis is pushing for changes in how aviation forces are supported in the field. The V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor has one of the lowest readiness ratings in the Marine Corps fleet but that could be quickly reversed if Marines in the field were allowed to fix prop rotors, for instance. Under the current protocol, when rotor blades are damaged, the aircraft are returned to the manufacturer or to depots.
“Rotor blades get nicked, and we don’t have the ability to repair those at the local level. I have to send them back to the factory,” said Davis. “I want to change that,” he added. “A lot of times Marines can fix them right on the airplane. … We want to get our Marines trained to do repairs on the flight line to increase our readiness.”

Davis last summer recruited a team of retired admirals and generals to probe Marine aircraft maintenance practices and suggest ways to improve them. The group came up with 84 recommendations on what the Corps should be doing differently. “We’re doing all 84,” Davis said. They include allowing maintenance crews to spend more time actually working on airplanes, adopting new training standards and increasing the ranks of qualified leaders who can train enlisted maintainers.

Davis expects a new report June 8 on how to improve the readiness of the CH-53E heavy lift helicopter fleet, which also has one of the lowest availability ratings.

There is no indication so far that recent deadly aviation mishaps — a UH-1Y Huey helicopter crash in Nepal May 12 and an Osprey crash in Hawaii May 17 — were the result of maintenance problems. Davis said he was heartbroken by the back-to-back crashes, both as the father of two Marine aviators and as the leader of Marine aviation. Both the Huey and the Osprey fleets will continue to fly, Davis said, though he declined to comment on the mishaps because they are still under investigation.

Photo Credit: Marine Corps

Japan to Bid on Australian Joint Project for Next-Generation Submarines
By Allyson Versprille


Australia's Collins-class submarine

The Japanese government has given its defense industry permission to bid on an Australian attack submarine contract — another sign that the Asian nation is shedding its former pacifistic policies and willing to export weapons of war, an expert said.

Australia is beginning work on its "future submarine program," one of the most expensive weapon development programs it has undertaken at $39 billion ($50 billion Australian dollars). 

"Japan will join the procedures based on the importance of Japan-Australia defense cooperation," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said at a press conference held after a May 18 meeting of the national security council, an inter-agency policy body that approved the potential bids, the Jiji Press wire service reported.

Japan's new export guidelines have loosened up restrictions on what kinds of defense technologies can be sold overseas. The joint project would be a significant departure from the traditionally pacifistic stance the Japanese have held since the end of World War II. However, the submarine deal, specifically, is a huge leap ahead for Japan because of its potential attack capabilities, said one expert. 

"The idea of selling a surveillance plane ... to India is relatively uncontroversial given its nonlethal nature, but the submarine deal is a big step," said James Schoff, a senior associate in the Asia Program at Carnegie's Endowment for International Peace, a think tank in Washington, D.C.

Companies such as Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Kawasaki Heavy Industries 
wanted to ensure that they had the go-ahead from the Japanese government and understood the terms for their participation before they risked damaging their reputation by developing a potentially offensive weapon system, Schoff said in an interview with National Defense. They initially declined to attend industry days hosted by Australia to discuss the submarine program.

Australia's Department of Defence outlined the details of the competitive evaluation process in a February statement. It asked for proposals from three potential partners — France, Germany and Japan — including pre-concept designs that meet Australia's criteria. 

In addition to agreeing to participate in the competition, the Japanese government also endorsed partial disclosure of its submarine technologies to Australia in accordance with the country's selection procedures, according to Jiji Press.

Because judgments on what technology and equipment Japanese companies can export and what joint production projects they can be involved in are still unclear based on the current guidelines, the decision to allow participation in the submarine competition will set a precedent for future ventures, Schoff said.

The Australian government has drafted strategic requirements for the submarines including range and endurance similar to the current Collins-class submarine, improved sensor development and stealth characteristics, and a stipulation that the vessel's main armament is a combat system and heavyweight torpedo jointly developed between the United States and Australia, according to the February statement.

During the evaluation process the Australian government will consider capability, cost, schedule, risk and interoperability with the United States, the statement said. The process will take about 10 months, after which an international partner will be chosen. Australia plans to build as many as 12 new submarines to replace its aging vessels.

The document released in February asks for options for design; specifications for what would be built overseas and locally; an estimate of costs and schedule for each option; and positions on key commercial issues such as intellectual property rights. 

Photo Credit: Royal Australian Navy
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