What Keeps Naval Aviators Up at Night: Fear of Not Flying

By Sandra I. Erwin

Soon after sweeping budget cuts known as sequestration became law in March, the Navy faced the prospect of grounding seven of its 10 carrier air wings.

That did not happen thanks to last-minute reprogramming of funds that kept combat units flying, albeit at a reduced pace. A new round of sequester cuts could come as early as January, and Navy aviation leaders are coming to grips with the new fiscal reality. But they worry that Washington politics is causing undue damage to the force as pilots see their flying hours dwindle even as the pace of aircraft carrier deployments shows no signs of slowing down.

The budget crunch dominated a two-hour panel discussion Sept. 7 at the Tailhook Association’s annual gathering of naval aviators in Reno, Nev. The panel of flag officers conveyed disillusionment over the budget process and the chaos that Washington politics has inflicted on the military.

“The most dangerous AOR [area of operations] in the world is Washington, D.C.,” quipped Rear Adm. Michael C. Manazir, director of air warfare. “With sequester, we learned that our previous plans aren't valid anymore. Our enemy is the budget,” he said.

“We are living in a polarized political system that is having trouble giving us the tools we need,” said Vice Adm. David A. Dunaway, commander of Naval Air Systems Command.

Naval aviators are coping with reduced training even as their combat duties increase, said the Navy’s “air boss” Vice Adm. David H. Buss, commander of Naval Air Forces Pacific Fleet.

The Navy’s air wings have racked up 450,000 flight hours in fiscal year 2013, according to Buss. A demanding deployment schedule — five carrier strike groups deployed in 2013 — as well as budget pressures have made this an “extraordinary” year for naval aviation, Buss said.

“We are making do,” despite the funding cutbacks, he said. “The fleet has been managing the challenges.”

Buss said he would like to see a predictable budget and a stable training plan for naval aviators.

“There are polar opposite forces pulling at us,” said Buss. One is the fiscal situation, and the other is the growing demand for aircraft carrier presence in areas such as the Middle East and Asia.

“We still don't know the long-term impact of sequestration,” he said. “We made a conscious decision to protect training,” but that might be harder to do in the coming years as funding declines and a growing share of the Pentagon’s budget is consumed by personnel costs.

The priority now is to ensure “basic proficiency” across the combat aviation fleet, he said. “How effective we make the flight time we have” is the new mantra for training commanders, Buss said. “We are thinking differently about our business: Training, maintenance, flight-hour dollars, how we generate readiness.”

Rear Adm. Mark Leavitt, chief of naval air training, said he worries that pilot skills will erode as flying hours come down. Aviators need to fly to maintain their proficiency and confidence, he said.

Simulators can only go so far, he said. “You're not going to get [the confidence] in simulators,” Leavitt added. “I love simulators and [they are needed because] we don't have the airspace or ranges to fully train,” he said. “But I'm also old school. Having air and salt water on your backside matters. We have to get those kids enough air and salt water on their backside, or it might cause them to leave our Navy.”

The financial burden of keeping pilots flying has to be balanced against the fleet’s modernization needs, Buss said. “The priority is to transition out of legacy aircraft into the new stuff, and keep that on track,” he said.

The Navy is now in the process of updating every type and model aircraft in the fleet. The strike-fighter force is transitioning into the FA-18E/F Super Hornet. The electronic attack fleet is retiring older EA-6B Prowler and replacing them with the EA-18G Growler. Aging helicopters being replaced by MH-60R and MH-60S models. The legacy P-3C Orion maritime surveillance aircraft are giving way to the P-8A Poseidon.

The goal is to reduce the number of types, models and series of aircraft within the carrier strike group, he said. In a February blog post, Buss noted that, in 2005, a carrier strike group may have deployed with as many as 10 different models of aircraft which, collectively, required eight engine types, each with their own maintenance and supply support requirements. “In our new vision, a carrier strike group in 2025 would deploy with as few as five models of aircraft with five engine types, significantly reducing our ‘lifecycle’ costs.”

Rear Adm. Thomas J. Moore, program executive officer for aircraft carriers, said naval aviators should look forward to the next generation aircraft carriers, the Ford class, even though the program has come under heavy criticism for its rising cost. The first ship in the class, the USS Gerald Ford, will be christened in November, said. He promised Tailhook aviators that the Ford will be a “fantastic ship.” Because it was designed with NASCAR-style techniques to expedite aircraft maintenance, the Ford will allow the air wing to fly 25 percent more sorties than it is possible from current Nimitz-class carriers, he said. It also will provide other advanced technologies such as electronic aircraft launch and recovery. “It will cost $4 billion less per ship to maintain than the Nimitz class,” Moore said. The $12.8 billion price tag to buy the ship, though, is raising eyebrows. “We are working hard to drive that down,” said Moore.

Dunaway said he was optimistic about the Navy’s future strike fighter, the F-35C, even though the aircraft has been plagued by delays. Its latest setback was a defective tailhook design, which prevented it from properly snagging the arresting cable on the carrier deck. The hook was redesigned and the problem was fixed, said Dunaway. The bigger concerns about F-35C are how fast it can be produced and how much it will cost, he said

The Marine Corps’ top aviation official, Lt. Gen. Robert E. Schmidle Jr., who participated in the Tailhook panel, touted recent progress in the F-35B, the vertical-takeoff version of the Joint Strike Fighter. Marines have stood up a training squadron at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., with 15 airplanes. The first operational squadron is now in place at Yuma, Ariz., with 12 airplanes.

The good news for naval aviation is that the fleet is being modernized at a pace that would seem unthinkable during a budget downturn, Dunaway said. “The team is working as well as I've seen it,” he said. “Look at the Air Force. They are not nearly as recapitalized as we are with our equipment.”

The downside is that, with fewer dollars, “We'll have to suck it up in terms of flying hours and development” of new systems, said Dunaway. The weapons acquisition business has to change dramatically in this budget environment, he said. “We have to look at everything from an integrated warfare perspective. We'll make sure the platforms, weapons, networks and sensors work together,” he said. “You would think that has been done in the past, but it hasn't,” he said. “The system is very stove piped.”

Dunaway, who oversees a workforce of about 400 officers and a $35 billion program portfolio, urged junior officers to consider joining the acquisition team. “I need very good officers to do that,” he said. “I need war fighters who are geeks.”

Topics: Aviation, Joint Strike Fighter, Tactical Aircraft, Shipbuilding, Aircraft Carriers, Simulation Modeling Wargaming and Training, Live Training

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