Navy, Marine Corps Modernize Aviation amid Fiscal Pressures

By Mikayla Easley

Marine Corps photo

Facing high-end threats abroad and fiscal pressures at home, Navy and Marine Corps aviation forces are preparing for the next generation of warfare.

The sea services’ aviation components own a variety of capabilities essential to the Defense Department’s vision for future joint all domain operations — including the striking power of the Navy’s carrier air wings, as well as firepower and heavy lift for Marine Corps ground forces.

To ensure those capabilities can maintain an edge over U.S. adversaries in future strategic environments, the Navy is emphasizing new platforms that will allow the service to operate at longer ranges and faster speeds in the next 10 to 15 years, said Rear Adm. Shane Gahagan, program executive officer for tactical aircraft programs.

“The ranges that we need based on the threats that are out there — [which should] have kinetic and non-kinetic effects — are only increasing over the years. They’ve pushed naval aviation farther and farther out,” he said during a recent panel at the National Defense Industrial Association’s annual Expeditionary Warfare Conference.

Gahagan pointed specifically to long-range weapons, such as hypersonic missiles, as technology the Navy is pursuing. Hypersonics are expected to be highly maneuverable and travel at speeds greater than Mach 5, and pose a major challenge for enemy air defenses.

In addition, the Navy may need to boost aircraft procurement in the future to avoid shortfalls and sustainment problems, according to a report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “U.S. Military Forces in FY 2022.”

“For many years, naval aviation has been procuring mature systems with predictable costs and schedules,” Mark Cancian, a senior advisor at CSIS, said in the report. “Long-established production lines have recently finished … [and] new systems will eventually replace them, but there will be a gap.”

Notably, the Navy plans to end production of the F/A-18 Hornet combat jet in 2022. The procurement of other aircraft such as the F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter won’t compensate for the loss of the F/A-18, according to the report.

Gahagan said the service has plans for a sixth-generation fighter to be developed under its Next-Generation Air Dominance program intended to replace the Navy’s fleet of F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets by the early 2040s.

In the meantime, Gahagan noted the service life of F/A-18 E/F airframes is being extended to 10,000 flight hours under the Block III program, which includes added capabilities such as new displays, visual targeting assets and abilities to link data.

The Marine Corps also sees modernization as critical for future operations, said Brig. Gen. Matt Mowery, assistant deputy commandant for aviation.

“We need to be faster, be able to go farther and be able to have more effects out on the leading edge of the battle space,” Mowery said during the panel.

The Corps’ push for modernization is part of Commandant Gen. David Berger’s Force Design 2030 — a plan to ready the service for potential conflicts with adversaries such as China in the Indo-Pacific region. Along with procuring new platforms, the strategy calls for divesting of unneeded legacy systems.

For aviation, this includes a reduction in rotary-wing squadrons and potentially the number of fixed-wing fighter jets per squadron, according to the service’s Force Design 2030 annual update.

“Instead of [strictly] thinking about ... platform replacements, [it’s] more of a capability requirement,” Mowery added. “Over the last two years, we’ve really done a lot of analysis and reflection and coordination with the other services to really think about where we are going and what is the requirement that we need.”

For example, the service plans to develop its future rotary-wing fleet using a family-of-systems approach that will encompass the Marine Corps’ entire inventory of platforms that take off and land vertically, Mowery said. This could include replacements for the AH-1Z Viper and UH-1Y Venom helicopters, he added.

In the future, the family of systems may also encompass technology like large unmanned logistics system-airborne, Mowery said. The platform is one of the varieties of cargo transport systems the Marines are developing and acquiring, according to the Department of Navy’s Unmanned Campaign Framework published in 2021.

“As we look at the distances that we [have to] cover out in the Pacific, to have something unmanned that can do very repetitive work [is] riskworthy, but over long distances and at an airspeed that will make a difference on the battlefield. That may actually be a priority for us over an H-1 replacement,” Mowery said, noting that the service will still take deliveries of the last H-1 helicopters it purchased.

The expanded role unmanned aerial vehicles will play in Marine Corps operations is another tenant of Force Design 2030. The service purchased two MQ-9A Reapers in 2020 and is looking to purchase six more in 2022, according to the Marine Corps’ budget request for fiscal year 2022.

The Marines also have finished procurement of the MQ-8 B/C Fire Scout — an autonomous reconnaissance helicopter — while simultaneously divesting its RQ-21 Blackjack reconnaissance and surveillance UAV, according to the Force Design update.

However, Mowery warned of a disconnect between the Defense Department and industry on the exact capabilities unmanned platforms can offer and when the technology will be ready.

“The last thing we want to do right now is shift investments into something that’s going to be more manpower intensive, … or take a single-seat aviator and put more on his or her plate because they’ve got another system or asset up and flying with them but it’s not truly autonomous,” he said.

Gahagan agreed with Mowery, adding that the department needs to tell industry more precisely what it wants unmanned technology to accomplish.

The Navy has been relatively cautious in experimenting with UAVs compared to the other services such as the Air Force, according to the CSIS report. More emphasis is being currently placed on manned aircraft, it noted.

Still, production of the MQ-4C Triton, a long-endurance intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance drone, is slated to begin in 2023. Additionally, the MQ-25 Stingray unmanned aerial tanker is also scheduled to achieve initial operational capability in 2025.

The Marine Corps is also behind the curve when it comes to UAVs, the report said. It added that Berger wants to better incorporate drones but “faces decades of aviation culture built around manned aircraft.”

Another challenge facing the service’s ability to acquire drones and other capabilities is the current fiscal environment, Mowery noted.

As of press time, the federal government has yet to enact a full-year defense appropriations bill for fiscal year 2022 and is operating under a continuing resolution. Working under a CR for an extended period of time hinders the Corps’ ability to acquire the technology it needs, Mowery said.

“Stable and predictable budgets are really key to us being able to modernize, remain relevant for the current fight, and be ready for this peer fight that we see in the future,” he said.

Overall, the Department of the Navy requested $211.7 billion in spending for 2022. Between the two services, the Navy asked for $163.9 billion — just 0.6 percent more than in 2021 — while the Marine Corps requested $47.9 billion, about a 6 percent increase from 2021, to help overhaul the force.

Gahagan added: “It’s a balance between budgetary decisions of current readiness, future readiness and how do you balance where the funding flows to be able to work the great power competition. We need to maximize and optimize current [and] future readiness in a budget environment that may not be optimum for what we need.”

As the Navy looks to procure more technology, Gahagan said the service will likely put more emphasis on a platform’s sustainment costs when making contract awards, incorporate cost per flight hour as a metric in requirements, and emphasize live-virtual-constructive training.

Mowery agreed that distributed operations in areas like the South China Sea will necessitate a different approach.

“We’ve got to be more energy efficient [and have] power management and more reliability on those systems, because we’re not going to be able to have the iron mountain that we’ve been able to have over the last 20 years to draw from,” he said, referring to the large units and supply depots upon which the military has grown dependent.

Gahagan acknowledged that future success will require some creativity.

“A lot of it’s not about money. It’s about just [being] open to different ideas, critical thinking of how to do things different, and bringing in best practices,” he said. “The challenge for industry and naval aviation is how do we execute the outcome we need [in a] constrained budget with the technology moving forward.”

Topics: Navy News

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