Archive for the 'Aviation' Category
Here I was, a lawyer from New York City in the middle of the Arizona desert, and surrounded by about $1 billion worth of the most sophisticated and expensive weaponry ever devised – the Joint Strike Fighter. And this was just part of a four-day visit this past November to the Marine Air Station in Yuma, Arizona, the Naval Air Station in San Diego, and an overnight embark on the USS John C. Stennis (CVN-74) as she was steaming somewhere in the Pacific. During my time with the Marine Corps and Navy I was provided unfettered access to learn how these two key Sea Services are preparing to fight the wars of the future.
My first stop was the Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 (VMFA-121) Green Knights briefing room at the Marine Air Station in Yuma where the Air Officer for the First Marine Expeditionary Force explained his mission: “We deliver death and destruction from the sky.” But the means of delivering “death and destruction” is undergoing a major transition, and it’s not cheap.
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which is still in testing, is scheduled to replace the Hornet and the Harrier. The cost is staggering – around $100 million apiece – and Lieutenant General Jon Davis, Deputy Commandant for Aviation, reported to Congress last March that the military has acquired 124 of them. General Davis added that they are waging a “war on cost,” hoping to decrease the price to $80 or $85 million per aircraft.
Notwithstanding these eye-popping numbers, the Marines in Yuma love the F-35. As my group and I were given an up-close and personal tour of the fighter we were told that it is “a cut above” anything the enemy can field. According to one fighter pilot, “it provides first look, first shoot, first kill capability,” and its advanced radar allows it to see the enemy well before it is seen.
Marine Colonel Christopher McPhillips added that “if you’re not in a stealthy airplane you’re not competitive. They’ll see you coming and shoot you down,” and stealth is key according to the Marines in Yuma: “We treat the outer mold line as a weapons capability,” another explained.
After hearing nothing but praise for the F-35, I couldn’t help myself. “What don’t you like about it?” I asked a major who had flown the Hornet for most of his career and was now training on the F-35. “It’s like switching from an old Android phone to the new iPhone,” he said. “It’s better, but takes a little getting used to.”
The enlisted personnel tasked with maintaining this weapon system were, simply put, awesome. They were not just following steps 1 through 10 to complete a task. They were identifying the defects, writing the manual, and then working with the scientists and engineers from Lockheed Martin to fix the problems. Their technical competency was so impressive that it made me wonder – can the Marines retain these people? After all, the skills are costly to develop and challenging to replace. As one Marine colonel acknowledged, “it’s a concern.”
As I left the hangar, I was unsure whether the cost of the F-35s parked inside is worth it. ISIS and other terrorists are not challenging U.S. air supremacy. In addition, Iran has recently acquired Russian made S-300 surface-to-air missiles. Several American fighter pilots told me that the F-35 is the only plane that has a shot against the S-300, but the outcome is hardly clear, and the new S-400 variant is even more deadly. The Russians deployed it in 2010, and in November 2014 agreed to sell $3 billion worth of S-400s to the Chinese, according to press reports.
The F-35 may be a “cut above,” but the ability of competitors to field counter-measures while the Joint Strike Fighter is still in testing should give us pause. Ultimately, I was concerned that the impetus to continue investing in the F-35 is driven by momentum, the sunk cost given the billions already spent, and the understandable passion the pilots have for this new and impressive platform. But the cost/benefit analysis is shifting rapidly, especially given competing priorities in an austere budget environment.
Our next stop was the Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron 1 (“MAWTS-1”), the Marine equivalent to Top Gun. The last class cost more than $20 million, expended more than 455,000 pounds of ordnance, and trained about 250 pilots, according to the group’s commander. Given that the Marines at MAWTS-1 have just begun incorporating the F-35 into their training program, it’s likely that the cost will go up.
After learning about MAWTS-1, we returned to San Diego. I donned the obligatory helmet and ear protection, “skull crushers” called by some of my comrades, and hopped aboard an MV-22 Osprey. The Osprey is another part of Marine aviation’s ongoing transition – it will replace the CH-46E Sea Knight and CH-53D Super Stallion helicopters.
Lieutenant General Davis also told Congress that the Osprey’s “vertical flight capabilities, coupled with the speed, range” and “endurance … are enabling effective execution of missions that were previously unachievable.” He left out one key thing: it’s uncomfortable. This was no civilian helicopter or airplane or whatever you want to call it. Inside this hulking bird I couldn’t hear a thing, and I couldn’t wait to remove the helmet that was mercilessly pushing my ears closer together. Skull crusher, indeed.
Unlike me, the Osprey’s crew chief was having a great time – he left the rear bay door open, laid flat on the bird’s belly, and peered out the back with his feet dangling in the air as we zoomed over the ground 9,000 feet below. After we landed I asked him what he was doing. “Well I was hooked in and I like to look underneath the Osprey to see if everything’s ok and it’s fun.”
My next stop: the John C. Stennis, a Nimitz-class nuclear-powered super-carrier. But she wasn’t dockside – we had to take a ride aboard the propeller-driven C-2A Greyhound, or COD (carrier on-board delivery aircraft), to reach her four-and-a-half acres of sovereign U.S. territory steaming in international waters. In backwards-facing seats, the Greyhound screeched to a halt, going from 150 mph to zero in the course of a few seconds. The C-2A’s tailhook caught the steam-powered arresting wire, saving us from boltering off the angle deck amidships to come around for a second attempt.
Gravity, a force that I have given little thought to over the years as I traveled from home to office to court house during my normal daily routine in Manhattan, suddenly reminded me of its brutality as it slammed me deep into a seat that was padded with a Spartan-like cushion that did little to absorb the shock. The pressure was so great that I started laughing uncontrollably – either because I was having a great time or because the pressure pushed the air out of my lungs. Or maybe it was both.
We were quickly hurried off the COD, onto the carrier’s flight deck, and inside for a welcome briefing in the Captain’s lavishly decorated inport cabin. As I thought about this new and strange environment that I had literally just dropped upon from out of the sky, it occurred to me that this idea – an airport at sea – must have been dubbed by early detractors as utterly preposterous, foolish, and pointlessly dangerous, and yet it has become a key component of America’s ability to project power across the globe and deter many would-be adversaries, “ready on arrival” wherever it is deployed, as the Navy is proud to point out.
Each officer I encountered gave me a different perspective of the biggest challenges they face. For Rear Admiral Mark Leavitt, Commander of the Naval Air Force Reserve, who I met in San Diego before leaving for the John C. Stennis: planning without a budget. For Rear Admiral Ronald A. Boxall, in charge of the armada of ships and planes surrounding us in the Pacific (Carrier Strike Group 3): integrating all the forces at his command. For Captain Michael Wettlaufer, the commanding officer of the John C. Stennis: safety. For his executive officer Captain Kavon “Hak” Hakimzadeh – who fled Iran as an 11-year old boy in the wake of the 1979 revolution – and who was akin to a chief operating officer: getting sailors “not to use their mobile devices because we’ve got a limited bandwidth and a war-time mission.”
The South China Sea dispute was also on their radar, and Admiral Boxall acknowledged the challenges: the Chinese have “a very capable force,” and “we’d likely be operating in close proximity” in the event of a confrontation. Admiral Boxall’s team was preparing for deployment, maybe to the South China Sea maybe somewhere else, but the routine was intense: training, testing systems, and then training more and testing more, and then again and again, and over and over, training and testing. During our first day, the John C. Stennis launched 85 sorties.
After dinner with some of the officers, Admiral Boxall took us up to the “porch,” an outdoor area on the island structure of the ship where we had an unobstructed view of the flight deck from on high. The sky was cloudless, the light virtually non-existent (after all, we were on a warship that doesn’t want to give away her position), and the stars were some of the most brilliant I have ever seen. This incredible natural scene was interspersed with screaming jets landing and launching in rapid succession on a runway that bobbed, weaved and rolled with as much predictability as an ocean swell, and the burning jet fuel made my eyes tear. The bright glow of after-burners was one of the few sources of light that illuminated this dark dance of ship, jets, and sailors at sea.
One fighter jet on final approach caught the first arresting wire running across the flight deck, a successful landing to be sure, but a bit too close to the fantail at the stern of the ship all the same, and thus not perfect. Admiral Boxall noted that all aircraft recoveries are scrutinized in post-flight briefings, and that friendly ribbing among the aviators about technique would likely continue into the evening.
It did. As I joined the pilots in the wardroom for late-night omelets they mercilessly (but hilariously) commented on the performance of those that fell short of perfection. The desire to be the best, and belittle anything less, was pure Top Gun, but sensible in light of the incredibly dangerous nature of their day-to-day routine.
We were given a whirlwind tour of the ship: the air traffic control center, flight deck, flight deck control, forecastle, combat directions center, bridge, Admiral’s operations center, medical office, and more. At one point I asked the weapons officer to direct me to the biggest bomb on the ship (at least the biggest one they would tell me about) – the GBU-24, a 2,000-pound bunker-busting laser-guided behemoth that can penetrate 16 to 24 feet of solid concrete.
As my group was preparing to leave, a pre-production crew from the new film Top Gun 2 was arriving for the private tour of the ship I had just completed. They began blasting “The Danger Zone,” the theme song from the 1986 hit movie Top Gun starring Tom Cruise, on the speakers, and the crew was excited. Some of the sailors mistakenly thought I was part of the Top Gun 2 team, and I did nothing to disabuse them of that notion – being connected to Top Gun on an aircraft carrier has perks that a lawyer from midtown Manhattan can only dream of.
We launched off the ship in what is called a “catshot,” and with the seats still facing backwards, the five Gs were so powerful that my entire body lifted off the seat as we rocketed off the runway. The only thing stopping me from smashing into the back of the plane was the four-point harness holding me firmly in place.
After spending four days with the Marine Corps and Navy, from sailors to admirals, it was time for me to take a jetBlue ride back to New York City. But what was my take-away from this trip, the upshot, the purpose of it all? I was returning to the city that is home to Wall Street and the much-maligned “one percent,” but there is another “one percent” – those who have chosen to put on the uniform. Fewer and fewer Americans have a military experience that allows them to connect, empathize with, and understand the challenges faced by our armed forces. We still all have our opinions – too much defense spending or too little; yes to this fight or no to that one; the military should behave this way or that way – but the more disconnected civilians become from service-members, the greater we will lose context in the course of discussing these critical issues. We may need to have some hard discussions about costs and benefits, risks and opportunities, policies and procedures, but context is key, and I got some of it over four days.
My ultimate take-away, however, was simple: America is fortunate to have patriotic men and women committed to serve and defend our country
I have found some of the responses to the latest announcement about UCLASS to be sadly telling about how little some have learned from the Age of Transformationalism that begat LCS, DDG-1000, and F-35.
To me, the decision on UCLASS is a good news story about a focused and learning institution, but others seem slightly stuck between rage and disappointment when they realize that by the end of FY17 we won’t be launching sharks with lasers on their foreheads off the #3 catapult.
First the announcement via Sam on Monday;
The Navy’s Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) effort is being retooled as primarily a carrier-based unmanned aerial refueling platform — one of several Pentagon directed naval aviation mandates in the service’s Fiscal Year 2017 budget submission.
The shift from UCLASS to the new Carrier Based Aerial Refueling System (CBARS) will be made alongside an additional buy of Boeing F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets over the next several years and accelerated purchases and development of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lighting II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF).
Let’s pause here a bit and review two things.
First, we have known for a long time that we have intentionally taken away one of the most critical requirements of carrier based aviation, deep strike. The light attack community won their internacine Beltway war and killed off the VA and VF community with the help of accountants and industry lobbying. Yippee for them, I guess.
In an ever more short sighted effort to dig around the cushions to find more change, we mindlessly let an organic tanking ability fade away. As people decided that long range strike and anti-submarine warfare wasn’t going to be an issue in their PCS cycle, why not go ahead and take that money now and let others deal that those papered over problems later. Action complete.
Their personal victory did work for their PCS cycle, but as requirements regressed to the mean, we found our aviation fleet tactically limited, operationally confined, and the nation’s power projection ability at strategic risk.
Second, let’s be clear about where we stand with unmanned systems. Ignore the PPT vignettes and cartoon sci-fi theory, but rest on the cold facts that the hardware is relatively untested in a sustained operational environment. The software is between crawl and walk in the crawl-walk-run spectrum. The JAG community and diplo-political considerations are not even close to being ready to ponder any type of strike capability beyond some kind of “reusable TLAM.” For those who think of autonomous strike and AAW with Unmanned Air Systems (UAS) or drones or whatever we are calling them this week, they need to fully hoist onboard the fact that the hardware and software are the easy problems. The JAG and diplo-political problems? Good luck with that.
Where does that put us now? Well, we don’t have any attack aircraft on the drawing board, nor do we have any heavy fighters on the way. FA-XX is looking to be more “F” than “A” – but we’ll see – but that is WAAAYYY off from making shadows on the ramp.
Right now and in the next decade, what do we need? We need to do what we can to regain what we lost, a airwing with legs.
USNI News understands the Navy commissioned a study last year with the Center for Naval Analysis that found that modifying the existing UCLASS program was more capable and cost effective than a modified V-22, Northrop Grumman E-2D Advanced Hawkeye, bringing back the retired S-3 Viking or using the JSF.
Tanking with UAS from a hardware and software standpoint is doable and reachable. Extra bonus, the carrier airwing and aircraft carriers will build experience of maintaining and operating with UAS at sea. We will learn things we have not even thought of yet. We will refine the equipment, modify requirements, and smart men and women will come up with ideas that will make the next steps a greater success.
It is natural that UAS move on to ISR and even strike – but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We can do something earlier that we need yesterday, tanking. In doing so, we greatly increase the odds of moving in to ISR and strike with success.
Even tanking will be a challenge, but if we can’t make that work, we can’t make ISR or strike work anytime soon either.
We can make that work, or we can’t. Either way, tanking first is the best approach to UAS today given what we know of the hardware and software that exists today. Not aspirational, not on the PPT, not on the vignette. No. What the folks at Pax River can work with inside a POM or two.
NAVIAR (sic) spokeswoman Jamie Cosgrove would not confirm any details on the CBARS program ahead of the release of the FY 2017 budget next week when reached by USNI News on Monday.
One defense official told USNI News the Navy’s priority would be to develop and perfect the control and the connectivity systems with the idea being those basic systems could be used to on different carrier based airframes.
“The Navy has already said it wants to develop the airframe iteratively and that the most expensive part of the [development] is creating a system for an aircraft to move on, off and around the carrier,” one defense official told USNI News on Monday.
Innovation, imagination, and progress is part of our competitive advantage when we don’t get too far ahead of ourselves. This is good.
One final note; as he is on many things, the SECNAV is greatly mistaken on manned vs. unmanned carrier air;
Last year, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus said the F-35C would be “almost certainly will be, the last manned strike fighter aircraft the Department of the Navy will ever buy or fly,” he said in address at the Navy League’s 2015 Sea-Air-Space Exposition.
Step away from the PPT. UAS have a future, but they are simply a tool. They are a tool that can do many things – but there will always be a requirement for a “man in the loop” in the messy business of war. A man there, on station, with the training and mind to make decisions on the spot – and to be held accountable for his actions.
Also, talk to your JAG at the end of the vignette. The news of the death of the manned aircraft has been greatly exagerated.
Question: What do you get when you combine ballistic missile defense technology imported from Moorestown, New Jersey, with a former Soviet-Bloc Air Base in Deveselu, Romania?
Answer: The beginning of the next phase of a 135-year bilateral relationship with Romania and a brand new Aegis Ashore site designed to provide for the ballistic missile defense of NATO Allies in Europe.
Deveselu is part of the European Phased Adaptive Approach and the newest responsibility of U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa/U.S. 6th Fleet. The drive southeast of Craiova, Romania takes you through what has rightly been called Europe’s breadbasket. At harvest time, the crops are piled up in sheaves. Bucolic fields stretch like waves as far as the eye can see. Then a gray mass looms on the horizon, and you do a double-take at what appears to be an actual ship steaming on the horizon, its hull obscured by a sea of green. What you are looking at is the profile of the Aegis Ashore Missile Defense System usually associated with the Aegis DDG but now firmly planted in Romanian soil, a concrete example of our commitment to collective defense in Europe.
Aegis Ashore is essentially the Aegis Weapon System built on land instead of on a U.S. Navy destroyer at sea. A major difference between the ship-based and shore-based systems is space. Hull space, size, weight, balance, and ballast are not limiting factors when installing equipment on a concrete pad in a warehouse that is quite literally in the middle of an old Warsaw Pact airbase.
This odd shaped deckhouse building is filled with the latest technologically and highlights the adaptive part of European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA). The deckhouse was originally built in Moorestown, New Jersey, then packed into 156 forty-foot containers and shipped across the Atlantic Ocean. The pre-fabricated pieces meant that assembly of the 900 tons of steel occurred faster than it normally would when building a U.S. Navy warship.
On December 18, 2015, my good friend and one of the finest engineers in the world, VADM Jim Syring, Director, Missile Defense Agency formally reached the Technical Capability Declaration (TCD) milestone and handed the “keys” to Aegis Ashore over to the Navy. Sailors will now be the ones operating the equipment and testing the systems, instead of contractors. Sailors will train and conduct exercises until they and the systems are fully certified, similar to conducting “sea trails” with a new ship.
Aegis Ashore-Romania has one extremely important mission: ballistic missile defense of the population and infrastructure of U.S. and NATO allies. We hope that we will never need to fire a missile from Deveselu because that would imply a ballistic missile from Iran had been launched against a target in Europe. That said, the US military and our NATO allies must always be prepared to conduct this sort of mission precisely because we hope we never need to execute them. Capabilities, equipment, and training give credence to the words of diplomacy. Aegis Ashore is a major component of EPAA, which is the U.S. national contribution to NATO Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) and the collective defense of Europe.
The singularity of purpose of Aegis Ashore means that it must always be ready. The designed redundancy is robust, taking advantage of the large space to add more backup equipment. The technology is impressive, but like anything in the U.S. Navy, Sailors are the true heart of the mission. The Sailors who live and work in Deveselu are pioneers in the purest form. They are simultaneously standing up the first Aegis weapons system at a new base–Naval Support Facility Deveselu–and training to operationalize this system into EPAA and the NATO Alliance. And they are doing an impressive job!!!
There has been a dramatic amount of progress made in the support facilities as well as the Aegis Ashore system since my last visit to Deveselu in February 2015. This month, Sailors are moving from CLUs (Containerized Living Units, pronounced “clues”) into new two-person barracks rooms that are comfortable but austere. Three of the nine rotational Aegis Ashore crews will be in Deveselu at any given time for six-month deployments.
The Sailors I met serving in Deveselu are extremely competent and highly motivated. I am confident that the perseverance they showed during the construction phase will continue as we move into the operational phase. I am proud of these Sailors, and appreciate all that they do on a daily basis to protect the United States and our allies. Think about them over the Christmas holidays. They are unaccompanied, away from family and friends, and keeping us safe. They have the watch…
“Consider that everything is opinion, and opinion is in thy power.” –Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Everyone is entitled to their opinion. One of the great benefits of the Information Age is that it is easier than ever to write, publish, and share one’s opinions with a wide audience.
Blogging, as we practice it today, is no longer the purview of one narrow group of individuals, nor is it geographically limited to one’s parents’ basement. With largely ubiquitous Internet access, anyone can write a blog, and anyone can read a blog. Including junior sailors.
Which is what makes the recent rhetoric coming out of Ask the Skipper disappointing. Skipper—and many others—rightfully have an opinion on processes within Naval Aviation. Skipper has placed high enough importance on this opinion that he has written about it several times (here and here and here and here).
But here is where blogging meets reality: when the junior sailors and officers of the Carrier Air Wing-in-question read his words, they are not merely considering this from a process angle. They are developing opinions on the character and leadership abilities of their future Commanding Officer.
As far as I can tell, no blogger has not reached out to the individual-in-question to hear his side of the story. No one has discussed his background and leadership at multiple levels within Naval Aviation and command. No one has considered that we owe a healthy dose of fairness to our sailors, as much as we are owed fairness in our processes.
So these opinions on a man’s character and leadership are not based on reality; they are based on process conjecture. They have gone unchecked, and tragically, if they continue to go unchecked, will undermine the readiness of a proud Carrier Air Wing. That’s a very real thing to trifle with.
To be fair, Skipper has legitimate grievances with the process by which Naval Aviation leaders are selected. Many people do. The house needs to be fixed at multiple levels, from FITREPs to detailing to strategic communications.
But when we publish our opinions, we owe our audience due diligence. And when our opinions impact real people, through no fault of their own, we owe them common courtesy, as well.
Naval Aviation is full of reasonable, level-headed men and women capable of considering an issue from multiple angles. It is also full of incredible leaders. Everyone on this year’s CAG slate is an impressive leader worthy of the full faith and loyalty of their Air Wing. Of course, they will each have to earn it—but no one should have to enter that opportunity with undeserved prejudice.
The Chief of Naval Air Forces has been roundly pilloried in the last 24 hours by the military blogging establishment. The conspiracy theories about a recent E-mail he sent to Naval Aviation leadership are at a high warble. You can read about them here and here.
OK. The ship is still in Case I, but it’s a little hazy out there. Before we do irreparable damage to our collective reputation, make a call to Tower. Let us say what we mean, and mean what we say.
Consider what we know:
- Air Boss sent a message–a “PFOR”–to leaders in Naval Aviation. Presumably, these are people he should be able to trust since they are charged with leading planes, pilots, and payloads into harm’s way.
- That message leaked outside of its original intended channel. Given our “information everywhere” environment, perhaps that was inevitable.
- The message deals with Aviation Major Command selection. Clearly, the operative section is this: “I will have the authority, if I so chose, to adjust the category for which an officer was selected. As I stated earlier, my intent is to closely follow the board’s recommendations, and only shift selected officers between categories to better manage Naval Aviation’s talent, or to address a future need/requirement or officer preference.”
So, who is the Air Boss?
Recently, a small group of junior officers (myself included) has been openly critical of the Aviation Major Command selection process. We wrote an article in Proceedings and asked pointed questions of leadership at CSIS and Tailhook.
No one has been more supportive of our efforts–throughout the process–than Vice Admiral Mike Shoemaker. He was under no obligation to be, but he considered our point of view and engaged us respectfully.
This is not to say, “Aw shucks, what a guy.” It is an anecdote that reflects his three decades of honorable service and wise counsel.
I trust the Air Boss. I trust him both as a naval officer and as the leader of our Naval Aviation Enterprise.
Though recent posts have allowed that he is a “good guy,” this sense is getting lost. If we trust the Air Boss, we should take him at his word. Under no obligation to give this word–he could have kept this to himself, and exercised truly “behind closed doors” (as has probably been happening for years already…)–he came out and communicated to his fellow leaders, which is exactly what we expect of a person in his position. Is this naivete, or is it how a professional organization of warfighters operates?
So, if we take him at his word, is it not conceivable that his new position is a reflection of last year’s almost-unprecedented burn-list of Major Commanders? Folks who had no mechanism to have their preferences heard, who instead turned down their selection in frustration?There is nothing wrong with a leader standing up and saying, “I am going to take an active role in the future of the leadership of my community.”
For the critics, considering hypotheticals is important. But safeguarding the sanctity of the process is an annual job regardless of what anyone in any position says–mine the results, consider red flags, address appropriately. Mass hysteria and finger pointing before there are even facts to dispute is not right.
We are collectively suffering from confirmation bias. We bite off on one anecdote–the rumors of last year’s AMCSB slate and the favorite leadership pariah to some–and use it to nod our heads vehemently in unison. This is just a personal guess, but I do not believe the Red Phone between SECNAV’s office in the Pentagon and CNAF’s in Coronado is used for topics of this caliber. Not knowing all of the facts about the situation, we infer comfortably–and unfortunately.
Naval Aviation has suffered a lot of bad press over the past few decades. We have too often been on the defensive. The overwhelming majority of officers did not deserve this. However, it is where we are.
But again, too often, our attempts at an offense end up being offensive. We are often so busy trying to defend ourselves from those within our own service that we end up mortgaging away that which we cherish most deeply–trust in us.
If we are going to build public trust in our processes and in our leadership, we have to debate in the open, constructively, and with respect. We must work to prove that the way we select our leaders is above reproach. This was true before any alleged “cronyism” last year, and is still true now. As this year’s AMCSB Precepts now reflect, we are making improvements.
Certainly, we should watch board results and stay engaged with the process. We should raise a red flag when blatant injustice appears. There are ways to do all of this without insinuating that the leader of our enterprise–a human being that we trust–is now a nefarious opponent. We should be leaders–not complainers.
No process is entirely fair to all people all the time. And, as the authors of “On Becoming CAG” can attest, the topic of Major Command Selection espouses sharp emotions. But we should not fear open, constructive debate about how we make those processes better. We should not fear the discussion of change just as we should not fear the defense of tradition. In fact, this makes us more credible as a community.
We are a professional organization of warfighters. We fly naval aircraft in the most austere conditions. We do so far from home, in moments of maximum danger, in defense of the land we love. This is what defines us as a community–not a board, not a FITREP, not a cushy shore tour.
Everything else is just a false indicator light.
Today, the Aviation Major Command Screen Board (AMCSB) convenes in Millington, Tennessee. It is the annual gathering to determine the future of Naval Aviation’s most promising leaders, and plays a large role in setting the strategic direction of our enterprise.
As we alluded to in our August 2015 Proceedings article “On Becoming CAG,” the fates of aspiring leaders were determined years prior to this week. FITREPs, joint jobs, and other career assignments funnel COs into competitive tracks for leadership positions, including Carrier Air Wing Commander, or CAG.
However, as the current AMCSB convenes, one troubling trend remains: Naval Aviation has gone five years since a non-VFA CAG was selected.
After publishing “On Becoming CAG,” the authors received intense positive and negative feedback about our arguments. Notably, at the annual Tailhook Reunion in Reno, Nevada this year, PERS-43 addressed the debate in an open forum (you can watch it here).
He pointed out that CAGs are responsible for the mentorship of squadron COs, with the ultimate goal of cultivating leaders who are able to replace him or her as CAG.
Reflecting on the past five years, it appears as though CAGs have failed their non-VFA Commanding Officers in this essential mentoring. All else being equal, if zero COs from outside the VFA community have been selected, we arrive at one of two conclusions:
1) VAQ, VAW, HSM, and HSC squadron COs have been inadequate leaders compared to their VFA contemporaries. If this is true, it points to a huge, unspoken problem in these communities that Naval Aviation has not addressed.
2) VAQ, VAW, HSM, and HSC squadron COs are not viewed as equally qualified leaders by CAG when FITREP time comes. If this is true, it points to a problematic culture within our ranks that Naval Aviation has not addressed.
As thousands of junior officers and Sailors will attest, we have seen many outstanding leaders from the VAQ, VAW, HSM, and HSC communities over the past five years. Conclusion #1 would seem to offend this reality.
As such, we are left with Conclusion #2, and the problem it exposes in the process of selecting carrier aviation leadership. The culture change needed in our collective Ready Room is the realization that aviation major command is about leadership; not tactical proficiency. We expect this proficiency of our junior officers and our junior officers expect leadership—both within the Air Wing and across the joint force—from their major commanders.
The ability to fly a strike mission from an F/A-18 or execute a flawless fly-by of the carrier are impressive skills, and it is true that only one community can really experience those fully. But CAG is a leader at the operational level of warfare, and the leadership required to execute at that level is not exclusive to the aviators of a single airframe. If our process for selecting CAGs is based on tactical proficiency as a proxy for promoting certain types of officers at the expense of an equally talented pool of others, that system–and the culture that underpins it–must change.
The authors believe that increasing the diversity of perspective at the CAG level will improve combat efficiency, leadership acumen within the air wing, and interoperability with the joint force. We invite you to join in the constructive debate of these issues.
Over the coming weeks, the authors will share some of the most common feedback received from “On Becoming CAG.” The most important takeaway is that people on each side of this issue care about Naval Aviation and seek to make it better.
As my father let me know early on in my life, the most important decision a man can make is the woman he marries. It wasn’t until I was much older, and well in to my own marriage, that I realized how true his observation was.
While all relationships have their own dynamic, there are some who are a benchmark – a spouse who match the greatness of the man they helped make. They are the scaffold all else was built around.
If someone is about to join another on a journey with a spouse that is serving, Sybil Stockdale is a good benchmark to use.
She has left us to join her husband after a long time away. Via the DailyMailUK;
Sybil Bailey Stockdale, a Navy wife who fought to end the torture of U.S. prisoners of war in Vietnam, has died.
Stockdale’s son, Sid Stockdale, said Tuesday that his mother died Oct. 10 at a hospital after suffering from Parkinson’s disease. She was 90.
Stockdale is the wife of the late Vice Adm. James Bond Stockdale. She found her calling after her husband’s plane was shot down during the Vietnam War in 1965 and he was taken prisoner. The U.S. government at the time discouraged military wives from speaking up about the mistreatment of the prisoners of war, Sid Stockdale said. Nonetheless, Stockdale organized military wives who demanded the U.S. government pressure North Vietnam to abide by the Geneva Convention.
Stockdale helped found the League of American Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia and she served as the organization’s first national coordinator.
She appeared on national television, met regularly with then-President Richard Nixon and confronted a North Vietnamese delegation at the Paris Peace Talks. At the same time, she worked closely with the CIA to be able to write secretly encoded letters to her husband, who was tortured by his captors.
The military credited Stockdale with helping secure the safe return of her husband and other POWs in 1973.
James Stockdale, then a commander, disfigured himself so he could not be used in Vietnamese propaganda films — an action for which he received the Medal of Honor in 1976, according to the Navy Times.
Sen. John McCain, a naval aviator, was a fellow POW in the Hanoi Hilton with Stockdale’s husband.
“Sybil’s selfless service and sacrifice fighting for American prisoners of war, those missing in action, and many who are still unaccounted for has left an indelible mark on this nation that will never be forgotten” McCain said in a statement to the newspaper.
To know the full background on what this incredible woman did in a challenging time, I highly recommend you get a copy of the book, In Love and War: The Story of a Family’s Ordeal and Sacrifice During the Vietnam Years;
“I think the book’s message was to recognize that there’s a place and time and need to be loyal and recognize the military is a unique institution with a big job to do, but then at the end of the day, it’s very important if you feel as though you need to speak up, then you should do so. I think it’s a fantastic message,” he said.
Her papers and memoirs from the Vietnam era, written in long hand on yellow legal pads, today are kept at the Hoover library.
Until the end, she continued to meet at her home monthly in Coronado with the wives of POWs and those missing in action.
A memorial service will be held for Stockdale in Coronado and she will be buried beside her husband on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
We all benefited for her love and passion for her husband, her Navy, and her nation.
During the period of August 17-21, a short informal survey querying desire for command was promulgated by junior officer across junior officer forums. When the survey closed on the 21st, we had collected 442 responses, from all of the unrestricted line communities, plus many more. We found that of the survey respondents, 53% did not desire command, 23% did desire command, and another 23% were unsure. These results anecdotally validate our hypothesis that fewer than half of today’s junior officers seek command. In the unrestricted line communities, where we had enough responses to draw some conclusions from our data, we found that while men and women desired command at approximately the same rate, that rate was not uniform across communities. In the Surface Warfare Community, 33% of respondents desired command, while only 13% of Aviators and 14% of Submariners did.
We promulgated our five survey questions via the US Naval Institute Blog, the JOPA Facebook page, the Female Navy Officers’ Facebook page, and our own personal accounts. The survey was available online for four business days.
This survey serves as a baseline, and is not sufficient to analyze trends. Additionally, the survey methodology does not guarantee an unbiased respondent population; it is likely that we are seeing a response bias in favor of those with strong opinions about the likelihood of their continued service. We do hope that these results will serve to help gauge the current climate amongst the JO corps.
A few questions for discussion:
- Are these numbers actually a problem?
- Junior officers tend to be instructed that they should aspire to command. Do these numbers indicate a disconnect between the institutional expectation of command aspiration and the reality?
- Should we “do something” about the aviation community’s apparent lack of desire for command? If so, what?
- What other questions should we ask in future surveys?
- Is there a place in the Navy for those who desire continued service, but don’t aspire to command?
We found that the responses we received from our 442 survey-takers were extremely thoughtful. Most respondents wrote us at least a paragraph; some wrote several. We have curated a representative sample below:
Any other reason to stay in is wasting my time. If I stay in, then I stay in for the whole deal. Too much time away from my family to just sluff off and not add value to my community, get an opportunity to lead a squadron into combat, set my expectations for leadership and mentorship within the squadron. I like that it is very hard to get to be a skipper, it makes me want to be the best and eventually (if the almighty timing is right) get selected for command.
In my limited 6 years of submarine service, I have had both good and bad leaders (Dept Head and above). When I was leaving my last submarine, I had a check out interview with my CO. I asked one final question before shaking his hand and walking off the ship: “Sir, has your command tour been worth it?” He responded, “I always thought that being a CO would be very tactical, but I am often surprised that tactics in today’s navy make up a smaller percentage of the job. I often have to take a moment to look past the fact that I am mostly getting the ship ready for inspections and evaluations to I realize that I am afforded the opportunity to go on deployment and do what we constantly train to do. In those moments, I feel very satisfied. I was somewhat shocked to find out that my CO (a great CO by the way) had the same perspective as that of a Junior Officer. It was at this moment that I aspired to be a CO and could possibly do his job someday.
It’s an exciting time for the SWO community – where we’re placing an emphasis on talent, tactics, innovation, options, work-life balance, and FUN! I want to mentor JOs and help change SWO culture for the better.
You don’t spend a career as a SWO to execute someone else’s command philosophy.
I love working with Sailors. I’ve served under two amazing Captains and an amazing Executive Officer now moving on to CDR command of his own. Their mentorship, guidance, and leadership have been inspiring and refreshing in a sometimes negative climate/community.
All the pain and suffering up until command is the investment that pays off when you’re sitting on the bridge wing of your own ship watching the sunset. Not striving for command wastes all of the effort that comes before. I’m in it to win it! — NOTE: No interest in Flag.
I can think of no better test of my personal will, creativity, character, and moral courage than to command an operational squadron. The number of people and value of the mission make it a task that seems immensely daunting but equally rewarding.
Command at sea is the pinnacle of the leadership challenges that the Navy offers to me as a Surface Warfare Officer. At no other point in my career do I have the enormous responsibility that command at sea requires. I am responsible for the ship and its most important asset, the Sailors and Marines that serve aboard the ship. I chose to continue serving in the Navy because of the incredible leadership opportunities that this job presents to those lucky enough to have the honor of command.
My happiest moments in the Navy are building successful teams. No better way to do that then be a CO. Because I’d like to change and be a positive leader. Especially for so many enlisted females that we have, I’ve never had a female DH, much less female CO and I think it is important for our sailors to see both
I desire the opportunity to test my leadership and decision making capability in a harsh, remote environment. I believe in our mission and am committed to leading our country’s brightest men and women to achieve victory in battle.
I aspire to only early command, and want no part of CDR command or major command. Command is not what it used to be, and I do not want to be second guessed on every single decision I would make as CO. As with many things in the SWO community, I believe a mentality shift would be required away from our zero-defect and administrative warfare obsessions before I would put any serious thought into CDR command or higher.
I desire to have the ultimate responsibility for a ship, her crew, to craft her into state of readiness that reflects my standards, and to slip the lines, sail over the horizon to do our job. I love Sailors, I love the pressure, I’ve thrived on the competitiveness required in getting to the precipice of command, and I think there’s something supremely traditional about command at sea; I think across all warfare areas, commanding a ship at sea reflects the core warrior ethos of the American Navy.Did I always want command? No, I didn’t as a division officer. Not at all. However, once I made a decision to be a department head and really began to thrive professionally, my heart changed. I think if you’re committed to your profession, and for me, I’m a professional mariner-Surface Warfare Officer, then why wouldn’t you aspire to have the opportunity to do things your way, change it up, apply your standard, train a ship how you see fit, sail a ship down range under your guidance to fight and win? If you haven’t committed to a career, then I get it—I didn’t aspire to command at that point. But if you’re in for the long haul, why wouldn’t you? I speak strictly as a straight-stick SWO; I acknowledge there are alternative career paths.
It seems every O-4 and O-5 I’ve worked for is chained to a desk and email. I have yet to talk to LCDR that said they actually enjoyed their job.
Politicization of the officer corps and the loss of reality that comes with it.
Our department heads are miserable and we are taught that the only way to make CO is to follow the Golden Path, a path that no one actually wants to take. The amount of time we waste at work to “show face” is absurd. Most of our “work” on days when we are not event planning or flying could be accomplished in two hours, but we stay at work all day so that we can be “seen” because in the long run this is what influences your fitrep. I just feel that so much time and talent is being wasted at the JO level and that the job is not what we all thought it would be.
The challenging nature of the job has been lost; furthermore, I have spent enough time away from family. I performed the last 6 months of my DIVO tour essentially performing a DH job. I lost the enjoyment in the job and I do not want to spend 2 years performing that job. I explored other communities, but the ones of interest won’t allow me to lateral transfer into them, even though I am in most cases qualified if not overqualified with schooling.
Because it seems the number one goal of COs these days is to NOT get fired. Everywhere you look there is some ridiculous reason why a CO is getting fired. Publicly elected officials and political appointees are held less accountable for their actions. I joined the military to join the military, not to work on the Hill or in politics. Command should not be viewed or held equal as to someone in politics. We don’t “elect” our COs. Firing COs don’t solve the problems for certain issues. Their job is to make sure the job gets done. If the Commodore or Admiral didn’t personally select them for command of a ship or boat in their squadron, then they should fire themselves. There is WAY too much overhead in the Navy and an organizational structure that is in place right now within the Navy would never last or even be put into place within a corporate environment. It also seems that the overhead takes the wind out of sails of CO to actually take command and run the ship how they want to run it. Within the first 6 months as an Ensign onboard a DDG, I knew that I had zero aspirations to shoot for Command at Sea. The COs I’ve had just seemed like puppets vice leaders.
There was a time when I would have served the Navy for no compensation at all and now seeing the models that I have to follow of “look better than the next guy” and DH’s who use you and your work as a stepping stone whilst slandering your name for not being as good as they are, I have little interest in playing a game to stay on a golden path instead of doing something I love. Think I’m being melodramatic? Observe, if you will, your DH’s when FITREPs are rounding the corner and also then note the number of JO’s that don’t have a DH living inside their behinds. How could command ever seem appealing when I would apparently have to make up things to do to appear busier than the next guy as a stepping stone to the next job and where I’ve got to monkey around instead of focusing on how to actually be good at something useful, meaningful, and important for my growth as a naval officer? Admittedly, many JO’S of my generation tend to expect success to fall into their laps but I believe it’s because we don’t have the right kind of mentorship, someone to clone good habits into us. What we do have are entitled and jaded O-4’s and O-5’s that just want you to know they’ve been there/done that already without considering that young JO’s will emulate that same attitude which in turn only inspires the people who want to step on the next stone to command without considering the magnitude of the responsibility to people other than yourself and your career. This path is just extremely unappealing and just sucks the enjoyment out of what I once thought would be a really satisfying job.
I feel as though CO’s are always needing to “look over their shoulder.” CO’s fear getting fired for “poor command climate” or worse, collision at sea. I feel like if I were to take Command at Sea, I would need to literally live on the bridge to ensure that if anything happened, I felt I did everything possible to not get fired. I do however, feel like I would love to take command of a Small Boat Unit, ACU or something “non-due-course.” This is not what the Navy wants from its SWO’s though. And I think that is a real issue with the SWO community. There needs to be other options for SWO’s that don’t necessarily want to take command of a warship, but still want to continue their career in the Navy.
Transitioning to civilian work force and spending time with family. Tired of moving every 2 to 3 years; Doing more with less; Inability to tell Chain of Command that we can not accomplish a mission or project without the fear of getting fired; Big Navy saying “Taking Care of Sailors”, when it is all lip service; Right sizing or down sizing, or what every catchy phrase they dream up that utilizes the slash and burn technique vice targeting the Sailors who really are not doing anything for the Navy vice your star performers; Navy not getting ride of more E7-E9 personnel that are underperforming; Get ride of CMDC rating, they have become bureaucrats and have lost touch with deck plate issues; The ugly and uncomfortable NWU’s that make us the circus clowns of the DOD; The crappy PT uniform; Intrusive leadership, I really don’t want to know or care if a 21 year old Sailor is out drinking at 2 AM, they are adults and such be treated like it. Sorry for rattling on. Some of these items are trivial, but I was on a roll.
Someone in the comments said a piece of it best… It’s not (necessarily) that I don’t aspire to be a CO, it’s that I don’t want to grind in the bureaucracy to get there.
1- we are required to change duty stations and jobs almost every 2 years
2- we package crap jobs with the best (IA/GSA to Bahrain, get xxxxx job) so performance doesn’t help me get the best job, no one wants does.
3- we’ve become a “GS” mentality Navy. Instead of working to get a job done, the vast majority of commands require their personnel to be present during certain hours, regardless of op-tempo, duty, deployment schedule, etc. As a Suppo, I’m busier at the end of the month, so I stay late then- why must I keep my folks until 1600 at the beginning regardless of workload, etc.
4- training – NKOs and training have literally wasted HUNDREDS of hours of my life. They do NOTHING to stop criminals, rapists, sexual assault, computer hacks, etc.
5- stop being zero fault… Everyone screws things up. Not everything has to go into the system, or people’s personal records. You can teach and most great sailors by mentorship and LEADERSHIP, vs using njp, drb, xoi, etc.
6- Evals/fitrep system is COMPLETELY broken. EACH CYCLE is and should be independent of the previous one, and have nothing to do with it. “Progressing” and “improved superior performance” is crap. If I’m the best, and I leave one command and go to another- odds are, I’m the best there. Why do I have to come in as an MP so I can progress to an EP?! And if someone who’s been at the command longer than me was “pretty good” before I got to the command and was the EP, why is his career crushed, if I get an EP he moves down to an MP? EVERY CYCLE IS SEPARATE from the one before.
7- stop being risk averse. Let people make decisions and mess things up. Let JOs speak out at meetings, and question decisions… In the end, the CO is going to make the decision, but we have become a navy of “yes men,” and if I speak up, KNOWING I’m right, it doesn’t matter. “HEAD DOWN, MOUTH SHUT-PROMOTE”.
Complete a technical PhD outside the Navy, on my own terms, own time, and take control of my career.
Why leave? We are less about warfighting and more about the sanctification of the bureaucracy, careerism and political manipulation at the highest levels of government, and increasingly delusional about the reality and nature of today’s threats. Commanders do not command anymore – they are simply cogs in a greater machine, and when they get squeaky or deviant, are either smashed back into place or replaced altogether. Perhaps when we lose a few ships and subs in some yet unforeseen calamitous conflict, the Navy will rediscover it’s gritty purpose. Until then, not interested in playing full time! Two days per month will do it for me.
Does not look like any of my three COs were having any fun. Angry, plagued by so many regulations and directives that their hands are tied when it comes to being able to make decisions that actually affect people in any positive way. Submarine COs are no longer, and have not been for some time, the maverick independent actors given wide latitude in judgement – they feel the heavy hand of a cautious, risk-averse bureaucracy every day and night.
The Navy has a system set up for officers that essentially forces everyone who stays in long enough to lead more and more people and eventually lead an entire command. “Force” isn’t really the right word since if you do not show forward progression by leading more and more people as you progress through to the O-3 ranks, then you will not get promoted to O-4 and get booted out of the Navy. The Navy has to realize that not everyone who join the officer corps are meant to be leaders. Some can lead small teams but will fail when they are in charge of a larger group. Some have no desire to lead but instead want to spend their time as operators. The Navy has to be willing to accommodate different people’s character traits. If someone starts off their Naval career as an extraordinary operator, whether it’d be operating keyboards for a computer network operation, or standing engineering officer of the watch on a nuclear submarine, they should be allowed to remain at that level. Imagine how good they would be if that’s all they ever did and that’s all they ever wanted to do? Leadership and command isn’t for everyone and the career pipeline shouldn’t be catered specifically towards that. They should be given the option to stall at a certain level and have a successful and fulfilling 20 year career doing what they love. It’s unfortunate, the Navy will lose a lot of good talent to private industry due to the way the current system is set up.
I’m not sure
I started my career as a submarine officer and command was clearly not my goal because I was fortunate enough to transition into a career in medicine. I stayed in the Navy to pay for school and I enjoy the sailors in the Navy and would like to serve them. Aspiring to be the skipper of my own submarine didn’t interest me because it’s an extreme sacrifice of your time and life for a mission that wasn’t particularly rewarding. Driving boats and going on deployment for me didn’t justify the strain it puts on a family. It’s difficult to not sound bitchy talking about this because the overwhelming sentiment during my time on a fast attack was negativity. Alcoholism was a major problem for officers and enlisted alike, it was a toxic environment to be in. Some guys really liked being on a submarine, it’s certainly unique and the enlisted sailors on subs are generally great people who for one reason or another ended up enlisting instead of finishing college. For me I realized that the submarine force is just a job, and it’s a ****ty one. When you deploy you can’t communicate at all with home for months at a time, the work you are doing is usually tedious and is dictated to the letter by rules and regulations, and it’s thankless. Outperforming your peers meant you got more responsibility while the ****bags got less, and that doesn’t translate into better pay or faster promotions or a bigger bonus, just better fitters, maybe a medal, and eventually screen for rank and put it on a little faster. If you’re competent and work hard you can be infinitely more successful elsewhere, have a better family life, make more money, do work that is rewarding and maybe even helps others. That’s obviously specific to my own aspirations but I know a lot of guys who share that sentiment. The Navy is good at dangling a carrot for people and convincing them they have it good.
Too much guide by wire from upper echelons. Command by negation is nearly extinct in the surface fleet. Rather than reading the DIMs and executing smartly, we have Chat terminals and Voice over IP phones at every command and control station- including next to the CO’s chair on the Bridge – so his boss can take him in close control and essentially assume command authority instead of relying on him to execute IAW the “special trust and confidence” commensurate with his position of authority. I may stay for Command, but it would take a drastic change in culture to move back to trusting your subordinates… In our increasingly connected world and reliance on technology to execute C2 and avoid risk at any cost, I don’t think we’ll get there before I’m in the right-hand seat.
Recently, partnering with CSIS and USNI, Naval Aviation leadership hit the streets to talk about the future of manned and unmanned aviation. With Tailhook on the horizon, and fundamental debates happening throughout the Fleet, we need constructive writing on the course of both people and platforms in Naval Aviation.
From 14-18 September (after you’re rested from either participating in or following the Twitter feeds of Tailhook attendees), the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC) will be hosting a “Future of Naval Aviation” Week. Below are the particulars, cross-posted from their NextWar blog:
Week Dates: 14-18 Sept 15
Articles Due: 9 Sept 15
Article Length: 500-1500 Words
Submit to: nextwar(at)cimsec(dot)org
Back in January, CAPT Jerry Hendrix (USN, Ret) and CDR Bryan McGrath (USN, Ret) had a stirring debate on the future of Aircraft Carriers. However, the debate quickly shifted from the carrier itself to the nature of the airwing it carried. Indeed, the carrier is nothing more than a host for the platforms provided by naval aviation – and only one of many ships that can carry aviation assets.
That discussion, driving into the world of the carrier air wing, was the inspiration for this week of discussion on naval aviation in general. From the maritime patrol aircraft deployed from the reclaimed Chinese reefs in the South China Sea, to US Army Apaches operating from amphibious assault ships, to 3-D printed drones flown off a Royal Navy offshore patrol vessel, to manned and unmanned ideas for the carrier air wing as carriers proliferate around the Pacific -we want your ideas and observations on where global naval aviation will and can go next.
How will the littoral navies of the world change with new, lower-cost unmanned aviation assets? Are carriers armed with legions of long-range unmanned drones the future for global powers – will these technologies exponentially increase the importance of smaller carriers – or is unmanned technology a limited path that may be resisted (rightfully?) by pilots and their communities? Will surface fleets embrace the potential from easily produced drone swarms deployed from ships of the line… should they? What is the future of land-based naval aviation? What innovations will be ignored, what will be embraced, and what will the air assets of future fleets around the world look like? What will the institutions, the leadership, and C2 structures that support all these assets of their varied nations look like? The topic is purposefully broad to bring forward a myriad of topics and inspire future topic weeks on more specific subjects.
Contributions should be between 500 and 1500 words in length and submitted no later than 9 September 2015. Publication reviews will also be accepted. This project will be co-edited by LT Wick Hobson (USN) and, as always, Sally DeBoer from our editorial pool.
We are part of the CNO’s Rapid Innovation Cell, a group of junior personnel charged to bring rapid prototypes and emerging technology to the fleet. Part of the job is acting as agents for innovation, and as a result, we meet with organizations in the civilian world and government who are pushing boundaries, building new tools, and making the tech of tomorrow a reality today. When we visit new companies and organizations, we try to capture the principles and characteristics that make them effective.
On our most recent trip we visited Scaled Composites, a small aerospace engineering company based in Mojave, California that produces custom aircraft from concept to flight. Our key takeaway was that the company’s value proposition is built on a passion for aviation, and using bold materials and groundbreaking design engineering to overcome technical challenges. This has been the company’s passion since the beginning, resulting in a number of innovative projects, including winning the $10 million Ansari X-Prize in 2004 for a suborbital space flight in SpaceShipOne, the first privately built manned spacecraft. We liked that they do not limit themselves to traditional aircraft designs and construction techniques, as shown by one of their ongoing projects, the StratoLauncher. Designed to launch a payload into low earth orbit with more flexibility than traditional launch systems StratoLauncher will be the biggest airplane ever built.
From the beginning, it was clear that we were dealing with something different. We met the President of the company, Kevin Mickey, early on a workday, and most of us didn’t realize who we were talking to, until he passed out his business card and showed us a company overview slideshow with his title on it. The contrast to our own naval culture was readily apparent. There was no entourage, no aide or executive assistant hovering around to serve his every need, and he insisted on talking on a first name basis, making us feel completely at home.
After an hour-long discussion on the company, its mission and culture, and how they are pushing the limits of aircraft material and design, we toured the factory floor and saw their unique corporate culture in action. The company’s corporate values showed through, from Kevin knowing his employees by first name and greeting every one we passed, to the close working relationships and collaboration we saw between the shop workers and engineers. This was clearly a company that places its people first, in pursuit of solving big technical challenges.
Walking the floor and observing the manufacturing process, the group asked whether given the name, the company and its employees had a special passion for building with composites. Surprisingly, the answer was no. The materials used by Scaled Composites are actually conventional in the world of composite engineering. The company uses composites for the simple reason that building with them is the quickest pathway from design to flight, and allows rapid progress in short timelines.
Mojave is a desolate place. The town is dry, windswept, and has a population of fewer than 4,000. Scaled Composites attracts employees by giving them interesting problems to solve, and keeps them by continuing to challenge them with rewarding projects. Of the 550 employees in the company, over 60% are pilots themselves, and work on aircraft as a hobby. After building and fling aircraft all day, it is very common for employees to then go home and continue building and flying their own personal projects. Project teams are purpose-built around customer problems, and deliberately small and collaborative. There is a large amount of latitude for individual employees, based on a trust that they are trying their best to work for the company and to deliver a high quality product for the customer.
The company’s management exists to keep barriers away from the employees on the factory floor doing the actual work of the company, and serving the needs of its people, in order to put out a better product, more quickly. An interesting concept we discussed was the idea of the company being successful because of all the things it is not doing. This includes eliminating unnecessary process and oversight, preventing too much of an employee’s time from being spent in meetings, and undue reporting requirements to the corporate management. They quickly get rid of anything that gets in the way of employees designing and building aircraft.
In discussing oversight, questions of risk tolerance and failure came up. Kevin related that in building inventive aircraft and in providing latitude to engineers and floor workers, failure does occur. But what differentiates them from traditional development processes in, say, the government, is that they focus not on elimination of failure, but rather on ensuring they fail early in a project, and for the right reasons. An honest mistake is not punished, with the idea that an employee who makes a mistake for the right reasons is actually very unlikely to fail that way again. Negligence can’t be tolerated, but whole-scale risk aversion is toxic for a group. A key reminder for us was that if progress is going to be made, a healthy culture of risk tolerance is critical. At Scaled Composites, the atmosphere is anything but “zero defect.”
Overall, what lessons did we learn, and how can we in the Navy and Marine Corps apply them? This is an interesting question, since Scaled Composites is a for-profit company, with a mission of financial gain through deliverance of the best product it can. Meanwhile the military exists to win our nation’s wars, without a commercial profit motive. But there is one overriding commonality we observed: in both of these seemingly disparate missions, the people should come first. If you encourage a culture that questions boundaries, provides an intellectual challenge, is willing to reward boldness and even encourages failure in the pursuit of overcoming challenges, you attract and develop the kinds of people who dare to fail and drive outsized success when they win. This culture develops boldness, creativity and audacity that lead to considering more and bigger ideas, and cultivates people willing to try these ideas. As a result of this focus on people, Scaled Composites has been able to deliver a consistently high level of quality and breadth of products. For a military organization, a focus on people will result in enlisted and officers who aren’t afraid to act boldly and accept risk in accomplishing a mission. This will enable the capability and capacity to ensure we are building combat-ready forces in peacetime in order to win decisively in times of conflict.
In the military, we put our people first. Said another way, our people are the most important tool for winning wars, ideas are next, and the technology we use serves both. This is an oft-repeated paradigm, and while we aren’t perfect in following it, it has been proven true time and time again, throughout history. We must ensure we keep this focus. Wars are won by commanders with the vision and boldness to make hard decisions, and by Sailors, Airmen, Soldiers and Marines with the courage to carry those actions out. This paradigm is hardly unique to the military however, and we can learn much from people and organizations outside the DoD who share this commitment. In Scaled Composites, we saw just that. The company’s bold vision, failure tolerant and risk accepting culture attracts, and more importantly, develops and retains the type of employees who are comfortable with risk. Inculcated in a “dream big” culture, employees are encouraged to think boldly and pursue radical ideas. From this milieu of people and ideas, new technologies and airplanes are born, with many failures, but with enough successes that the company remains on the leading edge of the aeronautical field. The big successes that have put the company on the map, such as introducing manned spaceflight to the private market, are a testament to the philosophy of supporting and challenging their people. Scaled Composites is a model that is hard to ignore, and a valuable example to the Navy.