Archive for the 'Aviation' Category

furious_and_camelsLast week we saw the 75th Pearl Harbor Day pass us by. There are libraries full of books about how it should not have been a surprise. Some of the examples given as to why it was not an “unknown” threat can be attributed from the Japanese history of surprise attacks from the sea, to the example of the British attack on the Italian Fleet 13 months earlier in Taranto.

Even before then – if you were looking (and many were) – the direction towards the aircraft carrier being used to negate power ashore was already set.

On a summer day in July of 1918, seven Sopwith Camel took off from the proto-CV HMS FURIOUS for the Zeppelin sheds in what was then Tondern, Germany.

The only thing between that day and a beautiful Sunday morning 23 years later was time and the progress of technology.

Today, there is a lot of speculation of how our Navy should progress with unmanned systems as the experience with the MQ-25 Stingray (AKA CBARS or Carrier-Based Aerial Refueling System) grows.

This isn’t the start of unmanned systems, not even close. In one way or another, we have been doing this for decades. The post 2001 Long War requirements have upped the progress. CBARS is just another chapter in that – or will be once we start deploying with it.

As we started this post with the British, let’s return to them to make the point. I would highly recommend a read of the British Ministry of Defence aircraft statistics during operations in Afghanistan, or as they call it – Op HERRICK .

– Harriers were used in Afghanistan from 2004 to 2009, when they were withdrawn from service and replaced by Tornados, which were used up to the end of Op HERRICK. Harrier and Tornado flew more than 56,000 hours in total, averaging about 500 hours per month between 2007 and 2013.
– Reaper was introduced in Afghanistan in 2007. Unlike Harrier and Tornado, Reaper is remotely piloted and is primarily tasked in an Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance role, but also has an armed capability. Reaper’s annual flying hours steadily increased between its introduction in 2007 and 2011, due to a staged increase in Reaper platforms arriving in Theatre and the subsequent increase in missions flown. Reaper flew more than 71,000 hours in total, averaging just over 1,000 hours per month in 2011 and 2012. This increased in 2013 and 2014.
– … Hermes aircraft flew over 85,000 hours in Afghanistan in total, and the Desert Hawks more than 18,000 hours.

Look at those numbers again.

For the more visually minded, I offer to you these two graphs from our friends over at ThinkDefence;

All caveats apply about bandwidth, air supremacy, electromagnetic dominance, etc … but still – this is what it is.

Look at it close. Ponder; what next?

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (June 11, 2016) -- Tug boats maneuver Pre-Commissioning Unit Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78), into the James River during the ship's Turn Ship evolution. This is a major milestone that brings the country's newest aircraft carrier another step closer to delivery and commissioning later this year. (Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Cathrine Mae O. Campbell)

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (June 11, 2016) — Tug boats maneuver Pre-Commissioning Unit Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78), into the James River during the ship’s Turn Ship evolution. This is a major milestone that brings the country’s newest aircraft carrier another step closer to delivery and commissioning later this year. (Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Cathrine Mae O. Campbell)

Consider for a few moments two benchmark facts.

1. Aircraft Carriers are the premier capital ship in our navy and for navies throughout the world. Sorry submarine bubbas, it’s true.
2. By the time he leaves office, SECNAV Mabus will have been on the job roughly eight years.

Mid-month, SECNAV put out this rather remarkable comment;

“The Ford is a textbook example of how not to build a ship,” Ford told reporters. “(We were) building it while it’s still being designed” — which results in costly do-overs of already-finished components — “(and) trying to force too much new and unproven technology on it” — whose teething troubles result in unplanned delays and costs.

“That was already on fire when I got in,” said Mabus, who became Navy Secretary the year the Ford’s keel was laid. “But we’ve stopped the cost growth.” The carrier’s schedule is still slipping, however, with a November delivery to the fleet postponed indefinitely due to problems in the Main Turbine Generators (MTG).

Mabus is correct. He did not conceive this baby, but it has been his responsibility to raise it. I am sure his comments are informed from what he has been briefed on via the review our Sam reported on back in August, or what led up to the review.

How could we have such a screwed up program for the crown jewel of our navy? The premier capital ship in the world’s premier navy? For regular readers, this will come as no shock; spawn of the Cult of Transformationalism that abandoned the evolutionary for the revolutionary.

FORD sprouts from the same intellectual well that LCS and DDG-1000 do. The Transformationalists decided that they could just wish aside centuries of experience on how to modernize a fleet. By their own confidence in their own self-perceived brilliance – compounding risk; technology, budgetary, programmatic, etc – none of those problems would be theirs.

I was hoping the issues with FORD would be a focus on itself, but then things got a bit strange. Mabus quickly pivoted and started to defend what almost all agree is a snake-bitTtransformationalist flop, LCS;

Isn’t LCS also a textbook example of a troubled ship program, I asked Mabus, for much the same reasons as Ford?

“No,” said Mabus. LCS is more an example of typical teething troubles on a new design, he argued.

“Every time you start a new class of ship…you’re going to have issues,” he said. “LCS gets a lot of attention, but during the first deployment of an LCS to Singapore…it was ready for sea more than the (US) Pacific Fleet average.”

“It’s got a lot of attention mainly because it looks different,” Mabus said. “It is a different kind of ship.”

Ummmm, no. FREEDOM Class does not look all that different, and eight years after the commissioning of HULL-1, “new class of ship” excuses for the cascading failures no longer applies. INDEPENDENCE looked different a decade ago. We’re used to it now. Then again, he has a lot of personal capital invested in LCS, so one would expect a bit of a blinkered view.

Why do two programs with similar troubles get such a different reaction from Mabus? It’s especially striking because the carrier program matters much more to naval traditionalists, who often disdain the relatively tiny and lightly armed LCS. But throughout Mabus’s seven years in office — the longest tenure of a Navy Secretary since World War I — he’s measured his success in terms of numbers of ships.

From 2001 to 2008, Mabus said today (as he says in every speech he makes) the US Navy fell from 316 ships to 278 and put only 41 new ships on contract. In the seven years since 2009, Mabus has contracted for 86.

“Quantity has a quality all of its own,” Mabus said — and you don’t get quantity without a small ship cheap enough to build in bulk. In the face of two skeptical Defense Secretaries and sometimes bitter criticism from Congress, Mabus’s commitment to LCS explains a lot about its survival

Perhaps it would be unkind to state that we have been engaged all month in littoral combat off of Yemen, but no one in their right mind wants a LCS anywhere near that coastline.

Perhaps it is best to leave that there so we don’t wander in to another LCS post. Let’s stick to the FORD issue.

If I may be self-indulgent a bit; when we few, we happy few anti-Transformationalists began tilting against the Transformationalist series of ships that came before FORD; LPD-17, LCS, DDG-1000 – from titanium fire mains to NLOS, one of our primary critiques was a cavalier view towards technology risk. It is great to see that, in his own way, Mabus is on the same page of the hymnal with us now.

Speaking Thursday with the massive carrier in the background, Mabus said, “I think we’re a long ways down that road” to fixing the power-generation issue.

He gave a similar assessment of the advanced arresting gear (AAG), which has been installed on the Ford but is still being tested.

The Navy is studying whether to continue with AAG on the next Ford-class carrier, the John F. Kennedy, which is under construction at the shipyard and about 23 percent complete.

“Everything that has been brought up lately, we have been looking at for years, and testing for years,” he said.

Kendall ordered a review of the Ford program, which is now under way and should be complete by December. Until all concerns are resolved, Mabus said he can’t specify a delivery date.

“As soon as it’s ready,” he said. “I’m not going to give you a date. But the testing is going well. Getting to the root cause of the generator problem is going well.”

He also reiterated an oft-stated observation: that the Ford suffers from a decision made more than a decade ago to pack new technology on the ship instead of phasing in new systems over three ships.

“It’s not the shipyard,” he said. “It was us doing this to them.”

How bad is the AAG issue?

The ship’s Advanced Arresting Gear (AAG) is more problematic, and “has had significant delays in completing its land-based test program due to the technical challenges encountered in transitioning from design” through final testing, Mabus reported. Other Navy sources report dozens of roll-through tests have been conducted with the AAG at the Navy’s test facility in Lakehurst, New Jersey, but to date no true arrested landings have been accomplished.

Mabus noted that the Navy is reviewing whether to continue with AAG installation on the Enterprise (CVN 80), third ship in the class, or return to the standard Mark 7 aircraft recovery system operating on all current carriers. Installation of AAG on the second ship, John F. Kennedy (CVN 79), is continuing for now, Mabus noted, because design and construction work has progressed to the point where a replacement would have a significantly negative impact on costs and schedule.

That bad.

Less of a Transformationalist problem, LPD-17 has been made useful with the extra Sailor sweat and seabags of money prescribed to fix her. LCS and DDG-1000 are what they are, but there was great hope that we would somehow get FORD right. That we would be lucky and good – looks like we were neither.

I think everyone understands technology risk as a factor described above, but what is programmatic risk? Part of programmatic risk is just that; as the DDG-1000 people will tell you, if you are too much of a burden your program will be cancelled. You also can become your own parody. In doing so, you open the door for those who want to do things with that money and effort – specifically the likes of our friend Jerry Hendrix;

The first move of a new presidential administration will not be to “cancel any of these programs but we’ve shown it is possible to make significant changes in short time,” said Jerry Hendrix, one of the report’s authors and a senior fellow at the Washington-based think tank.

“We want to stir the debate.” he added.

The proposal was first reported by The Washington Post.

Most notably, the report calls for canceling the $40 billion Ford-class aircraft carrier program, halting construction of the littoral combat ship, and purchasing fewer F-35 Joint Strike Fighters.

Those funds would be reallocated for the stealthy B-21 bomber, adding 16 additional submarines, and investing in emerging technologies like high-energy lasers, the CNAS report recommends.

Combine the latest news with FORD and the bitter fruits of the Light Attack Mafia’s bureaucratic victories in the 1990s and early 2000s, and you give other ideas room go grow. You can get the full report here.

The 2020s will be, how do the Chinese put it? Interesting.

U.S. aircraft deliver relief supplies to the airport in Port-au-Prince, Haiti in January 2010. UN Photo/Logan Abassi

U.S. aircraft deliver relief supplies to the congested airport in
Port-au-Prince, Haiti in January 2010. UN Photo/Logan Abassi

During the earthquake tragedy in Haiti, American aid planes often circled Haiti’s sole open runway for hours. How is this possible for a nation on an island? Would rapid revival of the seaplane capabilities perfected by the United States decades ago, materially improve such situations? And could seaplane technology be a force multiplier aligned with advances in stealthy, electrically-powered “E-Planes”, some of which could be airborne almost indefinitely?

In an era which prizes cost-effectiveness, emphasis on the coastal and littoral, and the innovative use of smaller, lighter forces, perhaps seaplane usage merits a review. Today, other maritime nations, and nations with maritime aspirations – such as Russia, China, Japan, Germany and Canada – each have impressive seaplane or amphibious aircraft programs underway. Even Iran has displayed maneuvers with numerous small indigenous military seaplanes, albeit their capabilities are uncertain.

For humanitarian and political situations such as Haiti and Japan, seaplanes could be uniquely capable of delivering large amounts of aid to earthquake, hurricane and tsunami victims, as well as rescuing survivors. This would be “showing the flag” in very productive way, and most importantly, delivering help speedily and efficiently. For purely military considerations, seaplanes can address urgent needs in coastal warfare, port security, maritime patrol, cyber warfare and decentralized “swarm” defense and attack.

Martin P6M SeaMaster with beaching gear in 1958. Naval Institute photo archive

Martin P6M SeaMaster testing beaching gear in Baltimore, Maryland in 1958. Naval Institute photo archive

A seaplane future is not merely hypothetical; many components were tangibly produced by the late 1950s, and some of the planes were in early series production and operational.[1] The main flying components of that force were the Martin Seamaster strike aircraft, the Convair Tradewind transport and tanker, and the Convair Sea Dart fighter. In addition to Navy use, both the Air Force, and Coast Guard had admirable records employing seaplanes after WWII. Airplanes such as the Grumman Hu-16 Albatross were not only “tri-service” but sometimes “tri-phibian” with land, sea, and “frozen-sea” – i.e. ski – versions.

By the late 1960s however, these and other major U.S. seaplane programs were canceled, and the seaplane was sunk without a trace from U.S. Navy service. And so the era ended. But should it? Recent advances in computerized design and composite aircraft construction, and discussions of rising sea levels, again pose the question – is there room in U.S. military and civilian doctrine and budget for a small but effective force of multi-role, long-range seaplanes?

Seaplanes, “E-planes”, and submarines may in fact be powerful cross-multipliers of force. The modern submarine’s almost unlimited capability for electrical generation and water electrolysis could provide indefinite fuel for stealth electrical or fuel cell engines of manned or unmanned sea planes and drones. Similarly, high-persistence sea planes could be the disposable, semi-autonomous eyes, ears, and delivery/retrieval platforms of submarines submerged many miles away. Perhaps most importantly, seaplanes could augment the recent increased national emphasis on cyber defense. Standing patrols would help address not just domestic cyber threats per-se, but the entire spectrum of offshore cyber, radio, electronic and electromagnetic threats. And they could ensure that such defense is not merely optimized for the Navy’s own networks and systems – vital as this is – but that it can efficiently protect American civilian assets with an effective deterrence and response – keeping these electronic and tangible “rogue waves” far from our shorelines.

Japanese ShinMaywa US-2 seaplane used for air-sea rescue. Image courtesy Wikipedia/Toshiro Aoki

Japanese ShinMaywa US-2 seaplane used for air-sea rescue. Image courtesy Wikipedia/Toshiro Aoki

In hindsight, the incremental costs and risks of a re-invigorated seaplane program can be expected to be a small fraction of the $40 billion spent on the V-22, with benefits and aircraft survivability equal or greater. And – as a counterpoint to the US/EU tanker acquisition spat – a American buy of a small quantity of say, ShinMaywa US-2s or Bombardier 415s may aid inter-country collaboration with our important allies. Perhaps a low-cost, high-impact, rapidly-effective plan could include such a buy until the United States’ own seaplane capability again “ramps up”.

We have spent hundreds of billions over the last few years guarding our vital sea lanes. We now need a judicious, cost-effective strategy for the Navy to help protect our “E lanes” – including not only tangible military action over the oceans, but domestic cyber assets, radio-frequency and electromagnetic activities. Hopefully, the next humanitarian crisis or military challenge will be aided both literally and littorally by seaplane technologies which are not “if only we still had” but rather “already here and available”.

[1] Trimble, Wiliam F. Attack from the Sea – A History of the U.S. Navy’s Seaplane Striking Force. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 2005.

RS-GIUK-gapThe world keeps waking up from history – in this case a quarter century nap it seems.

During the Cold War, the maritime choke points between Greenland, Iceland, and the UK were key to the defense of Europe. This “GIUK gap” represented the line that Soviet naval forces had to cross in order to reach the Atlantic and stop U.S. forces heading across the sea to reinforce America’s European allies. It was also the area that the Soviet Union’s submarine-based nuclear forces would have to pass as they deployed for their nuclear strike missions. In response, the United States and its northern NATO allies spent considerable time, money, and effort on bolstering anti-submarine warfare capabilities and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance in the region. Maritime patrol aircraft from the UK, Norway, and the U.S.(Navy P-3s, flying from Keflavik) covered the area from above, while nuclear and conventional submarines lurked below the surface. The choke points were also monitored by an advanced network of underwater sensors installed to detect and track Soviet submarines.

But after the Cold War ended, the GIUK gap disappeared from NATO’s maritime mind. U.S. forces left Iceland in 2006, and the UK, facing budget pressures, retired its fleet of maritime patrol aircraft fleet in 2010. (The Netherlands did the same in 2003.) Anti-submarine warfare and the North Atlantic were hardly priorities for an Alliance embroiled in peacekeeping, counter-insurgency, and fighting pirates in far-flung Bosnia, Afghanistan, and the Horn of Africa.

That appears to have come to an end;

Russia’s growing sub-surface capabilities are coupled with an apparent political will to use them. Its recently revised maritime strategy emphasizes operations in the Arctic, along with the need for Russian maritime forces to have access to the broader Atlantic Ocean. And that access will have to be, just as during the Cold War, through the GIUK gap.

Now the United States is pivoting back to the region; witness the Obama administration’s recent announcement that it intends to spend part of the proposed 2017 European Reassurance Initiative budget on upgrading facilities at Keflavik.

And the U.S. is not alone. Britain recently announced that it will seek to rebuild its maritime patrol aircraft fleet, probably by buying P-8s from Boeing. Norway is also considering its options for the future of its maritime patrol aircraft, and is also looking to buy a new class of submarines. Norway also recently upgraded its signal intelligence ship with new U.S. sensors, and the ship is primarily intended for operations in the vast maritime spaces of the High North.

Of course, history has been busy while everyone else was distracted. Time for a little catch-up.

The UK is without an indigenous maritime patrol aircraft capability following a decision in 2010 to axe its fleet of Nimrod aircraft for budgetary reasons. However, that has widely been viewed as a mistake, and November’s Strategic Defense and Security Review (SDSR) included a decision to procure nine P-8 aircraft to reinstate that capability.

Those planes will not be operational until 2019, at a time when the increasing presence of Russian nuclear submarines in the North Atlantic has spooked some in London.

Several possible sightings of Russian boats in the approaches to the Royal Navy’s nuclear submarine base at Faslane, Scotland, have resulted in US and other NATO allies drafting in maritime patrol aircraft to mount a search for the vessels.

British crews have been training on US Navy P-8’s and other maritime aircraft following the Nimrod program cancellation.

The program, known as Seedcorn, is aimed at maintaining British anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare skills. As many as British 20 crew have at any one time been embedded with the USN on P-8 operations.

Dunne also confirmed that the United Kingdom still plans to operate US weapons on its P-8 fleet when the planes first come online, before potentially transitioning to British weapons in the future, the nation’s head of military procurement has confirmed.

The equipment on the UK P-8s will “initially” be the same as the US Navy operates, Dunne said. “On the P-8, we are looking at essentially an off the shelf, [foreign military sales] purchase. It’s a [commercial off-the-shelf] capability. We are looking at acquihiring the same suite of capability as the US Navy operate.

“There may be some communications stuff that we need to introduce but as far as the capability is concerned it’s coming sort of as is, fully formed,” he added.

Asked if there was a timetable for when UK equipment might end up on the P-8, Dunne simply said “no.”

That is a nation in a hurry. They slow-rolled this to the point they cannot even defend the approaches to their strategic deterrence in their territorial waters.

Imagine having to call Australia and France to help us look for Russian submarines off Seattle and Kings Bay. Yep.

As the West returns to ASW, it will be at a smaller scale. Things are a bit different now. Russia, while something to contend with, is not the Soviet Union. She is also not the supine Russia of 20 years ago.

Unlike the height of the Cold War, she does not need to get her SSBNs to their designated “Yankee Box” in the middle Atlantic. They can deter from the pier if they need to. They no longer have the Red Banner Fleet, they have assets that if they want to show the flag, they need to get out of the North Sea. To get out of the North Sea, they have to make it through the GIUK Gap. If the Most Dangerous COA takes place and they find themselves in a war – they must threaten shipping and NATO warships in the Atlantic. NATO must prevent that. That is the driver.

They have more than legacy Soviet systems. The Russians are building some impressive modern kit, but in smaller numbers – as are we.

NATO’s military does not have the capacity to do ASW like it used to, so we are lucky. ASW is a numbers game, and you have to have enough hunters to match the game. The days of the Norwegians and other folks getting cracks at them before Bear Island, then you had all sorts of SSK and SSNs from European NATO nations that could create issues, not to mention the flightlines full of USA, CAN, GBR, NOR, NLD and other nations Maritime Patrol aircraft that had regular almost daily real world ASW experience – throw in USNS and USN/NATO RW and surface forces too … and on a good day we were all over them, and that was before the Soviets even got through The Gap.

If the Russians want to come out to play again, then we will have to join them. How much? Hard to tell, but we don’t want to be where the British have found themselves.

So, it is time to return to old stomping grounds and to break the adhesions of intermittent real world ASW prosecutions.

Now, how to fund it? FRA, NLD, DEU – I’m looking to you. NOR and GBR look to be stepping up. ESP, POR, and ITA, we’ll bother you next if the Russians insist on coming through the STROG to bother everyone through the Malta escarpment.

An aerial view of the ramp areas and facilities of the 57th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, with other facilities in the background.


It is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able to adapt and to adjust best to the changing environment in which it finds itself.”

Attributed to Charles Darwin.

The Rate of Change

We live in exponential times. Does anyone still own an old-fashioned, original iPhone? New products hardly hit the street before they are superseded by something newer and better. Technology seems to change daily, before our eyes. In fact, the rate of technological change is increasing, as the internet, computing power, and insatiable market demand combine to throw the research aperture wide open. In the language of the calculus, a positive second derivative means, simply, that change is accelerating. The long-term success of future defense programs will depend more than ever before on their ability to adapt continuously to this change, rather than our ability to produce exquisite point solutions.

Cutting-edge technology, once the property of governments, and especially defense departments, is now driven increasingly by market demand. Defense requirements are no longer driving the technology train. In fact, in many cases, they are not even a major passenger. A look at National Science Foundation data showing U.S. research & development (R&D) funding by source for the 45-year span between 1963 and 2008 shows that, in the 1960s, government funding dominated R&D as we developed Cold War weapons and chose to go to the moon. In such an environment, the research establishment is responsive to government needs, so integration is relatively straightforward and technology tends to flow from government development to civilian application. Radar, for example, was adapted for microwave cooking, and the Global Positioning System (GPS) changed almost everything we do. By the early 2000s, however, funding roles between industry and government had reversed. This is a good news story for a free-market economy. However, it presents a very different challenge for those who build and maintain complex defense systems, as the military is forced to become the agile adapter.

Build with Change in Mind

The Valley Forge (ex-CG-50) sinking off the coast of Hawaii after being used for target practice, 2 November 2006. U.S. Navy Photo.

The ex-Valley Forge sinking off the Hawaiian coast after being expended as a target, 2 November 2006. U.S. Navy Photo.

In a rapidly changing environment, the long-term viability of programs will depend largely on our ability to infuse evolving technologies in stride, affordably. The image at left shows the Ticonderoga-class cruiser ex-Valley Forge (CG-50) being sunk as a target after just 17½ years in service. This $1B Aegis cruiser was a technological marvel in her day, but she was not built with change in mind. Because it was too costly to backfit the open MK41 Vertical Launch System into the first five ships of her class, they were all decommissioned early—an expensive lesson in adaptability. The U.S. Navy’s Aegis cruisers and destroyers are magnificent machines, but it’s worth noting that many of the missions they perform today, including land attack and ballistic missile defense, were not on the chalkboard when they were designed in the 1970s to protect carrier battle groups from Soviet airborne saturation attacks.

We need to build systems, especially those concentrated on complex, multi-mission warships, for existing threats as well as those yet to emerge. Combat systems need to be open, modular, and flexible enough to evolve, incorporate the all-but-certain march to autonomy and machine teaming, and keep up with advances in computing and communications that are beyond military developmental control. In fact, current trends suggest the commercial-military gap will widen. Alphabet/Google, for example, consistently reinvests approximately 30% of every dollar of sales back into R&D and capital expenses (CapEX), compared with just 2% – 3.5% for top defense contractors.[1]

Affordability, Autonomy, and the Third Offset

It has been said the United States is losing its technological edge, but technology isn’t the primary obstacle. While research in many other countries certainly is improving, the pace of innovation, invention and technology development in the United States is breathtaking, and shows no signs of slowing down. The United States still produces many of the world’s most impactful and exciting technologies; however, integrating them into our defense systems and tactics is hard and getting harder.

A close look at the Navy’s and Air Force’s investment dollars (R&D plus Procurement) compared with force structure, measured in ships and aircraft, shows that in the past, as budgets inevitably cycled up and down, force structure tended to follow. When budgets declined, services financed downturns by reducing force structure and harvesting manpower dollars. When budgets increased, generally, we bought new or improved force structure. This pattern changed in 2003. For the first time, as budgets increased significantly, force structure continued to decline, even as service chiefs maintained they did not have enough assets to satisfy demand. Now, as we again face decreased defense budgets, there is no force structure to mortgage, and the implications for unit cost point to a future we can’t afford on the current trajectory. As with the first two “offset” strategies, the recently released Third Offset is driven by affordability, and an economic need to increase capability without increasing expensive capital assets.

There are only two top-level metrics in defense procurement: capability and cost. Every new program seeks to increase capability, reduce cost, or both. Yet, while capability across all services certainly has increased by many measures, so has cost, while quantities continue to shrink. New technologies like autonomy can help increase capability, but only if they can be integrated continuously, affordably, and in stride. The modular mission package approach pioneered by the Littoral Combat Ship program, with its innovative use of networked, unmanned systems, was an important step in the right direction.

With years of effort and millions of dollars invested to start each new Program of Record, it’s no wonder the services are reluctant to change programs, or take risk and add cost by infusing new technologies. Our acquisition workforce is professional and dedicated, but they are measured on their ability to deliver programs based on “cost, schedule and performance,” and programmatic rudders don’t swing easily. How then, can we expect emerging technologies, like autonomy, to develop into a potent element of our force structure, and provide the affordable leap in capability envisioned by Secretary Work’s Third Offset strategy?

Force Architecture

The Navy's unmanned X-47B receives fuel from an Omega K-707. U.S. Navy Photo.

The Navy’s unmanned X-47B receives fuel from an Omega K-707 tanker. U.S. Navy Photo.

Despite general acceptance of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for airborne Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) as well as airborne tanking missions, our current approach to most autonomous systems has been focused on one experiment at a time. The Navy’s X-47B demonstrated that UAVs could operate safely from an aircraft carrier, and even refuel in flight. There were valuable lessons learned but, after $2B, the program has essentially reached a dead end.

Now is the time to develop a future force architecture that will guide an orderly migration to a mix of autonomous and manned systems across all domains and, more importantly, provide the underpinnings for reprogamming funds to make it happen. The Analysis of Alternatives for the Navy’s BAMS/P8 Maritime Patrol Aircraft program informed just this kind of tradeoff, producing an optimized, combined purchase of manned and unmanned aircraft. New unmanned systems like DARPA’s autonomous “ACTUV” surface vessel, and a family of future underwater vehicles, including the Large Diameter Unmanned Underwater Vehicle, can increase fleet numbers and total capability in the same way. By increasing capacity, they can also help distribute sensors and firepower.

Consistent with the Third Offset strategy, networked, autonomous systems will perform important missions in places larger manned ships can’t, or needn’t, go. Like Garry Kasparov’s centaur chess model, they’ll fit into an overall fleet architecture in ways that optimize the whole man-machine team. As autonomous systems become increasingly capable in the future, they will share burdens and shoulder more and more of the warfighting load, while open architecture and modularity will help us pace evolving technology without the need to build new ship classes from scratch.


The “relevance horizon” for combat capabilities has always been a moving target. This is nothing new, but the pace of technology change is increasing, and is driven by forces that are beyond government control. Future Defense programs must be built with change in mind, to adapt to emerging technologies that evolve faster than today’s acquisition cycle.

As long as we continue to approach autonomous systems in isolation, they will be slow to realize their full potential. Now is the time, within the new Force Structure Assessment, to look 10 to 25 years into the future and devise a comprehensive fleet architecture, based on rigorous analysis and modeling, that optimizes the mix between manned and unmanned programs envisioned in the Third Offset strategy, and helps compensate for declining force structure numbers. Like the first two offset strategies, the Third Offset is driven by economic necessity.

Finally, many of the world’s brightest minds are still right here in the United States, producing the world’s best technologies. Our challenge is to keep those technologies flowing into the hands of our warfighters.

[1] Personal communication, James McAleese, McAleese & Associates, 29 January 2016.

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.

Day one was with VMFA-121 and its F-35B Joint Strike Fighters––here, in hover and in the hangar with ground crew.

Day one was with VMFA-121 and its F-35B Joint Strike Fighters––here, in hover and in the hangar with ground crew.

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.

The next stop was with the MAWTS-1 and a noisy ride in an MV-22 that a civilian would have difficulty calling “fun” in tight headgear.

The next stop was with the MAWTS-1 and a noisy ride in an MV-22 that a civilian would have difficulty calling “fun” in tight headgear.

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.”

Landing in the C-2A Greyhound on board the USS John C. Stennis (CVN-74) was strange for a civilian--in seats facing backwards and going from 150 mph to zero in a couple of seconds.

Landing in the C-2A Greyhound on board the USS John C. Stennis (CVN-74) was strange for a civilian–in seats facing backwards and going from 150 mph to zero in a couple of seconds.

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.

F/A-18 makes a carrier landing on John C. Stennis in 2015.

F/A-18 makes a carrier landing on John C. Stennis in 2015.

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.

In the image of Dr. Strangelove’s Major Kong, the author sat astride the giant GBU-24, 2,000-pound bomb, hat in hand, and got a picture worthy of a social media outlet.

In the image of Dr. Strangelove’s Major Kong, the author sat astride the giant GBU-24, 2,000-pound bomb, hat in hand, and got a picture worthy of a social media outlet.

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

130517-N-YZ751-017 ATLANTIC OCEAN (May 17, 2013) An X-47B unmanned combat air system (UCAS) demonstrator conducts a touch and go landing on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77). This is the first time any unmanned aircraft has completed a touch and go landing at sea. George H.W. Bush is conducting training operations in the Atlantic Ocean. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Tony D. Curtis/Released)

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.

That, my friends, is beautiful thinking. UAS skeptics and UAS fanboy enthusiasts should all nod their heads in support.

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.

AA DeckhouseDeveselu 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 iAA Testings 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.

141010-N-UN924-571The 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!!!

AA All Hands CallThere 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…

AA Christmas Tree

“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.


Recommend Low Vis Calls

October 2015


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:

  1. 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.
  2. That message leaked outside of its original intended channel. Given our “information everywhere” environment, perhaps that was inevitable.
  3. 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.

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