Wednesday, July 11, 2012

CNO Hints Towards the (New?) Future of Carrier Launched Naval Aviation

Contrary to a recent suggestion regarding the decline of influence by the US Naval Institute and the organizations flagship product Proceedings magainze, Chief of Naval Operations Jonathan Greenert has penned an article in Proceedings magazine this month that is already getting a lot of attention. Payloads over Platforms: Charting a New Course is a really important article, indeed there are several aspects of the article that jumped off the page the first, second, and every other time I've read the article.

In general I have been less than impressed with the analysis of the Proceedings article to date, indeed I think most people who have publicly commented either missed the point, or failed to connect the dots. The whole article is important, not just the pieces that made headlines, and I believe it really informs us on modern ideas being circulated inside the Navy - many of which are very smart.

Please, if you have not done so, go read the entire article before reading any further. Once you have read the article, come back and read what I'm saying, then go back and read the article to see if I have this right. I'm not certain I am reading it correctly, but I think I am.

Ready? OK...

First, I have to address something. This kind of industry shrilling by think tank people who I thought were credible analysts needs to stop. The suggestion through fear by Mackenzie Eaglen that the end of manned military aviation will occur if any aspect of the Joint Strike Fighter program is changed by the Navy is either the definition of jumping the shark, or perhaps more appropriately the act of 'credibility hara-kiri.' If the defense analyst community continues to promote political fear in lockstep support of industry and policy failures instead of legitimate ideas for the DoD to deal with programs and policies that have gotten way out of control (too big to fail, a meme that applies to both the JSF and Afghanistan), then the defense analyst community is damaging their credentials beyond the ability of those folks to ever effectively lead the defense establishment in the future, and a new source of expertise needs to be sought after.

The fine line between think tank analyst and defense industry lobbyist is being blurred today by a lot of folks who were once thought of as highly credible, and I absolutely include folks at CNAS in the same category as Heritage Foundation and AEI. There is a lot of self-licking Ice Cream cone BS coming out of DC today, and that article in AOL Defense pissed me off with it's new extreme in hyperbole.

Second, Phil Ewing got it right, TWICE, but failed to connect the dots. Did the CNO just take a big swipe at the F-35? You bet the CNO did. The CNO absolutely made clear that the cost of stealth and exactly what the capability advantage of stealth is has forced the Navy to evaluate with clear eyes how to use stealth in naval aviation in the future, but the stealth issue is bigger than just the F-35C - it also must be applied to unmanned carrier aviation as well.

The CNO starts out by stating clearly that the Navy needs "to move from ‘luxury-car’ platforms—with their built-in capabilities—toward dependable ‘trucks’ that can handle a changing payload selection." Because the use of the word "truck" has historically only been applied to ships in the context of modularity or swapping out equipment on ships, it is assumed he is speaking only about ships when he mentions trucks. That would be a bad assumption, because I think he is talking about naval aviation as well.

If you recall, Bob Work sent out a memo on July 7, 2011 to Navy acquisition chief Sean Stackley, Vice Chief Of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert and assistant Marine Commandant Gen. Joseph Dunford to form a team to develop three alternative tactical aviation force structures, respectively representing cost savings of $5 billion, $7.5 billion and $10 billion across the future years defense plan. Ultimately, Work expects to determine “the best-value alternative, factoring in both cost and capability. The purpose of the study was to determine whether the Navy and Marines could operate fewer than the 40 squadrons of JSFs currently planned and to look at the possibility of accelerating development of unmanned alternative systems."

Everybody knows the costs of the Joint Strike Fighter has grown too high for the Navy to afford the future carrier air wing, indeed there is no future for unmanned carrier aviation unless the Navy reorganizes current plans of the Joint Strike Fighter, the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, and existing Unmanned Carrier Launched Systems programs in an effort to find more money. That memo last year was the study of plans to determine what the options are. We have never seen the results of that memo, although my impression is the CNO just hinted what they might be.

What I believe the CNO is basically saying is that the F-18E/F works effectively as a manned truck, if new weapons are brought online to support the aircraft's ability to strike at long range - which is the cover story that Captain Hernandez ran out to Phil Ewing after his original post. Like I said, Phil Ewing got it right, twice!

What the CNO is also saying is that the stealthy UCAS-D is too expensive, and that unmanned carrier launched aviation doesn't need to be stealthy, rather it needs to be capable of endurance/range and high payloads. This has been coming awhile, because one of the worst kept secrets is how many problems there are with UCAS-D. UCAS-D weighs way too much, costs too much, has less than desired endurance, and has a limited payload capacity in favor of its stealth profile. My bet is the Navy isn't going down that road long term, although the Navy will use UCAS-D as a technology demonstrator.

But the CNO emphasized stealth was important? You bet he did, and how he discusses the importance of stealth in that Proceedings article reminded me of a concept I heard discussed with regards to the future of unmanned naval aviation at a recent USNI conference where the Joint Strike Fighter will still play an important role in future naval aviation that includes unmanned systems.

Basically, the Navy would field carrier launched aviation platform "trucks" that carried a variety of long range missiles forward, and escorting these large flying trucks - trucks which would include F-18E/F manned fighters and unmanned carrier launched medium payload delivery vehicles - would be stealthy F-35Cs that basically functioned as forward observers that helped targeting for the payload trucks that could operate at stand off distances. By taking that approach, fewer F-35Cs would be needed, because the internal strike payload of the F-35C is no longer as important relative to the payload capacity of the overall strike package - which would be offloaded to manned F-18E/Fs and medium capacity carrier launched UAVs.

So that is basically where I think this is going. The Navy is going to address the very real concerns about the future carrier air wing in FY14, and they will restructure the various programs. The F-35C program will likely be restructured in the same way it was last time, by reducing the number of squadrons fielded per carrier. Last time the F-35C was reduced to 2 squadrons per carrier, this time it will likely be reduced to 1 squadron per carrier. With F-35C IOC currently scheduled for FY14, but expected to be delayed, the purchase of fewer F-35Cs and the delayed IOC will mean more F-18E/Fs will need to be purchased. This comes just in time too, because the production line for F-18E/F only goes through FY14, so more F-18E/Fs will keep that production line open longer.

The rest of the savings, which will be either $5 billion, $7.5 billion and $10 billion across the FYDP will decide the details of the F-35C and F-18E/F program changes, and also determine to what degree unmanned carrier aviation will play in the future Carrier Air Wing by 2020 and beyond. I believe it is a very good bet that unmanned carrier launched aviation will find funding, that the F-35C purchase will be reduced, and that the F-18E/F production line will stay open beyond FY14 - but the details of what unmanned carrier launched aviation will look like by 2020 is still very much unclear.

It is also important to recognize that under the CNO's emerging vision of payloads instead of platforms, platforms like the F-35C still have a primary role, but that role is changing. In part, the F-35C is still a very necessary stealth capability that will perform the always important intercept function - although the payloads for intercept will be carried at stand-off range. F-35C will also function in the forward observer role - again in support of weapons held at safer, stand-off distances. These roles for the F-35C would be vital to the tactical and operational level execution of air superiority and combat air support by carrier aviation well into future decades, which means that while the total number of F-35Cs might be fewer in the future Carrier Air Wing, it's existence in the future Carrier Air Wing becomes even more vital than it is today - particularly if the unmanned "truck" options materialize as legitimate. In many ways, I could see these changes seen as a mixed result for Lockheed Martin, on one side the F-35C is purchased in lower quantity but on the other side the platform becomes the most critical piece of the puzzle, something the platform is not under current plans.

In the end, all I believe can be said with any certainty is that based on the CNO's Proceedings article and the fiscal reality of naval aviation heading into the next two very, very tight budget years, the UCAS-D is the least likely full production approach for the future of unmanned carrier aviation.

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