PATUXENT RIVER, Md.– Capabilities enabling the Carrier Air Wing in Distributed Maritime Operations and the importance of industry collaboration was the focus of a panel hosted by The Patuxent Partnership and the Association of Naval Aviation at the Patuxent River Naval Air Museum Dec. 14.
Keynote speaker and moderator, Rear Adm. Andrew Loiselle, director, Air Warfare Division, N98, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, led the panel which featured Capt. Mike “Sniff” Burks, acting vice commander of Naval Air Systems Command; Spencer Crispell, principal deputy program manager for the F/A-18 and EA-18G Program Office; Capt. Samuel “Messy” Messer, program manager for the Unmanned Carrier Aviation Program Office; and Capt. Kevin “Lamb” Watkins, program manager for the Naval Air Traffic Management Systems Program Office.
Loiselle set the stage by explaining how Carrier Strike Groups (CSGs) used to perform prior to the era of DMO. Loiselle said crews on a deployed carrier could walk along the flight deck and see all the ships in the carrier strike group steaming alongside in formation, covering a rather small area of water. With DMO, and the “Air Wing of the Future,” deployed CSGs will cover and protect 100 square miles of water space.
“In order to do that, we need fighters with significantly longer range, sensors that are beyond our own fighters and an all-encompassing network that weaves all of that together and creates a common operational picture that is resilient and redundant,” Loiselle said.
Loiselle said CSGs now communicate information over a broad network, including drones launching with Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force aircraft, and by sharing that information with each other, expand the effectiveness of the DMO concept.
Burks was next in the lineup. “When Admiral Chebi took command, he said NAVAIR’s north star is to deliver the integrated warfighting capability the fleet needs to fight and win, at a cost we can afford. Our top three priorities are capability, availability and affordability.”
As lead for the Naval Aviation Enterprise capability north star, Burks illustrated how the Navy is approaching these priorities by citing the 2018 mandate by then-Secretary of Defense Gen. James Mattis calling for the 80 percent readiness or availability across key platforms, including the F/A-18 Super Hornet. The mandate kicked off a Super Hornet Readiness Recovery Initiative, which ultimately increased Super Hornet mission capable rates from 250 to 341 aircraft.
“There is tremendous power in aligning to a clear objective. It’s really important that we define goals with specificity and that we have timelines, quantity, capability—things that are really measurable,” Burks said.
Burks said the Navy currently has four capability north stars: Unmanned tanking to support the long-range fight; seamless support to the nuclear command, control and communications (NC3) mission; delivering unmanned intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR); and defining airwing capabilities needed to fight and win well into the 2030 timeframe.
“Just as it’s important to define our priorities internally, it is equally important to communicate with our industry partners and invite you to become partners with us as we break down these complex challenges, identify gaps and define unique solutions to deliver the capability the fleet needs at a cost we can afford,” Burks said.
Crispell said the F/A-18 program office has been working to ensure Hornets remain in service until at least 2040, stating the aircraft was originally designed to fly for 6,000 hours, but with service life modification (SLM), they are able to extend the aircraft’s life to 10,000 hours and reduce strike fighter shortfall. With SLM, the aircraft receives an advanced cockpit and other Block III capabilities including software upgrades enabling future capabilities to be added.
Crispell also spoke about condition-based maintenance, whereby sensors collect data enabling trend analysis that predicts when a component will fail – improving availability.
“We’re changing the way we think today across NAVAIR. It’s a change that’s happening and I think it is a good change,” Crispell said. “We need to work collaboratively.”
Messer said for the DMO concept to be successful, the Unmanned Carrier Aviation Control System (UMCS) and ground control system is integral.
“It’s everything else besides the airplane that has to work for the airplane to work,” he said. “In practical terms, it’s our ground control station, it’s ship-based and shore installation work that we are doing.”
Messer said his team has built a System Testing Integration Lab at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, demonstrating how the UMCS and ground control systems will work aboard carriers while deployed, all designed to incorporate the MQ-25 Sting Ray in the Carrier Air Wing. The MQ-25 is an unmanned aerial system designed to refuel aircraft in the air to extend time on mission, as well as ISR.
Watkins said his team helps tie all of the concepts of DMO together with shore, expeditionary and ship-based air traffic control and precision landing systems.
“Our fundamental goal, or north star, is to provide those material solutions that Sailors, Marines, air traffic controllers, air crew, air vehicle operators for drones can use to conduct safe and efficient flight operations all weather, all day and night in any environment. We have to make sure that aviators operating their aircraft or drones can do their mission, come back safely and land every time and do it quickly.”
Watkins noted that 2022 marked the centennial of the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, stating how during that time, the carrier has become the most lethal and survivable airfield in the world.
“There are other countries that fly aircraft off ships at sea, but none of them do it day and night across the globe with the lethality, precision and execution that we do.”
“We must get the aircraft back to ship, back on the deck as quickly as possible, reload the aircraft and get them back out to the fight,” Watkins said. “We really need to continue to partner with industry to understand what technologies are going to enable us to provide primary and backup capability in all environments, day and night around the globe in contested and uncontested environments – so our aviators, our air vehicle operators, the Fleet, the Sailors, our air controllers are ready when called up to deter, fight and win.”