Hey Navy, We’re Doing This Aviation Thing All Wrong
Test pilot calls for carrier air wing shake-up
As a retired naval officer, I have the privilege of saying things that my colleagues on active duty can’t say for fear of career-ending retribution. I can state clearly where I think U.S. naval aviation should be headed … and where it shouldn’t.
I believe unmanned aircraft are the future—and a wise investment. The hopelessly compromised F-35 manned stealth fighter, currently the Navy’s main aviation effort, is the wrong choice.
My name is Chip Dudderar. I spent 28 years in the Navy accumulating over 6,000 flight hours—almost all of them in high-performance carrier-based jets, both operationally and in flight testing. I even deployed with the Marines in the Harrier and piloted the MiG-29 in Russia. After the Navy I worked for 15 years on naval systems within the defense industry.
My test pilot training allows me to focus tightly on the technical details of naval aviation, and my operational experience has allowed me a broad field of view on how we should maintain sea-power superiority.
As I bask in the joys of retirement, I find I also have that luxury of reflecting and speaking my mind. I believe we are at a point in history where we can leap-frog our technology and tactics to hugely boost our naval sea power. We really have no peer competitor at sea right now, so we can afford to take a chance on a better mix of weapons—namely by integrating unmanned systems into our air wings.
The rapid advance of robotic technology has opened up a bold new world of possibilities for sea power. With the recent first carrier launch and landings of the X-47B drone demonstrator last summer and the work the Navy and industry are doing as part of the Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike program, we are now ready to make the leap—perhaps much sooner than anticipated by current plans.
It all starts with realization that the F-35C version of the stealthy Joint Strike Fighter has become a millstone around our necks. In the many years we have been trying to get that forlorn jet into service, the world of air combat systems has moved ahead—and we now have better options.
Our current first-string strike fighters, the F/A-18E and F, show no real signs of obsolescence or relative loss of effectiveness, although there are some missions they could never do as well as we aviators would have liked: primarily intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR); suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD); and deep strike.
But the F-18E/F will be a very capable platform for a few more decades, especially with the right teammate in the air wing mix.
The aerodynamic and structural compromises forced on the F-35C by the F-35B jump jet version of the plane—which is a total non-starter in its own right—have made the C-model less than it should have been. The form factor is not optimized for the speed and performance the Navy strike-fighter mission demands, and structural compromises in materials and design have created messy new problems for the carrier version.
Compound all of that with the fact that the F-35B’s short-takeoff, vertical-landing concept is horribly flawed in its own right. Due to logistical, maintenance and base security deficiencies, the Marines cannot support the airplane ashore at austere bases, as they have claimed. The F-35B and C should be prime candidates for the chopping block.
The advanced technology captured by the F-35 program will be fielded and refined by the U.S. Air Force no matter what the Navy does, so our investment has not been a total waste. So let’s cancel the horribly deformed F-35B and F-35C, redefine the Marine Corps air mission to better match the reality of 21st-century expeditionary warfare, open the door to the future for carrier warfare and move forward with a leap rather than a crawl.
How to add drones
The recent successful demonstration of carrier suitability by the X-47B opens the door to the introduction of unmanned airplanes to the flight deck. We now know that a jet-powered unmanned air vehicle can operate from a flattop. We should build a few of these air vehicles and put them into the game alongside the rest of the team—and see what they can do.
It has even been suggested that we put a few Fire Scout unmanned helicopters aboard the carriers right now in order to build proficiency with drones in advance of adding more sophisticated models. Crawl, walk, run!
Use the F-35B and F-35C production funding and any residual development money to buy enough extra F-18s to take us out to 2040. Accelerate the development of the combat-ready UCLASS drone with the goal of service entry around 2020. That should be possible for a non-man-rated airplane using current technology — no grand new systems for now.
Integrate and mature UCLASS between 2020 and 2030. Learn to use it and refine the air wing requirements. Determine what is needed to complement an unmanned airplane in carrier operations. And then plan to develop the next generation of manned jets in the 2030 to 2040 time frame, having learned how to operate a mixed air wing.
Set the operational requirements for UCLASS for just three missions: ISR, SEAD and deep strike — the truly dull, dirty and dangerous missions of a combat air wing, for which the F-18 is less than perfect.
Tie the details of flight deck integration to the greatest motivator in the history of mankind — competition! Assign maybe nine UCLASS platforms, later 12 or more, to the air wings. They should be maintained by a designated maintenance squadron in order to focus leaders and maintainers on the tech support and special needs of the UCLASS, while also allowing our F-18 squadrons to concentrate on their own maintenance game and the UCLASS integration task.
Also, consider that the maintenance squadron concept creates an opportunity for cross-decking that might reduce inventory numbers and adjust overhaul cycles. Operators of unmanned airplanes don’t need to practice carrier takeoffs and landings, which are autonomous, and they might not get deployment fatigue at the same rate as manned pilots. Just a few U.S.-based drone units could adequately handle air wing training commitments ashore.
Operate the UCLASS within the F-18 squadrons! Assign the F-18 pilots to work out the details of integration of manned and unmanned assets in the best ways they can. Make it fun. Make it competitive. Apply the officer’s performance evaluations game to expanding the future of naval aviation. Those of us who have worked with the chemistry of air wing ops know exactly what I am saying here.
It won’t be easy, but I’ll bet we can find the way forward with the right motivators. Let’s harness all of the ferocious competitive energy within the air wing toward solving the operational challenges of employing UCLASS.
Yes, there are a lot of devilish details to be worked out. And we have to start by admitting that there may be a better way forward than the one we’re on. Programmatic inertia—in this case, the decades and billions of dollars we’ve invested in the F-35—make my ideas very difficult to achieve. But perhaps the budget realities weighing on the F-35 will prevail. We are out of money, after all, so now we must think.
We also know that the manned-airplane crowd will initially resist an incursion into their comfortable territory. But this mixed air wing idea has value to our nation that is beyond anyone’s petty preferences. Manned-unmanned marriage may be the leap in sea power that keeps us all safe and promotes global diplomacy for decades to come. How do we get the vested interests in these lofty causes to take notice?
“That’s the way we’ve always done it.” Curse those words!
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