Naval Aviation Continues To Soar Despite Challenging Times

NAVAL AIR SYSTEMS COMMAND, PATUXENT RIVER, Md.–Preparing the fleet to fight and win against an advancing peer threat was the theme for a leadership panel co-hosted by The Patuxent Partnership and Association of Naval Aviation Sept. 14 at the Patuxent River Naval Air Museum Flight Technology Hall.

The event, “Naval Aviation Programs are Soaring,” featured keynote speaker Vice Adm. Francis “Spanky” Morley, principal military deputy assistant of the Secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition; Roy Harris, executive director for Commander, Fleet Readiness Centers (COMFRC); Jeanine Corzine, director of the Targeting and Kinetic Effects Group at Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division (NAWCWD); Susan DeGuzman, acting director of the Engineering and Cyber Warfare Group at Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR); Ann Wood, acting director of the Sustainment Group for NAVAIR; and Robert Kimble, acting program executive officer for Aviation Common Systems and Commercial Services at NAVAIR.

Rear Adm. (retired) Bert Johnston led off the event highlighting challenges faced by the “ponderous acquisition system” used to acquire weapons and technological advancements necessary to remain competitive against near-peer threats.

“The challenge to deliver capability at the speed of relevance remains daunting,” Johnston said. “Tonight, I hope you’ll hear some ways you can help speed up this procurement process. What has changed is what we’re using the acquisition system and the procurement process to buy. Cyber warfare is a new area of concern. Integration is more important than ever as our systems become more and more interdependent. We’re buying fewer big ticket items and doing more modernization and upgrades. For the first time in our Navy’s history, bigger is not necessarily better.”

“Despite the hurdles, it is our mission, our responsibility, our privilege to support the men and women who go in harm’s way on our behalf. And to do that we need to deliver integrated air warfare capabilities to enable the fleet to compete, deter and win tonight, tomorrow and in the future.”

Morley highlighted several success stories of Naval Aviation over the past decade, including extending the service life and mission capable numbers of F/A-18 Super Hornets, which he directly attributed to Naval Sustainment System-Aviation (NSS-A) reforms enacted across Fleet Readiness Center to increasing production and mission capable rates. Morley said one of the biggest recent challenges was the COVID-19 pandemic and anticipated impacts to production lines and the defense industrial base.  He said the challenges were met “without shutting down any major [production] lines and without a significant impact on production. Yes, we’re still living with supply chain challenges and that has slowed some things down. But when you think of what a potentially catastrophic problem that we were facing, that is impressive … we can really rally when we need to.”

Morley explained the Navy’s “Get Real, Get Better” call to action is “fundamentally good, disciplined program management.”

“The principles of [Get Real, Get Better] are to set a north star, have an executable plan,  understand the constraints, aggressively managed to [the plan] in a cross-enterprise fashion, identify when you’re deviating from that plan, swarm the problem, and assign accountability to fix it and keep moving.”

Harris elaborated on sustainment, pointing out that in 2015, NAVAIR was collecting data to monitor the overall health of Naval Aviation, finding most aircraft were 50 to percent mission capable, and trending downward. This prompted an aggressive shift in the focus toward sustainment, creating the Naval Sustainment System-Aviation, which transformed the FRCs into “a world class” maintenance, repair and operations (MRO) organization. He said among the many successes of NSS-A was getting all stakeholders in the F/A-18 Super Hornet program around a common goal of 341 mission capable aircraft.

“Historically there were around 250 or 260 mission capable aircraft, so [getting to 341] was a pretty big jump from what we thought we could achieve.”

Harris said the lessons learned from filling the gap have been taken and applied to other type/model/series of aircraft moving forward, and the creation of Reliability Control Boards (RCBs) which look at degraders that are keeping aircraft grounded and searching for near term solutions to correct those degraders and put in corrective actions to prevent them from grounding aircraft in the future. He said it is imperative to build better partnerships to get equipment and supplies to the depots faster, and aircraft back to mission capable status as quickly and affordably as possible.

Corzine spoke to the need to continue to deliver integrated warfighting capability, considering “our adversary is developing an all domain military that’s intentionally out there to rival and challenge the United States. As the Navy pivots to build a more lethal and capable force that can operate in a more distributed fashion, interoperability between systems is critical to our success … maintaining this competitive advantage really requires us to have a partnership approach.”

DeGuzman elaborated on interoperability in regards to taking data and applying it to six pillars of the “digital thread.” The first pillar, she said, is capability based acquisition. Here, a fleet operator may need a specific aircraft, say a refueler, and they could look at a database and see what is available, not just at the Navy or Air Force but across allies and partners that could meet the specific need. The second pillar, model based systems engineering, ensures that requirements are clearly defined upfront and that as systems become more complex, there is an understanding of the connections between the systems by having access to a database. The third pillar of model based engineering is applied to verifying and validating testing models, which leads to the fourth pillar, flight test, creating a database of correlating information shared with other flight test teams with the aim of delivering capabilities to the fleet on schedule. The fifth pillar focuses on training, ensuring aircrew and maintainers know how to manage new capabilities as they are designed and sharing that information. The final pillar, sustainment, integrates the pillars together by addressing not only engineering and design, but the entire lifecycle and digital thread.

“We’re trying to set up a governance system to make sure that any data we are acquiring, regardless of what platform it’s for, and which of these pillars it falls under, is going to fit into our digital thread and is going to be part of this data continuum, useful for operators, designers, and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs).”

DeGuzman also spotlighted the evolution of cyber technology and artificial intelligence being incorporated into the warfighter.

“We are increasing our cyber workforce, improving the way we do cyber evaluations, changing the way we do testing for cyber. It’s critical to ensure the aircraft we take into contested environments can’t be hacked and destroyed.”

Wood began her remarks by asking if the government and industry team have equipped deployed forces with what they need to fight and win and come home safely in a contested logistics environment – and if the government and industry team can afford to sustain what they have and invest in the capability needed with the budgets they are given.

“The game has changed. So we must change our game. We don’t want war. We want to deter it, and we deter it by regaining our competitive advantage,” she said.

Wood said the tenets of NSS-A have helped in changing the game, but affordability continues to be a challenge. Wood implored the audience to look at cost saving measures and pass them on, “so we can reinvest in capability for the fleet. Are there things you’re doing internally that you can do more effectively and efficiently? Is the government causing you inefficiencies? Let us know.”

Kimble wrapped up the talking points by focusing on the attributes of great programs, “having a willingness to assume balanced risk, understanding our requirements before we work toward solutions, and maximizing collaboration.” 

“It’s not about making yourself comfortable, it’s about making the warfighter comfortable. The programs that have been successful start with that in mind: ‘What is the operational risk that we’re trying to address?’ Focus on that first and everything else will flow through.”

“The programs that have succeeded have a very collaborative spirit, and look at things in a way that is balanced. Take a step back, listen first and understand the perspectives of those that you’re working with … If you understand your requirements and work together, you will deliver the capability the Fleet needs, on time, and at a cost we can afford.”

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