Tag Archives: Naval Aviation

Four Carrier Crises, but yet No Funeral for the Large Flattop

By Steven Wills

The arguments deployed in the latest debate over the aircraft carrier’s place in the U.S. Navy’s force structure have a familiar ring. That is perhaps because they have been very similar criticisms in every carrier debate going back to the 1920’s. While every weapon system undergoes re-evaluation and criticism over its service life, the large aircraft carrier has been the subject of four significant debates in the 20th and 21st century. Each has involved questions of the large carrier’s cost relative to the capability it delivers; the range of the carrier’s embarked air wing; and the vulnerability of the carrier itself to threats. In each case, the carrier and its embarked air wing have proved reliable, cost effective ordnance delivery systems in comparison with other naval weapon systems. The carrier’s air wing has at times been deficient in range and/or combat capability, but has upgraded to meet threats. The carrier has always been a very vulnerable type of warship due to the nature of its mission. Decision-makers have repeatedly accepted this vulnerability as an acceptable price for the capabilities the large deck flattop delivers. The present carrier debate has all of these same components, and while not all solutions to the present round of carrier criticisms are not in place, they are in sight and can be achieved. The aircraft carrier replaced the battleship as the principal capital ship of the world’s navies because, “It was far more capable than the battleship of inflicting damage on the enemy.”[1] Some other naval weapon system will eventually replace the aircraft carrier, but that platform and payload combination has yet to manifest its presence on, above or beneath the world’s oceans.

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The first U.S. carrier controversy dates to the decades of the 1920’s and 1930’s when the carrier first entered the world’s navies in its present recognizable form and in numbers beyond mere experiment. The main concern was that the carrier’s air wing was too weak and short-ranged to prevent an attack by a powerful surface force. A force of battleships and cruisers might travel a distance longer than the range of the carrier’s aircraft under the cover of darkness when carrier aircraft could not then operate.

There were also concerns that the first two significant carriers, USS Lexington (CV 2), and USS Saratoga (CV 3), were too large, too expensive (at $45 million dollars a unit without aircraft), and placed too much of the fleet’s air strength in too few platforms. The concept of a hybrid “flying deck cruiser” with cruiser size guns and an airwing optimized for scouting was proposed as an augment to the carrier fleet to counter these concerns.[2]

CV-2 Lexington and CV-3 Saratoga.
CV-2 Lexington and CV-3 Saratoga.

These concerns, however, evaporated with technological advances. The range of carrier aircraft increased over the 1930’s and that change eliminated the threat from surface forces approaching in hours of darkness. New U.S. carriers of the Yorktown class were much less expensive at $19 million a copy, but still supported air wings in size and capability approaching the larger, previous Lexington class. House Naval Affairs Committee Chairman Carl Vinson confirmed the carrier as the fleet’s new capital ship even before Pearl Harbor in the signing statement of the $8.5 billion dollar Two Ocean Navy Act of July 1940. He stated, “The modern development of aircraft has demonstrated conclusively that the backbone of the Navy today is the aircraft carrier. The carrier, with destroyers, cruisers and submarines grouped around it is the spearhead of all modern naval task forces.”[3]

The second carrier controversy began in the immediate aftermath of the carrier’s greatest triumph. The end of the Second World War and with it the navies of the fascist powers caused many to question the need for carrier aviation in what appeared to be a new age of predominately atomic warfare. Notable Army Air Corps (now Air Force) and Army officers dismissed the aircraft carrier as unnecessary in an age of intercontinental aircraft like the B-36 bomber. Army Chief of Staff General Omar Bradley dismissed the “super” (large) carrier as the Navy’s tool to employ long-range bombers, a role already covered by the Air Force.[4] Air Force Chief of Staff General Hoyt Vandenberg said the carrier was of “low military value” and that “land based air power was of far greater military usefulness.”[5] Defense Secretary Louis Johnson, with the strong support of President Harry Truman, cancelled the first postwar “supercarrier” in May 1949 based largely on these Army and Air Force opinions. Attempts by Navy Department civilians to discredit the B-36 before Congressional hearings further damaged the Navy’s case for the aircraft carrier in the emerging Cold War.

The carrier survived its second controversy thanks to the Korean War.  The conflict on the Korean peninsula demanded close air support for ground troops desperately in need of firepower to drive back larger North Korean formations. This was a mission that the Air Force had generally ignored and allowed to degrade in the aftermath of World War 2. The Navy was used to providing air support to Marine units from aircraft carriers and quickly demonstrated its ability to step up for post-World War 2 “small wars.” Naval strikes from carriers were crucial in repelling the initial North Korean attack and carrier-based Navy and Marine Corps aviators eventually flew 41% of all air combat missions in the Korean War.[6] The carrier would go on to similar strike missions in the Vietnam War and in other U.S. power projection efforts. Even President Truman came around to the carrier’s combat potential and endorsed the Forrestal class super carriers with the first commissioning in 1954.[7]

A drawing of CVA 58 the proposed USS United States which was later cancelled.
A depiction of the proposed CVA 58, USS United States, which was later cancelled.

The most recent carrier controversy had its roots in post-Vietnam war budget cuts and a misunderstanding of the operational design for the emerging Soviet Navy of the early 1970’s. The projected $2 billion dollar price tag of the fifth nuclear-powered carrier (the eventual USS Theodore Roosevelt) made the Carter administration reluctant to authorize such an expensive vessel.[8] The Congressional Budget Office produced documents suggesting that the carrier was not “survivable” in a modern battle, which further suggested that a $2 billion dollar price tag for a failed weapon system was the wrong choice.[9] Finally, NATO advocates in the Carter administration such as Robert Komer wanted the U.S. for focus the bulk of its defense expenditures on the defense of the Fulda gap against the possibility of Soviet invasion. The Navy’s chief task in this mission was sea control and protection of the vital supply lines between North America and Europe. Komer believed large carrier battle groups were unneeded for this mission and the large outlays required for their construction were better spent on land warfare equipment.[10] Some former officers including former USS Nimitz commander Admiral Eugene Carroll, and CIA director and naval strategist Admiral Stansfield Turner joined the chorus of carrier doubters. Politicians such as Colorado Senator Gary Hart, who in his book America Can Win and in other writings proclaimed, “like the battleship the carrier replaced, its magnificence cannot nullify basic changes in the nature of war at sea.”

Ironically, this carrier controversy disappeared more rapidly than the previous two. Significant analysis from disparate sources appeared in defense of the large flattop and its capabilities. Future Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Carlisle Trost in conjunction with the CNA Corporation produced the 1978 Sea Based Air Platform Study at the behest of Congressional Committees, “at loggerheads over whether the next carrier would have a nuclear or conventional power plant.”[11] Large nuclear and  smaller conventional carriers designed to operate vertical take off and landing (VSTOL) aircraft were studied. While all three types of carrier had positive attributes identified by the study, the 30 year life cycle cost of the nuclear carrier was only slightly more than that of its conventional equal. Both carried significantly more aircraft than the smaller VSTOL ship. Based on this, according to naval tactics expert (then executive assistant to Under Secretary of the Navy James Woolsey), Captain Wayne Hughes, “With total ownership costs so close, it was reasonable to let the Navy’s preference be decisive. The next year Congress authorized a CVN!”[12]

sea control ship
The proposed Sea Control Ship (SCS) which was later cancelled.

John Lehman’s 1978 Aircraft Carriers, The Real Choices came to similar conclusions. Lehman examined seven basic points concerning sea-based aviation including: (1) what should sea-based aviation do?; (2) what can land-based air do better?; (3) how vulnerable are carriers?; (4) how many carriers are needed and what do they cost?; (5) how essential is nuclear propulsion for carriers?; (6) what are the practical options for size of future carriers?; and (7) how will VSTOL technologies affect future air power at sea? [13] Lehman found that sea-based aviation was a useful companion to its land based equivalent in that carrier aviation allowed the US greater geographic freedom to strike targets out of range of land-based air. Larger carriers were less vulnerable (historically) than their smaller cousins. The examples of large carriers surviving significant accidents (USS Forrestal and USS Enterprise) was important to this determination. Enterprise survived the equivalent of six Soviet SSN-3 cruise missile hits but resumed flight operations several hours later.[14]

Lehman was also an analyst who contributed to the Sea Plan 2000 analysis that first recommended 15 aircraft carriers as the minimum number needed by the US for both peacetime presence and minimal wartime operations against the Soviet Union. His suggestion for carrier strength of 13-17 carriers as the right number was in keeping with the general Navy assumptions of the time. Lehman, like the analysts who completed the Sea-Based Air Platform study found that nuclear carrier costs over the lifespan of the ship were within 2.5% to 3% those of a large conventional carrier and worth the Navy’s investment.[15] Lehman’s analysis determined a number of significant problems associated with small carriers. Accident rates were significant in smaller ships. Over a 10 year period the smaller Midway class carrier suffered 10% greater flight deck accidents than did the larger flattops.[16] Larger carriers with 4 catapults could also put more aircraft in the air at a faster rate; a capability crucial to defense of the flattop against surprise air attack. Lehman also suggested that VSTOL aircraft held little promise of further advance and while many could be carried on a smaller aircraft carrier, their utility in high end warfare was limited.

Finally, naval intelligence efforts in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s determined that the Soviet Navy likely had no plans to significantly interdict NATO convoys to Europe in the event of a major war. U.S. taps on Soviet naval communications pods revealed that the Soviets most important fleet mission was defense of their ballistic missile submarines based in “bastions” within the Barents Sea. This intelligence confirmed what analysts like Robert Herrick and CNA’s James McConnell had said throughout the 1970’s; that the Soviet’s had a generally defensive naval strategy.[17] This revelation gave further support to the idea that an offensive naval strategy was the best choice for naval conflict with the USSR. An offensive war concept was better suited to large carrier operations than the small flattops conceived to fight antisubmarine and anti-surface battles in defense of NATO resupply convoys. Together the analysis and intelligence work of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s effectively ended the third carrier crisis of the 20th century.

USS Harry Truman.
USS Harry Truman.

The present carrier “crisis” contains many elements of these past examples. As in the 1920’s, the current carrier air wing is too small and lacks the range necessary to effectively strike opponents without facing a significant response. Many assumptions in the wake of the First Gulf War of 1991 suggested that future conflicts would be joint and combined air/ground task force operations against rouge states and non-state actors around the Eurasian littoral. Land-based air support would always be nearby and plentiful. These assumptions, however, should be discarded in a new age where peer competitors and non-state actors exist side by side and carrier-based aviation may be the only component in the air component commander’s arsenal.

The budget is again tight as it was after the Second World War and in the late 1970’s. The nation cannot sustain another military buildup funded on debt and no miracle growth in the economy appears certain on the horizon. The other services will fight with equal vigor to keep their own assets and popular social spending programs are hard to curtail, let alone eliminate. The Navy will need creative ways to get more out of the carriers it has. The carrier force must be re-balanced with some regions getting more than others dependent on the availability of land-based aviation. Some carriers could be placed in reserve status in order to ensure that those that remain are fully capable of high-end warfare against peer competitors.

The range and strike capability of current carrier-based aircraft is substantially diminished in comparison with its late Cold War incarnation. Today’s carrier air wing boasts 62 aircraft as compared with the 80-90 aircraft wing of the Cold War.[18] The carrier air wing will need to be increased with longer range, manned or unmanned aircraft to return it to the capability of the late 1980’s/early 1990’s.

Despite these problems, no one weapon system appears poised to relieve the carrier as the primary U.S. naval offensive component. A mass of missile-shooting ships and submarines is required to achieve the same level of consistent ordnance delivery provided by a large carrier. Surface ship missile shooters may be affected by adverse weather conditions. An increase in the percentage of U.S. strike capability concentrated in submarines could result in equally rapid opponent advances in antisubmarine warfare. It is very difficult to retain technological advantages given the global diffusion of knowledge enabled by the information age. Future naval victories are more likely to depend on superior operational and tactical employment of existing platforms and payloads rather than technological superiority.

The carrier remains a flexible, re-configurable platform with significant potential going into the 21st century. The U.S. may have to reduce the overall number of large carriers it actively employs and tailor that presence to specific geographic areas where carrier-based airpower is an advantage. There has not yet been an active demonstration of a superior strike platform/system as there was in the war games of the 1920’s and 1930’s. The large U.S. aircraft carrier will likely survive this fourth challenge to its place atop the naval hierarchy, but it must increase the range and capability of its attendant air wing to achieve this goal.

Steve Wills is a retired surface warfare officer and a PhD student in military history at Ohio University. His focus areas are modern U.S. naval and military reorganization efforts and British naval strategy and policy from 1889-1941. 

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[1] David K. Brown, Nelson to Vanguard, Warship Design and Development, 1923-1945, Annapolis, Md, Naval Institute Press, 2000, p. 39.

[2] John Kuehn, Agents of Innovation, The General Board and the Design of the Fleet that Defeated the Japanese Navy, Annapolis, Md, The Naval Institute Press, 2008, pp. 102, 103.

[3] 8 1/2 BILLION IS VOTED FOR 1,500 WARSHIPS; House Passes Bill for Great Carrier Force and Escorts, With Battleships Left Out, New York Times, June 18, 1942. 

[4] Jeffrey Barlow, From Hot War to Cold, The U.S. Navy and National Security Affairs, 1945-1954, Standford, CA, Stanford University Press, 2009, p. 212.

[5] Ibid.

[6] George W. Baer, One Hundred Years of Seapower, Stanford, CA, Stanford University press, 1994, p. 328.

[7] Paul B. Ryan, First Line of Defense, The U.S. Navy Since 1945, Stanford, CA, The Hoover Institute Press, 1981, p. 14.

[8] Ryan, p. 104.

[9] Congressional Budget Office, The U.S. Sea Control Mission: Forces, Capabilities, and Requirements, June 1977. 

[10] Frank Leith Jones, Blowtorch, Robert Komer, Vietnam and American Cold War Strategy, Annapolis, Md, Naval Institute Press, 2013, pp. 251, 252.

[11] Wayne P. Hughes, Jr., (2002) Navy Operations Research. Operations Research. p. 7.

[12] Ibid.

[13] John F. Lehman, Aircraft Carriers, The Real Choices, Washington D.C., Center for International and Strategic Studies, Georgetown University, 1978, p. 11.

[14] Ibid, p. 41.

[15] Ibid, p. 52.

[16] Ibid, p. 57.

[17] Christopher Ford and David Rosenberg, The Admiral’s Advantage, U.S. Navy Operational Intelligence in World War 2 and the Cold War, Annapolis, MD, Naval Institute Press, 2005, p. 79.

[18] Jerry Hendrix. “The Future of the Aircraft Carrier looks Dim,” War on the Rocks, October 21, 2015. 

Naval Aviation Week: The Conclusion

By Wick Hobson

As a man who as spent entirely too much time flying in the immediate vicinity of the colloquial Death Star (and by that, I mean the aircraft carrier) over the last year, I know firsthand how forgone a conclusion naval aviation can seem. Naval aviation, as the world knows it, is a multibillion dollar power projection leviathan that literally catapults fire control solutions from mobile sovereign territory to the bad guys du jour, right? Kick the tires, light the fires, open and shut case… Or is it? From future capabilities to current funding limitations, reality is inescapably more complex.

While GCC allies transition toward hegemonic peacekeeping operations in the Middle East and posture their forces for a long term dichotomy with Iran, you can almost feel the deck of American air power at sea roll beneath your feet in new directions. Every day, the emphasis shifts incrementally away from permissive, asymmetric conflict in the Arabian Gulf and toward modern, access-denied conflict with technologically contemporary rivals. Although Operation Inherent Resolve may retain focus on surgical strikes flown overhead, our authors looked ahead to the next generation of challenges awaiting the proverbial fleet.

Speaking of ISR, how did an article summarizing the future of naval aviation go four full paragraphs without mentioning drones? Ben Ho Wan Beng arrived in time to keep my bitterness against unmanned aviation in check with a fantastic look at the rise of UAS proliferation among littoral states seeking bang for their maritime buck in his piece, “What’s the Buzz: Ship-Based Unmanned Aviation & Its Influence on Littoral Navies.”

Jon Paris gave us a taste of the war none of us want to fight in his article, “Parallax and Bullseye Buoys.” An edge-of-your-seat thriller, Jon straps you into the cockpit for an IMC, EMCON recovery onboard a lights-out carrier in hostile skies. I don’t want to live in that world, and fortunately we aren’t in that kind of extremis yet, but Jon prepares the reader. He articulated the complexities of navigating in GPS-denied airspace and the necessity of electromagnetic spectrum fluency for the modern A2/AD environment, an issue recently addressed by CAPT Mark Glover at C4ISR.

Meanwhile, what good is a debate on the direction of military planning without a healthy dose of fiscal reality? Bridging the well funded past to the unaffordable future, Timothy Walton gave us a sneak peek from next month’s report due from The Hudson Institute’s Center for American Seapower. He reviewed the shrinking scale of the carrier air wing by the numbers and illustrated unmistakable mission gaps created along the way. From the salad days of the Tomcats to the uncertain future of the Joint Strike Fighter, Mr. Walton illuminated the reduced footprint of the current air wing and possible ramifications facing the CSG of the future in “The Evolution of the Modern Carrier Air Wing.”

CDR Gregory Smith broadened the topic of integrated manned and unmanned operations with his article, “Trusting Autonomous Systems: It’s More Than Technology.” Beyond the short-term friction of terrified Djiboutian air traffic controllers, CDR Smith illustrated the essential progress required to instill the confidence required for fully integrated manned and unmanned combat operations. From C2 structures in flight to command structures in the Pentagon, the ground truth on drone warfare at sea has yet to reach IOC by any definition. CDR Smith’s article provided clear context for the way ahead.

Michael Glynn delivered the cold, hard truth on data collection efforts in Naval Aviation: if a P-8A Poseidon collects 900GB of data on a sortie with no client for the information, does it validate its R&D costs? His article, “Information Management and the Future of Naval Aviation,” provided a resounding YES while detailing the challenges facing efficient data extraction from maritime ISR operations.

Peter Marino adds international affairs into the mix by assessing the scope and implications of American technology transfer to India for the development of a powerful new carrier. Through a video review of “Making Waves: Aiding India’s Next Generation Aircraft Carrier,” he explores the unique value of naval aviation in foreign policy. 

Our selections here delve into the challenges that lay ahead. I find the common thread unifying all of our authors to be the pursuit of value to the proverbial customer in an environment defined by change. What is it, exactly, that we are creating with all of this jet fuel?

The delivery of value to the stakeholder is incumbent on any military initiative from weapons safe to weapons free. On the one hand, that means providing maritime security and intelligence collection in the absence of conflict. Our authors speak from ground truth experience on the importance of developing and maintaining a cogent strategy for the proliferation of ISR and the subsequent decoding of the data collected.

On the other hand, delivering to the stakeholder requires a conscientious investment in fire control solutions against technologically advanced adversaries in denied airspace. There is no future without U-CLASS and there is no future without the JSF. These have to be integrated into the future of naval combat at least in the intermediate term. But what good is a fire control solution without C2 assurance? Are we ready for a GPS-denied environment? What will it take for tomorrow’s navy to compete in the conflicts of the future?

Ultimately, the sting of sequestration and the pain of acquisitions make the road ahead formidable. The hardest question to answer may be the most simple. What ends are we attempting to achieve by the means of naval aviation? Once our days of busting bunkers in the Middle East with precision guided munitions no longer carry the bulk of our workload, how do we leverage the unique capabilities of naval aviation across the entire spectrum of the rules of engagement to provide value to the theater commander?

It’s an exciting time to be a part of naval aviation. With such seismic shifts in sensor capabilities, adversary technological acumen, and A2/AD threat proliferation cast against cutthroat funding and acquisitions, this is not a sport for the faint of heart. Vision, flexibility, and creativity will define the success or failure of our transition to the next war we fight. Please join me in congratulating our authors on a job well done for their contribution to the next step, and feel free to join the discussion with your own feedback at nextwar@cimsec.org!

LT W. W. Hobson is an MH-60R pilot. The views expressed in this article are entirely his own and are not endorsed by the US Navy.

Aiding India’s Next-Generation Aircraft Carrier: A Review

By Peter Marino

As global power shifts both to Asia and within Asia, strategic realignments between states are picking up pace. The US-India relationship is one such partnership that is receiving increased reassessment from specialists in both capitals. In his recent paper, Making Waves, Carnegie Endowment scholar Ashley Tellis weighs in on the topic, suggesting an expansion and deepening of the security relationship through a close collaboration on the design and construction of India’s next aircraft carrier class, the Vishal. I took a brief look at the paper and examined its stated and implicit conclusions.

Peter Marino holds an MSc in Global Politics from The London School of Economics and is a graduate of Norwich University. He lived in Shanghai from 2003 to 2008 and served as head of China development for London-based Aurigon, Ltd. He founded and sold Quaternion, a political risk startup, and is currently establishing a new Think Tank for International Affairs aimed at promoting engagement with the “Millennial Generation.” He also produces Globalogues, a video blog with commentary on global politics and economics. The views expressed in this article are his own.

Information Management and the Future of Naval Aviation

By Michael Glynn

Aviators and operators hitting the fleet today have reasons to be excited. Naval Aviation is in the process of recapitalizing the fleet with a stable of very capable platforms and sensors: the E-2D carrying the highly advanced APY-9 multifunction radar; the P-8A with a powerful acoustic system and the APS-154 Advanced Airborne Sensor radar; and the EA-18G armed with the very capable ALQ-218 electronic warfare system and Next Generation Jammer.

The advances are not restricted to manned platforms alone. The MQ-4C will enable wide area search and ISR operations, covering hundreds of thousands of square miles during 30 hour flights. The MQ-8C will bring impressive endurance to small deck surface ships. Longer dwell time promises to yield more collection opportunities and push more data to warfighters.

But observers should be cautioned that these new platforms, new sensors, and emerging autonomy won’t necessarily yield higher quality intelligence or more information to commanders. Warfighters today are fighting not to generate enough information, but rather to manage the incredible amounts of data that today’s sensors record and store. The fleet is struggling to keep from being drowned in a sea of data. The battle of the information age is to separate the useful information from the vast amount of meaningless noise.

Our sensors today already develop tremendous amounts of data. How do we store it, access it, make sense of it, and disseminate it? How will we manage this in the future with even more data as unmanned systems become more common? Can autonomy and data fusion be part of the answer? Will our training and intelligence analysis need to change? Let’s examine these challenges in detail.

Large Data Sets, Autonomy, and Data Fusion

The increasing use of unmanned systems will bring longer mission profiles and hence longer windows of time where sensors can collect. This will generate extremely large amounts of information each flight. To put the challenge in perspective, consider a modern maritime patrol aircraft, the P-8A and its partner, the soon to be deployed MQ-4C UAV. On an eight hour mission, a Poseidon will generate up to 900 gigabytes of sensor information. How much more data will the unmanned Triton generate during its thirty hour flights?

Any operator in the fleet will admit that the amount of data gathered by our platforms today far surpasses the bandwidth of our long range communication networks. What happens to data that can’t be transferred off an aircraft during its mission? How best to manage information that may be over a day “time-late” when a UAV lands? What sensor information should be broadcast to operators ashore and what should be saved for post-flight access? These are challenging questions for program mangers, requirements officers, and operators to solve.

In the same vein, the large data set generated by sensors today offers the possibility of using analytics to sift through them and draw conclusions. However, this will only happen if managers design suitable architectures to extract the data post-flight, store it, and make it available to customers. We will discuss this concept later.

A second broad trend worth mentioning is automation and the ability to use technology to parse the data. Algorithms in modern sensors allow these systems to automatically capture, store, and disseminate information. Legacy surface search radars required an operator to manually plot a contact, log its position on paper, and update the position as time went by. Modern surface search radars can automatically identify, assign track numbers, and update tracks of dozens, if not hundreds of contacts, and promote certain tracks to datalinks such as Link 16. The track information is also recorded on-board and available for post-mission download, analysis, and storage.

The benefits of automation and data storage don’t end there. Today’s platforms either already do or will soon employ data fusion engines that merge complimentary information from multiple sensors to produce a higher-fidelity view of the battlespace. These systems will identify a surface contact by radar and overlay an electronic line of bearing signal that arrives from the same direction as the radar contact. The fusion engine will recognize the radar signal is coming from that ship and by analyzing the parameters of the signal might be able to provide a possible identification of the type of vessel. The system will then merge the radar contact and the electronic emission into a single track and promote it automatically to a datalink.

The capability of our sensors and our ability to store the data they produce is improving rapidly. Unless we think about how we collect and process this data, we risk not being able to capitalize on the capability. Let’s examine some actions we can take to prevent the technological advances from outpacing our ability to control them.

Recognizing the Challenge

Our warfighters and intelligence professionals need to examine the process by which they collect, store, process, and disseminate information. We need to match technology with roles a computer can accomplish and utilize our manpower where the skills of a human are most needed. Too often, our warfighters are employed in roles to which they are poorly suited.

In parts of the fleet, an observer can find operators plotting the locations of ships in paper logs when mission systems are recording the same information and storing it with far greater fidelity and fewer errors. These mission systems scale easily, plotting not one track history, but thousands. The same observer could find aviators submitting message traffic to meteorological commands listing environmental measurements at one location when the aircraft they just flew recorded similar measurements at dozens of locations spread over hundreds of miles. The observer could also find an intelligence officer spending their time preparing a PowerPoint brief for a commander instead of analyzing the information brought home by crew.

Humans are excellent at recognizing patterns and drawing conclusions from data. When it comes to tasks like plotting and updating radar contacts or transcribing information in a log, a machine wins every time. Yet we can find numerous cases in which we ask humans to “beat the machine” and conduct a rote task when the technology exits to automate the process. We need to train our operators to adopt a “sensor supervisor” approach and use technology to automate post-mission product creation.

Action Ahead

Are we making wise use of the billions of dollars spent on collection platforms if we don’t examine our own information processing requirements? When we bring new sensors to the fleet, are we process mapping to determine how best to analyze and disseminate the data they collect? Do we even know what types of information our systems are collecting? In all of these cases, Naval Aviation as an organization can get better.

Leaders in Naval Aviation and the Information Dominance Corps have several solutions that can be implemented. The first is to examine and implement a “pull” based system of information portals where collection platforms can post data and customers of all types can access it. Currently, the fleet relies on a “push” model where a unit is assigned to accomplish a collection task, and then information is reported back to stakeholders. Under a “pull” system, information would be posted to IP accessible portals where any authorized user can discover the information and utilize it for their analysis purpose. This is a far more efficient system, prevents stovepipes, and will enable next generation “big data” analytics efforts including applications in the Naval Tactical Cloud.

Next, information analysis and dissemination need to be viewed as a key part of the kill chain and performed so as to optimize mission effectiveness. Is a trained intelligence analyst better suited to sifting through ambiguous data and drawing conclusions about adversary behavior or best used building PowerPoint slides? Software today can be easily adopted to automatically generate post mission message traffic, briefing slides, and other products. This allows human capital to be reallocated into value-added efforts.

In a similar manner, Naval Aviation should examine how we can train our aviators and operators to best employ their sensors. We should expose our young aviators and sensor operators to concepts of information management early in their training. Understanding the strengths and weaknesses both of the human sitting in the seat and the sensor system will go far to optimize our collection platforms. This will allow operators to let machines do what they do best, and apply human minds to the analytical tasks they are best suited for.

Conclusion

The platforms and sensors being introduced to the fleet are very capable and will grow more so with intelligent management of the data they produce. Let us write and think about how best to manage the information our warfighters gather as they prepare to deter and win the conflicts of tomorrow.

Lieutenant Glynn is a naval aviator and member of the CNO’s Rapid Innovation Cell. The views expressed in this article are entirely his own.

This article featured as a part of CIMSEC’s September 2015 topic week, The Future of Naval Aviation. You can access the topic week’s articles here