Tag Archives: Naval Aviation

What’s at Stake in the Remote Aviation Culture Debate

It has been written that it is difficult to become sentimental about . . . the new type of seaman—the man of the engine and boiler rooms. This idea is born of the belief that he deals with material things and takes no part in the glorious possibilities of war or in the victories that are won from storms. This theory is absolutely false . . . for there is music as well as the embodiment of power about the mechanisms that drive the great ships of today.

—Capt Frank Bennett, USN
The Steam Navy of the United States, 1897

Hunting for a wingman
                                      Hunting for a wingman

From our flyboy friends in the U.S. Air Force comes the article “The Swarm, the Cloud, and the Importance of Getting There First” in the July/Aug issue of the Air & Space Power Journal (including the lead-in excerpt). In it, friend-of-CIMSEC Maj David Blair and his partner Capt Nick Helms, both manned-aircraft and drone pilots, address their vision for the future of the aviation warfare concept of operations and the cultural sea changes that must take place to accommodate it. Needless to say, such a vision is also relevant to the future of naval aviation. So if you’ve got some beach-reading time ahead of you, dig in. The link above includes the full article:

This article advocates an aviation future of manned–remotely piloted synergy in which automation amplifies rather than replaces the role of aviators in aviation. In this vision, aviators are judged solely by their effects on the battlefield. Amidst this new standard of decentralized execution is the “swarm,” a flock of highly sophisticated unmanned combat aerial vehicles that serve as “loyal wingmen” for manned strike aircraft. Here, every striker is a formation flexibly primed to concentrate effects at the most decisive times and locations. This future also includes the “cloud,” a mass of persistent remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) that provide vertical dominance through wholesale fire support from airspace cleared by the swarm. Fusion amplifies the human capacity for judgment by delegating routine tasks to automation and “demanding” versatile effects in response to fog and friction rather than “commanding” inputs.

The challenge is not technological but cultural. To realize this future, we first must accept remote aviation as a legitimate part of the Air Force story, and then we must look to deep streams of airpower thought in order to understand it. First, Gen Henry “Hap” Arnold teaches us air-mindedness—to fully leverage a technology, we must develop both humans and hardware. Second, Gen Elwood Quesada describes an aviator’s relationship with technology—the discussion is never “human versus machine”; rather, it concerns the relationship between humans and machines. Instead of a cybernetic view in which automation reduces the role of humans in the world, we argue for a capabilities-based perspective that uses automation to empower aviators to better control the battlespace. Third, Col John Boyd reminds us that identities are always in flux in response to changing technical possibilities.

Thus, the F-22 and the RPA are more akin than we realize since both embrace the power of advanced processors and networked data links. An Airman’s view of RPA futures enables manned–remotely piloted fusion, and both traditional and remote aviators must build that future together as equals. The friendly lives saved and enemy lives taken by RPAs in the air campaigns of the last decade merit this acceptance. 

Dave also recommends the article “Why Drones Work: The Case for Washington’s Weapon of Choice” by Daniel Byman.

A Korean Peninsula Combined Fleet

The ROKS Dokdo and USS George Washington on exercise together.
The ROKS Dokdo and USS George Washington on exercise together.

In my previous entry on the U.S.-ROK naval strategy after the OPCON, I argued for a combined fleet whereby the U.S. and ROK Navies, together with the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF), may share their unique resources and cultures to develop flexible responses against future threats by Kim Jŏng-ŭn. Since I have been getting mixed responses with regards to the viability of the aforementioned proposal, I felt compelled to flesh out this concept in a subsequent entry. Here, I will examine command unity and operational parity within the proposed combined fleet.

First, as Chuck Hill points out in his response to my prior entry, should the three navies coalesce to form a combined fleet, the issue of command unity may not be easily overcome because “[w]hile the South Korean and Japanese Navies might work together under a U.S. Commander, I don’t see the Japanese cooperating under a South Korean flag officer.” Indeed, given the mutual rancor over historical grievances, and the ongoing territorial row over Dokdo/Takeshima Island, both Japan and the ROK may be unwilling to entertain this this arrangement. However, this mutual rancor, if left unchecked, could potentially undermine coherent tactical and strategic responses against further acts of aggression by Kim Jŏng-ŭn. It is for this reason that Japan and the ROK should cooperate as allies if they truly desire peace in East Asia.

So how can the three countries successfully achieve command unity within the combined fleet? One solution would be for an American admiral to assume command of the fleet. However, while it is true that the ROKN and the JMSDF have participated in joint exercises under the aegis of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, this arrangement would stymie professional growth of both the ROKN and JMSDF admirals who lack professional expertise comparable to their American counterparts. In particular, given that ROKN admirals will assume wartime responsibility for their fleets after the 2015 OPCON transfer, such arrangement would be unhealthy for the ROKN because it would only lead to further dependence on the U.S. Navy.

Instead, a more viable solution, as Hill suggests, would be for the three navies to operate on a “regular rotation schedule…with the prospective commander serving as deputy for a time before assuming command.” This arrangement would somewhat alleviate the existing tension between the ROKN and JMSDF officers. Furthermore, the rotation schedule may serve as an opportunity for ROKN and JMSDF admirals to prove their mettle as seaworthy commanders.

One successful example that demonstrates the efficacy of the above proposal is the ROKN’s recent anti-piracy operational experience with the Combined Task Force (CTF) 151 in the Gulf of Aden from 2009 to the present. In 2011, ROKN SEALs successfully conducted a hostage rescue operation against Somali pirates. ROKN admirals also assumed command of the Task Force twice, in 2010 and 2012 respectively.[1] According to Terrence Roehrig, the ROKN’s recent anti-piracy operational experience has “provide[d] the ROK navy with valuable operational experience [in] preparation for North Korean actions, while also gaining from participating in and leading multilateral operations.”[2]

However, it should be noted that it is “unclear whether ROK counter-piracy operations [with CTF 151] had a significant deterrent effect and, if so, it [was] likely to be limited.”[3] While CTF 151 may provide a plausible model for command unity for the combined fleet concept, it does not fully address potential operational and logistical problems in the event of another armed conflict on the peninsula. Moreover, while frequent joint exercises and exchange programs have lessened operational and linguistic problems, so long as the ROKN continues to be overshadowed by the Army-centric culture and structure within the ROK Armed Forces, it cannot function effectively as a vital component of the U.S.-ROK-Japan alliance in deterring future aggression by Kim Jŏng-ŭn.

To achieve operational parity within the combined fleet, I recommend the following. First, the United States could help bolster the naval aviation capabilities of both navies. The JMSDF has been expanding its number of helicopter carriers, while the ROKN is expanding its fleet of Dokdo-class landing ships, supposedly capable of carrying an aviation squadron or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), in addition to its naval air wing. However, the absence of carrier-based fighter-bomber capabilities may pose problems for the combined fleet concept because it deprives the fleet of flexible tools to respond expeditiously to emergent threats. Thus, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps could equip the two navies with the existing F/A-18E/F Super Hornets or the new F-35s.

Second, both Japan and the ROK should bolster their amphibious and special operations forces (SOF) capabilities. As the successful hostage rescue operation in January, 2011, of the crew of the Korean chemical tanker Samho Jewelry by the ROKN SEAL team demonstrates, naval SOF capabilities may provide the combined fleet with a quick reaction force to deal with unforeseen contingencies. Furthermore, amphibious capabilities similar to the U.S. MAGTF (Marine Air-Ground Task Force) may provide both the ROK and Japan with the capabilities to proactively deter and not merely react to future DPRK provocations. That the Japanese Rangers[4] have recently trained for amphibious landing with U.S. Marines, while the ROK MND (Ministry of National Defense) has granted more autonomy to the ROK Marines, can be construed as steps in the right direction. As if to bear this out, there are reports that the ROK MND plans to establish a Marine aviation brigade by 2015 to enhance the ROKMC’s transport and strike capabilities.

In this blog entry, I examined command arrangement and operational parity to explore ways in which a combined U.S.-ROK-Japanese fleet may successfully deter potential DPRK threats. Certainly, my proposal does not purport to offer perfect solutions to the current crisis in the Korean peninsula. Nevertheless, it is a small step towards achieving a common goal—preserving peace and stability which all East Asian nations cherish.

Jeong Lee is a freelance international security blogger living in Pusan, South Korea and is also a Contributing Analyst for Wikistrat’s Asia-Pacific Desk. Lee’s writings have appeared on American Livewire, East Asia Forum, the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, and the World Outline.
[1] Terrence Roehrig ‘s chapter in Scott Snyder and Terrence Roehrig et. al. Global Korea: South Korea’s Contributions to International Security. New York: Report for Council on Foreign Relations Press, October 2012, p. 35
[2] ibid., pp. 41
[3] ibid.
[4] Japan does not have its own Marine Corps.

On the Wings of the Sun? Harnessing Solar Power for Aviation

Solar Impulse HB-SIA in flight
         It may be a little gangly, but that’s just a sign of growth spurts

A few months back we had a guest post from NavalDrones on the site discussing power needs for drones, focusing on the advantages of batteries compared to today’s combustion engines. Engines are noisy, limiting drones’ stealthiness, and both engines and batteries require refueling/recharging. Thus, lengthy, days-long on-station operations aren’t in the cards for today’s drones. (For example, the Global Hawk can fly continuously for about 28 hours.) A balloon or dirigible could stay aloft for longer periods, but at the expense of maneuverability and speed. For reasons like these, harvesting solar power during flight has captured the attention of many aerospace engineers.

One challenge terrestrial solar-powered vehicles face is the variability of cloud cover. In contrast with its grounded brethren, solar aircraft can often negate a cloudy day by just climbing to a sufficient altitude. However, night is, of course, still an obstacle to long-term flight (or short-term missions not in the daytime).

Nevertheless, with the aid of batteries, today’s solar drones and UAVs can fly non-stop for weeks. The British-US aerospace and defense company QinetiQ developed the drone Zephyr, which stayed aloft for 14 days in July 2010 (h/t to Solar Impulse). Zephyr is not small (12-m [39-ft] wingspan), as one can see in the following video, but it is light—only 27 kg, or ~60 lbs, hence the hand-launch. It reached an altitude of 21.6 km (13.4 mi) on that first flight, boosting its observational capabilities.


[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ejXaAwsIDoI&w=560&h=315]

Meanwhile, the goals of the Solar Impulse team might be even more audacious: a solar-powered flight around the world in 2015— with a pilot. While it’s perhaps not the most agile, the HB-SIA has already demonstrated 24-hr flight in the past year (with a battery system) from Switzerland to Morocco. And the team has strong backing; it was launched by Bertrand Piccard, who made his name in aviation by circumnavigating the world in the Breitling Orbiter balloon in 1999. Industrial partners include Solvay, Décision, and Bayer MaterialScience, who increased their funding for the project in October [h/t to Flightglobal]. In contrast to Zephyr, HB-SIA’s mass is 1600 kg (3500 lb), about as much as a car, and its 63-m (208-ft) wingspan is about 60% longer than Global Hawk’s – necessary to fit enough solar cells to lift that mass.

So what’s next for solar aircraft? A higher-density storage system than batteries would help by extending flight time. NASA tested a series of solar UAVs in the early ’00s, including Helios, which included an “experimental fuel cell system” that used solar power to regenerate its fuel, storing more energy per pound than batteries. Unfortunately, a crash in 2003 destroyed Helios, but a fuel-cell system remains a possible avenue of advancement. Surface-based lasers can also offer additional illumination for a power boost (also covered in Naval Drones’ post).

Increasing the efficiency of solar cells is another route. Aircraft using solar cells require large wings whose size and shape are driven in part by demands for enough surface area to power the aircraft. These designs limit maneuverability and high-performance (i.e. high-power-demand) attributes like sudden acceleration and changes in direction. Unfortunately, physics principles constrain just how much efficiency can increase. Solar Impulse uses cells with an efficiency of 22.7% — higher than most commercial modules in solar farms. But using only one kind of material in the cell to absorb light means it can harvest only part of the sun’s light, at maximum about 33% (something called the Shockley-Quiesser limit).

Multi-junction cells can capture more slices of the solar spectrum, but in practice their complex assembly limits them to two or three absorber materials. So far they are mostly used in spaceflight, where low weight is a bigger driver than low cost. Still, according to the U.S. National Renewable Energy Lab, the record triple-junction cell (without concentrators, which are another topic) has 35.8% efficiency. So assuming for the sake of estimation that these triple-junction cells weigh about the same per unit surface area (not true at present, according to Solar Impulse), they could reduce wing area by about 37%.  Or, depending on the requirements, they could produce 58% more power.

And power is the big difference between a solar airplane like HB-SIA and a fuel-burner like Global Hawk. HB-SIA’s electric engines produce a maximum of 30 kW (40 hp), whereas Global Hawk’s engine produces at peak 7600 lbs of thrust at a top speed of 357 mph, which works out to 5.4 MW (7200 hp). In part we could say that HB-SIA is more efficient, so it doesn’t need as much power, but on the other hand, Global Hawk can carry a 1360-kg (3000-lb) payload, whereas HB-SIA can carry… one human.

Doing the math shows the upper limit of improving power capture. The sun provides, at midday, 1.3 hp per square meter (of land surface). This handy figure gives you an idea of the maximum solar power wings of a given size could produce (with magical 100% efficient cells). Thus, performance improvements may come from vehicle lightweighting, rather than ratcheting up solar cell efficiency. For example, batteries make up one-quarter the total mass of HB-SIA (400 kg, or 800 lb). And while modern aircraft bodies are increasingly made of carbon fiber (instead of aluminum), companies such as Nanocomp and TE Connectivity are also beginning to manufacture data and power cables made of carbon nanotubes (CNTs) on the scale of miles. CNTs can match the conductivity of copper while saving ~70% of the weight.

Even if it doesn’t displace the combustion-engine in aviation when speed and heavy lift are required, solar power’s promise of nearly indefinite sustained flight is likely to expand its role in aeronautics in the near future.

Dr. Joel Abrahamson holds a PhD in chemical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he created nanomaterials for lightweight, high-power electricity generators. He currently researches materials for thin-film, flexible solar cells at the University of Minnesota. The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of the University of Minnesota.

Joint Strike Shuffle

Her Majesty’s Royal F-35 Variant

While we at CIMSEC were debating another U.S. Navy procurement program people love to hate, Britain was making news with a major F-35 decision. Ultimately the decision showed a sensible prioritization of operational availability over top-end capabilities.


The U.K.’s Defense Secretary announced to Parliament on Wednesday it was swapping Joint Strike Fighter procurement for the Royal Navy from the F-35C carrier version to the F-35B short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) model it had originally planned to buy. The Ministry of Defense gave the cost of installing the electromagnetic catapults on the two Queen Elizabeth-class carriers (now estimated at $3.2 bil.) as the prime motivator. It will outfit the carriers with skijumps instead.


On the plus side, this decision reduces immediate budgetary pressures on Britain’s armed forces (including calls to scrap the second carrier) and will move up the timeline of Britain’s new aircraft carrier strike availability from 2023 at the earliest to 2020, with (scheduled) tests off the HMS Queen Elizabeth in 2018. The U.S. Marine Corps and Italy, prior to Wednesday the only other purchasers of the ‘B,’ will also warmly receive this decision as it should help secure the viability of the variant and bring in some small additional economy-of-scale benefit to their buys.


The switch has some downsides for Britain. First, the F-35B compares unfavorably in a few categories of concern for a Navy, particularly an expected combat radius that’s at least 200nm less than its sibling, limiting the reach of Britain’s maritime power projection. Second, the decision reduces the cooperation potential of French fighters flying from British carriers hyped in the 2010 Franco-British defense treaties.


And there are other compatibility issues created by the decision. It limits the models of important support aircraft that can be flown from the carrier’s decks (I hear something like the Growler can be handy). Additionally, while there is some work being done on STOVL UAVs, catapult-launched UAVs are the focus of the U.S. Navy’s future carrier strike fighter efforts, limiting the potential future utility of Britain’s new carriers if and when it decides to go pilotless.


On the whole opting for operational availability over greater capability is a sensible move for the Royal Navy given current budget realities. The Royal Navy gets its carriers strike capability three years early, is much more assured of always having at least one carrier operational, and will no longer need French agreement on drydock and refit periods.