Vice Adm. David H. Buss, commander of Naval Air Forces, addresses chief petty officers aboard the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson in May. (MC2 Nicolas C. Lopez / Navy)
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The Navy will debut a first-in-class aircraft carrier in the next few years. It’ll launch a brand-new fighter from a brand-new launch system. Recent trials have shown an unmanned jet may not be far off.
The Navy’s next-generation maritime surveillance aircraft will begin its first deployment in months, and its legacy electronic warfare aircraft will be retired in less than two years. The fleet’s doing all this in the face of budget cuts that leaders have said could target the kinds of training and maintenance programs critical to such transitions.
As Vice Adm. David Buss put it, “We are in a very unique place in naval aviation today.”
Buss, the head of Naval Air Forces, discussed the state of naval aviation’s new programs, and how the community’s needs stack up against the fleet’s financial and manning restrictions, in a Sept. 11 interview at his Naval Air Station North Island, Calif., headquarters. Responses are edited for brevity and clarity.
Q. Can you tell us how the building of the [first-in-class aircraft carrier Gerald R.] Ford is going? It’s the first totally new carrier design in decades — where is it at right now?
A. I’ve been in the job for a little over a year now and I’ve had the chance to walk Ford several times. I was the deputy commander at Fleet Forces Command and was back there in the Norfolk [Va.] area and made it over to Newport News a little bit over a year ago. I’ve been back once since I’ve been in this job, about three or four months ago.
I’ve got to tell you, Ford is coming along. She’s looking, feeling and smelling like a real aircraft carrier. Last time I was aboard in June, I walked the entire length of the flight deck. We had all the catapult troughs in place and they were starting to bring the gear onboard to load in the electromagnetic catapult system — EMALS.
Q. There’s been a lot of talk about [the electromagnetic aircraft launch system], and it has its critics. Where is that in development right now, and how confident are you that it will work as advertised?
A. When I look at where we are with the development of the technology over the last 10 years, I’ve got a very high level of confidence that when we bring that system out and install it in Ford and begin to fire it up and launch aircraft in the not-too-distant future, I think we’re going to be pleasantly surprised.
I think the technology has matured and I think we’re going to be very glad we made this decision. I say that because of what an electromagnetic catapult system delivers in terms of not only the technology, but less wear and tear on our aircraft.
Q. For the sailors above deck, will the mechanics of launching an aircraft change?
A. As I look at the system now and what it will mean to hook up and launch an airplane off the catapult, I don’t see any major changes. For the yellow shirts and the folks in air department, I think we’ll be able to take on this new system pretty seamlessly.
Q. How far are we away from Ford actually conducting flight operations with this new gear?
A. We will christen Ford in mid-November. She’ll go in the water ... toward the latter part of November, which will be a major milestone for her. Then we’ll continue the outfitting process next year and at some point in , we’ll have her ready to go out and start sea trials.
Q. Ford was planned to be an optimally manned ship. Will that be realized, or are you still playing with the numbers?
A. The answer is yes to both. From the get-go, Ford class has been designed with ... efficiencies in place that will translate directly into manpower savings.
Now, the other side of the coin, ... we have built into the design of Ford something that was learned from building of the Spruance class of destroyers, and that is what I call “surge volume.” What I mean by that is we didn’t assign a function to every single space onboard and we allowed ourselves some room to grow.
My complement for John C. Stennis when I was the captain was about 3,500 to 3,600 people in ship’s company. We think we’ll be under 3,000 for Ford.
Q. CNO said that you are behind on aircraft and carrier maintenance, due to sequestration. How might this impact operations?
A. We had just north of 100 airframes in fiscal year ’13 that we did not induct into depot maintenance. We’re doing OK with carrier maintenance. It’s a high enough priority for the Navy and the nation.
On the aircraft side, however, we did not induct all the aircraft and engines into our depot-level maintenance this last year that we had in our plan. That’s a bit of a concern to me because generally we’re on about a two-year cycle with our aviation depots. That means that from whatever time we induct an aircraft into that cycle for whatever level of repair and it’s true for every type-model series, it’s about two years before I need that aircraft back out and operational in the fleet.
We took some reductions in the aviation depot maintenance account. That is responsible for funding the induction of aircraft and engines in ’13. That’s a concern. We’ve had the same impacts that have been seen across the Navy with the hiring freeze. We’ve had skilled artisans who’ve retired and [have not been able] to bring new folks online.
Q. What’s the future of carrier air wings?
A. We are in a very unique place in naval aviation today. In my 35 years of service, I have never seen conditions like this. ...
We’re bringing P-8A online. We’ve transitioned our first two squadrons and a third squadron is underway. We’re going to deploy that capability to the western Pacific later on this year. Within the [carrier] air wings, we are continuing our transition in Super Hornets and coming out of legacy Hornets, A through C. ... A lot of it is linked to the production line at Boeing and so forth. We’re expecting to be generally complete with our Super Hornet transition within the next couple of years, but we’re playing with some options there as well.
On the Prowler side, we will be out of the EA-6B platform by the middle of fiscal ’15 and will be all E/A-18Gs.
Q. What about the F-35C? There’s been a lot of discussion about this aircraft and if it’s really needed. Where are you with that?
A. Obviously there’s been lots of discussion recently about the entire Joint Strike Fighter program, all three variants.
I’ll start with saying that we need that airplane in the fleet. ... It’s very important that we integrate the F-35C with our other strike fighter, the Super Hornet, and the Growlers and E-2s. The F-35’s ability to play with all the other aircraft in the wing, as well as all the other aircraft that are out there in the battle space as well as our [cruiser and destroyer] units, that’s a pretty powerful capability. Think about the abilities this will deliver.
We’ve taken delivery of our first two aircraft and they’re flying now. I’ve designated the squadron as interim safe for flight, and we’ll formally stand up the squadron on Oct. 1. The test plan has the F-35C going out for carrier tests next summer.
Q. You’ve tested the [unmanned combat air system] on a carrier. What’s the place of unmanned aviation in the carrier aviation world?
A. I’m asked all the time by young pilots if I’m putting them out of business here. What I say to them is absolutely not.
Remember the X-47 is steppingstone, a technological demonstrator to get us to operating unmanned systems from the carrier deck.
I don’t see the day when these systems will completely replace the man or woman in the cockpit. You always need that human element.
Q. So what’s the place of the enlisted sailor in the UAV world? Where do you stand on a separate UAV rating?
A. I would tell you that it’s very much an open book at this point. In May, we stood up our first truly composite squadron here at NAS North Island. [Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron] 35, the “Magicians” stood back up again flying MH-60 Romeos and Fire Scout [unmanned helicopters]. ... We’ll learn an awful lot about operating piloted and unpiloted systems side by side and what they do for each other. Part of that concept of operations is who operates the system, officer or enlisted, and what kind of skills do we need.