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CNO: Navy Should Quickly Field CBARS To Ease Tanking Burden on Super Hornets

An F/A-18F Super Hornet assigned to the Red Rippers of Strike Fighter Attack Squadron (VFA) 11 performs an air refueling with an EA-18G Growler assigned to the Rooks of Electronic Attack Squadron (VAQ) 137 on March 22, 2015. US Navy Photo

An F/A-18F Super Hornet assigned to the Red Rippers of Strike Fighter Attack Squadron (VFA) 11 performs an air refueling with an EA-18G Growler assigned to the Rooks of Electronic Attack Squadron (VAQ) 137 on March 22, 2015. US Navy Photo

The Navy’s reconfigured unmanned carrier aviation program is set for success because it has a “legitimate” primary mission in the short-term but will be designed in such a way that doesn’t preclude it from taking on additional missions later, the Chief of Naval Operations said Friday.

Speaking at the American Enterprise Institute, CNO Adm. John Richardson said the newly redesignated Carrier Based Aerial Refueling System – formerly the Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) program – will help ease the burden on the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fleet, which is struggling to get out of a readiness trough, by covering the tanking mission.

“The tanking mission will liberate five or six aircraft, strike fighter aircraft, that are doing tanking missions right now. They’ll be off doing strike fighter kind of missions,” Richardson told reporters during a roundtable after his AEI talk.
“So there’s a real benefit there. It extends the range – it depends on how you employ them, you can just imagine, you don’t have any pilot fatigue in that tanker so there’s all sorts of benefits to doing that.”

Today, some Super Hornets take on several additional sorties a day to refuel other aircraft in the carrier air wing, pushing the already-stressed fleet closer to the end of its service life.

Whereas the UCLASS program had a somewhat contentious history, with lawmakers and Pentagon and Navy leadership disagreeing over how to balance the surveillance and strike missions included in the program’s name, Richardson said he thought the CBARS program would be successful because it has a well-defined and “legitimate” mission today – though he said that the mission envelop could expand overtime, and the name would be changed eventually.

“We kind of revamped our strategy there with UCLASS, now CBARS – I’m not sure I’m too much in love with that CBARS name, we’ll come up with something better than that – so we’re looking at something that we can get there,” he said during the AEI event.
“It has a legitimate role in terms of tanking, and I would say that [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] is on the table for sure. We’ll free up tactical aircraft by virtue of taking on that mission, but even more important, we’ll learn how to integrate unmanned aircraft into our air wing. What does that mean, flying on and off the carrier? There’s just so much to learn now, and I want to get after that. In the mean time, the decisions that we make now, we’ll do our very best not to preclude increasing the platform’s capability in other areas as technologies become available, as we learn those lessons and we kind of grow into that. But I think there’s just so much to learn right now, I’m eager to get started.”

He reiterated his point to reporters afterwards, saying that centering the unmanned plane around the tanking mission might help get the program through acquisition and onto the flight deck faster.

“I’m pretty confident that if we sort of define this program right, and we go into it with sort of an end in mind – that might include all of the above, we certainly wouldn’t want to preclude anything – but let’s get something on deck, as I said in the last session, where we can start to learn about integrating unmanned aircraft into the air wing,” he said.
“We don’t want to preclude future opportunities, so that’ll be an important part of the process is that we have a path into the future that wouldn’t preclude all of those things that everybody wants – I want them as much as anybody – but I just think that right now we stand to benefit a lot by getting something on deck. A real mission – this is not just a prototype that’s going to go up and do nothing – and we learn a lot there and we see what the future holds.”

 An F/A-18E Super Hornet assigned to the Warhawks of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 97 prepares to refuel an EA-18G Growler assigned to the Wizards Electronic Attack Squadron (VAQ) 133 on Feb. 11, 2016. US Navy photo.

An F/A-18E Super Hornet assigned to the Warhawks of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 97 prepares to refuel an EA-18G Growler assigned to the Wizards Electronic Attack Squadron (VAQ) 133 on Feb. 11, 2016. US Navy photo.

Regardless of whether CBARS eventually takes on ISR or strike missions, the tanking mission will provide immediate relief to the struggling Super Hornet fleet. The legacy Hornets have taken longer than expected to get through depot maintenance and back out to the fleet – when planes came in for a service life extension program, more extensive wear and tear was found and the SLEP program had to be modified. With the legacy planes slow to come through the depots, the newer Super Hornets have not only taken on more strike missions than planned to keep up with operational needs, but they’ve been the sole source of aerial refueling during carrier strike group deployments. USNI News understands that as many as 20 to 30 percent of Super Hornet sorties are tanking missions.

Fielding a CBARS plane quickly would buy the Navy a bit more time before sending in the Super Hornets for a service life extension program of their own. The first Super Hornets will reach the 6,000-hour point this year, marking the end of the planes’ expected service life, and with the depots still backed up with legacy Hornets, Navy aviation faces a real challenge to maintaining required readiness levels.

In the Fiscal Year 2017 budget request that was released earlier this week, naval aircraft depot maintenance is funded at only 83 percent of the Navy and Marine Corps’ needs.

“In FY 2017, readiness levels of deployed units and units training in preparation to deploy will be attainable; however, the readiness of non-deployed units remain below entitled levels due to the effects of F/A-18 A-D Legacy Hornet Out-of Reporting (OOR) caused by aviation depot throughput challenges and the Ready Basic Aircraft gap caused by flight line maintenance and material support issues,” according to a Navy budget highlight book.
“The intent of FY 2017 funding is to ensure appropriate predeployment/deployment funding levels while recovering from the above issues by realigning funding into engineering and program-related logistics, increasing engineering support to aviation depots and flight line assessments of aircraft to speed the repair process.”

This strike fighter depot maintenance challenge has seeped throughout the Navy, creating readiness and personnel problems ashore, director of air warfare Rear Adm. Mike Manazir and Deputy Commandant for Aviation Lt. Gen. Jon Davis said last week at a House Armed Services tactical air and land forces subcommittee hearing.

“If you picture sort of a bell curve in training, so you train up, you go on deployment at the highest level, and then you walk back down again, that bell curve has gotten steeper. So we’ve taken the readiness out of the front end (in basic phase pre-deployment training) and the back end, where you sustain the readiness,” Manazir said.
“That means that a significant part of our force that is shore- based, in training and not deployed yet, is experiencing a lot less flight time than they’re required to spend.

“We’ve had to shut down squadrons if they don’t have enough time in the air. We create a floor of flying hours at 11 hours a month – we call that our tactical hard deck – for a pilot in the United States Navy, and we say, if you can’t get 11 hours per month you are not proficient and current enough to remain safe in the airplane. And so we — we try to get that 11 hours per month,” he continued.

Davis said at the hearing that the low level of flight hours could cause a retention problem in the Marine aviation community.

“I also worry about my pilots leaving the Marine Corps because they’re not getting enough flight time. These are the best and brightest that our nation’s produced. … Great young people, they joined to fight; they joined to be good at what they do,” Davis said.
“It’s like a quarterback. All the great quarterbacks want all the snaps. Our pilots want all the snaps. A F-18 pilot in the Marine Corps should get 16 hours of snaps a month and he’s getting 10.”

  • DogoodPatriot

    No, the Navy should purchase V-22s or bring back S-3s for tanking duties, not waste money the Navy doesn’t have.

    • muzzleloader

      It was foolish and very shortsighted for the navy brass to retire the S-3 to begin with. They were perfect refueling platforms and they still had half their airframe life left. between this and using the entire fleet of Spruance class destroyers for sink ex’s, I am wondering what kind of buffoons we have wearing the stars and gold braid these days.

      • Secundius

        @ muzzleloader.

        It WASN’T the Naval Brass, it was A Quick Decision by THEN SecNav Ray Mabus. The 2016 Naval Appropriations called for a Multi-Purpose Fixed Wing Aircraft, that could perform Multiple Task from Different Ship Type (specifically Aircraft Carrier’s and Gator-Freighters). The ONLY aircraft that Fit-That-Bill was the MV-22 Osprey, so the Viking GOT CHOPPED. The Other Reason was that Ray Mabus, was Afraid of Loosing His Job as SecNav…

    • sferrin

      The V-22 would be a horrible tanker. The S-3s would only be band-aid as they don’t have a lot left in them.

  • Curtis Conway

    I can very easily envision CBARS maintaining a tanker track and passing fuel to customers using a fixed automated method either RF/visual (light and motion) or both. As soon as any Probe & Drogue customer shows up behind the CBARS (tanker) and deploys the Probe, the tanker will go through a series of steps including logging in the customer, recording the requested fuel amount, and responding to hookup, and lighted conditions in sequence . . to disconnect. A total EMCON fuel passage should be possible. Resets will be required, and casualty modes well thought out. In a Strike Package two CBARS (Primary and Backup) would probably launch first and go direct to station on opposite ends of the Tanker Track. Thought to variables of which we are not in control are required, like weather. The E-2D crews are going to have to get some experience with this. I would really like to see what a CBARS ‘Transfer on Station’ Relief would look like, and would be the fundamental capability just like the big boys. Don’t know what the AI is going to look like, but this had better be one smart drone because there are times it will be out there by itself. However, R2D2 can handle it.

    Every drone in the pattern, or on deck, should have its own EO/IR device (FLIR Sea Star SAFIRE Optical Tracking Systems hanging on the superstructure with overlapping views) which the Primary Operator can visually verify and maintain control until it is ‘Brakes Locked’ and ‘Chocks and Chains’. The redundant and casualty tolerant system (cabinets) that maintain that facility had better be drop dead solid, with casualty modes and redundancy, and those redundancies exercised often. The equipment set and capabilities should be part of a system that can go on any Surface Combatant to provide Passive Visual Surveillance during EMCON. Locations should be high, and readily accessible to maintenance personnel, but in a secure location.

    As for Hornet SLEPs the Legacy birds can continue the Depot experience for that is the most efficient at present, and Super Hornets could go to the Plant. Boeing has significant capacity and that capacity does not have to be all new construction. Congress should contract and fund this activity. Legacy Hornets that cannot resume unlimited carrier based operations should be candidates for the Allies who need fighters the most, and are looking for a bargain. A short list comes to mind including the Philippines, Taiwan, a few NATO Allies, and others.

    Lower fuel costs should help get flight hours up with an augmentation in the budget. However, the training and maintenance ‘Bell Curve’ will have future HiStorical repercussions. We have been here before.

  • TronsAway

    A V-22 tanker has a higher initial purchase price, larger aircrew requirement, slower airspeed, 10-20,000 feet lower operating altitude, no air-to-air radar, and less fuel give-away than the current less than optimal FA-18 buddy tanker solution.

    Like the FA-18E, when any aircraft is performing its secondary mission of aerial refueling, i.e. buddy tanking”, it’s not performing its primary mission. In the case of the V-22, it’s not carrying troops, PAX, and cargo, all missions that are vital to daily fleet operations in peace and war. The Navy could continue using FA-18s, or adapt the roll-on/roll-off V-22 Aerial Refueling System to fit the C-2s, and have a better stop-gap capability for far less cost than buying V-22s for tankers.

    If I had my druthers, I’d seek an unmanned update of Ed Heinemann’s A-3 design with modern materials, current engines, and fly-by-wire digital flight control system. Maintain the bomb bay space for modular payloads or extra fuel tanks, and replace the cockpit area with the “Predator bump”. Control its positioning via point/click from the E-2, PAPA, CATCC, etc., with offload requests by datalink (or even a garage door opener.) Spiral development is the opposite of the A-3 – 29,000 pound-give tanker first, then JASSM/LRASM stand-off-weapons barge, then sonobouy and torpedo carrier, then stand-off-jammer…

    Recovery tanking would remain an alert FA-18E with an ARS.

    • Curtis Conway

      Have you been to the Bone Yard lately to see what we have to work with? These most certainly would be all new builds A-3. However, I agree with that 100 knot faster, and greater give, tanker coming back.

  • Mixa…

    Russian weapons are far advanced and superior to US and Western analogs and well and widely known as such worldwide. Therefore, more and more countries worldwide prefer Russia’s made weapons over US made. Plain and simple. Even more importantly, they are cheaper, easier to handle and maintain.

    • Ctrot

      ROFLMAO!!!!!!!! Good one, tell another!

  • Taxpayer71

    If relieving the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fleet of the aerial tanking mission is needed to get relief from a readiness though, one might look for a near-term solution rather than a new start CBARS platform which will be lucky to get to the fleet in 10 years. The article states “… that Fielding a CBARS plane quickly would buy the Navy a bit more time before sending in the Super Hornets for a service life extension program of their own.” Who believes a new start aircraft development (CBARS) can be fielded quickly?

  • Leatherstocking

    S-3 is the logical interim choice – retired within the last decade. KA-6Ds have been been in the boneyard too long. The short legs of the Hornets call for a lot of tanking and there needs to be tankers that can support the strike packages. The squadrons are already hollowed out and aging is stressing maintenance.