Mission Capable: How More Ready Jets Is Helping the Navy Create Deadlier Pilots

April 23, 2020 4:15 PM - Updated: April 23, 2020 6:19 PM
Sailors inspect an F/A-18E Super Hornet, assigned to the ‘Blue Diamonds’ of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 146, on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) on March 23, 2020. US Navy Photo

This post is the second in a two-part series on the naval aviation community’s effort to build better readiness and how that is changing the future of naval aviation.

“It was, quite frankly, a little scary.”

In 2015, Rear Adm. Rich Brophy was a captain who had just taken command of Carrier Air Wing 9 and was trying to usher the unit through pre-deployment training, while sitting at the bottom of a bathtub in naval aviation readiness.

So few aircraft were mission capable across the whole Navy that pilots in the maintenance phase of the deployment cycle – back from a previous deployment, not yet preparing for the next deployment –only flew about 11 hours a month, the tactical hard deck or minimum time in the cockpit to keep their qualifications.

“We actually went almost two years in the maintenance phase – so we went for two years with people flying at 11 hours a month, just barely skimming it. And it’s a little less when you talk about the naval flight officers,” Brophy told USNI News in a recent interview.
“And then we jumped into workups, and the best advice that I got was from Vice Adm. [David] Buss, who was the commander of naval air forces at the time. And he said, slow and steady wins the race. And so that was kind of our mantra as we worked up to get ready for a cruise … in 2016. And it was very slow, very methodical, working up to being able to get it so the air crew would be able to feel proficient.”

Brophy said the deployment with the John C. Stennis Carrier Strike Group in the Pacific was fine – but mostly because they weren’t asked to do “anything super high-end. We were doing missions in the South China Sea and East China Sea, pulling into Singapore, pulling into Korea, pulling into the Philippines and whatnot. So it was okay to have that type of workup.”

Not so much anymore.

“Now, obviously, with the National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy in 2018, it’s about, how do we build lethality for that high-end fight against a near-peer or peer type of competitor?”

An AIM-9M Sidewinder launches from an F/A-18E Super Hornet assigned to the “Eagles” of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA)115 during a missile shoot exercise in the Point Mugu Sea Range on March 4, 2017. VFA-115 is operating from Naval Air Station Fallon, Nevada, to complete the Strike Fighter Advanced Readiness Program. US Navy photo.

Brophy now commands the Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center (NAWDC) at Naval Air Station Fallon in Nevada and is in charge of teaching a totally revamped syllabus for pilot training, focused on air-to-air combat against a peer adversary rather than dropping bombs on ground targets in the Middle East – and he said the syllabus can only work because pilots in the maintenance phase are flying more hours a month and showing up at Fallon with much more advanced skills. And that improvement in pilot performance comes as a direct result of a push in 2018 to get more jets to a better state of material readiness.

In January 2018, current Commander of Naval Air Forces Vice Adm. DeWolfe Miller took over the job, and in February he made his first speech to the force during a visit to Fallon. “Warfighting and people, and the readiness of both,” would be his priorities in the job, he said – and though the money seemed to be in place to address readiness but the results weren’t being seen yet, Miller said it was important to start focusing on lethality right away.

“I wanted to re-shift back into warfighting because the funding will come and we will dig ourselves out of this readiness hole, and we need to be ready to fight and win,” he told USNI News during that day-visit to Fallon.
“We’ve done a great job keeping our deployers sharp: our ships, our air wings that are deployed, our strike groups that are deployed continue to do fantastic work. It has come, though, at the expense of the bench: the next-to-deploy and those that are behind that. So as we measure readiness, that’s really where I’m focused, is on that bench, to make sure we are able to get the availability of our aircraft up, the quality of our training up, such that it’s not just the deployers that are ready to go, and we don’t have to do so many pushups to get [the bench] ready.”

Through a massive data-driven overhaul of maintenance practices at all levels, a push to reach 80-percent mission capable rates in October 2018 was reached by September 2019, topping the 341-Super Hornet goal on Oct. 1 and many other subsequent dates after lows over the last decade around 250 ready jets.

Cmdr. Ron Flanders, a spokesman for Commander Naval Air Forces, told USNI News that as the number of mission capable F/A-18E/F Super Hornets rose from a monthly average of 267 in October 2018 to 325 in October 2019, that translated to more training and flying for pilots. During that same time period, monthly flight hours for pilots in squadrons in the maintenance phase rose from 11.1 hours to 15.1 hours. For deployed squadrons, that rose from 26.2 hours to 29.3, and for squadrons in the sustainment phase – just back from deployment and maintaining high readiness in case they are called upon to surge forward – that rose from 16.2 hours to 19.0.

USNI News chart depicting readiness gains for Navy jets from October 2018 to October 2019.

For Brophy and the training community, that boost in jet readiness means pilots in the maintenance phase are flying more, which means they begin pre-deployment training at a more proficient level, which means they can tackle more sophisticated work in early training stages and be ready to take on truly high-end air warfare scenarios by the time they arrive at the Air Wing Fallon training event.

“The entire syllabus that we’ve created is based on the fact that we have the up airplanes in order to train the aviators before they come here,” he said.

Using his time leading CAG-9 as an example, Brophy said that prior to reaching 80-percent mission capable rates through the development of the Naval Sustainment System (NSS) that took best practices in commercial aviation to apply to Navy maintenance efforts, squadrons in the maintenance phase would “be doing, if lucky, one v one, so single airplane versus single airplane, because maybe you could get two airplanes airborne. Maybe if you were lucky you got two airplanes on both sides airborne,” he said.
“Now we’re seeing where they’re actually getting four ships (on each side) airborne, so four enemy, four blue fighters – and that’s before they come to Air Wing Fallon, which is fantastic. That wasn’t the case before the NSS, and so when you start getting those additional reps and sets, we’re getting that additional training, you notice it in the aviators that are coming here.”

The new Air Wing Fallon syllabus starts with the notion of, “if I were to have to fight against a near- or a peer competitor, am I training at that right level to be able to be there?”

“It’s a complete re-write; the syllabus that we’ve had in the past was the same syllabus that I saw when I was a young Lt. Brophy. Now it is no longer; it is a complete scrub. We just had CAG 17 go through here a couple-three weeks ago and … finished off with some high-end over-the-water types of events that we haven’t done in the past,” Brophy told USNI News.

The old syllabus spent about 60 to 70 percent of the time on “5th Fleet operations,” focused on dropping bombs, coordinating with ground troops to provide close-air support and other missions to support land wars in the Middle East. Only about 30 percent of the syllabus looked at air-to-air warfare.

A U.S. Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet aircraft, assigned to Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 151, takes off from the flight deck aboard the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis (CVN-74) in the Arabian Sea, Dec. 11, 2018. US Navy Photo

Today, 70 percent of the Air Wing Fallon syllabus focuses on air-to-air warfare against a sophisticated enemy. Units are given more time in simulators early in the pre-deployment training phase to start practicing these skills, as well as some live flights and academic schooling. Once at Air Wing Fallon, they start with the 5th Fleet operations and graduate to 7th Fleet operations, where in the final week they’re given a set of objectives in support of maintaining maritime control and have to solve the problem with the air warfare skills they learned during the course and with a limited weapons load-out given to them up front.

Brophy acknowledged it could be hard to believe that simply giving pilots four more hours of flight time a month in maintenance phase could lead to such proficiency that Air Wing Fallon would be able to pivot to high-end warfighting operations. However, he stressed that each additional flight hour isn’t just the one hour spent in the air – it also requires about three hours of preparation, “talking about flying, thinking about flying, you’re talking about the tactics. Then you walk out to your airplane, you start it up, you fly it, you do that additional flight, you come back. And then it typically is between two to four hours later that you’re done; you’re still talking about that flight, watching tapes, watching how you performed, practicing to ensure you got exactly what’s right.”

Quickly, those additional four hours of flight time per month turn into four full days of learning for the pilot, as well as opportunities to pair the aircraft up into larger formation and build up a level of comfort flying the plane in that kind of scenario.

Having reached the 80-percent mission capable rate for Super Hornets and seeing all the goodness that came out of that, the next readiness effort for naval aviation will be to tackle subsystem readiness – the radars, the sensors, the weapons – and take a similar approach to identifying ways to improve maintenance of these systems to make the jets more survivable and lethal for pilots.

Lt. Rob Morris, from Annapolis, Md., observes a F/A-18F Super Hornet from the “Jolly Rogers” of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 103 land on the flight deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) on May 30, 2019. US Navy Photo

“We worried about getting aircraft that fly. But I need fully mission capable aircraft that fly, because in combat you’d never take an aircraft that wasn’t fully mission capable over an enemy country. So it’s the subsystems on there that matter, which is the new initiative that the Air Boss is pushing. Now that we have the airplanes, how do we get to that next phase, which is quite frankly what we need,” Brophy said.

NAWDC has been keeping some data on subsystem readiness as it relates to pilots’ performance during training events.

“Why is it that aircraft 305 always dies? And when you track down the subsystems it’s like, well it’s because this system doesn’t work, and therefore the pilot doesn’t know to maneuver his airplane because the system’s not working, or whatever it may be. So those kinds of systems are absolutely vital for us to be able to get to lethality,” Brophy said.
“Without it, you’re missing out on what lethality is and how to properly train your aircrew to react and fight the airplane, not just fly the airplane – which is kind of the heart of what we do here, we teach you how to fight it.”

Megan Eckstein

Megan Eckstein

Megan Eckstein is the former deputy editor for USNI News.

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