Air Samurai: Is Naval Aviation Overtraining Pilots in the Age of Automation?

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Despite having the best naval aviators and aircraft at the beginning of World War II, Japanese planners failed to prepare to replace combat losses, and it cost them dearly. By 1942, Japanese naval aviation was in decline because “the navy had simply produced too few fliers.” The U.S. military bested superb Japanese pilots by flooding the skies quickly with good enough ones. The Japanese navy never recovered from the loss of over 100 trained naval aviators during the Battle of Midway, followed by the decimation of its remaining aviation competency at the Battle of the Philippine Sea. 

Today, the U.S. military produces too few pilots, eroding experience in deployed squadrons. It risks a similar path as Japan in the event of hostilities. A chronic shortage of pilots will plague the U.S. military for years. One reason is that outmoded training systems and syllabi needlessly prolong flight training and exacerbate acute shortages.

Automation, like the U.S. Navy’s Precision Landing Mode, is assuming more complex flight tasks in modern cockpits with failsafe redundancy. This raises questions about whether the U.S. military is overtraining its pilots and if the reliance on obsolete training aircraft, like the T-45C Goshawk, is hobbling the introduction of better training. Forcing flight students to perform legacy manual attritional tasks that can be automated provides questionable benefits, prolongs training, consumes precious resources, and can force unnecessary attrition. 

 

 

The military should examine which skills automation can safely and reliably replace in cockpits today and remove those elements from pilot training curriculums. Also, military training aircraft should possess the right level of automation to prepare student pilots for their combat aircraft. Modern training must not solely serve the operation of legacy equipment and test future pilots on skills they are longer required to master.

Strained Training Resources

The lessons from the Japanese experience during World War II are salient for today’s U.S. military. The time required to train jet pilots has steadily increased across the services. The ongoing pilot shortage is a strategic risk for the military because it lacks enough experienced pilots for its operational units. Part of the problem is that new pilots are taking longer to train and are entering the fleet slower than the departures of experienced ones. This creates what a RAND study called the “aging rate deficit,” when inexperienced pilots become the dominant composition of a squadron and drive up the unit’s overall required flying hours for its younger ones to become “experienced.” Experienced pilots require fewer hours to maintain proficiency, allowing more flight hours to develop inexperienced aircrews. 

Recognizing the need to train faster to ameliorate pilot shortages, the U.S. Navy implemented some initiatives to decrease training time, including hiring contract instructor pilots and pulling experienced ones from other places within the naval aviation enterprise. Much to the chagrin of undermanned fleet replacement squadrons and weapon schools, their pilots were pulled to augment training commands. Another initiative included syllabus revisions, which removed some events and phases, reducing flight hours and events for student pilots. But other, more resource-intensive legacy syllabi remained.

The Navy’s training command carrier qualification syllabus consists of 23 events, including five in the simulator, and accounts for over 17 hours in the aircraft. Additionally, students require a minimum of 250 practice carrier landings at an airfield before actual carrier qualification, accrued over months of flight training. It is common for students to be below the practice landings requirement, requiring additional flights above the allocated syllabus to close the deficit. The carrier qualification syllabus strains the resources of an aging and dwindling advanced jet trainer fleet and represents a significant time commitment for flight students and instructors. For example, a carrier qualification phase usually starts a few weeks prior, with participating students focusing solely on those events.

The training commands typically fly 20 jets to either coast to support a carrier qualification evolution. Transiting to training locations incurs significant costs in flight hours and sorties above syllabus requirements. Nearly 120 flight sorties are spent just to ferry aircraft to the carrier training location, hours that consume airframe life and could be spent on other training. These aircraft and their instructor pilots can represent up to a third of the fleet available for training, requiring homefield production slowdowns during carrier qualification. Moreover, syllabus execution depends on an aircraft carrier’s schedule and availability, subject to maintenance delays that can cancel the resource-intensive training evolution and hamper operational availability. Reducing or cutting the requirements in the carrier qualification syllabus goes a long way toward streamlining and shortening the training pipeline, especially as the dependability of scheduled training evolutions with carriers declines amidst other operational priorities.

Fighter Jet Automation

Most Western combat jets are fly-by-wire, or advanced derivative, fly-by-control full authority augmentation systems. This means that a pilot’s control inputs are electronically encoded, interpreted by flight control software, and then transmitted to the aircraft’s control surfaces — no longer are the pilot’s inputs directly linked to control surfaces. Fly-by-control aircraft allow maneuverability that is otherwise unattainable by making aerodynamically unstable aircraft controllable for human pilots. Computerized flight controls automatically compensate for instability, giving the pilot the appearance of a stable aircraft and translating relatively simple pilot inputs into complex adjustments to the aircraft’s control surfaces. When the pilot makes a flight control command through the control stick, the flight control computers analyze the demand signal, compare it against the aircraft’s current flight parameters, and provide a compensated flight control input. 

A joke exists among aviators that a pilot in modern combat aircraft does not fly the aircraft but “only gets a vote in the control of the aircraft” — that is, most of the flying is done by the aircraft itself. This harmonized system gives unprecedented maneuverability and benign intuitive control while making the aircraft easier to fly, allowing pilots to devote attention to mission-related tasks beyond flying. The technology is proliferating in military and civilian aviation. For example, Garmin’s Safe Return Autoland system in Cirrus business jets can select an airport, communicate with air traffic control, and land the aircraft while avoiding terrain with the push of a button.

Even some of the original fly-by-control combat jets, like the F-16, were updated with automated failsafe modes, some with the ability to take direct control from the pilot to prevent a catastrophe. Today, U.S. Air Force F-16s carry the automatic ground collision avoidance system that recovers the aircraft from imminent impact with terrain if the pilot fails to do so themselves. The technology is credited with saving nine lives, including at least one in combat, and the Navy is working to install the system into the F/A-18 Super Hornet. Additionally, allied nations possess aircraft that utilize auto-recovery systems, like the Eurofighter Typhoon and Dassault Rafale. In the Rafale, a spatially disoriented pilot can press a button that automatically recovers the aircraft into a stable, wings-level climb from nose low or high attitudes.

Critics of a heavier reliance on automation for critical phases of flight, like landings, might question redundancy: “What if automated carrier landing software fails and the pilot doesn’t know how to land manually?” These concerns are unfounded. Flight control automation possesses multiple redundancies, and fly-by-wire jets rely on software and electronics for all aspects of their flight. There is no option to resort to a truly manual flight mode. The failure of control automation would be a failure of the flight control computer itself. This is an uncontrollable situation that forces pilot ejection. 

Training for What?

Parallelophobia” is anxiety or fear of parallel parking and affects 49 percent of U.S. drivers. For drivers, parallel parking is one of the most difficult skills to master. Failure rates are high for states requiring parallel parking on driving tests. But what if automation can reliably park the car for you? There are numerous cars on the road today capable of hands-free parallel parking. The technology is becoming prevalent enough to be cited as a reason for removing the parallel park requirement for states that still feature it on their driving tests.

Traditionally, one of the most complex tasks naval pilots accomplished was carrier landings. It serves as the par excellence for naval aviators and is a gatekeeping attritional element from naval aviation’s inception. The F-35 and F/A-18 now feature highly automated flight control systems that eliminate the need for many of the corrections pilots make during a carrier approach, known as precision landing mode. The recent software revisions to precision landing mode make the system redundant and will still operate with multiple hydraulic failures or single engine failures. Since the system’s introduction, pilot carrier landing performance dramatically improved. During one of the author’s carrier deployments in 2022 with Carrier Air Wing Two, he observed remarkable performance improvements among new pilots, with many placing on par with experienced ones who had already flown hundreds of carrier landings. This was unprecedented. If new pilots using precision landing mode are just as good or better at carrier landings than experienced pilots without it, it raises the question: Does the Navy still need to perform carrier qualification in the training commands before students reach the fleet replacement squadrons? Or can qualification in operational squadrons equipped with precision landing mode meet that requirement?

The Navy is examining the feasibility of removing carrier qualification from the training commands altogether. Discussions began in early 2020. However, senior leadership is reluctant to follow through on this common-sense way to shorten training time. Officially, data is still being compiled after the Navy opted to undertake an incremental step by sending 50 percent of its fledgling tactical aircraft pilots to the aircraft carrier and the other half to qualify once at the fleet replacement squadron. Initial results are promising, with landing signal officers noting little difference in the carrier approach grades between pilots previously qualified at the training command and ones who received their initial qualification at the fleet replacement squadrons. Even if the Navy nixes carrier qualification in the training commands, it plans to retain it for E-2 Hawkeye pipeline, representing another unnecessary legacy holdover. Despite the E-2 not being fly-by-wire, the handling characteristics between it and the carrier trainers are markedly different. Also, new E-2 pilots go to the carrier with a supervising instructor. Such reasons were cited as further proof to remove carrier training in the advanced training pipelines altogether.

The Navy’s current advanced jet trainer, the T-45C, lacks many of the automated features of modern fighter jets. The T-45C is not a fly-by-wire aircraft and lacks an autopilot, emergency recovery, or any pilot relief mode. Its flight performance and capabilities pale compared to modern fighters or newer advanced trainers like Boeing’s T-7A Redhawk, Lockheed’s T-50, or Textron‘s M-346N. Each is capable of near sonic speeds, fly-by-wire digital flight controls, respectable thrust-to-weight, and high angle-of-attack maneuvering. The T-45C is a plane that needs to be manually flown in every sense of the word and requires a good portion of the early training syllabus to learn proper handling. One author recalls many early events spent teaching proper trim techniques, a function performed automatically in more advanced aircraft. Also, the numerous control inputs required to land a T-45C aboard an aircraft carrier safely do not translate into the corrections a pilot must make in their fleet aircraft. What benefit is provided by forcing future pilots to constantly trim or “hand-fly” a more difficult analog aircraft when their computerized combat aircraft are designed to be easy to fly, and the correctional inputs are not reinforcing across the platforms? 

Modern combat aircraft are designed to be easy to fly so their pilots can manage complex combat systems and tactics. Already, advanced warfighting concepts envision pilots controlling autonomous wingmen within highly automated cockpits, acting more as quarterbacks directing plays than tangling in close-quarter dogfight furballs of the past. But the T-45C lacks systems that can even simulate combat systems that new pilots will eventually interface with, aspects that prospective trainers being marketed to the military possess.

Enemies of Change and Avoiding the Same Mistakes

Unfortunately, a culture of resistance to change pervades throughout the Navy, as it does across the defense bureaucracy. It affects every aspect, including its personnel management bureau, despite the mounting evidence that change is necessary in the age of algorithms. Whether it is Luddism or nostalgia, not all within the Navy’s ranks are on board with curtailing or revising training syllabi. Interviews with instructors within the training commands highlighted instances in their careers where superiors stood against revisions, especially ones that removed carrier training, even when the evidence pointed to only marginal benefits in maintaining current syllabi. This foot-dragging is perhaps the reason behind the Navy’s greatest impediment to faster training times, its continued use of the T-45C Goshawk. The T-45C suffered numerous maintenance-related ‘black swan’ events and contracted maintenance struggles to maintain enough flyable aircraft. Event cancellations for unavailable aircraft are common with full flight schedules.

A key concern for picking a replacement aircraft is the inability of any prospective trainer to handle the rigors of shore-based carrier landing practice or touch-and-go on an aircraft carrier flight deck. Aircraft need to be specially designed and built to handle the stress of real and simulated carrier landings. But if already implemented flight control software has dramatically improved pilots’ carrier landing performance, are practice landing requirements necessary or an obsolete holdover? Each day the Navy delays its decision to pick a new training platform, the worse the deterioration of the T-45C fleet.

Opportunities to Train Faster 

In 1944, Japan had aircraft but not the competent pilots to fly them effectively, and resorted to the kamikaze. Is the Navy more interested in training pilots to be a handful of superb aviators like Imperial Japan, or operators of intuitive weapon systems? The Navy recognizes it has a problem with pilot training and is looking for solutions, but so far they are too slow and too few. Operational units face chronic shortages of trained pilots, and pilots in training face long wait times and bottlenecked pipelines. Across aviation, automation is poised to assume more piloting functions in aircraft, including functions previously believed to be too complex, like dogfighting. Heron Systems, now part of Shield AI, developed a dogfighting algorithm that beat a human fighter pilot five to zero in a competition and is now actively flying as part of Hivemind. As algorithms become more capable and assume more tasks within aircraft, like unusual attitude recoveries in the Rafale, Autoland systems in the Cirrus business jet, or dogfighting in a future platform, opportunities will present themselves for shortening training programs and syllabi. The establishment of new unmanned training programs in the Navy and Marine Corps offers a unique opportunity to assess training requirements for curtailment, especially as algorithms continue to take more of the “flying” from human pilots. Across aviation, lowering the cognitive burden of flying an aircraft allows pilots, whether in the aircraft or remote, to focus more on their payload and assigned mission.

The Navy and Marine Corps are right to perform their due diligence and ensure the dramatic departure from historical training guidelines is not ill-informed. However, they cannot afford to waste time crediting parochial or nostalgic arguments when it comes time to eliminate instances of overtraining. The services should seize opportunities for streamlining pilot training and stop training on unnecessary or redundant skills. Relying on automation to cut training requirements, like carrier qualifications, is one of the best opportunities. If the services cannot, the United States risks continued pilot shortages in peacetime or a crisis in wartime.

 

 

Trevor “Mrs.” Phillips-Levine is a U.S. naval aviator and a special operations joint terminal attack controller instructor. He currently serves as the Joint Close Air Support branch officer at the Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center. He previously served as a T-45C instructor pilot and standardization officer. In May 2023, he was recalled with other aviators to augment the training commands.

Walker D. Mills is a Marine Corps infantry officer currently in training to fly the MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle. He has written numerous articles for publications like War on the Rocks, USNI Proceedings, and the Marine Corps Gazette.

Image: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Lorenzo Fekieta-Martinez

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