By Robbin Laird
Recently I visited San Diego and had chance to discuss with Vice Admiral Whitesell the work the Navy is doing in terms of introducing new capabilities and training for high-end operations. The Navy is introducing new capabilities onboard the large deck carriers, focusing on new concepts of operations captured in part by the notion of distributed operations and are working new ways to train for high-end operations.
We discussed all of these themes during our meeting in his office on January 4, 2023. I had last visited that office when Vice Admiral Miller was the Air Boss and we discussed during my meetings with him the process of change as the air wing of the future or as I prefer to call it the shaping of the integratable air wing comes to the large deck carrier and does so as the Navy is working new ways to integrate fleet, joint and coalition operations.
When I was last there, Vice Admiral Miller discussed the coming of the first package of capabilities associated with the new air wing coming to the USS Carl Vinson. Now it has done so along with the USS Abraham Lincoln. This is where we started the conversation.
Whitesell underscored that when he came aboard, they were preparing to deploy the F-35C, the CMV-22B and the Advanced Hawkeye as a new package on board the Vinson and then the Lincoln. This meant that the first steps towards integration of the new capabilities onboard the carrier and then working with the fleet was the first task.
These initial operations are always a learning process, but it was one where the early findings were significant with regard to ramping up the operational capabilities for the carrier and the fleet. The advanced sensing and targeting capabilities of the F-35 (along with its ability to work across a joint F-35 force), the advanced C2 capabilities of advanced Hawkeye (which can seamlessly connect with other naval, joint and coalition assets to have an enhanced ability for the carrier force to work in an extended battlespace) and the CMV-22 (with its ability to operate beyond simple point to point logistics and to support contested logistics ops) are significant expanders of fleet operations.
And has been noted by a number of F-35 operators, the aircraft makes the other strike aircraft more lethal and survivable. This is true not just for the evolving Super Hornets, but the Growlers as well. He noted that “the Growler when operating with the F-35 creates some incredible synergistic capabilities.”
With the deployment of the new “module” of air wing capability comes a new approach to training as well. The capabilities unleashed by fifth generation aircraft lead to the need to train in a way that the blue side needs to understand how to master advanced tactics without letting the adversary see this capability. The introduction of live virtual constructive (LVC) training is a keyway to do so.
Vice Admiral Whitesell noted that a LVC terminal was onboard the Lincoln which allowed for such training at sea. Of course, Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center (NAWDC) with its enhanced training facilities is leading the way in terms of LVC training for the Navy. He described his own experience at Navy Air Station Whidbey, where he flew a Growler in a LVC training event.
“I was up in Growler about six months ago, flying a high-end event with another aircraft. We were just two aircraft, but on the display and with the weapons we had simulated on the aircraft, we simulated flying in a high-end fight. The sweat pumps get running. You’re running a high-end scenario with multiple Red and Blue assets engaged.”
He underscored that at NAWDC, the training along these lines have added a week to the basic training scenario which enables enhanced high-end training. The USAF is now fully engaged with NAWDC in the last week module of what used to be a four-week syllabus but now is a five-week module.
Vice Admiral Whitesell added that the F-35 pilots through their basic training are already understanding training for the high-end threat. As he commented: “The level of training and the skill of the kids nowadays means they can handle high end training early on. We’re just taking it to another level.”
He underscored as well that during his time at U.S. Pacific Fleet, just prior to taking his current job, there has been a major shift in USAF and U.S. Navy joint operational cooperation and integration.
“We train now with the Air Force at NAWDC, and we run long range maritime strike missions together. That’s why that extra week was added on to the NAWDC syllabus. They are working on joint long range maritime strikes against the priority targets that an Indo-PACOM has assigned us.”
We then discussed the coming of the CMV-22 to the carrier air wing. When I was last at NAWDC, I asked about where the new aircraft fit into the curriculum. The answer was: they were not sure for the C2A Greyhound was a point-to-point logistical delivery system. The CMV-22B is not – it can operate with significant flexibility and as a kill web support capability and thereby can expand the Navy’s development of distributed operations.
I asked the Vice Admiral about how the Navy was now addressing the arrival of this new aircraft to the fleet. He emphasized that the baptism of the CMV-22B in its first two deployments, the first aboard Vinson and the second aboard Lincoln, allowed the Navy to certify that it was “going to be a successful maritime aircraft and to execute the COD mission.”
But now the kid gloves were off. “What is our concept of employment for this aircraft? To answer this question will require a mindset change within naval aviation and the COD community. The expeditionary nature of the CMV-22B expands the possibilities for successful distributed maritime operations and we are determined to get full value out of the aircraft in terms of its synergy with con-ops evolutions for the fleet.”
He added: “Under distributed operations, the carrier strike group is deployed differently. We are shaping a completely different way of thinking about that and the CMV-22B can be used is part of that mindset change.”
Vice Admiral Whitesell assured me that when I would go back to NAWDC, I would get a very different response to my question of where the CMV-22B fit into the syllabus. “They are looking at how you would use the CMV-22B, notably in the Western Pacific. The CMV-22B is an all-weather, day and night aircraft that doesn’t need a runway. How can we best utilize such an aircraft as we work contested logistics? And does how does it empower the way ahead for distributed maritime operations?”
My own sense is that the fighting Navy is focused on distributed operations as an operational experiment and are working to shape different ways to work the problem of prevailing in the expanded battlespace with both enhanced lethality and survivability.
Vice Admiral Whitesell concluded: “We are in an experimentation phase. We are working force distribution and integration. We are experimenting like Nimitz did in the inter-war years. We are working from seabed to space with regard to force integration. It is a work in progress. But being successful in operating in an environment where logistics are contested, where getting weapons to the fleet in conflict, is not just a nice to have capability but a necessary one.”
Vice Admiral Kenneth Whitesell
Commander, Naval Air Forces/Commander, Naval Air Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet
Vice Adm. Kenneth Whitesell is a native of Stuarts Draft, Virginia, and a 1983 graduate of Old Dominion University with a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering. He received his commission from Aviation Officer Candidate School in February 1985 and earned his naval aviation wings in October 1986. He is a graduate of the Joint Forces Staff College and the Naval War College with a Master of Arts in National Security and Strategic Studies.
Whitesell’s operational assignments include Fighter Squadron (VF) 142, USS Eisenhower (CVN 69); Top Gun training officer and assistant operations officer with VF-74, USS Saratoga (CV 60); and VF-32, USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71). He transitioned from the F-14 Tomcat into the F/A-18F Super Hornet and commanded Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 41, USS Nimitz (CVN 68). His major command tour included commander, Carrier Air Wing 1, USS Enterprise (CVN 65). Most recently, he served as commander, Carrier Strike Group 2 aboard USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77).
Whitesell’s shore assignments include tactics phase leader with VF-101, F-14 Fleet Replacement Squadron (FRS); assistant readiness officer, Commander, Fighter Wing Atlantic; a joint tour as strategic action officer, National Military Command Center, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Washington, D.C.; executive officer, VFA-122 during the fleet transition to the FA-18 E/F Super Hornet; and as the tactical air (TACAIR) commander detailer and head assignments officer, Navy Personnel Command; and most recently deputy commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet, in July 2019.
He completed overseas tours as Combined Air and Space Operations Center battle director, Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar; and chief of staff and director, Maritime Operations Center, Commander, U.S. Navy Central Command/Commander, U.S. 5th Fleet. He also served as the director, Aviation Officer Distribution Division, PERS-43, Navy Personnel Command. As a flag officer, he served as the assistant commander, Navy Personnel Command for Career Management (PERS-4).
Whitesell became Naval Aviation’s ninth “Air Boss” on October 2, 2020.
Whitesell has participated in Operations Desert Shield, Southern Watch, Deliberate Guard/Allied Force, Iraqi Freedom and Inherent Resolve. He has accumulated over 4,000 flight hours and 1,005 carrier arrested landings.
His personal decorations include the Distinguished Service Medal, Legion of Merit (five awards), Defense Meritorious Service Medal, Meritorious Service Medal (two awards), Air Medal, and various campaign, unit and individual awards.
Featured Photo: NAVAL AIR STATION NORTH ISLAND, Calif. (May 4, 2022)
Vice Admiral Kenneth Whitesell, Commander, Naval Air Forces, shakes hands with Tom Cruise prior to the start of the advance premiere of Top Gun: Maverick on Naval Air Station North Island (NASNI), May 4. Top Gun: Maverick, set to release worldwide on May 27, features U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps pilots and was shot on multiple ships and facilities including NASNI, Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) and USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Allayah Carr)
For my earlier discussions with NAWDC and the VADM Miller, the previous Navy Air Boss, see the following: