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Lawmakers to block shutdown of Navy's 10th air wing

The Navy's plan to shutter an air wing and develop refueling and reconnaissance drones have hit headwinds. Wednesday.nd develop refueling and reconnaisance drones took center stage at a Wednesday hearing. Navy aviation will look a little different next year, if the service’s budget goes through as requested: One less carrier air wing, and a new unmanned program that dumps the ability to drop bombs.

Air warfare director Rear Adm. Mike Manazir defended those proposals in a Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday, arguing that cutting Navy's 10th carrier air wing would reduce squadron costs and send planes to active squadrons. the slimdown is a better use of resources.

On the Navy's plan to cut its tenth carrier air wing, which consists of five squadrons that will be deactivated or shifted around, Manazir said that the move addresses an excess of squadrons.

"When you lay the predictability of our carrier schedule — and of course our carrier force deploys and operates with an air wing on top of it … the number of operational carriers that you have is no more than nine at any one time," Manazir said.

But the House Armed Services Committee had already rejected that argument Tuesday, moving to keep the Navy at announcing its mark-up of the fiscal year 2017 budget will keep the Navy at 10 air wings out of concern this move would lead to deeper aviation cuts.

The Navy and Defense Department compared carrier deployment and maintenance schedules with what's needed to face it would need to address threats from Russia, China, North Korea and Iran, Manazir said. The Navy has a 10-carrier fleet, of which one is typically in a yearslong overhaul. The move sought to match the nine active carriers with nine air wings and would axe and concluded that even if they Navy needed to spin up a strike group, there would still always been one completely undeployable carrier in a mid-life overhaul. That tenth carrier doesn’t need aircraft, which is why the Navy has moved to axe Carrier Air Wing 14, an administrative organization that hasn’t deployed since 2011 or been fully staffed since 2013.

"So while it appears as if we're getting rid of force structure, we're actually getting rid of a flagpole that holds that force structure, and we're moving that capability around," Manazir said.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson called it a "good business decision," according to Manazir.

"We had an air wing recently that had 83 months between deployments," Manazir said. "So there's not enough work to go around."

Lawmakers have been skeptical of the air wing's shutdown and worry that this downsizing will make it too hard to later build up the carrier force, which has been a push for defense hawks. A staffer told Navy Times' sister publication Defense News The House Armed Services Committee disagrees, however, a staff member told Defense News.

The staffer pointed out that that for part of FY 2017, the Navy won't have a carrier in deep maintenance. Thw committee is also concerned it would take too long to train up another air wing if needed, the staffer said. But the wing won't get anymore funding for staffing than it has now.

[can we add something here about lawmaker concerns, since they're blocking it?]

The unmanned future

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus announced last year that the carrier-based F-35C joint strike fighter would likely be the Navy's last manned bomb-dropper, but plans have stalled for its unmanned successor.

The Navy's long-awaited Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike program was scrapped earlier this year and replaced with the Carrier Based Aerial Refueling System, but that name didn't stick, either.

The service's latest unmanned program is now named MQ-XX, Manazir said, using the same naming convention as the Navy's unmanned MQ-4 Triton and MQ-8 Fire Scout drones.

MQ-XX will be primarily a tanker, he said, with a second mission in aerial reconnaissance.

"The reason that the secretary of the Navy agreed with the secretary of defense and the chief of naval operations on this new mission set is because we can accommodate these two missions on an unmanned system flying off the carrier more rapidly," Manazir said.

The move settles a yearslong debate in the Navy over whether UCLASS would be primarily a strike or surveillance platform.

"Now we are going to show that we can use unmanned systems to do two basic meat-and-potatoes missions off the aircraft carrier using MQ-XX," he said.

Designating one drone for tanking and reconnaissance frees them up to develop a separate, more advanced strike platform in the future, he added.

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