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Wings of Gold: Leadership and Management

Retired Navy aviator leads private-sector creation of unmanned carrier aircraft

Editor's note: In honor of the centennial celebration of naval aviation, The Daily Transcript will be running a series of articles focusing on naval aviators and their leadership and management skills. The following is another article in the series.

"The Navy is changing by looking at this new technology, so you have to be responsive in this leadership position ... You can't sit and waffle or wring your hands about why is this changing. You just have to accommodate that change."

Mark Emerson, RADM (Ret.), may have retired a year and a half ago, but he's still working in tandem with the Navy in his new private-sector role with Northrop Grumman.

"What I do with Northrop is answer the question of how you would integrate an unmanned combat air vehicle onto a Navy carrier flight deck, with the air wings embarked on it and all the tactics, techniques, nuances and differences that you have to accommodate with around 65 manned aircraft," said Emerson, director for Navy UCLASS Fleet Introduction for Northrop Grumman's Aerospace Systems division. "How do you make that work? My response is to make that integration occur in a seamless way by understanding the environment the carrier has to operate in. It's a good fit for me as the Navy starts to integrate this."

The UCLASS -- unmanned carrier-launched airborne surveillance and strike -- aircraft are the equivalent of an F18 Super Hornet fighter aircraft in size, weighing 15 to 20 tons. Yet UCLASS vehicles are different from shore-based ones like the Global Hawk: They must take off and land on an aircraft carrier.

"Much of my last five years in the Navy, and I was fortunate to fly all the way up to the end, was all about training preparation and responding to a particular operation, or integrating into a larger operation with air wings. I think that what I am doing for Northrop now is a direct transfer over into trying to take a pretty complex, new, cutting-edge thing -- this unmanned combat air system -- and integrating it with Navy air wings, so there's a huge training piece," said Emerson. "At the end of the day, it's about getting the mission done in a very effective way, which is what I've been about for 33 years, without putting people's lives at risk or minimizing the risk. That's where I think UCLASS fits into the big scheme of things."

Northrop released two UCLASS-D vehicles on Feb. 14 of this year, with the "D" denoting "demonstration." These are going through preliminary testing by the Navy right now, and the plan is to test their landing capability on an aircraft carrier in the summer of 2013 to set the stage for potential development of a fleet of unmanned aircraft. Because it's unmanned and has a survivability attribute, the UCLASS-D is able to operate in a very dense enemy air-defense environment. As the Navy explores this new system, Emerson taps into his Navy experience by being ready to handle any of the Navy's requests for his team.

Mark Emerson, RADM (Ret.)

"Being able to respond to a crisis happened to me several times in the Navy: in preparation for Desert Storm when I was a wing operations officer and then when I was an air wing commander for some follow-up for Southern Watch," Emerson said. "I had to respond quickly to changes in the leadership position, and that's exactly what I'm going through now as the Navy makes adjustments to where and what they're thinking next as far as acquisition strategy and requirements. The Navy is changing by looking at this new technology, so you have to be responsive in this leadership position to take people on your team and respond to those changes quickly. You can't sit and waffle or wring your hands about why is this changing. You just have to accommodate that change."

Beyond his in-depth knowledge and his ability to respond effectively and nimbly, Emerson amassed great leadership experience during his Navy days that he applies to his Northrop position as well. In his most recent role, he had direct responsibility for approximately 500 people and oversaw their training.

"My last role was as commander of the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center (NSAWC) in Nevada. What that means is that it's the entity responsible for training all Navy carrier air wings to be ready to go on deployment. TopGun is part of that, and that's where tactics, techniques and procedures are standardized and taught to all carrier air crew."

Emerson also finds his familiarity with the Navy's unique operational perspective invaluable in interacting with his former peers that are now clients.

"A lot of the people I interface with that are still wearing a uniform are people I've flown with, or taught how to fly, or flew in Desert Storm with. You have that shared experience so they understand where you're coming from, and you understand where they're coming from," he said. "That said, in the transition to civilian life you really don't take the uniform off when you leave the service after -- in my case -- 33 years."

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