News | May 6, 2022

How Naval Aviation is Solving Its Billion-dollar Corrosion Problem

By Paul Lagasse

Before joining the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD), physical chemist Dr. El Sayed Arafat had never really thought much about corrosion. But over the next two decades, it became his specialty.

“I didn’t plan to work at NAWCAD,” said Arafat, who retired at the end of September. “I was a Professor of Chemistry at Rust College, in Holly Springs, Mississippi, when I received an invitation to visit and participate in one of the summer programs at NAVAIR. I am glad I came!”

Arafat joined NAWCAD’s Corrosion and Wear Branch, a component of the Air Systems Group—the organization primarily responsible for spearheading the Naval Aviation Enterprise (NAE) corrosion campaign. Right away, the branch head handed Arafat a big challenge. The NAE needed a way to prevent corrosion on aircraft components that had long shelf life and was easy to apply compared to existing products.

“Corrosion is almost like cancer,” Arafat said. “If nothing is done to stop it, it keeps on going until it is too late to fix it.”

Corrosion has long been a headache for Naval Aviation. A recent audit by the Department of Defense (DOD) Inspector General reported that between 1989 and 2020, the Navy F/A-18C-G community issued no fewer than 14 technical directives augmenting corrosion mitigation practices across its squadrons. And it’s also a very expensive problem; the audit noted that from 2017 to 2020, corrosion maintenance conducted by squadron maintainers on F/A-18C-G aircraft cost the Navy more than $2 billion. That does not include the costs it incurred treating corrosion in the Navy’s many other aircraft and ships in service.

With funding from the Office of Naval Research and the Defense Logistics Agency, Arafat and his team developed and tested NavGuard, a family of corrosion prevention compounds, as well as a suite of lubricants designed to prevent corrosion. Over the course of his NAWCAD career, Arafat has received many patents for the products that he developed. The NavGuard corrosion prevention compounds, of which NavGuard IV is the latest, was developed to last longer than previous versions. Furthermore, one of the NavGuard products (NavGuard I) is explicitly designed to prevent corrosion and inhibit the growth of mildew simultaneously. Like corrosion, mildew is a constant headache for aircraft maintainers.

“Metal, oxygen and water are all that’s required to make rust,” Arafat said. “Preventing water from reaching the metal is the secret to mitigating it. In addition, if you can use a metal alloy that resists corrosion, that helps a lot too. And if you can combine the two, you get the best results.”
Corrosion has been singled out as Naval Aviation’s No. 1 systemic degrader—the top issue eroding overall performance of the Navy. Chemical corrosion prevention compounds like NavGuard enable maintainers to fight corrosion one aircraft at a time, but until recently, the Navy had yet to identify the best strategy to tackle the problem in a systematic manner.

To address these issues, NAWCAD, the Navy’s Fleet Readiness Centers, and NAVAIR’s Sustainment Group worked together to establish a Corrosion Management Board in 2020 to guide strategy, address challenges, identify barriers, and track actions and outcomes across the Navy. Soon after its creation, the board identified and developed a process to baseline the corrosion health of each of the Navy’s type/model/series aircraft, piloted as the Corrosion Health Assessment Scorecard—the first of its kind not only in the Navy, but throughout DOD. The scorecard identified several systemic challenges that contribute to corrosion, one of which was lack of training for corrosion maintenance tasking at the organization level. 

To develop immediate solutions for the corrosion training gap, the Navy launched the Organization-Level Corrosion Control Reform program. The program is a Navy-wide training strategy designed to establish a cadre of proficient and professional corrosion maintainers and improving material conditions throughout the fleet. 

According to NAWCAD’s Julia Russell and Cmdr. Terrance McCray, who are leading the corrosion response effort, the approach is threefold. First, the Navy needs to develop and implement a uniform training program for dealing with corrosion. Next, a cultural shift is required in how squadrons see corrosion mitigation. Historically, it has been considered a low-skill job that doesn’t contribute much, if at all, to operational readiness. “We want to put in place a culture where squadrons see corrosion mitigation as being just as important as the radar system or the weapons delivery system, where they are motivated to try and outshine each other on corrosion mitigation the way they compete on readiness,” McCray said.

Finally, sustaining corrosion training and culture change requires novel policy, said Russell and McCray. In order to track overarching NAE corrosion investment more effectively, they would also like to see corrosion mitigation established as a program of record within the Navy.
“It could take a decade or more to see the benefits of today’s investment,” Russell said. “There’s no way to do this job without being optimistic.”

That optimism is a characteristic of NAWCAD’s approach to complex problems like corrosion mitigation. “It’s a serious issue, and any effort that can reduce maintenance costs or reduce corrosion is very rewarding,” Arafat said. “I’m very proud of the work that we’ve done at NAWCAD and that we continue to do.” 

Paul Lagasse is a public relations specialist with Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division.