The notion that precision-guided munitions make tactical aviation
less dangerous is ludicrous, U.S. naval aviators contend. That fallacy
perpetually is fueled by media reports that eulogize the capabilities
of smart bombs and portray bombing campaigns as wars fought by remote
Naval aviators who fought in Operation Enduring Freedom said they
were encouraged and upbeat by the newly-found appreciation for carrier-based
aviation seen since the outbreak of the conflict in Afghanistan
a year ago. Nonetheless, they expressed concern about the misunderstandings
associated with modern strike warfare.
The widespread belief that dropping bombs can be compared to playing
a video game is worrisome and conveys the wrong message, pilots
“There is a perception in the world that aviation has become
a thing that you do from a distance. That you stand far away, you
hit a button, the weapon comes off, you go back to the carrier.
That is not true,” said Capt. Dave Mercer, a naval aviator
who commanded Carrier Air Wing 8 during Operation Enduring Freedom.
Mercer, along with other fellow carrier wing commanders, parleyed
their thoughts on Operation Enduring Freedom and the future of naval
aviation during the Tailhook convention, an annual gathering of
naval aviators held this month in Sparks, Nev.
“Everything that we drop requires you to go in harm’s
way,” said Mercer. “It’s important to understand
that, because it’s going to be that way for a little while
The weapons of choice in naval tactical aviation today—the
laser-guided bombs, the satellite-guided JDAMs and the laser Maverick
missile—are accurate for the most part, but still require
significant human skill to make them work properly.
“The theory that we drop from 50 miles away and go back to
the ship is not true,” Mercer stressed. “You have to
fly in harm’s way to put bombs on target.” Laser bombs
generally are dropped from an altitude of 15,000 feet and JDAMs
from about 30,000 feet.
He did not discount the possibility, however, that pilot-less weapons
such as unmanned aircraft may take over one day. “Some day,
God forbid, we are going to have UAVs to replace fliers. I’m
glad I won’t be around to see it.”
Speculating about a future military campaign in Iraq, Mercer suggested
that any air war would be dominated by carrier-based aviation, for
several reasons. The Navy has flown missions over Iraq steadily
during the past 11 years, in Operation Southern Watch, so it has
had ample opportunity to observe the Iraqis. Further, he noted,
the Air Force is likely to be denied permission to launch strikes
from bases in Saudi Arabia, so the “carrier is the only game
The downside for U.S. strike aviators is that the Iraqis have become
deft at discerning the tactics and techniques of American pilots.
For 11 years, said Mercer, U.S. aviators have essentially followed
the same pattern in conducting operations over Iraq, designed to
monitor a no-fly zone established after the end of the Gulf War.
“They are going to figure out what we do, if we do the same
things for 11 years,” said Mercer.
The upshot is that the Iraqis have come up with increasingly clever
countermeasures, particularly shifting the location of radar sites.
In recent years, he said, the Iraqis “started getting inside
the decision loop. It makes it difficult for us to hit targets,
because they would move them.”
U.S. military planners currently at Sultan Air Force Base, in Saudi
Arabia, are “working to get inside the decision loop of the
Iraqis,” Mercer said. Sultan is home to the Air Force’s
state-of-the-art command center.
Carrier-based aviation would be the primary launching pad for any
future bombing campaign, said Mercer. “You can’t fly
out of Saudi Arabia,” he said, “and you can’t
put enough airplanes in Kuwait to make a difference,” he added,
largely because the Air Force F-15 fighters based there are flown
by Air National Guard pilots, whose tours only last a couple of
weeks. The reality, said Mercer, is that “Navy aviation is
Fighting an enemy such as Iraq requires more than just knowing
the locations of the air-defense radars and other targets, he said.
“The whole thing turns on information and intelligence.”
But that is not enough. “You have to know: are you going to
have time to strike the target? Can you make the decision on time?”
Time-sensitive strike became an aviation buzzword during Operation
Enduring Freedom, because at least 80 percent of the aircrews dispatched
on strike missions did not know what targets they would hit, if
any, when they left the aircraft carrier.
As a result, said Mercer, Navy pilots now must be trained in two
distinct disciplines: fighting in a large classic air-wing strike
package—against a heavily defended enemy, such as Iraq—and
conducting time-sensitive strikes—against foes with no robust
air defense, such as Afghanistan. “We cannot confuse the two,”
said Mercer. “One is not a substitute for another. ... We
can’t do what we did in Afghanistan necessarily against someone
Another common misconception today, he said, is that time-sensitive
and mobile targets are synonymous. “Time-sensitive targeting
does not necessarily mean mobile. ... Time sensitive may mean [a
fixed target that] you have to strike today rather than tomorrow.”
This is a case where technology is ahead of the human brain, he
suggested. “Our ability to strike targets in a time-sensitive
way outstrips our ability to decide when to do it,” said Mercer.
“We are focusing a lot of attention now not on the mechanics
of taking a bomb from airplane A and putting it on target B, but
how to make the decision process more efficient.”
It is beguiling to see how far Navy pilots sometimes push the boundaries
of their skills, said Capt. Haley Mills, deputy commander of Carrier
Air Wing 1. He reported that aviators under his command were able
to hit Taliban troops in Afghanistan who were traveling in vehicles
at speeds of 50-60 miles an hour. Junior officers flying F/A-18Cs
and F-14s used laser-guided bombs to strike the fast-moving convoys.
Capt. Chuck Wright, the commander of Carrier Air Wing 11, cited
other examples of pilot savvy that led to successful strike missions.
In one instance, a U.S. ground controller in Afghanistan requested
close air support. A Navy F-14 pilot in the area had 2,000-pound
JDAM bombs but the controller did not have the specialized laser
binoculars to get target coordinates needed for the JDAM’s
GPS guidance system. As it turned out, said Wright, the Tomcat had
received a special software upgrade—in the Lantirn (low-altitude
navigation/targeting infrared for night) pod—that allows a
pilot to fire three laser shots on an aim-point and come up with
coordinates, via triangulation.
“The geeks at NAVAIR [Naval Air Systems Command] will tell
you that [Tomcat tactical targeting] is not precise, you can’t
do that to drop ordnance,” he said. “Baloney. When you
are using an area weapon or a 2,000-pound bomb, it’s precise
enough to hit a target. We did it and it worked pretty darn good.”
In another example of aviator shrewdness, Wright said, F/A-18A
pilots managed to strike a Taliban grouping hiding under a bridge,
without destroying the bridge.
“According to the experts, you are not supposed to be able
to self-lase [target designate] a laser Maverick from an F/A-18A.
It’s not the right software that allows that to be done,”
said Wright. However, “some smart guys in the squadron figured
out a way to work around the system and made it work.”
As of the end of September, eight of the Navy’s 12 carriers
had been deployed as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.
The achievements of carrier-based aviation this past year should
help tame down budget hawks at the Pentagon who may be considering
cutbacks to the carrier fleet, said several officials at Tailhook.
As a show of appreciation to the aviators, Chief of Naval Operations
Adm. Vernon Clark gave the keynote speech at Tailhook this year.
He promised them that he would fight for more aviation dollars.
“The debate over the big-deck carriers has tamed down for
a while” in Washington, said Clark. “But it will come
back, I’m sure. ... The nature of the discussion has changed,
only for now.”