The naval aviators and air-wing commanders of Operation Iraqi Freedom said
the outcome of the war helped validate their tactics, training and equipment.
But despite the tactical success achieved by the seven carrier battle groups
that supported the conflict, naval aviation today must prepare to deal with
Specifically, aviators will have to adapt to the Navy’s new readiness
posture, will need to better integrate the reserve force and, more than likely,
make do with less money and fewer people.
“OIF validated our tactics, techniques, procedures, our weapon systems,
the ordnance we bought,” said Capt. Bill “Shortney” Gortney,
who was the Navy’s air liaison coordinator at the Combined Force Air Coordination
Center. “The stuff worked. Our training process to prepare for combat
worked,” he told the 2003 Tailhook Convention, in Reno, Nev.
The Navy and the Air Force worked remarkably well together, integrating the
air campaign, said Capt. Dave “Roy” Rogers, who served as the CFACC
deputy executive officer at the Combined Air Operations Center.
Of 695 billets at the CAOC, the Navy filled 20 percent. “The component
commanders played very well in the sandbox,” he said.
The commander of OIF, Army Gen. Tommy Franks, specifically asked the air war
planners to “get the lieutenants to the fight,” Rogers recalled.
“The sooner we get the lieutenant to the fight, the sooner we win.”
Of nearly 400,000 people in theater, 71 percent were 25 years old or younger,
The junior officers under the command of Capt. Scott “Notso” Swift,
deputy wing commander of carrier air wing CVW-14 aboard the USS Lincoln, displayed
impressive skills in the cockpit. According to Swift, one F-14 Tomcat aviator
dropped a single laser-guided bomb and destroyed three large fuel tanks. “The
key was aim-point selection,” he said.
Many junior officers, for example, were flying in impossibly dangerous low-visibility
conditions during sandstorms, recounted Capt. Pat “Blood” Driscoll,
commander of CVW-5 aboard the USS Kitty Hawk.
“Our folks were tanking in turbulence, at 30,000 feet, in conditions
we normally would not” be conducting air-to-air refueling, said Capt.
Cyrus Vance, commander of CVW-3 aboard the USS Truman.
As an example of how aviators adapted to unexpected circumstances, Vance cited
the use of aircraft guns in close air-support operations.
Sometimes, the ground-based forward air controllers were not able to provide
geo-coordinates for the GPS-guided weapons, so the gun proved valuable. “We
used the gun a lot more than expected,” he said. “Not that that’s
a bad thing. It ended up being kind of fun.”
The lesson for the future, he said, is “let’s not buy another airplane
that doesn’t have a gun.”
Another lesson is that pilots should continue to practice visual deliveries
of unguided bombs. Smart bombs always are desirable, but sometimes the weather
or the lack of GPS coordinates makes them ineffective. “It would have
been nice to have a weapon with a dual seeker,” Vance said, such as GPS
and some other form of guidance for use both through the weather and in clear
Of the 30,000 air-delivered weapons dropped in the conflict, about one-third
were laser guided, one-third were GPS guided and one-third unguided, according
to Rogers. “There is still a place for unguided weapons, especially in
close air support.”
The inability to obtain coordinates and battle-damage information proved to
be a significant shortcoming in OIF.
Obtaining pre-strike and post-strike intelligence “is an issue we need
to work,” said Rogers. But it is not an easy problem to solve. “When
you are managing a 9,000 DMPI [designated mean points per impact] target set,
the problem for the BDA folks is monstrous,” he said. “Not something
we routinely exercise.”
The so-called “J weapons,” such as the Joint Direct Attack Munitions,
require more intelligence support, said Rogers during an industry conference
in Norfolk, Va.
Although GPS guided bombs have become the weapons of choice, they are not infallible
by any means, and U.S. forces can expect that enemies will employ GPS jammers.
The Iraqis had seven GPS jammers deployed for the conflict, but they were “employed
in a pretty stupid fashion,” said Rogers. The jammers were set up on 100-foot
towers, making it easy for U.S. pilots to shoot them down.
“There are lots of folks running around saying we’ve got this GPS
thing whipped,” Rogers cautioned.
One bad news story in OIF was friendly fire. Out of 25 aircraft lost, only
nine were to hostile fire. “We are still our own worst enemy in these
things,” Rogers noted.
“Gen. Franks accepted operational and tactical risk,” Rogers said.
“Creating a five-front fight created a less-than-optimal blue-on-blue
“We set ourselves up a little bit with five concurrent fights going on,”
he said. “To have as many blue on blues as we did is not surprising.”
The April 2 shoot-down of a Navy F/A-18 aircraft by an Army Patriot anti-aircraft
battery remains under investigation. But Rogers said the incident might not
have been entirely the Army’s fault.
“A lot of people are quick to pull the trigger on how screwed up Patriot
is,” he said. The situation should be looked at in the context of what
was happening on the ground on April 2, he said. On that day, intelligence officials
had warned U.S. forces that “we were going to get slimed as a joint force.”
Slimed is military parlance for being attacked with chemical or biological weapons.
“They were going to use one against us today, tonight. Everybody had to
be ready to go,” Rogers recalled. The Patriot was “the forward battery
in the joint force” and the first line of defense. “Is it any surprise
that there were fingers on the trigger ready to go?”
Whatever issues have to be worked out with Patriot is not just an Army, but
a joint problem that could be resolved by allowing Patriot units to train more
frequently with Navy and Air Force aviation squadrons, he said. “I’ll
argue that Patriot capability is a joint issue. Getting those folks up to speed
is a joint issue. How many times has Patriot physically been through Yuma or
Nellis or Fallon, where we do all our graduate-level aviation stuff? ... That
is an initiative that is being worked right now.”
One piece of equipment that got positive reviews from OIF was the F/A-18’s
targeting pod, called the ATFLIR, which saw combat for the first time, even
though it was a prototype system.
Swift, however, cautioned against getting too excited about new equipment that
has not yet entered full-rate production.
“I’m not interested in what’s coming down the road,”
he said. “I’m interested in what’s in my toolbox. My guidance
to the air wing is: ‘Don’t get infatuated with something that’s
on a UPS truck, because that UPS truck is not going to be there when you need
it on the flight deck.’”
He also warned that taking a developmental system to war can be risky and should
not become a “metric” to evaluate performance.
Despite claims by Navy leaders that active-duty and reserves worked well together
in Iraq, comments by naval officers at Tailhook indicate that significant gaps
remain in the active-reserve integration.
Rogers noted that about one-third of the officers in the CAOC during OIF were
reservists and some of them served in critical roles, particularly those with
expertise in command-and-control systems.
Gortney specifically cited the VFA-201 reserve squadron, which “integrated
very well” with the active-duty aviators. “They are highly trained,”
he said. “Who wouldn’t want a squadron with no nuggets?”
But one of the VFA-201 pilots, Lt. Matt Buckley, said he was disappointed that
his squadron was not getting any equipment upgrades and that, after OIF was
over, reserve pilots were being “booted out the door.”
Addressing a flag officers’ panel at Tailhook, Buckley asked, “Where’s
the love for the reserves?”
The chief of naval air forces, Vice Adm. Mike Malone, said he was “saddened”
to hear that reservists felt unappreciated.
VFA-201 was activated to fill a hole in CVW-8 on the USS Roosevelt, which had
assigned one of its F-14 squadrons to transition to Super Hornets. That squadron
was not going to be ready to deploy on time, so VFA-201 stepped in.
Malone said it is unlikely that reservists would be upgraded from the F/A-18C
Hornet to the E/F Super Hornets. “We can’t find the money,”
said Malone. “I don’t see that money coming in the future.”
A plan is in the works, however, to seek more resources for reserve naval aviators.
Malone said he has been working with Vice Adm. John B. Totushek, director of
the naval reserve. “We took a plan to the chief of naval operations”
in early September, he said. “But we need more time to get this up to
the Hill and make sure everyone agrees with the plan. It’s an opportunity
to get the reserves out of legacy equipment.”
Rear Adm. Dan Kloeppel, head of naval reserve air forces, said he expects the
reserves will end up with three fighter attack squadrons. He is not sure where
they’ll be located or how many airplanes they’ll have. “They’ll
be able to deploy as units or as individuals when needed.” The squadrons
will fly F/A-18C’s until 2020, he said. Nonetheless, “a discussion
of new equipment deserves further consideration.”
Offering a realistic assessment of why the integration of the reserves has
proven difficult was the OIF commander of all naval forces, Vice Adm. Timothy
Keating, who is director of the Joint Staff.
“These young men and women get off airplanes without their shot cards,
medical records or visas. They are eager, but not well trained. They are not
sure of where they need to go,” he said. “We have taken this up
with Totushek and have been assured the problem is being addressed.”
The Navy needs to look at aligning the reserves more closely with the active
force, Keating said, and to make sure reservists are trained on their equipment
before they report to duty.
When reservists arrive in theater, they typically come in two ways: as a unit
or as individuals. When they deploy as a unit—such as mortuary affairs
or naval coastal warfare, “they get off the plane and start doing their
job,” Keating said. The problems involve “the ones who show up without
a unit and don’t know what they are supposed to do. That happens more
than we need it to happen. We’d much prefer to bring the unit over.”
The chief of the Navy Personnel Command, Rear Adm. Jerry Hoewing, conceded
that the “process we have for mobilization leaves these people without
the tools they need when they get to the fight. We have made progress on this,
but we have a long way to go.”
In the years ahead, additionally, aviators will be grappling with the Navy’s
new readiness posture, called the Fleet Response Plan.
The concept, developed earlier this year, is based on the notion of having
“more of the fleet being ready to go more of the time, to reflect the
way we have operated in naval aviation over the past two years in Operation
Enduring Freedom and OIF,” explained Rear Adm. Jim Zortman, commander
of naval air force, U.S. Atlantic Fleet.
“We are putting the meat on the bones” of the Fleet Response Plan,
he said. “We are going to put some organizational effort to make sure
that is the way we do business from now on.”
The FRP is about having a surge capability that is flexible and adaptable,
he explained. “Nobody wants a single carrier battle group or a single
amphibious ready group with a Marine Expeditionary Unit. They want force packages
ready to go, ready to fight, supporting themselves without a big tail.”
This level of force readiness, however, will come at a steep price, which could
mean less money for flying hours and parts.
“There is a cost to FRP,” said Zortman. “We have to identify
those costs: equipment, training, people. We are about two-thirds of the way
through that effort.”
It’s not clear how much it will cost. “There isn’t a big
pile of money to do this. Just like everything, we’ll stack it up.”
Malone said he will “present a bill” to the CNO, which will estimate
the aviation-related costs for the Fleet Response Plan. Under the FRP, the Navy
would have to be ready to deploy up to seven out of its 10 air wings.
The uncertainty surrounding the Fleet Response Plan and what financial impact
it could have on the Navy are sore issues for many junior officers who fear
losing training time and basic resources to keep their squadrons running, such
as spare parts and people.
Several junior officers at Tailhook expressed worries about “having to
do more with less.” The perception that operating with smart weapons,
such as JDAM, means fewer people and airplanes are needed is misguided, said
one lieutenant who addressed the panel.
He also questioned the Navy’s budget priorities. Future F-35 Joint Strike
Fighter squadrons will be cut from 12 to 10 aircraft, in order to save $985
million over 10 years. That pales in comparison to the billions of dollars the
Navy is spending on the Navy-Marine Corps Intranet, or NMCI, he said. Aviators
wonder why the investment in NMCI should come at the expense of airplanes.
Malone said he sympathized with those concerns, but did not want to “get
into an NMCI bashing event, because we could do that all day long.” He
agreed that the bill for NMCI partly is being funded with the flying-hour program.
The Navy also is facing significant problems keeping enough aircraft in the
fleet, Malone said.
“We have gone to 10 C Hornets in some squadrons in ‘04 and ‘05,
because we don’t have enough Hornets to make it to the end of the life,
when JSF comes in,” he said. “We are on the order of 35 short every
The Navy also will be reducing the number of pilots per squadron. “I
am concerned about that,” Malone said.
The Navy has 4,400 aircraft, and is buying about 100 a year. The average age
of the fleet is 18, and will be 19 by 2007.
Keeping up the fleet at its current size increasingly will become unaffordable,
as airplanes age and become more expensive to operate, said Rear Adm. Mark Fitzgerald,
director of naval aviation requirements. The F/A-18s cost $8,000 per flight
hour. The E/F is about $6,000 per flight hour. Older airplanes such as the F-14
or EA-6B run almost $20,000 per hour.
“Those are big dollars,” he said. “When you talk about keeping
a few more airplanes hanging around, the costs add up.”
Pilots also are pricey. It costs $1.8 million to train an aviator.
“Every year we take more money out of buying airplanes and pump it into
current readiness,” said Malone. “If we keep spending more money
on older airplanes, we don’t buy new airplanes.”
In 1999, the five-year defense budget plan forecast that the Navy would buy
201 aircraft by 2005. “We are only buying 100. We traded away 101 airplanes
over the five-year plan to pay for readiness,” Malone said. “We
are going to stop trading future airplanes. The CNO is committed to not going
below 100 airplanes.”
But he told junior officers, “I don’t expect every one of you to
like that story.”
In the past, he said, “we have done readiness at any cost.” Now,
“we have to learn and understand cost-wise readiness. We can’t keep
doing business the same way.”
Being cost-conscious, however, does not mean that the Navy should be run as
a corporation. “We want to make sure we haven’t drunk the business
Kool-Aid,” said Malone. “This business is about war fighting.”