While there would be no confrontation with Soviet forces on the high seas, naval aviation was called into action time and again as an instrument of American foreign policy, from helping thwart an attempted Cuban takeover of the small Caribbean island of Grenada to supporting operations in Lebanon. During this decade, naval aviation would also be at the forefront in combating escalating terrorism. In 1985 F-14 Tomcats intercepted a plane carrying terrorists who had hijacked the cruise ship Achille Lauro, forcing it down so that they could be brought to justice. The following year they struck targets in Libya in response to that nation’s role in the bombing of a West Berlin discotheque.
In 1989, in a symbol of the crumbling Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the Berlin Wall came tumbling down. It was a time for celebration of victory in a struggle waged by the United States since the end of World War II.
There had always been hopes that such an occasion would bring a more stable world. But the Middle East, which had also occupied American forces during the decade, erupted in conflict the following year when Iraq invaded neighboring Kuwait. President George H. W. Bush, who as a young man had launched from a carrier deck into harm’s way, assembled the largest concentration of military might since the Vietnam War, including six flattops. On 17 January 1991 they launched the opening air strikes of Operation Desert Storm. The subsequent triumph brought for a generation of naval aviation personnel a pattern of deployments enforcing no-fly zones, supporting humanitarian operations, and quelling unrest in the former Yugoslavia as part of Operation Allied Force.
All changed on the morning of 11 September 2001, when terrorists struck on American soil. At sea that day was the carrier Enterprise (CVN-65). Within moments of hearing news of the attacks, her skipper changed course from homeward bound back to the Arabian Sea. In the coming weeks her aircraft launched strikes into Afghanistan against terrorist camps and infrastructure as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.
Since that day, naval aviation has joined other elements of the U.S. military in waging the war against terrorism in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other places around the world. Passing the milestone of its 100th birthday, it is engaged in a battle employing technologies that its founders could have never envisioned against a type of enemy unfamiliar to the officers who first took flight. Over the horizon lies the next generation of aircraft, some unmanned, and of carriers—the tip of the spear in naval aviation’s second century.