We Need an Air Defense Center of Excellence

By Lieutenant Commander Camilo O’Kuinghttons, Jr., U.S. Navy

"From the Sea" and "Forward . . . From the Sea" state that the U.S. Navy will fight in the littorals. We assume that we will enjoy untrammeled freedom in the space below, on, and above the water, allowing us to wage our deadly business unimpeded. This is known as air supremacy, and the Navy asserts that littoral war making—especially a sporty kind like high-threat close air support—should be conducted only after air supremacy is established.

The primary players in the creation of air supremacy are the escorts and the fighters. They have to work as a team—hence, our cross-deck program. But the escorts and fighters do not fight like a team in their pursuit of air supremacy—especially, in an ironic twist, when defending the battle group over water. Overlooked in the Navy's desperate lunge to operate jointly with its sister services is its inability to integrate its own warfare communities—and the pursuit of air supremacy is a glaring example. The Navy's training limitations prevent it from creating a battle space condition it claims is a precondition for its highest priority: war fighting in the littorals.

The problem is straightforward. The surface air-warfare team and the aviators do not train together very much during the turnaround training cycle, conduct limited mutual training while under way, and do not use standardized procedures. Normally, they work their problems out slowly and painfully during the transit, a time that should be spent polishing air-defense tactics—not carving them out. We need a surface and aviation "center of excellence" dedicated to fusing the training methods of the black shoes and brown shoes.

The most logical place for this is the newly established Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center (NSAWC) at Naval Air Station Fallon, Nevada, which combines three formerly independent organizations: the Navy Fighter Weapons School (Top Gun), the Naval Strike Warfare Center (Strike U.), and the Carrier Airborne Early Warning Weapons School (Top Dome). NSAWC's influence on fighter squadrons like mine, in both its former and current garb, is profound. It sets training objectives, designs our tactical syllabi, and qualifies our instructors.

Fighter squadrons conduct their most intense fighter tactics training ashore, however, primarily because of the limitations imposed by minimum fuel states for carrier landings and the large scale of most at-sea flying exercises. The result is that our fighter crews normally train with only one part of the surface-based antiair warfare team, the AIC. Missing are its other, equally important parts: the air warfare commander (AW), the TAO, the air weapons coordinator, and the unique communications procedures and limitations that are a part of at-sea exercises. As a result, fighter standardization as defined by NSAWC is revealed in an incomplete scenario that does not involve surface antiair warfare ships.

This hurts the escorts more than the fighters. When the fighters conduct an exercise ashore, they arrive at (among other things) a level of fighter/AIC integration that cannot be maintained once they get under way and attempt to work with the air warfare commander. Indeed, the quality of control provided by the escorts can be startlingly rusty. The escorts have very few air-defense training opportunities until very late in the turnaround training cycle, and no center of excellence to standardize them.

Quality, as well as quantity, plays a role in the air-defense training deficiency. Escort air-defense training centers around decision making in an uncertain, quasiwartime or peaceful environment, rather than the pursuit of kills in a shoot-out. They must integrate all the battle group's antiair warfare assets, of which the fighters are only a part. So when the fighters and escorts eventually get together, most Aegis sailors are playing catch-up while the fighters are just doing what they did ashore. Our goals may be the same, but this is not enough. We train in different worlds.

None of these problems, by itself, is a show stopper. But we have a training challenge significant enough to force a battle group to burn up most of the turnaround training cycle just learning how to crawl. Worse, this process continues even into the transit as we attempt to conduct air-defense training in the midst of general quarters drills, carrier qualification, preventive maintenance schedules, war-at-sea exercises, and missile exercises.

Ships visits, as important as they are, will not solve the problem, nor will the assignment of fighter pilots or airborne early warning flight officers to cruisers on their disassociated tours. Even with a determined effort, one battle group does not have the time, airplanes, or fuel to skin this cat while under way. A single air wing cannot fly enough air-defense exercises to train every battle group AIC and remain proficient in all its other missions. Finally, since the emphasis of an at-sea air-defense exercise is to train the escorts, fighter squadrons receive little air-to-air training.

Naval aviation's bottom-line experience has been that a center of excellence has a far greater capacity to train units in standardized, basic tactics than does the fleet.

The best reason to establish an intra-service center of excellence in Fallon is to reduce the potential for disaster. After a drop in air-to-air kill ratios during the Vietnam War, the Navy established a fighter tactics center of excellence—the Navy Fighter Weapons School, or Top Gun. After a poor showing in Lebanon in 1983, the Navy created a strike tactics center of excellence, the Naval Strike Warfare Center, or Strike U. In each case, the Navy waited to solve its problems until it had suffered the loss of men and aircraft, and public embarrassment. In each case, incidentally, it solved its problems.

Are we waiting for an Iranian shooter to penetrate our defenses and put a missile into one of our carriers before we do something? It can happen, and the consequences will be far worse than losing a one-on-one aerial duel to a Vietnamese MiG-19, or of missing a target in Beirut.

The end of the Cold War changed our environment. We no longer have thousands of miles of blue water to figure things out. Make no mistake: littoral waters are not merely more uncertain, as it is fashionable to say—but more dangerous. Imagine the images on Cable News Network (CNN): an aircraft carrier racked by fire and smoke, sailors burned and dying, and a Navy spokesman answering uncomfortable questions about the vulnerability of its premier power projection asset.

The time to bring surface warfare and aviation together is right now; what follows are some thoughts on the way it might evolve.

Surface warfare officers specializing in antiair warfare would establish a School of Air Defense at NSAWC. The syllabus would center around air-defense exercises with the controllers and officers who form the air warfare chain of command at sea. NSAWC flight instructors would fly the fighters, adversaries, and E-2C airborne early warning aircraft.

Using the Fallon Range Complex as their exercise area, they would conduct air-warfare exercises just as battle groups run them during work-ups. After face-to-face debriefs and a discussion of lessons learned, they would do it again. Inevitably, the best doctrine and standards for air-defense tactics and battle-group procedures will emerge.

Initially, physical systems will have to be simulated. Fallon's Tactical Aircrew Combat Training System (TACTS) can provide a reasonable simulation of Aegis, and imaginative manipulation of TACTS targets can simulate the vagaries of real data links. Telephone can simulate voice communications links. In time, shipboard communications and data systems should be installed to exercise more rigorously not only the human side of the air-defense problem, but the systems side as well.

The start-up cost would be the price of creating approximately 20 billets—enough to man two surface-based air-warfare chains of command comfortably. Considering the benefits of tactical standardization, this is quite reasonable, especially since combat readiness would improve without new technology, software, or hardware.

Instructors at NSAWC have discovered that collecting their community's best and brightest in a center of excellence and granting them a charter to find the best basic tactics can yield dramatic increases in readiness. In the past, it has taken either embarrassment or tragedy to move the Navy in this direction; in the future, as we slug it out in the littorals, we will not have this luxury.

Lieutenant O’Kuinghttons flies F/A-18s with VFA-151 on the USS Constellation (CV-64).

 

 
 

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