If fleet squadrons have been concerned for that long, why haven't we acted?
Would two additional ground officers solve the administrative problem? Current manning for F/A-18 squadrons is 18 aviators and 6 ground officers for a 12-aircraft squadron-a ratio of two officers per aircraft. Two-seat, 13-aircraft F-14 squadrons have 16 aircrews16 pilots and 16 radar intercept officers-and 5 ground officers for a ratio of almost three officers per aircraft.
This might be irrelevant if the Tomcat squadrons were saddled with more administrative requirements or assigned more missions than the FA-18 squadrons-but this is not the case.
The administrative load is identical. The F/A-18 squadrons have the same number of jobs to perform and the same number of reports to generate. Officers in the F/A-18 community double- and triple-up on primary and collateral duties. The result is that F/A-18 squadrons continue to do more with less.
With regard to mission areas, it looks to me like a wash, depending on how you group weapons and missions. I come up with ten different F/A-18 missions-five fighter and five strike missions-that any Hornet pilot could be called upon to perform. F/A-18s carry three air-to-air missiles, and the list of air-to-ground ordnance that the aircraft can carry is eye-watering and getting longer every day. Weapons such as the AGM-88 High Speed Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM) or AGM-84E Stand-off Land Attack Missile (SLAM) have several volumes of employment manuals which, when stacked atop each other, are as tall as most aviators employing them.
Given this background, can the manning level be correct? Well, only if you believe the status quo is okay because "That's the way we've always done it." Change can be difficult, but the imminent introduction of the F/A18E/F presents us with an unusual opportunity to address this neglected issue.
Carrier Air Wing Eight (CVW-8) has deployed with 50 strike aircraft on both of my Mediterranean cruises. In 1995, on board the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71), CVW-8 deployed with one 14-plane F-14 squadron and three 12-plane F/A-18 squadrons (two Navy and one Marine Corps). Most recently, the air wing deployed to the Mediterranean on board USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67), with two 13-plane F-14 squadrons and two 12-plane F/A-18 squadrons.
I have not seen the Navy's vision of the new carrier air wing composition with F/A-18E/Fs, but if the target is still 50 strike aircraft per air wing, could the Navy not manipulate the make-up of carrier air wings to solve the manning problem? I do not think that increasing ground officers is the solution. It would ease the administrative burden, but it is not going to fix the real problem: not enough aviators to conduct squadron business, whether administrative or tactical.
The Navy might decide on an air wing made up of three tactical squadrons:
- One F/A-18F or F-14B/D
- One F/A-18E
- One F/A-18C
The two-seat F/A-18F or F-14B/D squadron would consist of 12 to 14 aircraft manned at current levels. The single-seat F/A-18C and F/A-18E squadrons would consist of 18 aircraft manned with the current ratio of 1.5 aircrew per aircraft, which would result in a single-seat squadron with 27 aviators and 6 to 8 ground officers. This would be nine more aviators to perform operational tasks and tactical training, and to become subject-matter experts on FfA-18 missions and weapon systems. In addition, there would be nine more officers to perform administrative tasks.
There is a downside. Single-seat aviators get more cracks at senior squadron jobs, and the opportunity to succeed at the tough jobs has given them a better chance at competitive fitness reports and early promotion than their two-seat squadron peers. Increasing the number of aviators in single-seat squadrons would reduce an individual's opportunity for the big jobs: operations, maintenance, training, weapons training, and quality assurance. Is this a bad thing? Probably not, because the officers who earn the "early promote" recommendation by hard work and dedication still will get the competitive fitness reports. In addition, more officers mean more competition, and in our business a little competition usually challenges an aviator to work harder and improve performance.
A three- instead of four-tactical squadron CVW means fewer tactical commands, which means fewer command opportunities. This is an important issue, because every aviator who makes a career out of this business probably does so with the ultimate goal of squadron command. Don't we owe it to these individuals who have made a commitment to a career to provide the maximum number of command opportunities? Yes-but not at the expense of the Navy's ability to perform the mission. A smaller Navy will not require as many commands to groom officers for the next level. If the target is ten carrier air wings, going from four to three tactical squadrons per air wing will reduce command opportunities by 25%.
There will in fact be fewer commands and thus fewer command visions, but more pilots will be operating under a reduced administrative workload-and will be able to devote more time to tactical study and the development of new and improved tactics. This is probably the most important benefit. The reduction of even a single collateral duty per officer would make a difference.
In an era of cost cutting, trading four tactical squadrons for three means fewer commands to fund. Bigger squadrons require more people per squadron, but fewer personnel Navy-wide. A new carrier air wing, with one F/A-18F or F-14 squadron and two FA-18E/FA-18C squadrons, requires only 880 aviators and 150 ground officers, which is a savings of 230 officers-17%-in the officer personnel required to man ten air wings. Although, carrier air wings augmented with Marine Corps F/A-18 squadrons have different manning levels, this would not alter the overall numbers significantly.
The additional enlisted personnel savings would come at the maintenance manager level. Each squadron will still require only one maintenance master chief petty officer, one division chief, and one shop supervisor. Although additional maintenance managers will be needed to manage the increased numbers of personnel, a Navy-wide savings would be accrued by going to a three fighter/attack squadron air wing.
Fewer squadrons with more aircraft will save money and reduce the number of personnel required to man the fleet. More officers per squadron will reduce the individual administrative burden. More time spent doing what aviators love, flying, might result in higher retention rates.
In the big picture, our mission is to put ordnance on target. As aircraft, weapon systems, and tactics advance, aviators must devote considerable effort just to stay proficient. The Navy should create an overall environment that gives its aviators the time to train effectively.