'We Were Great': Navy Air War in Afghanistan

By Vice Admiral John B. Nathman, USN

In many ways, Operation Enduring Freedom is validating the Navy and its mission. It is important to revisit the naval service's attributes in the recently completed Quadrennial Defense Review.

First attribute: immediately employable. Two carriers and an amphibious ready group were on scene immediately and ready to go to war. Because of the readiness of our forward-deployed naval forces in Japan, the USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63) deployed immediately, closing the area of responsibility for a special mission.

Second attribute: sovereignty. There is great irony here. We have a world conflict on terrorism but three countries that could provide counteroffensive leverage for U.S. forces rolled up their sidewalks. Enough said.

Third attribute: enables joint forces. Could there be a better example of this than the Kitty Hawk 's role as the forward staging base for U.S. special forces? Army special operations forces lived, slept, trained, and lifted off for war from her deck. The Kitty Hawk 's performance was magnificent.

U.S. Navy EA-6Bs, their core mission of enemy electronic suppression completed in the first days of the war, moved to communications jamming that allowed U.S. joint forces to localize al Qaeda and Taliban forces.

F-14 Tomcats using tactical targeting of their LANTIRN pods were able to first pinpoint and then pass precision-targeting coordinates to Navy and Air Force strikers. Navy fighters escorted Air Force bombers into Afghani airspace until air supremacy was established. And the U.S. Air Force provided lift, munitions, shared intelligence and surveillance, and more than 80% of the mission tanking to our carrier striking forces. This tanking supports the reach we need to target the northern half of Afghanistan, where our Navy strike missions have been as long as ten hours. That's equivalent to taking off from Washington, D.C., striking targets in St. Louis, and flying back. That's also a long time to be strapped to an ejection seat and then come home to your "bird farm" for a night arrested landing. It is amazing what our pilots and air crews have been doing in this war.

We also received the joint support and strong leadership of Lieutenant General Chuck Wald and now Lieutenant General Buzz Moseley as joint force air combat commander. And the Navy leaders, particularly Vice Admiral Moore as fleet commander and Rear Admirals Thomas Zelibor and Mark Fitzgerald as task force commanders, have been all about first-class war fighting.

This brings me to a significant point. Over the past several years I have spoken often about naval aviation's revolution in strike warfare and its fundamental contribution to an effects revolution, network-centric warfare. What the men and women of our carrier battle forces and our expeditionary squadrons did was real. It was real work; it was real effect. I had the privilege of hearing Air Wing 11 commanding officers on the Carl Vinson debrief their ability and their role as they returned home from war. I was filled with pride.

You have to understand a little about this air wing. Air Wing 11 had a very long turnaround before deployment, about 70% longer than normal. A little bit more than half of its pilots and naval flight officers were "nuggets," or new, first-deployment aviators. They described their mission. They described how they worked. They described their challenges. I wanted to understand if their training and equipment supported what they were asked to do in the war. It did not in every case. But in the majority of cases it did.

They set flying hour records. One squadron, VFA-97, flying F/A-18As, the oldest F/A-18s we have in service in the active force, flew a record 1,400 hours in one month. The pilots averaged 72 hours a month, where they typically get around 30 hours per month on deployment. While deployed in the war, we flew at rates about two and a half times over the programmed rate in the flying hour program. Their aircraft maintenance capable rates were actually slightly better than the maintenance capable rates of the air wings just before the war.

I asked them how they did it. And to a man their answer was, "We were great." And I think what they meant by that was, yes, they were great, their squadron was great, and their leadership was great, but also the team was great. The way they were supported, the way they felt connected to their ship, and the way they felt connected to the process that they were in was something they were very proud of. And they understood that all that brought about their ability to affect our nation's war in Afghanistan.

And so over the period of 7 October—the day of our first strikes into Afghanistan—to 16 December, when the Carl Vinson was relieved on station by the John C. Stennis (CVN-74), Task Force 50 flew nearly 4,000 sorties that delivered ordnance killing the enemy. There were many more sorties flown to support those missions, and we had many sorties that were armed but did not have the opportunity to deliver ordnance for various reasons. The Navy fought and won over the Afghani battle space with tremendous effect.

This is not about a point paper in the Pentagon; our pilots were kicking somebody's butt. There were real effects:

  • Lethality . Of the Navy sorties that delivered ordnance, 84% hit a target. That's incredible accuracy.
  • Precision . By number, 93%, by weight, 94% of the ordnance delivered was precision guided. This is a complete reversal from our experience in Desert Storm.
  • Agility . In Desert Storm, we scheduled into the tens of aircraft per target. In Operation Enduring Freedom, Navy tactical air on average struck more than two targets per aircraft that delivered ordnance.
  • Responsiveness . The time criticality of the mission in Afghanistan meant that around 80% of Navy sorties that delivered ordnance did it against targets unknown to the pilots when they launched. This is unheard of responsiveness and critical to our success in Afghanistan. Navy air and Army special forces ground forward air controllers proved an unbeatable combination against real-time targets. Let me give one example.

The infrastructure of Afghanistan is not very robust, and there was a particular bridge east of Kabul that was critical to U.S. Army ground forces moving back and forth through that part of the country. A group of al Qaeda forces had parked their pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles on that overpass. They knew they were in trouble and they all ran underneath the bridge. The Army ground forward air controllers, talking to a Navy F/A-18 pilot, said, "Hey, we don't want you to blow up the bridge, but there are about 50 of the enemy hiding underneath. We want you to put ordnance underneath the bridge." We had a young pilot out there, on scene. He skipped a laser Maverick missile underneath the bridge. He got the bridge dusty, but he eliminated many al Qaeda—he did his mission.

There are many more stories like this. The Navy's robust communications, links, and the connection of IT-21 were invaluable to our efforts.

  • Persistence . To the soldier on the ground, this attribute is without question the most important contribution of carrier air power in this war. We provided seven-days-a-week, 24-hours-a-day strike sortie coverage for our troops on the ground. Marines at Kandahar were never without Navy top cover.

These points all validate naval aviation's path toward a revolution in striking capability and network-centric warfare.
There are some who say the metric of effectiveness in an air war should be the weight of bombs dropped or carried, that this measurement is what we should value most. But this is like saying the metric of choice in the National Football League should be weight. If that were so, owners would be telling coaches to get running backs that all look like William "The Refrigerator" Perry of the 1986 Chicago Bears. I happen to believe in the agility, the precision, and the persistence of a running back like Emmitt Smith. A great team, like our nation's in Operation Enduring Freedom, has both. Big players like the Fridge are important. But naval aviation was the Emmitt Smith on this team.

We are fighting and winning this war. The President has said Operation Enduring Freedom is about justice, not revenge, and there is much to be done. We believe him. Navy and naval aviation are making a big difference. Afghanistan looks much different today because our flattops and the aircraft that fly from their decks are killing people who need to be killed. There is a lot of fighting left to be done, but as those squadron commanding officers in Air Wing 11 said, "We were great." I agree.

Admiral Nathman is Commander, Naval Air Force, and Commander, Naval Air Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet. This article is adapted from his address at the U.S. Naval Institute-AFCEA West Exposition and Conference in January 2002.



Conferences and Events

2016 Naval History Conference

Thu, 2016-09-08 - Fri, 2016-09-09

Join us for the 2016 Naval History Conference on 8 and 9 September at Alumni Hall at the U.S. Naval Academy. The Athena...

WEST 2017

San Diego Convention Center, San Diego, CA

View All

From the Press

Author Talk & Book Signing

Sun, 2016-08-28

Guest Speaker

Fri, 2016-09-09

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 135 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership