Navy fighters have two principal missions: fleet air defense and power projection. Conducting both missions simultaneously severely tests a fighter’s capabilities. Because battle group survival is a precondition for power projection, fleet air defense demands—and receives—top priority in fighter training, tactical planning, and operational employment. As a result, air defense tactics are evolving rapidly in the face of a formidable and increasing threat. The tactical development and general proficiency of the Navy’s fighter community to support the battle group’s power projection mission, however, have not kept pace with the advances made in fleet air defense. The reasons for this situation are many; the need for improved fighter tactics in support of the power projection role is immediate.
In executing the strike warfare mission, a carrier air wing is likely to be exposed to a wide spectrum of threats in a future conflict. The dangerous but relatively simple, fixed site surface-to-air threats of the Vietnam era remain, but they are being supplemented and replaced rapidly by more mobile and effective systems. Primitive threat fighter aircraft are being replaced by higher performance aircraft equipped with sophisticated weapons and sensor systems that, for the first time, offer a forward-quarter missile-firing capability. Under some circumstances, a fighter flying a power projection mission may face the advanced surface-to-air and air-to-air threats simultaneously.
The Soviet reaction to the demonstrated shortcomings of their weapons and training in the Middle East has been to upgrade the quality of air defense weapons exported to their client nations. Free World countries are also exporting advanced antiair weapons to countries that may someday be our adversaries. In many scenarios, U. S. pilots on future strike missions can anticipate meeting opponents armed with state-of-the-art air defense weapons.
Unfortunately, much of our tactical development and practice is focused on refining tactics that were successful in countering a simpler—and now obsolescent—threat. Although there are valid lessons to be learned by reviewing these tactics, the threat is changing faster than we are responding with effective countering tactics. Our response, however, does not require changing the principles of fighter aviation. Instead, the evidence suggests that changes in the application of these principles are needed.
The sources of tactical stagnation are numerous and interrelated; some are beyond our control, and others are under our control. First, let us identify the factors that are beyond our control. The pool of aviators with Vietnam combat experience is rapidly shrinking as time, promotions, and retirements take their toll. Although the tactics of that era are less applicable to countering the enemy of today and tomorrow, experience in devising and executing tactics in a combat environment is difficult to replace. To some degree, we can make up for this loss by drawing on the experience of other nations with more recent combat experience. But, even here, there are limitations. For example, until very recently, we have had difficulty getting Israeli intelligence on their recent air combat experience over Lebanon disseminated to the cockpit level. Another factor largely beyond our control is the press of non-cockpit duties which leaves little time for a concentrated study and development of tactics.1 Although this contention seems to receive little sympathy from an earlier generation of aviators, numerous retention surveys make this point, and it should not be dismissed.
What factors are under control as we seek to improve the readiness of the fighter community in its power projection mission? To find the answer, we must examine three problem areas: the resources available to the fighter community, the incentives and rules under which the fighter community operates, and the conditions in which the fighter community must conduct shipboard training for extended deployments.
Resources: The name of the game is combat readiness, which is the product of a healthy tactics development program that is closely tied to a quality training program. Both require a realistic simulation of the opponent. Unfortunately, threat simulation assets currently available to the fighter community are deficient in quantity and quality.
The Navy employs two aircraft as its primary threat simulators. In the simplest terms, the supersonic Northrop F-5 Freedom Fighter/Tiger II is used as the MiG-21 “Fishbed” and the subsonic McDonnell-Douglas A-4 Skyhawk as the MiG-17 “Fresno,” neither of which represents the state-of-the-art Soviet tactical threat. Although the Navy enjoys an advantage over the Air Force, which does not employ the A-4, our adversary aircraft assets are thinly stretched, which has several adverse consequences.
The Soviet Union presently produces more tactical aircraft than the United States produces air-to-air missiles to engage them. We simply will be outnumbered in a future conflict with the Soviet Union. In addition to numerical superiority, we know that Soviet bloc tactics also emphasize deception. We must develop effective tactics against these threats and train to defeat them if our qualitative edge is to serve us. In order to do so, we must have more threat simulators.
The demand generated by fleet replacement squadrons alone frequently exhausts the supply of adversary aircraft at fighter bases. Fleet squadrons receive the lowest priority for these services. The introduction of the F/A-18 Hornet represents a net increase in the Navy’s fighter assets and consequently imposes significant additional demands on adversary services. These limitations result in considerable emphasis on two-versus-two engagements over water during training, when the more likely case in combat will be two-versus-four or more over land. Ample evidence exists that Navy fighter aircrews are very proficient in two-versus-two situations, the most dramatic being their performance in the Gulf of Sidra incident in 1981. However, it is not likely that Navy fighters will enjoy such a favorable force ratio in many future combat situations.
The highest payoff in tactical developments and practice is realized during those times when an air wing is operating as a unit. This is not only true while embarked on board the carrier, but also during the special pre-deployment training periods typically conducted at Naval Air Station Fallon, Nevada. In spite of this high payoff potential, it is unfortunate that it is rare for an air wing to enjoy exposure to airborne opposition in realistic numbers against the air strikes it launches during its turnaround training cycle.
Occasionally, Air Force units are available to serve in the enemy aircraft simulator role and supplement available “bogies.” Although a great deal of valuable cross-training is conducted during these exchanges, Air Force rules of engagement are quite different from the Navy’s, particularly in power projection scenarios involving multiple aircraft types. This limits the value of such training. Furthermore, it is difficult to dovetail schedules of participating units.
More adversary simulators would go a long way toward solving the situation outlined here. In addition, a larger force of such aircraft could more accurately simulate Soviet regimental-size raids on our battle groups during fleet air defense exercises. But greater numbers of adversary simulators alone will not answer the tactical development and proficiency problems which the Navy fighter community faces today.
The adversary aircraft must be able to accurately portray today’s and tomorrow’s threat. An example of the qualitative deficiency of our adversary simulators involves the use of fighter-mounted radars and forward-quarter weapons in today’s air-to-air environment. Until recently, the Free World had a monopoly on reliable weapon systems with forward-quarter infrared and radar-guided missiles. The Navy’s F-5s and A-4s have no such radars, severely limiting their ability to simulate modem threats.
There is an enormous difference between the tactics one must use against the old threat and one that can find you and “shoot you in the face.” With the widespread export of French systems (such as Matra all-aspect missiles) and Soviet exports, we can no longer ignore the threat from the forward quarter, and we must train to defeat it. The advantages of having the first missile in the air, reducing forward-quarter infrared signature, generating forward hemisphere missile defensive moves, ensuring bogie look-down, and using chaff offensively take on new meaning.
Though the syllabus at the Navy Fighter Weapons School offers two days of simulated Soviet bloc forward-quarter tactics, it is accomplished using aircraft that in no way simulate the Soviet threat in performance or weapons capability. The best MiG-23 “Flogger” (a forward-quarter-capable aircraft) simulator we have is the F-4 Phantom. F-4s are used occasionally in the Rising Fighter project, for instance, which is tasked with investigating intercept tactics in this environment. The Phantoms, however, are fleet aircraft, difficult to schedule, and expensive to operate.
Several alternative aircraft exist, such as the F-16/79 Falcon, the F/A-18, a radar-equipped F-5, or perhaps the newer F-20 Tigershark. The debate over which aircraft would best fill the need as a radar-equipped, supersonic threat simulator will not be addressed in this discussion. However, our tactics will languish in an era that has passed us by unless we fill in the gap in adversary simulation quality immediately.
Perhaps even more worrisome than our deficiencies in air-to-air adversary simulation is our shortage of surface-to-air weapons simulation. Statistics from Vietnam and the continuing Arab-Israeli conflict indicate that antiaircraft artillery (AAA) and surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) will continue to be the primary threats to power projection forces.2 Though the numbers conceal the relatively low quality of Vietnamese and Arab fighter opposition in these conflicts, the vast majority of U. S. and Israeli losses have been to AAA fire and SAMs. What we know of recent Israeli experience in the Bekaa Valley area of Lebanon indicates that effective well-rehearsed tactics and quality hardware have a significant influence on survivability in this environment.3
The level of training in the Navy’s fighter community in surface-to-air countermeasures is inadequate. One of the causes is the extremely poor quality of the associated electronic countermeasures (ECM) gear installed in all of our aircraft. Of more immediate concern, however, is a shortage of facilities for simulation. Proficiency in countering surface-to-air weapons demands a great deal of personal experimentation, practice, and quality feedback from the ground. Operating a complex weapon system while keeping a visual lookout for surface and airborne threats, monitoring ECM gear, and navigating at very low altitude is extremely challenging. Aircrews need instrumented ranges on which to fly and fight under surface-to-air threat conditions. Unfortunately, the very few ranges under Navy control able to meet these needs are saturated with test and evaluation projects. This shortage of ranges has a serious impact on power projection tactical development and practice.
Clearly, the Navy needs access to more facilities where surface-to-air threats can be simulated. Three options are available.
- Build additional tactical aircrew combat training system (TACTS) ranges which employ sophisticated instrumentation to reproduce air combat maneuvering engagements. With surface-to-air threat simulation incorporated, they are the state of the art in air combat training. The TACTS range at Yuma, Arizona, is currently slated to receive a limited surface-to-air threat emitter capability in the near future; this program needs to be accelerated and expanded.
- Use San Clemente Island for an electronic warfare range. Most West Coast carrier training is conducted nearby, and a range located on the island would provide a routine source of electronic warfare training for air wings preparing to deploy (not to mention other units).
- Locate an electronic warfare range in Puerto Rico, close to fleet training areas, or one in the Virginia operating areas, to supplement the Pinecastle range in Florida and alleviate the severe shortage of electronic warfare training ranges on the East Coast.
Incentives and Rules: Unfortunately, the solutions to fighter readiness problems already discussed require substantial funding. There are, however, some inexpensive ways to make improvements to readiness for the power projection role.
One such opportunity lies in the conduct of battle readiness efficiency (Battle “E”) competitions. The instructions governing these competitions provide a clear outline of type commander and functional wing priorities for the components of tactical readiness. This is accomplished by assigning weights and setting performance standards for these various aspects of training. There is an understandable emphasis on those performance standards that can be quantified. This emphasis introduces two subtle forms of bias. First, squadrons have different opportunities to compile certain numbers. A change in funding, for example, can severely affect a squadron, depending upon where it is in its turnaround cycle. There are some numbers included in the competition that are almost totally beyond a squadron’s control. Second, less emphasis is placed on the subjective elements of battle readiness, while it may be that those are some of the most important factors.
The Battle “E” competition in one of our fighter communities assigns only a 4% weight to “weapons system contributions and tactics development.” The emphasis should be redistributed from those numbers beyond a squadron’s control (such as total night and embarked flight hours and carrier landings, which account for 18% of the competition mentioned) to the more subjective elements of tactics development. This would provide an immediate incentive for fleet fighter squadrons to develop tactics. Points should be awarded for, but not limited to, the following areas:
- Initiative in identifying tactical deficiencies, innovating tactical solutions, and giving them the widest possible dissemination within the Navy
- The magnitude and quality of participation in sponsored tactical development programs, such as Rising Fighter
- Cross-training with other types of units (for example, work with the E-2C community and its new advanced radar processing system [ARPS] in the overland environment, which might lead to more sophisticated tactics)
- Contributions to the improvement of the weapon system itself
Another means of providing incentives for development of new power projection tactics is associated with the fact that fighter squadrons are free to devise their own tactical doctrines. These documents are required reading for every aircrew in a squadron. They vary widely in style and philosophy between squadrons, yet, surprisingly, they are seldom shared with other squadrons or reviewed by higher authorities. In order to preserve freedom to innovate tactics, the urge to create a common and binding doctrine for the entire community must be avoided. However, a periodic comparative, though not necessarily competitive, review of all tactical doctrines would be useful. A published matrix comparing squadron tactics in various scenarios could generate a healthy exchange of ideas within the community. In addition, the competitive nature of the fighter community would provide the incentive for squadrons to more frequently and carefully examine their tactical doctrine if it were subjected to periodic review, and it Would also cause more emphasis to be placed on tactical innovation.
Noncombat ordnance expenditures attract a great deal more attention than individual squadron tactical doctrines within the fighter community. Routine practice missile shots are an opportunity for power projection tactical development that is presently hampered by another system that provides penalties for unsuccessful shots and thus deprives the community of incentives to try difficult shots.
Most “edge of the envelope” missile shots are very challenging for the aircrew, weapon system, and missile, and are worthy of evaluation. A great many of these shots are directly applicable to projected combat situations, such as those against low-altitude, turning targets. Reliable, frequently tested information on the probability of success in the firing of a missile in this difficult environment will have a profound impact on ingress altitudes and tactics chosen by fighters for power projection missions.
Numbers of missiles allocated for these practice shots are severely limited because of the high cost of air-to-air weapons and the need to preserve our inventories. Therefore, missile exercises are subjected to close scrutiny and are designed to test both maintenance and aircrew competence. Squadron maintenance departments are evaluated on their ability to correctly handle and load missiles, as well as their ability to present a weapon system able to successfully launch and guide a missile. The aircrew’s proficiency is measured by their ability to maneuver the aircraft into a proper firing envelope and correctly use their weapon systems to fire missiles. A substantial amount of feedback is generated to determine the performance of maintenance, the aircrews, and missiles. Though the parameters of such shots are occasionally dictated by follow-on test and evaluation (FOT&E) program requirements, squadrons are usually given considerable latitude in choosing type and degree of difficulty of shots. Unfortunately, the high visibility feedback generated by a missile shot and its importance to the Battle “E” competition create little incentive for a squadron to attempt a difficult shot. As a result, most missile firings are repetitions of previously proven “heart of the envelope shots” and do little for tactical development.
The high standards of maintenance and aircrew performance in missile-firing exercises must be preserved. Yet, a balance must be struck in order to create the environment that will drive squadrons to attempt these challenging shots that are so important to tactical development and validation.
One solution would be to modify the system of incentives by introducing a “degree of difficulty” into the grading of missile exercises. This could lead squadrons to attempt challenging shots. Another solution would be to eliminate the competitive element by dropping the portions of the feedback that reflect a squadron’s performance (except in extreme cases). A better answer would be for FOT&E units to dictate parameters for all shots. Although squadrons would be encouraged to suggest shot parameters that merit evaluation, the incentive to choose less challenging scenarios would be eliminated, and the incentives for high-quality performance would be preserved.
A final example of a set of rules under which the fighter community operates which limits tactical development and proficiency involves training altitude restrictions. Ingress and egress altitudes for power projection forces are determined by numerous factors, among them being type of opposition expected, fuel requirements, and weapons delivery limitations at low altitude. In Vietnam, ingress and egress tactics varied widely between air wings. It is almost a certainty, however, given today’s enhanced surface-to-air threat environment, that the next war will be fought at extremely low altitude (below 50 feet). Experiences related by British Harrier and Argentine Skyhawk pilots after the Falklands Conflict indicate that already may be the case.4 Low altitude offers surprise and a sanctuary from SAMs and airborne threats, though, in some cases, it increases exposure to AAA. Terrain masking of aircraft is the most effective tactic for countering surface-to-air threats short of destroying the threat’s missile and gun sites.
The amount and type of this training conducted by the fighter community are insufficient. This is true not only in routine low-level flying, it also affects air combat maneuvering. Performing a mission at very low altitude is a dramatically different experience for the pilot or naval flight officer who is accustomed to operating at 15,000 feet. Altitude awareness and aircraft control require significantly more attention, particularly in rolling or mountainous terrain. Navigation is considerably more challenging and time consuming. Air-to-air radars operate quite differently at low altitudes over land than they do over water, and missile envelopes shrink. Ordnance fragmentation patterns become an important factor. Aircraft performance may be the most important difference, with fighters exhibiting completely different fuel consumption, acceleration, and turning characteristics at low altitude. Establishing an acceptable “comfort level” of proficiency in this environment requires two things: a great deal of practice and gradual exposure.
The fighter community is bound by two safety limitations which inhibit quality low-level training. First, pilots are normally allowed to fly routine low-level training flights no lower than 500 feet above ground level (AGL). Second, air combat maneuvering flight is severely restricted below 10,000 feet AGL and is generally limited to 90° defensive turns between 1,000 and 5,000 feet AGL.
Concerning the first limitation, it is not especially challenging to fly an aircraft at 500 feet AGL. However, because of the increased sophistication of modem surface-to-air threats, it is difficult to “mask” aircraft at this altitude. Terrain masking demands a considerable amount of hard maneuvering at very low altitude to be effective. Fighter pilots must be given the opportunity to practice extreme low-level terrain-masking techniques in a disciplined fashion. An aviator’s altitude limit should be lowered gradually, as his proficiency increases. Safety of flight must never be sacrificed, but our training will be unrealistic unless the 500-foot rule is modified and squadrons are given more latitude to practice low-level tactical flying.
“Dogfights” conducted at low altitudes are considerably different from those at higher altitudes, primarily because of significant aircraft performance differences and the proximity of the ground. Without suggesting that “full-blown” air combat maneuvering, using vertical maneuvers, etc., be performed below 5,000 feet AGL, the introduction of a program involving some form of air combat maneuvering in the low-altitude arena would be a positive step. Such a program would require extremely rigid rules of engagement. Minimum allowable airspeeds and restricted vertical maneuvering would be necessary to avoid accidents caused by aircrew disorientation or loss of aircraft control. However, these restrictions would not detract from realistic training because it is not tactically sound to slow down or use vertical maneuvers in overland power projection scenarios involving unknown numbers and types of threats. Other air forces routinely and safely conduct this kind of training, and our aircrews will not be totally ready to perform their power projection mission unless we follow suit.
Training Conditions: Pre-deployment training has a profound effect on fighter readiness for the power projection mission. Carrier workups with an air wing embarked are typically conducted five to eight months preceding a deployment. Though they vary in structure, depending on which ship is involved and the battle group training level, Workups generally involve a series of several at-sea periods of varying lengths and purposes.5 Some “flex-deck” operations are conducted (mostly during fleet air defense exercises) along with some overland strikes, but the majority of time is spent on “cyclic ops.”6 This emphasis on numerous short at-sea periods and cyclic ops obstructs air wing overland power projection tactical development and proficiency.
The cost of lost tactical training because of numerous at-sea periods is staggering. It takes several days on either end of an at-sea period to conduct the move on or off the ship, during which little flying or maintenance can be performed. Field carrier landing practice must be scheduled for all aircrews prior to each at-sea period. This drains countless precious hours from other training. The learning curve during a short at-sea period is not as good as that associated with a long one. Every time the ship pulls out, the air wing takes time to settle in, pilots must be given time to refresh their landing techniques, and the flight deck crews take time to get up to speed. All of this intrudes on the already limited time the air wing has to develop and practice its tactics.
It would be more efficient to limit carrier workup at-sea Periods with an air wing embarked to two or three. The first would be intense, relatively short qualification period for aircrews, which would also provide time for ship/air wing integration and exercise of the flight deck. Little time for tactics work would be available. The remaining at-sea periods would involve roughly the same total time at sea as current workups, but longer periods would be devoted exclusively to developing and practicing tactics for the employment of the air wing and the rest of the battle group. Costs and training lost to numerous moves on board ship would be reduced and a steeper learning curve would be realized. A side benefit would be improved morale resulting from the reduction in squadron schedule disruption.
Of greater importance to tactical readiness is how an air wing is employed when it is embarked during workup periods. Valuable opportunities to develop and practice effective power projection tactics are being lost because of the manner in which typical flight operations are conducted. The pros and cons of conducting cyclic versus flex-deck operations, or some combination of the two, are as complex as those concerning workups scheduling. Cyclic ops lend predictability to all aspects of carrier operations. This is by far the easiest way for the carrier to operate. Unfortunately, because of rigid cycle times, fuel constraints, and aircraft assets devoted to each cycle, little realistic, coordinated air wing overland power projection training can be conducted during this mode of operations. Attack aircraft may be off bombing smoke, while fighters Perform “max-conserve” intercepts—neither of which provide a substantial training return for the investment. It is unlikely that the tempo of future combat operations will fit into a cyclic ops framework. Although it is widely recognized that the safest and most efficient way to operate while on “blue water” deployments is cyclic ops, we should not operate during our workup periods in that same manner. Doing so saps our power projection proficiency. Pre-deployment training provides the carrier air wing its finest opportunity to surge and test true combat capability.
Generally, aircraft carriers should be operating under flex-deck operations at least two out of every three days during workup periods. One of the days should be spent on air wing and battle group practice of the fleet air defense mission. The other flex-deck day should be devoted exclusively to power projection tactics. Provided the opportunity to conduct numerous strikes of varying size and mission from the carrier, the embarked air wing will rapidly grow into a potent power projection force.
The Navy fighter community faced a period of tactical stagnation similar to the one it currently faces during the early years of the conflict in Vietnam. Flying aircraft that were not designed for the requirements of the air warfare environment in Vietnam, facing new types of threats, and using outdated tactics, Navy fighter pilots were only able to achieve a two-to-one kill ratio. The Navy Fighter Weapons School was created in response to this disappointing statistic, and shortly thereafter, the kill ratio climbed to an impressive 13:1. As our aircraft and pilot training grow more expensive, we cannot afford to learn tactical lessons in a future conflict the way we have in the past. Aggressive steps must be made to improve our fighter power projection capability. The solutions to problems that exist in the fighter community’s training for its power projection mission lie in the creation of the proper environment for power projection training.
1. See S. W. Smith, “Combat Readiness: Naval Air vs. Air Force,” Proceedings, February 1982, pp. 41–45.
2. The following statistics apply to aircraft lost to antiair artillery only: Korea—87%; 1967 Arab-Israeli War—90%; Vietnam—80%; and 1973 Arab-Israeli War—27%.
3. Although this manuscript was submitted prior to the U. S. Navy’s December air attack in the Bekaa Valley, the results of that raid provide a sobering example of the Navy’s lack of training and equipment to counter the surface-to-air threat.
4. Dr. Juan Carlos Murguizur states that “. . . our pilots took up the challenge offered by the Sea Harriers and Harriers. They took on the British aircraft in low altitude dogfights. ...” See ‘‘The South Atlantic Conflict: An Argentinian Point of View,” International Defense Review, No. 2, 1983, p. 139. See also Capitan de Corbeta Alberto Jorge Philippi, ‘‘Odyssey of a Skyhawk Pilot,” Proceedings, May 1983, p. 111.
5. As an example, during a recent 369-day turnaround period, one air wing spent 123 days devoted to embarked operations that were divided among seven individual at-sea periods.
6. ‘‘Cyclic ops” refers to a type of carrier operations that involves initially launching roughly half the aircraft that are on a carrier’s flight deck at the beginning of a day. While they are airborne, most of the remaining aircraft are prepared and then launched just before the others are recovered. Those that are recovered are then prepared for launch in the next cycle. The deck is only clear for launching and recovering aircraft for short periods of time. ‘‘Flex-deck” involves maintaining a “ready deck at all times for launching and recovering aircraft. Though more difficult to manage, it offers a great deal more tactical flexibility to the air wing and the ship.