Naval aviation, having performed superbly more than a year ago in its most demanding combat operations since Vietnam, must now navigate the treacherous waters of the post-Cold War/post-Gulf War era. Rising regional instability and reduced availability of foreign bases will only highlight the indispensable forward presence and mobile power projection capabilities of naval aviation. As always, we will be asked to do more with less, but fleet aviators and their supporting team—the best we have ever had—will be forward deployed every day, prepared to fly and fight in a most demanding and dangerous environment. Indeed, our nation’s routine ability to maintain and operate high performance jet, propeller, and rotary wing aircraft in the maritime environment will remain one of its greatest—and most taken for granted—human and technical success stories.
But naval aviation’s credibility outside the service— and its sense of direction inside—are under fire. Preventable technical, doctrinal, and public relations shortcomings (which are being corrected) diminished naval aviation’s otherwise superb contribution during the Gulf War. At present, naval aviation has the smallest percentage of the Navy’s budget since World War II. Because of procurement problems, no one can say with certainty what our air wings will look like when we cross into the next century. Procurement uncertainty has led both to charges of parochialism and to assertions that we must speak with one voice. Naval aviation’s influence at senior levels has deteriorated—aviators hold only two of nine Navy four-star billets. Meanwhile, naval aviation’s public image has been tarnished by recent events both during and following the 1991 Tailhook Convention.
Clearly, our nation’s need for naval aviation has never been greater. Unfortunately, there are many who feel our profession’s credibility has never been lower.
A cultural revival—indeed, a renaissance from the bottom up as well as from the top down—is needed if we are to overcome our problems and prosper in this new era. We must expose and eliminate the cultural roots of our problems—retaining what is good about naval aviation and discarding whatever is holding us back. Our cultural revival must reflect the changes occurring in our world and in our nation and its social culture. As with any renaissance, this process will require ruthless self appraisal. The resulting changes will be difficult to accept | and often will take longer to take hold than the time in a office of those who implement them. Our new vision must 1 also include a willingness to synergize emerging new tactics and technologies into high leverage means of accomplishing our mission. Accordingly, there are many imperatives naval aviation must conscientiously and courageously pursue.
Review and then articulate naval aviation’s vision for the future
Whether we are conscious of it or not, the strategy under which we work is part of our cultural fabric. Adjusting our perceptions of this recently enormously changed strategy has been more difficult for the Navy than for the other services. The demise of the Soviet Union forced the Army and the Air Force to articulate immediately a clear new vision for the future—with obvious force-structure changes and a great deal of publicity.1 At the same time, the Maritime Strategy found itself on the decline, primarily because of its emphasis on the “end game”—a conflict with the Soviet Union. Yet, fleet aviators never lived the end-game portion of the Maritime Strategy; they lived with and feel they are still executing the strategy’s early-game portion. What they are doing has not changed as much as why they are doing it.
Clearly, the naval services and naval aviation must address this gap in vision. Our new vision simply must acknowledge our awareness of the changing world, describe how our unique capabilities can best contribute to a well-articulated National Military Strategy, and realistically outline the resources we need to implement it.2 We do not need to oversell a strategy, invent missions, advocate unnecessary commitments, or grope for justification for our force structure.
Naval aviation is well positioned to make a major contribution to the new strategy; it will be on the front line of major regional conflict scenarios. Because naval aviation contributes mission-flexible, ready-to-fight forward presence and crisis-response capability independent of host nation support or permission, it makes a substantial contribution in all three roles that conventional forces play in national security. First, through forward presence, naval aviation contributes to “shaping” regional relationships, so major deterrent forces never have to be generated (as in the Pacific). Second, should shaping fail, increased forward presence provides credible regional deterrence (as in Southwest Asia). Finally, if deterrence fails, it provides regional joint war-fighting capability (as in Desert Storm). Not all military forces can do all three.
Providing forces that can shape, deter, and fight is the vision we must articulate, addressing the average American’s confusion over why conventional naval power projection forces are not being drawn down as much as other forces. This is the strategic background against which we will operate, that will drive future procurement decisions, and that we must absorb into our culture. Naval aviators must understand and be at the forefront of developing, articulating, and implementing this vision.
Reconcile the legacy of successful dissenters like Admiral William S. Sims with the damage done to naval aviation by recent controversial dissent3
If our cultural renaissance is to be supported and encouraged from the ready room, we must readdress how leaders and followers handle dissent. Reasoned dissent is part of our nation’s culture and one reason why it is so strong. The military is not a democratic society, but reasoned dissent can be found at the source of many military innovations. Indeed, naval aviation’s best ideas have come from the fleet. To keep these ideas coming, naval aviation’s leaders must have the courage to accept dissent and the occasional distractions it causes on Capitol Hill. At the same time, its followers must have the judgment to distinguish between loyal dissent and unethical or harmful behavior.
Retired Marine Lieutenant General Victor Krulak offers these guidelines to dissenters in the military:
- Pick fights carefully
- Express innovative views in any available forum but try to restrict disagreement with announced policy to the chain of command
- Include, as part of any disagreement, an alternative presented in full and persuasive detail
- Publish only before a final and formal decision is made4 Senior leaders also must effectively communicate their ideas to junior officers before dissent based on inaccurate information arises. General Krulak further insists that leaders must:
- Make sure that the road to the top is wide open for ideas, opinions, and criticism
- Protect subordinates as they make their mistakes
- Make it clear patronizing behavior will not be tolerated
We will be well served by this careful balance between encouraging innovators and relying on the judgment of experienced leaders who have the facts.
Rejuvenate our moral and social culture
The vast majority of naval aviators are justifiably angry H that the actions of a few individuals at the Tailhook Convention and elsewhere have caused so much injury to ft our profession, at the manner in which the resulting investigation was conducted, that the incidents have become so politicized and drawn out, and that the aftermath is distracting us so much from our other priorities. But, as we put the frustration and bad publicity behind us, we must not overlook the need to find and address the underlying flaws in our culture that enabled these events to occur.
This does not mean robbing naval aviation of its traditions or its esprit de corps. Our nation is not asking for timid, teetotaling naval aviators. Indeed, we are justifiably proud of the aggressive, yet intelligent and controlled behavior that is characteristic of the best of our breed. We should continue to take pride in the closeness of our community, with its common emotional bonds of danger and hardship. Male naval aviators also must resist a post-Tailhook backlash against or paranoia over relations with women in naval aviation. If they don’t, the expectations of recalcitrant behavior that many have unfortunately— and for the most part erroneously—come to expect will be fulfilled.
Nevertheless, we must end the cultural legacy that says those who “live on the edge” must also “play on the edge.” We are not anointed with an inherent right to break society’s rules simply because we do something difficult and dangerous. Our nation’s culture has changed from the 1970s, and our actions are now being judged by different moral standards. We are public servants, and the people expect—and deserve—more from us than they expect from themselves.
We also must realize that there is a time for steadfast loyalty in our profession—such as that exhibited by those aviators who sacrificed so much in captivity in Hanoi. Loyalties are clearly drawn in war; they are not so clear in peace. Aviators willing to risk their lives to save a wingman also must be willing to take a different type of personal risk by preventing incidents that damage naval aviation before they occur.
Operationally integrate Navy and Marine Corps fixed-wing tactical aviation
Budget realities and questions about how many air forces the Department of Defense should maintain are closing in on Marine Corps fixed-wing, non-VSTOL tactical aviation. Despite drawbacks to operational integration (versus acquisition and logistical integration, which already are in place) that are forcefully stated by Marines, this wrenching cultural change is probably coming—but it must be done in a manner that preserves Marine Corps tactical aviation's identity, jt would be a tragic mistake to simply eliminate Marine Corps F/A-18 squadrons, with all their resident expertise and capability.
The best way to do this is to gradually integrate existing Marine squadrons into every Navy air wing. How room is made for these squadrons would vary between air wings, depending upon logistical factors. The Marines still would maintain some expeditionary capability ashore with nondeployed squadrons. Marines flying tactical jet aircraft based on board aircraft carriers will greatly enhance the versatility of existing air wings and will be closer to the action on a day-to-day basis. However, Marines will be reluctant to integrate permanently with carrier air wings unless their unique mission requirements (such as close air support and amphibious objective area antiair warfare) are fully accommodated. But this will not occur until Marine aviators are in air wings demanding this attention and leading the way.
Marine aviators should be given their fair share of air wing commands. Marine squadrons must also be given time between deployments to renew their bonds with their ground forces’ doctrine. Moreover, other Marine commitments, such as forward presence requirements in Japan, must be addressed if their operational and personnel tempos are not to be exceeded. The Navy’s renewed focus on littoral operations should help convince the Marine Corps that its interests still will be served if Marine squadrons are assigned permanently to Navy air wings.
Venture out of the cockpit
We must find the balance between having enough flight hours (and arrested landings) to be safe, tactically proficient, and competent in command, and the tremendous benefits of exposing naval aviators to experience outside the cockpit. It is difficult to imagine an aviator who would be as happy outside the cockpit as in it. But, for too long our culture has hidden an unwillingness to do something seemingly foreign, unpleasant, and inconvenient— that is, to go to Washington or some other nonflying shore duty—behind the specious wall of “manliness” associated with an entire career in the cockpit. Indeed, high-flight-hour and high-trap aviators gain great respect within our community; hence, young aviators aspire to the same thing.
Naval aviation has worked hard to improve safety and enhance its tactical proficiency. This has required dedicated aviators in flying positions, and we should never lose sight of our primary war-fighting priority. But, we also must do the things in life that will improve us as individual aviators and enhance our profession. This includes graduate education, joint billets, and other experiences that will fill the intellectual cupboards of aviators making future key decisions. Indeed, naval aviation’s recent procurement problems may be one of the foremost symptoms of our lack of this type of experience. Our participation in significant staff positions is in the best interest of naval aviation and the Navy.
We also must balance our warrior skills with the skills necessary to command beyond the cockpit—to include the entire scope of naval and joint power. In the words of Admiral Tom Moorer (former Chief of Naval Operations, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and naval aviator), “Thoroughbreds need to do their share of the plowing.” Accordingly, young aviators should be encouraged to seek, and should be given, a shore nonflying billet prior to command, if at all possible. Keeping training command and other shore billets filled may require compromises, but the result will be naval aviators who have more education and skills to bring to a new, more difficult game in Washington, who have more joint experience, and who have an increased awareness of the world at large.
Do a better job communicating naval aviation and its vision
Naval aviation needs to more effectively communicate its efficacy and refurbish its image in the aftermath of Tailhook. Communication means getting the right message in the right form to the right people in a timely fashion. Unfortunately, our message is not getting out during this critical time for defense resource management. Naval aviation is not difficult to sell, but, to do this, several things must happen.
First, we must get the press on board, literally. The media should be invited on board ships and shore installations at every opportunity. In general, the media like the armed services and its people. Naval aviation is a critical defense capability that can easily stand on its own merits, and our people will sell themselves. In the process, we must avoid the “white scarf” approach—our intent is not to show how dashing we are. Rather, we must educate journalists about our vision and the solid, professional people who implement it.
Second, we must ensure that our commanding officers know how to work with the press. Many naval officers scorn the press or doubt their ability to deal successfully with the press. There are definite do’s and don’ts—and “how it will play in Peoria” must be an integral part of any decision—but reporters are not always the enemy, especially when they are taken seriously and treated with honesty.
Third, we should use the print media more. Most newspapers will print a well-written editorial piece from a senior service leader. For example, the Army has carefully described its new strategic vision in the print media.5 The print media also can be used for damage control: most papers will print a well-written rebuttal from a senior officer after printing an adverse story.
Increase our emphasis on becoming an enthusiastic team player in joint war fighting
Nearly two decades of narrow focus—on one-shot, small-scale, and largely single-service contingency operations—left naval aviation temperamentally, technically, and doctrinally unprepared for some key elements of a joint air campaign such as Desert Storm. Aggressive steps are being taken to correct this problem. For example, recent initiatives to exercise shipboard Joint Forces Air Component Commander capability (in the Arabian Gulf and exercises Ocean Venture and Tandem Thrust) and naval aviation’s increasing support of the Naval War College and other joint-service schools are very encouraging. But there is always room for improvement.
Getting joint means working closely with the other services on doctrine, tactics, training, and procurement. It involves compromise and building mutual trust through cooperation. There are many interesting problems and possibilities in this arena. For example, are Navy and Marine tactical aviators prepared to provide close air support to Army forces? Probably not, but there are any number of situations in which we could be called upon to do so. It also would be sensible for Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force aviators to combine some of their advanced, senior-level tactics schools, especially with declining budgets. This idea would save money and promote jointness. Naval aviation must also incorporate exercises with the Air Force (more than simply being bogeys at Red Flag) into its turnaround and deployed training plans.
Establish a quality department-head school
It is characteristic of our culture that we gain virtually all the information necessary for our jobs through our upbringing as squadron officers. Sometimes this is not enough.
A better training pipeline for air-wing commanders has given them more tools to combine with their broad experience. Prospective squadron commanders also have a training pipeline. We should apply a similar concept, on a smaller scale, to prospective department heads by investing in a quality department school to be attended by
those who successfully pass a screening process.6 Screening would pare down the number of candidates and would be a signal from naval aviation’s leadership that an important milestone has been reached—a major confidence builder.
The most important subject to be covered is advanced leadership, for some of our current problems can be traced to shortcomings in this area. Other potential subjects include detailed information on aircraft maintenance, joint and naval operations, administration, total quality leadership, public affairs, and safety. With this background, department heads will perform better, learn more during their tours, and ultimately be better commanding officers.7 And, though the logistics of establishing such a course seem complex, they are no more difficult than those faced by the surface community.
A department head school would serve another important function by providing naval aviation’s senior leadership an opportunity to communicate directly with our future leaders. If an organization is to “speak with one voice,” it is absolutely necessary for its members to be well informed about its objectives, values, standards, and ethics—and the organization’s plans to achieve them.
Seek and use more outside analysis
The Navy is the most insular, independent, and tradition-bound of all the services. It is part of our culture to resist defiantly the notion that anyone else is capable of understanding our business, much less helping us define or determine the requirements for accomplishing our mission. As a result, we are often unwilling to ask outsiders for assistance in analyzing our visions, plans, and doctrine. The Navy-sponsored Center for Naval Analyses and the CNO Executive Panel are essential contributors, but, by relying on inside agencies, we risk reverse-engineered solutions that support accepted positions.
It would be prudent of us to seek outside opinion, asking someone else to take a fresh look at how we do business in naval aviation. We may not like what we hear, but advice doesn’t always have to be taken. And advice that runs contrary to the Navy’s instinctive position could provide insight into where future opposition may lie. Moreover, we gain credibility when the world sees that the Navy is advised by those who do not always agree with its positions. Often, the influential agencies hired to provide such advice and analysis become supportive friends. Naval aviation will only reinforce its insular reputation if this readily available outside experience and analytical ability is not put to good use.
Prepare to accept women in tactical cockpits
This will be a major cultural change for naval aviation, and, though it is not a foregone conclusion, it is very likely a matter of when, not if. Despite disturbing accounts of sexual abuse of female U.S. prisoners of war in Iraq, the American people presently are debating this major change. Because of additional strictures on women serving on combat ships, it is likely that the Air Force will lead the way in this area, but we should not be far behind.
We should get in front of this issue by thinking through the logistical and human problems of such a change well in advance. There are many precedents from which we can learn—women are already in nontactical naval aviation, on logistics ships, in space, and at the academies. We must continue to hold women aviators to the same high professional standards that all aviators are expected to meet. Above all—with the close scrutiny we surely will receive—we must ensure that, when it occurs, we handle it with professionalism.
Although it should not be our primary motivation, putting women in our tactical cockpits and doing it right is an excellent way to show society that naval aviation has overcome the negative effects of Tailhook—indeed, it may be the only way to convince the hardened cynics that we are serious about change.
Naval aviation is at a crossroads. Although its mission is robust and its men and women have never been more talented, naval aviation needs a cultural renaissance—one that addresses the causes, not just the symptoms, of our problems. We must find and keep the best aspects of our long and successful legacy of service, and we must jettison the negative aspects that are hurting us. We must ensure that our future leaders have the tools they need to lead naval aviation through an increasingly technical and politically complex world. We must be willing to make the difficult and painful decisions required by an evolving national culture and the new environment defined in the nation’s National Military Strategy. In the process, we must revitalize our vision and clearly communicate it to our nation and its leaders. Finally, we must make these changes with care, lest we overshoot the mark.
This will require hard work and strong leadership at all levels. But, if we find the enlightened determination and courage to embrace these and other much needed cultural changes, naval aviation will emerge stronger than ever.
1. This is manifested in the Air Force’s “Global Power, Global Reach” doctrine and the Army’s “Army for the 90s.”
2. National Military Strategy of the United States, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C.
3. For an excellent description of Admiral Sims, his contributions, and his unique way of getting the system’s attention, see Edward L. Beach’s The United States Navy: A 200 Year History, (Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1986), pp. 388–407.
4. LtGen. Victor H. Krulak, USMC (Ret.), “A Soldier’s Dilemma,” Marine Corps Gazette, November 1986, pp. 24–31.
5. Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan, USA, “How the Army Sees the New World,” The Washington Post, Outlook section, 23 February 1992.
6. The P-3 community is the only naval aviation community with a department head screening process.
7. It is interesting to note that the Air Force imparts much of this knowledge at a “Squadron Officer’s School” for first-tour aviators at a single location—Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama. Most Air Force aviators praise the course’s value.