Fighter Squadron (VF)-211 recently completed an overseas deployment spent largely in the Persian Gulf policing Iraqi violations of no-fly zones, as a component of Carrier Air Wing Nine embarked in the USS Nimitz (CVN-68). We flew tactical reconnaissance, defensive counter air, and simulated interdiction missions that were linked inevitably to our ability to maintain our F-14As.
Over Iraq, there was little room for aircraft that were less than fully mission capable, especially since naval aviation's tactical philosophy has shifted to the concept of strike-fighters with multimission capabilities. The F-14, for example, requires several air-to-air radar modes to tune the missiles properly; the low-altitude navigation and targeting infrared for night (LANTIRN) pod and associated components must work: there is always the unexpected, and you have to be ready.
Our Sailors got the job done during Operation Southern Watch, but it took a Herculean effort.
During the deployment, two briefing papers circulated on board. The first was prepared for Vice Admiral John J. Mazach, Commander, Naval Air Force, U.S. Atlantic Fleet (ComNavAirLant), to deliver at the Air Board concerning an "expectation gap" between the readiness we expect to see in the fleet and the support that the Navy buys. The second was given at a supply conference by the ComNavAirLant Force supply officer and his Pacific Fleet counterpart regarding naval aviation support.
The briefs illuminated the fiscal and logistical challenges faced by Navy supply. The expectation gap stems from the difference between the Chief of Naval Operations's proposed full-mission-capable/mission-capable (FMC/MC) aircraft rates--which vary depending on whether the squadron is in a post-cruise standdown, working up, or deployed--and the rates that operational commanders require to meet tasking.
Fleet F-14As are difficult to maintain. The aircraft remain in service because of the budgetary compromises that borrowed F-14D money to pay for other programs. Without A-6Es, and until F/A-18E/Fs and Joint Strike Fighters (JSFs) become available, adequate numbers of all three F-14 variants (A, B and D) will be critical to maintaining a full deck of capable strike-fighter aircraft. Although our F-14As required considerably more parts support than did a representative F/A-18 squadron (one of three on board), the percentage of time that Nimitz had to go off-ship with a requisition was comparable in both cases. Overall, the ship did an outstanding job of providing F-14A parts.
Enhancements such as LANTIRN and the digital imagery improvement to the Tactical Air Reconnaissance Pod System (TARPS) have made the F-14 almost indispensable. Our squadron deployed with nine LANTIRN- and five TARPS-capable aircraft. The latter were not modified to carry LANTIRN, but aircraft in either configuration remained capable of pure air-to-air missions. The LANTIRN system, with its ability to discriminate among the most difficult-to-acquire targets, made it the wing commander's choice during the weapons-of-mass-destruction impasse. The digital TARPS, the ship's only organic reconnaissance asset, proved its worth daily, especially during several large-scale simulated interdiction missions where imagery of real-world targets was relayed to the ship within minutes--and then forwarded to the desk of the Commander Joint Task Force/Southwest Asia. We also deployed with a cadre of specially trained forward air controllers (airborne).
Prior to the carrier's arrival in mid-October 1997, Iraq routinely violated the no-fly zone. It took a lot of flying to enforce the no-fly zone restrictions--although rarely can crews fly enough to fulfill all training and readiness requirements. Most F-14 and F/A-18 strike-fighter crews will agree that as proficiency increases in one warfare skill, proficiency in others declines.
Do the CNO's goals for deployed FMC/MC aircraft reflect real-world requirements? If the full mission capable goal is 55% and the percentage of aircraft utilization goal is 43%, the FMC goal appears to be more than adequate. What is not so obvious is that utilization can spike dramatically when aircraft start coming back from sorties with down gripes and spares must be launched to fill subsequent events. What looked like a schedule requiring six aircraft (out of 14--a utilization rate of 43%) rapidly turns into one requiring eight (a 57% utilization rate) plus a ready spare--which translates into nine aircraft.
During surge operations, conducted for 100 hours during Joint Fleet Exercise 97, the squadron used 13 of the 14 aircraft assigned. In our planning for potential combat operations in Southwest Asia, the requirement for full mission capable F-14s was considerably higher than the 55% CNO goal, and, had a sustained campaign occurred, the squadron would have been required to meet that requirement daily. Here is an example of the "expectation gap" between the operator and the logistician. Carrying seven or eight up aircraft at any given time will meet CNO's goal and may meet tasking on a given day, but the situation robs commanders of tactical flexibility.
Our squadron goal--to meet tasking comfortably with capable aircraft, absorb unplanned hard downing discrepancies, and remain prepared to surge in case of real-world combat operations--was to attain and sustain 10 of 14 aircraft (74%) mission capable each day. Our chain of command wanted even higher MC rates.
Computing FMC/MC rates is fairly straightforward. Each aircraft has a Mission Essential Subsystem Matrix that details which aircraft systems are required to conduct any particular mission: if it can do all of them, it is full-mission capable; if it can do only some of them, it is mission capable.
The results, however, can be misleading--especially because the inputs are used to create two separate reports: the Subsystem Capability Impact Report (SCIR), which tracks each individual item's effect on the aircraft's ability to perform its mission; and the Aircraft Material Readiness Report (AMRR), which generates a daily report in message format available for all the world to see. The AMRR reads like a report card, comparing how well each air wing squadron is doing, but it is only a morning snapshot of aircraft status. Although many use it to evaluate maintenance performance, it lacks the detail to paint an accurate picture. Everyone wants to look good on the morning report card, and in the past that has resulted in creative reporting, such as logging all supply shortages against one aircraft and calling the others MC.
Unfortunately, because of the methods used to generate the reports, there was almost a full 20% difference in readiness rates between SCIR and AMRR for our squadron. Table 2, a rather busy chart, shows the disparity between the two readiness rates for VF-211 throughout the deployment.
The SCIR data depict aircraft status more accurately because they track detailed system functionality 24 hours a day. Like most reports, garbage in equals garbage out. Because support is funded using SCIR documented data, personnel documenting discrepancies must use the correct codes. Mistakes here can account for major variations in readiness rates; worse, logisticians buy the wrong parts.
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