As one considers naval aviation in the 21st century, a disturbing trend emerges: More than half of all career carrier aviators are denied the opportunity to command a carrier air wing (CVW). Artificially stovepiped career paths made possible by restrictions on billets have prevented thousands of officers and entire aviation communities from being equally considered for the position of CVW commander, commonly referred to as “CAG.” Tellingly, over the past five years, only fighter-attack (VFA) aviators have been selected for the role. As a community, naval aviation must not stand for policies that limit the career options of capable and competent officers.
The segregation of career paths is one of the great unspoken truths of naval aviation. An aviator’s potential to become a CAG is, to a large degree, decided the day he or she selects a platform for advanced flight training. Many students do not get such a choice; the needs of the Navy or timing override individual performance in flight school. Aviators are ushered into disparate communities, with the intent of facilitating a “quality spread” of talent. Young officers in the rotary wing (HSC, HSM), airborne early warning (VAW), and electronic attack (VAQ) communities have the privilege to serve in CVW squadrons and positions on the CVW staff, but will very likely never become the CAG.
The realities of 21st-century warfighting do not justify the omission of qualified leaders from one of carrier aviation’s most critical leadership billets. Officers and enlisted alike look up to the CAG as the standard-bearer for naval aviation; to deny this position to so many based on parochial norms erodes trust, denies diversity, and tarnishes the reputation of carrier aviation’s most revered command position.
The composition of the CVW has been relatively stable over the past decade as storied platforms such as the F-14 and S-3B have completed sundown. Today—and for the next two decades—each air wing consists of four VFA squadrons, one VAQ squadron, one VAW squadron, one helicopter maritime strike (HSM) squadron, and one helicopter sea strike (HSC) squadron, as well as an associated fleet logistics support detachment.1
The CAG is the ultimate leader in the air wing. The fly-on of a CVW onto an aircraft carrier completes the transformation from a collection of surface combatants into a full-fledged carrier strike group (CSG). As combat operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria have proved, the CSG remains the world’s most flexible and lethal power projection force.
The composite-warfare commander concept assigns the CAG as the strike-warfare commander, responsible for power projection via the CVW and land-attack missiles of the CSG.2 CAGs frequently prepare their air wings for the “large force strike,” whereby VFA aircraft play multiple roles (strike, sweep, escort, electronic attack, etc.); VAW aircraft exercise command-and-control and may be designated alternate strike lead; VAQ aircraft execute electronic attack and protection of the strike package; HSM aircraft collect target information, perform tactical reconnaissance and surveillance, and prosecute maritime targets; and HSC aircraft provide force integration for a variety of special-operation, combat, and maneuver missions, as well as their combat search-and-rescue role.3
Though VFA aircraft carry strike ordnance, every other CVW platform performs a crucial role; without them, a strike lead may be forced to make the decision to abort the strike. Furthermore, VFA aviators are not the only carrier aviators trained to deliver air-to-ground ordnance or effects: Rotary-wing platforms carry Hellfire missiles, torpedoes, and crew-served weapons, while VAQ aviators are experts at delivering the high-speed anti-radiation missile.
While addressing a gathering of East Coast naval aviation squadron leaders, U.S. Fleet Forces Commander Admiral William Gortney remarked, “Above all, CAG is an asset provider,” or supporting commander.4 CVW aircraft execute more than strike missions; they support every warfare commander in the CSG and many joint and allied commanders. From surface-search coordination to humanitarian assistance/disaster response, to be a successful carrier aviator requires proficiency in multiple mission sets, many of which are executed simultaneously across the battlespace. To be a successful CAG, one must be able to effectively integrate CVW aircraft across the full range of military operations.
Carrier aviation is much more than strike and “others.” Yet when it comes to the CVW, such bifurcation is the message sent to junior officers. Hidden-in-plain-sight restrictions, so easily seen with the benefit of hindsight, could serve a more insidious purpose than their proponents realize. Restrictions that appear arbitrary, capricious, and opaque destroy the trust of junior officers. Ultimately, this resistance to “tell it like it is” and openly acknowledge the limited opportunities for command at sea for VAW, VAQ, HSM, and HSC aviators risks undermining trust in the naval aviation community and its leadership. As Commander Guy Snodgrass, a VFA pilot himself, observes in his white paper “Keep a Weather Eye on the Horizon,” trust is an incredibly important factor when junior officers are considering their “stay/go” decision as they approach their minimum service requirement.5
To be eligible for CAG selection, officers must rise through the ranks within their own communities, proving their leadership competence and potential, eventually achieving the position of squadron commanding officer (CO) after approximately 16 years of commissioned service. Within the CVW, eight COs—one for each squadron—lead their units through both the Navy’s Fleet Readiness Training Plan cycle and combat deployments. These COs are also simultaneously assigned leadership roles within the CVW and larger CSG in order to demonstrate their ability to lead larger naval organizations through integrated training and real-world operations. During this process, each CO is evaluated against the other for the coveted “#1 Early Promote” on their fitness report. CAG ranks each CO and, as such, holds the key to his or her post-command fate.
The final hurdle to clear on the path to CAG is the Aviation Major Command Screen Board (AMCSB), which typically convenes annually in the fall. Board membership is composed of multiple flag and other senior officers who consider the “best and most qualified” for major command billets (CAG, nuclear-power pipeline, base CO, deep-draft pipeline, commodore of type wings and training wings). They review the records of each aviator and decide their fate through a “blind vote.” The Fiscal Year 2016 AMCSB’s composition among carrier-based aviators was approximately 50 percent VFA, 30 percent rotary wing (HM/HSM/HSC), 10 percent VAQ, and 10 percent VAW.6
While this selection process is designed to avoid the perception of biased or myopic decisions, delving deeper into the CAG selection reveals a pattern that exposes the parochial norms in naval aviation. Non-VFA junior officers are often told that AMCSB results will come when their leaders “improve their records,” but the statistics do not lie. Out of approximately 175 CAGs selected since 1994, only 19, or 11 percent, have come from non-VFA communities.7
By analyzing those numbers, we can begin to determine whether this is a random distribution or a purposeful choice. Assuming approximately 18-month CAG tours, ten air wings, and eight eligible squadron COs per air wing over a 20-year period, we should expect to see approximately 70 non-VFA selectees. However, there have been only 19 in that entire time. (It is appropriate to allow for fewer numbers in the HSC and HSM communities, as changes to the CVW structure only happened in the early 21st century. For the purposes of this analysis, the authors are not including VS [S-3B Viking] CAGs; only one true VS CAG has been selected.) While this does not prove prima facie inequality, it is especially revealing. The reality for non-VFA aviators is too many standard deviations away from either accidental or acceptable.
Even more telling, zero non-VFA CAGs have been selected in the past five years.8 Rather than stemming the tide of inequality, naval aviation leadership appears to be accelerating it. The omission of non-VFA officers from CAG consideration is not random; it is systemic.
The opacity of the CO ranking and CAG selection processes, while well intentioned, only engenders feelings of equitability in junior officers when the outcomes are similarly equitable. The appearance of membership in the VFA community as a prerequisite for CAG selection reinforces perceptions of parochialism and undermines the trust that junior officers place in naval aviation leadership. These leaders may preach that the naval aviation enterprise is a functioning “team,” but results of leadership selection affirm the perception that not all aviators are equally considered.
In Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert’s “CNO Diversity Vision,” he sets forth several organizational principles, including that “[o]ur force will draw upon the widest possible set of talents and backgrounds to maximize our warfighting capability, adapt to address new threats and challenges, and take advantage of new opportunities.”9 Chief of Naval Personnel Vice Admiral Bill Moran echoes these sentiments when he describes the tenets of naval personnel policy: “Opportunity availed by merit, increased autonomy and freedom, and earned trust.”10
Yet today, naval aviation lacks diversity of platform—and hence diversity of perspective—in the CAG ranks. Leaders employ various narratives in an effort to explain away the disparate career outcomes across the CVW. Perhaps flying in jets simply prepares one better, giving them more upside for leadership ability and command potential. Commander John Andrews refutes these ideas:
It is not possible, however, to judge leadership ability and command potential in [the Training Command] environment, and these criteria are not part of the quality equation. Because command potential is not being measured at this juncture, the law of averages suggests that an equal number of officers with the character traits and abilities to be future leaders have been and currently are assigned to each community.11
In his Defense Innovation Initiative, then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel remarked that “the 21st century requires us to integrate leadership development practices with emerging opportunities to rethink how we develop and manage leaders.”12 When different communities are effectively banned from leading a CVW, naval aviation loses the unique leadership capabilities and perspectives of its many outstanding commanding officers. This impacts our ability to innovate and effectively respond to the range of developing threats employed by the enemy.
By appearing to ignore both diversity policy and innovation, naval aviation is degrading its own fighting force. Yet this perception is antithetical to the good intentions of some of our finest leaders. What is sought here is not merely cosmetic diversity, but the real, tangible diversity that comes from including all platforms and perspectives in an equal, representative path to leadership. As Captain T. J. Block once wrote, change is essential “not just for equities’ sake—but also to ensure we put the best person in our most sacred war fighting and leadership positions.”13
The time for permanently opening the ranks of CAG to all carrier aviators is now. As Vice Admiral Moran, speaking about “talent management,” points out, “when you think about how we operate very sophisticated equipment on board our carriers . . . yet the personnel system to manage that talent has not changed [since 1947, it] is a concern.”14
Implications on Leadership
Above all, this is a leadership issue. No single platform or community has a monopoly on good leadership, nor are the burdens of squadron command more challenging for one community than another. When we limit CVW command opportunities, we limit the potential of our enterprise. While naval aviation has seen many successful CAGs, it is impossible to know how much more successful other officers might have been. This is a staggering opportunity cost that we can no longer afford.
The CAG’s duties encompass much more than strike warfare; he or she must also integrate the CVW across multiple warfare commander areas. Without this ability, aircraft would never launch from the flight deck or be able to protect the aircraft carrier from enemy air, surface, and sub-surface attack. This propensity for peer leadership—crucial to successful integration—cannot be measured by proficiency in only one mission.
The CAG is an operational commander, whose real duties and leadership bleed over into the full range of military operations on board the aircraft carrier. As with other mission sets, he or she relies on squadron COs and a professionally diverse CVW staff to augment his or her decision-making and execution throughout the battlespace; with a non-VFA aviator as the CAG and four VFA commanding officers, the CVW’s strike mission would hardly suffer. As they have in the past, non-VFA aviators can become qualified to fly in a jet or display proficiency in strike warfare prior to arriving as deputy.
Leadership worthy of major command, however, cannot be learned after selection. CVW command requires the CAG to form a cohesive combat unit from eight subordinate squadrons spread across the entire country, each with their own cultures, experience levels, personalities, and biases. Additionally, the CAG must do this during piecemeal periods of the Fleet Readiness Training Plan—a month at a time at Naval Air Station Fallon, Nevada, or under way—before each squadron returns to its home station. The acumen required to accomplish this essential task is not the result of expertise in strike warfare, but rather on the strength of individual leadership.
The Future of the CVW
The CVW will continue to contend with multifaceted, evolving threats, which will require detailed and horizontal integration across warfare communities. To remain operationally effective, the CVW needs more than leadership in a single domain: It needs a diverse group of carrier aviators judged by their merit and leadership potential, not simply their platform or pedigree.
The naval aviation enterprise, together with Navy Personnel Command, can take actions to immediately rectify this leadership dilemma. First, there is a perception that at least some CVW leaders rank commanders based on platform first, and leadership potential second. If this is true, this process needs to change. Squadron commanders should be ranked based on performance and merit, yet some have placed a handicap on non-VFA skippers by saying “because of your platform, you can’t be a CAG. So I am giving the benefit of the doubt to this VFA skipper.”
Second, illuminate the processes in Millington. Publicly state that diversity of perspective and platform in our leadership positions takes priority in personnel policy; specifically, that all carrier aviators have equal opportunity to become CAG. If the current fitness-report ranking process removes non-VFA COs from CAG consideration, the board should include these #2 and #3 candidates for CAG selection to ensure a cadre of leaders with diversity of perspective.
Finally, open opportunities to officers of all platforms to integrate more fully with the combat team. HSC and HSM aviators should have the regular opportunity to achieve the strike lead qualification; VFA and all other aviators should be encouraged to accomplish similar qualifications in support of the surface combat commander, information operations warfare commander, and air and missile-defense commander. The achievement of these qualifications should be voluntary, augment an aviator’s record, and mark him or her as a serious candidate in the CAG pipeline. Training for strike warfare is important, but developing training for future CAGs to become experts at warfare integration is equally essential in 21st-century combat.
One need only look to the list of flag officers to see that this issue has a direct impact on upward mobility and indirectly on the fortune of platforms and policies within the budget cycle of the Pentagon. With the overwhelming majority of aviation flag selections coming from CAG and the nuclear-power pipeline—and thus disproportionately skewed toward the VFA community—there is little impetus to change some of the deep-seated issues within naval aviation.15
For decades, junior officers in some of our most critical warfighting platforms have been unfairly limited in major command opportunities due to narrow methods for picking our leaders. Each successive generation faces the consequences of these decisions. Many remain silent for fear of their careers, but this silence is no longer palatable. The current generation of naval leaders must retake the controls and correct such policies.
1. Naval Aviation Vision 2014–2025, www.navy.mil/strategic/Naval_Aviation_Vision.pdf, 6–65.
2. NWP 3-56, Composite Warfare Doctrine, www.usna.edu/Training/_files/documents/References/1C%20MQS%20References/NWP_3-56_Sep_2010_CWC.pdf.
3. OPNAVINST 3500.38B, Universal Navy Task List. This is not an exhaustive list of roles each aircraft plays in a strike or across the full range of military operations.
4. As recounted by multiple sources during ADM William Gortney’s various “come-arounds” while Commander, U.S. Fleet Forces Command.
5. CDR Guy Snodgrass, USN, “Keep a Weather Eye on the Horizon,” Naval War College Review, vol. 67, no. 4 (Autumn 2014), www.usnwc.edu/getattachment/66837e4f-702f-4293-b653-cfa9dd4df1ab/Keep-a-Weather-Eye-on-the-Horizon--A-Navy-Officer-.aspx.
6. “Order Convening the FY16 Active-Duty Aviation Major Command Screen Board,” Navy Personnel Command, 2 October 2014, www.public.navy.mil/bupers-npc/boards/screenboards/aviation/Documents/FY16%20AMCSB%20Convening%20Order%20Final%20with%20Ammendment%203.PDF.
7. Data from 1994–2000 was extracted from CDR T. J. Block, USN, “Why Are Support Aviation Aircrews Left Behind?” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 128, no. 1 (January 2002), 103. For data from 2000–2015, the authors compiled CAGs and their communities from a variety of sources, including Tailhook magazines and command history reports from Naval History and Heritage Command.
8. Aviation Major Command Screen Board Results from FY12–16, www.npc.navy.mil/bupers-npc/boards/screenboards/aviation/Pages/default2.aspx.
9. “CNO’s Diversity Vision,” www.public.navy.mil/bupers-npc/support/21st_Century_Sailor/diversity/Documents/121010_Diversity%20Vision.pdf.
10. VADM Bill Moran, USN, “Once Again…A Moment Ripe for Change,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 140, no. 12 (December 2014), 18–23.
11. CDR John Andrews, USN, “Breaking the Command Barrier,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 126, no. 2 (February 2000), 70–73.
12. Memorandum from the Secretary of Defense, “Defense Innovation Initiative,” 15 November 2014, www.defenseinnovationmarketplace.mil/resources/DefenseInnovationInitiative.pdf.
13. Block, “Why Are Support Aviation Aircrews Left Behind?”
14. “A Conversation With Vice Admiral William Moran,” Council on Foreign Relations, 9 Deccember 2014, www.cfr.org/defense-and-security/conversation-vice-admiral-william-moran/p34004.
15. LCDR Michael Jung, USN, “What Does a Duck Look Like? Naval Flag Officers in 2002,” Information Dissemination, 21 May 2009, www.informationdissemination.net/2009/05/what-does-duck-look-like-naval-flag.html. Though Junge’s analysis ended in 2002, the same statistics hold true through 2015 as verified by analysis of the Navy’s leadership biographies: www.navy.mil/navydata/bios/bio_list.asp.
Lieutenant Misso is an E-2C naval flight officer and a speechwriter in the Pentagon.
Lieutenant Allen is an MH-60S pilot as well as an action officer at Naval History and Heritage Command.
Lieutenant Marum, an MH-60R pilot, is a liaison officer with the Office of Legislative Affairs.