The surface warfare community has improved its warfighting expertise over the past five years by creating the surface warfare tactics instructor (WTI) program, the Surface and Mine Warfare Development Command, and Surface Development Squadron 1. Now it needs a new entity––an aggressor squadron, the element that makes naval aviation’s TOPGUN program so successful in challenging fleet aviators in the Nevada skies above Naval Air Station (NAS) Fallon. Intelligence experts can brief threat tactics or inject them into simulators, but no simulation can truly convey the sights, sounds, and sensations of naval combat against a human enemy in the physical world. With aggressor units manned by reserve surface warfare officers (SWOs) serving as red force WTIs or commanding and driving unmanned drone warships, the Navy can finally give surface warfighters the edge its aviators have received for decades.
The effort should be driven by the Navy Reserve, whose leaders have experience manning, training, and equipping an aviation aggressor unit. Currently, the Naval Air Forces Reserve Command, which reports operationally to the Commander, Naval Air Forces, and administratively to the Chief of the Navy Reserve, manages two squadrons. Fighter Squadron Composite 12 (VFC-12), the Sundowners, based at NAS Oceana, Virginia, sends detachments to NAS Key West and flies F-18A/B Hornets against East Coast fleet fighter squadrons, while the NAS Fallon-based VFC-13 Saints fly F-5E Tigers against squadrons from NAS Lemoore, California. (The so-called MiG-28 with which Tom Cruise conducts inverted “foreign relations” in the original Top Gun movie is a VFC-13 Tiger.)
The VFC squadrons, commanded by a full-time support (FTS) officer, have a mix of FTS and traditional selected reserve officers (those who are not full-time). This mix ensures FTS officers, who are experts at reserve personnel management, run the squadron’s day-to-day operations, with the selected reservists providing augmentation through annual training or longer-term orders. The same mix also exists among enlisted aircraft maintainers. Navy leaders should use this same model in creating new surface warfare reserve aggressor units (SWRAUs).
Surface Aggressor units
Reporting to Surface Development Squadron 1, a SWO FTS commander would lead a mix of FTS and selected reserve officers and enlisted personnel to operate and maintain drone ships or embark on ships acting as exercise red forces. Onboard, the SWRAU officer would function as a red force WTI, instructing commanding officers to think and act like an enemy commander. U.S. warships could quickly become formidable opposition force elements, and coastal riverine boats could transform into Iranian small-boat swarms.
A SWRAU would fit nicely under the Chief of the Navy Reserve’s 2018 Ready to Win plan for better aligning the reserves with warfighting functions. As things stand, reserve SWOs mostly augment fleet staffs as planning experts, hardly keeping their mariner skills current unless they are among the few in coastal riverine squadrons. While FTS SWOs can command warships, SWRAU billets would enable them to use their reserve personnel management skills along with their warfighting expertise. Also, a stovepipe aggressor career might be too niche to fit an active-duty SWO needing to achieve critical milestones in traditional sea billets, but it could suit SWO reservists perfectly. They could remain with a SWRAU for years, making them expert aggressor force practitioners with an expanded network of contacts in the intelligence community and weapon schools.
Creating aggressor squadrons will contribute immediately to the surface navy’s comprehensive effort to improve warfighting. Many SWO reservists miss their time at sea and would jump at the chance to be back on a bridge, refreshing their mariner skills. SWRAUs need to challenge the blue-force WTIs at sea, where the waves, the wind, and the mind of an enemy provide a real-world environment for advanced tactical development and training.