The Navy’s carrier air wing community is not prepared for a high-end fight. This is because of an almost myopic focus in fleet training on independent (non-joint) air operations that are not representative of how carrier strike groups should be used in modern, contested air warfare. To fix this, the carrier-based Navy must stop paying lip service to joint cooperation and begin developing foundational knowledge of integrated joint air operations by implementing more joint training requirements and opportunities throughout the Optimized Fleet Response Plan (OFRP) and various Air Combat Training Continuum syllabi that carrier air wing aircrew must complete.
The highly successful air campaign of Operation Desert Storm is an example of why the Navy must adopt more integrated joint air operations training.
Operation Desert Storm
During the early morning hours of 17 January 1991, Operation Desert Storm commenced, with hundreds of coalition aircraft conducting coordinated strikes against targets in Iraq. The initial attack waves included Air Force F-117 Nighthawks, F-15E Strike Eagles, F-16 Fighting Falcons, B-52 Stratofortresses, Royal Air Force Tornado GR1s, Navy A-6E Intruders, and FA-18A Hornets. Supporting the strikers were F-14A Tomcats and F-15C Eagles conducting combat air patrol, as well as E-3C and E-2C Hawkeyes providing command and control (C2) and early warning of possible Iraqi SCUD missile launches into Saudi Arabia.
Concurrent with the predawn strikes, kinetic and nonkinetic suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD) against Iraq’s vaunted integrated air-defense systems was tasked to Navy and Marine Corps EA-6B Prowlers and A-7E Corsair IIs, as well as Air Force EF-111 Ravens, F-4G Wild Weasels, and EC-130 Compass Calls.
Finally, more than 160 tanker aircraft kept station outside of Iraqi early-warning detection ranges to provide fuel for the massive day-zero strikes. Such an impressive array of airpower had not been seen since the opening days of Operation Linebacker II, nearly two decades earlier over the skies of North Vietnam. In a matter of hours, the U.S.-led coalition would decimate Saddam Hussein’s integrated air-defense system, cripple his key control nodes, and usher in a new “military-technological revolution.”1
Today, air operations on such a scale are hard for most naval aviators to imagine. The first 24 hours of Desert Storm alone involved more than 800 tactical aircraft sorties.2 Other days of the six-week-long air campaign occasionally would see 3,000 or more air tasking order missions scheduled.3 Naval aircraft from the six (SIX!) aircraft carriers stationed in the northern Arabian Gulf and Red Sea would account for approximately 20 percent of the operation’s 100,000 sorties.4
A less touted detail, however, was that, with the exception of a heavy reliance on Air Force aerial refueling platforms, as well as limited support for SEAD missions, naval tactical aviation mostly stayed in its own lane, and integrated joint air operations were rare, despite the fact that it was a “joint” air campaign. While the joint effort during Operation Desert Storm was novel because a theater-wide air tasking order, informed by a master air attack plan, was used as a centralized method for control and coordination of the various services’ air assets under a single joint forces air component commander, those assets hardly integrated tactically across services. In fact, Navy leaders in the region would specifically request that their units fly in single-service packages to reduce the coordination required between carrier- and land-based units.5 During phase one of the air campaign, Navy strike packages largely focused on targets in eastern Baghdad and southeastern Iraq, primarily to deconflict with Air Force aircraft operating in western Baghdad and southwestern Iraq, reflecting a service-independent doctrine akin to the “route package” operations used in Vietnam roughly 20 years earlier.6
The abundance of airpower allocated to Desert Storm—a byproduct of the Cold War ending in early 1991—negated the need for integrated joint air operations by allowing overlapping and redundant capabilities from the different services. By the air campaign’s start, the Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps would have more than 1,000 fixed-wing, strike-capable aircraft in the Central Command area of responsibility.7 With such overwhelming force available, the operation’s planners had the flexibility to implement simultaneous and largely independent air campaigns from the different services to support a cumulative strategy, rather than integrating their forces to achieve success.8
This wealth of force is not available to today’s operational planners, and the Navy must recognize that integrated joint air operations will be necessary for any major air campaign or contingency operation requiring air superiority against a peer or near-peer adversary.
The post-Cold War drawdown of U.S. forces in the 1990s, followed by two decades of continuous combat deployments of strike-capable tactical aircraft to Afghanistan, Iraq, and, later, Syria, have led to a comparatively smaller and worn-out force. In three decades, the United States has seen its inventory of fixed-wing fighter/attack aircraft fall by about a third, from approximately 5,000 in 1991 to 3,400 today, with a continuing decline expected as fourth-generation airframes begin to reach the end of their service lifespans.9 Particularly hard-hit by sustained, high-tempo operational deployments have been fourth-generation workhorses such as the FA-18E/F Super Hornet, which has seen mission capability rates as low as 40–50 percent in recent years.10
While readiness numbers have improved recently and service-life modification programs become a reality to stretch fourth-generation airframes into the 2030s, the days of planning sustained 2,000-sortie-a-day air operations for weeks on end are a thing of the past. The United States simply does not have the tactical aviation surge capability that was available in the early 1990s. In addition, in the era of renewed great power competition, any significant air operation must be planned with the knowledge that some of the already limited U.S. tactical aviation forces must be kept in reserve in other areas of operation as a deterrent against third parties seeking to exploit an opportunity.
Following the “military-technological revolution” heralded after Desert Storm, the prevailing assumption was that fewer aircraft would be required in modern major air operations than were allocated for the Cold War and later in the Gulf War. Advancements in low-observable technologies, precision-guided munitions, sensors, air-to-air weapons, and airborne electronic attack all would significantly reduce the overall sortie requirement needed to conduct strike operations. Instead of sorties per target, the operational planning calculus had changed to targets per sortie. Of the 227,000 free-fall weapons expended in the Gulf War, only 14 percent were precision-guided.11 In contrast, during the ongoing Operation Inherent Resolve begun in 2014, 99 percent of all air-delivered munitions have been precision-guided.12 Smarter bombs, better missiles, and more advanced, multirole aircraft attacking from greater standoff ranges should mean less tactical aviation required.
U.S. adversaries learned from the successes of Desert Storm as well and, in the intervening years, have strived either to catch up technologically or, at the very least, to nullify demonstrable U.S. strengths in the application of airpower. Parallel advances in antiaccess/area-denial systems, threat aircraft and armaments, electronic attack, global positioning system (GPS), and datalink jamming, as well as counter–low observable technologies, have whittled away U.S. technological and kinematic advantages since the end of the Gulf War. Now, not only is aircraft survivability still a concern, but planners also must account for the survivability of precision weapons and/or their ability to guide to their targets. This increases the number of (precision) weapons required to strike a target, which, in turn, increases the number of strike-capable aircraft needed to carry those weapons. If the United States is back to a sorties-per-target planning calculus, to conduct major air operations against a contemporary opponent, services will need to bring a lot of brute force to bear.
Complicating the problem further are improvements in passive- and over-the-horizon detection capabilities and threat cruise/ballistic missile technologies that mean the standoff ranges required to base and launch aircraft, potentially to include the stationing of carrier strike groups, have increased dramatically. Solving this problem requires either deceptive procedures such as emissions-control operations or a lot of big-wing tankers, which, not surprisingly, the United States has fewer of than it did in 1991.13 In either case, the number of tactical aircraft able to make it to the target or combat air patrol station will be limited by fuel or force-protection constraints.
To conduct an air campaign in or against a modern integrated air-defense system or to defend against an air attack from a determined, contemporary force, a combination of simultaneous effects is required: saturation, in both weapons and spectrum, provided by an abundance of force that is synchronized in time as well as location, and superior tactical execution.
To achieve these effects, the Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps tactical aviation communities must look to each other as force multipliers to achieve the combatant commander’s operational objectives. With fewer tactical aircraft available and likely stationed farther away from the battlespace, force compositions in contested air warfare will need to be a combination of capabilities, cobbled together using whatever assets are available and within range.
A strike mission, for example, may look something like a four-ship of F-22 Raptors conducting Rapid Raptor operations from an austere airfield, providing an offensive counterair screen for a destructive SEAD element of four Marine Corps F-35Bs getting dragged 1,000 nm from their “forward” operating base by two KC-130s. Integrating with the offensive counterair and SEAD elements would be three divisions of FA-18E/F strike fighters, a section of EA-18G Growlers, and two E-2Ds, launched from an aircraft carrier that has been steaming in emissions control for the entire 72-hour air tasking order planning cycle. Despite the complexities in planning and executing such integrated operations, the Navy spends little in effort or funding to prepare its aviators for this level of joint air warfare.
Almost 30 years after Operation Desert Storm, integrated joint training for the majority of carrier-based aircrew remains largely inadequate for large-scale air operations. Despite a concerted effort to develop dynamic force employment concepts to enable the joint force, carrier air wing training priorities remain too heavily focused on independent air operations and 20th-century service-specific doctrine. Though fighter integration standards for strike-fighter aircrew have been developed by U.S. Navy Fighter Weapons School (TOPGUN), rare is the junior officer who has trained with Air Force fourth- or fifth-generation tactical aviation in anything other than a one-versus-one dissimilar air combat training mission.
Even rarer is the air warfare component commander who has conducted integrated carrier strike group defense training with a combination of organic and nonorganic assets. While air control communication standards among the services are becoming more standardized, fleet E-2 aircrew receive little exposure to providing command-and-control support to non-carrier aviation assets.
Throughout the OFRP, carrier-based aircrew receive limited exposure to operating in the joint environment with nonorganic platforms from the other joint services. The Composite Training Unit Exercise (COMPTUEX) is a distinctly naval exercise appropriately focused on overall carrier strike group execution, however, this predeployment “graduation exercise” contains little to no joint training. Routinely during COMPTUEX the presence of an Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker providing practice plugs or a single B-52 for an overland strike (and the all-important photo op) is considered meeting the “joint” wicket for the air wing’s readiness standards. Air Wing Fallon is where there has been the most progress incorporating joint training; however, partner service participation is inconsistent, underfunded, and rarely includes nonorganic tactical aviation. During the OFRP as a whole, joint air operations training generally is characterized as a “nice to have” rather than a pressing requirement, and, as carrier air wings prepare for deployment, they do so by continuing to pretend they will be acting entirely independently of joint forces.
Most of the joint air warfare training that carrier-based aircrew are exposed to occurs outside the OFRP cycle as individual squadrons in maintenance phase participate in Air Force– or Air National Guard–led exercises such as Red Flag, Northern Edge, or Northern Lightning. Leading this effort for years has been the airborne electronic attack community because of the insatiable demand by every service for dedicated SEAD. Joint training for EA-18G fleet aircrew, however, is neither an Air Combat Training Continuum syllabus requirement nor is it prioritized by readiness metrics. The same holds true for the strike fighter and carrier airborne early warning of communities; joint training generally is episodic and not prioritized.
The Way Forward
To prepare for modern, contested air warfare, the Navy must make integrated joint training a requirement for deploying carrier air wings and carrier-based aircrew. If possible, an entire air wing should be provided with the time and funding to participate in an established “flag” joint air exercise. The OFRP as a whole, but, in particular, Air Wing Fallon and COMPTUEX, must include more funding for joint tactical aviation and command-and-control assets to integrate with the carrier air wing in antiair warfare, strike warfare, SEAD, and maritime interdiction missions.
To build more corporate knowledge of integrated joint air operations and tactics, Air Combat Training Continuum syllabi for carrier-based aircrew must include joint “X plus X” (not X versus X) training requirements. A standardized syllabus for package commander qualifications should be developed and, along with the airborne interdiction mission commander program, should require the integration of joint tactical aviation platforms. This increase in fleet exposure to joint operations should be facilitated by the aviation community type-wings, who must assume more ownership of and be provided with the tools to enable joint air training for the carrier-based community.
Take, for example, Naval Air Station Oceana, which is the East Coast master jet base for Commander, Naval Air Forces Atlantic. Within 300 miles of Oceana lies Joint Base Langley-Eustis (Air Force and Air National Guard F-22s), Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point (AV-8Bs), Seymour Johnson Air Force Base (F-15Es and KC-135s), Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort (FA-18C/Ds and F-35Bs), and Shaw Air Force Base (F-16s). Despite there being one of the largest concentrations of tactical aircraft in the world within a 45-minute flight from Oceana, strike-fighter aircrew there rarely conduct integrated joint air training and typically do not exceed training to force compositions greater than division strength. Aside from the changes to the OFRP and Air Combat Training Continuum syllabi outlined earlier, the Navy should investigate hosting its own large-scale joint air exercises using the assets and airspace already in place along the mid-Atlantic seaboard.
While the carrier air wing must always be able to provide independent options to combatant commanders, these types of operations should be considered exceptions to the rule that air operations will need to be integrated with other services to be successful. Otherwise, the potency of the carrier air wing will be underused, and there will be more truth to the joke among naval aviators that goes: “The purpose of the aircraft carrier is to defend the aircraft carrier.”
1. Benjamin S. Lambeth, The Winning of Air Supremacy in Operation Desert Storm, white paper (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 1993),
2. Lambeth, The Winning of Air Supremacy in Operation Desert Storm, 3.
3. Thomas A. Keaney and Eliot A. Cohen, Gulf War Air Power Survey, Summary Report to the Secretary of the Air Force (Washington, DC, Government Printing Office, 1993), 5.
4. Keaney and Cohen, Gulf War Air Power Survey, 154.
5. Diane T. Putney, Airpower Advantage, Planning the Gulf War Air Campaign 1989–1991 (Washington, DC: Air Force History and Museums Program, United States Air Force, 2004), 175.
6. Putney, Airpower Advantage, Planning the Gulf War Air Campaign 1989-1991, 78.
7. Keaney and Cohen, Gulf War Air Power Survey, 199.
8. James M. Holmes, “The Counter-Air Companion, A Short Guide to Air Superiority for Joint Force Commanders” (thesis, Air Command and Staff College, Maxwell Air Force Base, AL, 1995), 57.
9. Steven M. Kosiak, Is the U.S. Military Getting Smaller and Older? (Washington, DC, Center for A New American Security, 2017), 11.
10. Megan Eckstein, “Navy Surpasses 80% Aircraft Readiness Goal, Reaches Stretch Goal of 341 Up Fighters,” USNI News, 25 September, 2019.
11. Keaney and Cohen, Gulf War Air Power Survey, 226.
12. John Andreas Olsen, Airpower Applied: U.S., NATO, and Israeli Combat Experience (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2017), 188.
13. “An Assessment of U.S. Military Power,” The Heritage Foundation (2019).