Airborne antisubmarine warfare (ASW) is a difficult discipline to master, requiring equal measures of training and experience to become proficient. The training pipeline for tactical crewmembers is both intellectually and physically demanding, and a high proportion of those who meet the initial qualifications for entry wash out.
Because airborne ASW tactical crewmembers are hard to get and retain, the Navy operated an extensive reserve program during the Cold War. An important element of this program was the reserve patrol squadrons. During the 1950s and 1960s, there were dozens of these squadrons on Navy bases across the country. Their numbers were reduced over the years, but through 1990, there were still more than a dozen operating.
Thus, it was fairly easy for airborne ASW tactical crewmembers to continue in the Navy Reserve after they left active duty. At least one reserve patrol squadron was within commuting distance of most major population centers. During the 1990s, this changed dramatically.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the recasting of China from potential enemy to a vital link in the global supply chain brought about a reduction in potentially hostile submarine deployments. In the cuts to U.S. military forces that followed, reserve patrol aviation was hit especially hard. There now are only two reserve patrol squadrons remaining, VP-62 in Jacksonville, Florida, and VP-69 in Whidbey Island, Washington.
VP-62 and VP-69 operate the venerable P-3 Orion, which was introduced in 1962. The Navy recently retired the P-3 from front-line service in the ASW role and replaced it with the P-8 Poseidon. The reserve P-3s will be retired in 2023. Although there had been talk of eliminating reserve patrol aviation when the last P-3s are retired, current planning has at least one reserve squadron programmed to transition to the P-8.
It is good that reserve patrol aviation will continue. But with only two reserve patrol squadrons on opposite corners of the country, it will be impossible for the majority of P-8 tactical crewmembers who leave the regular Navy to continue their military careers in the Reserve.
P-8 pilots, maintainers, and administrative personnel can easily retain their military skills in the civilian world. The P-8 is derived from the Boeing 737, the most widely used commercial airliner in the world today. However, there is no civilian occupation that will keep a P-8 sensor operator or naval flight officer’s skills sharp once he or she leaves active duty.
The good news is that much of what a tactical crewmember does on board a P-8 during an ASW mission can be easily simulated on the ground. All the tactical stations on the aircraft are physically identical—with changes in functional configuration accomplished entirely by software configuration at boot-time—so building a basic P-8 tactical crew simulator would not be that complex. In essence, each tactical crew station on a P-8 is like a high-end gaming console with a programmable keyboard, a joystick, and two flat-screen monitors.
For years video gamers have been using networked PC-based flight simulators combined with realistic controls, instrumentation, seating, etc., to wage large-scale aerial battles featuring detailed computer models of military aircraft and dozens of participants. Similar gaming technology could be adapted for the Navy’s purposes at fairly low cost.
The Navy could set up small reserve units equipped with networked PC-based P-8 tactical crew simulators at selected reserve centers. These could be located anywhere significant numbers of former P-8 tactical crewmembers tend to migrate. Each of these reserve units could be affiliated with a regular Navy P-8 squadron. Ideally, the squadrons could send a P-8 to the nearest suitable airfield, perhaps on a quarterly basis, to provide reservists with actual flight time. In addition, reservists could perform their two-week annual training with the squadron, where they could fly operational missions.
This would provide a relatively inexpensive means of ensuring the skills of veteran P-8 tactical crewmembers are not lost after they leave active duty.
The submarine threat thought to be over in the 1990s is showing strong signs of resurgence. Let’s not throw away veterans’ airborne ASW skills simply because they do not settle near the remaining reserve patrol squadron(s). The Navy may need them back!