From the Cold War to Kabul: The Past 25 Years of Naval Aviation

By Vice Adm. Robert F. Dunn, USN (Ret.).

An F/A-18C Hornet with the VFA-82 Marauders, from USS Enterprise (CVN 65) casts its shadow on a U.S. Air Force KC-10A Extender before refueling during a mission of Iraq in 2003. Since 1991, naval aircraft have been engaged nearly continuously through several wars and an interim armed peace that included enforcement of no-fly zones in Iraq.

The year 1986 was an important one for the Navy. Naval Aviation celebrated its 75th Anniversary. The Maritime Strategy, designed to defeat the Soviet Navy, was in vogue. A 600-ship navy consisting of 15 aircraft carriers (increasingly nuclear powered), 12 large amphibious support ships, one training carrier, and three Marine air wings was within grasp. The 6th and 7th Fleets were at full strength in the Mediterranean and Western Pacific, respectively. It was also in 1986 that terrorism rose to become a prime concern of the United States. In that year, Navy carrier aircraft, along with Air Force units, retaliated against Moammar Gadhafi for a Berlin discothèque bombing. Later that same year, Navy and Marine Corps aircraft from 6th Fleet aircraft carriers struck other Libyan targets in retaliation for Libyan attacks on 6th Fleet ships. The movie Top Gun premiered and the first “Super CAGs” took command. Not much later, Marine strike-fighter squadrons formed a part of each carrier air wing and Navy squadrons often joined Marines ashore. Sadly, it was also the year the space shuttle Challenger blew up shortly after launch.

Carrier air wings were largely equipped with F-14 Tomcats, A-7 Corsair IIs, A-6 Intruders, E-2 Hawkeyes, EA-6 Prowlers, S-3 Vikings, and SH-3 Sea Kings. Marine air wings had F-4 Phantom IIs, Intruders, Prowlers, AV-8 Harriers, CH-46 Sea Knights, and AH-1 Cobras, with KC-130s in support. P-3 Orions patrolled the oceans for Soviet ballistic missile submarines and A-3 Skywarriors provided long-range surveillance from both ashore and carriers. The F/A-18 Hornet was just coming into Navy and Marine inventories and the Advanced Tactical Aircraft (later the A-12) and the A-6F were on the drawing board. In the Naval Air Training Command, students were learning to fly in the T-34 Mentor, the T-2 Buckeye, and the TA-4 Skyhawk, with the T-45 on the horizon. In support were a wide variety of ships and shore stations, air stations throughout the continental United States and around the world, and a vast acquisition, maintenance, and supply support establishment. 

For more than 40 years, the Soviet Union had been the principal threat to the United States. The deployment of U.S. and allied naval forces had settled into a routine: two carrier battle groups in the Mediterranean and two carrier groups in the Western Pacific, with individual ships on a six-month rotation from their home ports. Deployments were essentially the same for the large amphibious support ships while Marines and patrol squadrons rotated on a similar basis to overseas bases. Long-range strike, fleet air defense, and seeking out and tracking the Soviet ballistic missile firing submarines were the paramount missions. For the most part, other requirements and efforts such as the retaliation against Iran for hostile activities in the Persian Gulf in 1988 and Libya in early 1989 fit nicely within the requirements to be ready for war with the Soviet Union.

Barely three years after celebrating the 75th Anniversary of Naval Aviation, the Berlin Wall came tumbling down. That event in November 1989 made it clear the Cold War was over—the United States and NATO had prevailed. The demise of the Soviet Union two years later, in December 1991, merely certified the obvious. Naval Aviation, once a strong and capable force, now became a target for cost savings. Plans were made to reduce deployments, people, and forces. The nation looked for a “peace dividend.”

During the U.S invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, U.S. Marines conducted history’s longest amphibious assault by moving Marines hundreds of miles inland by air from amphibious assault ships based in the Arabian Sea. By December, Marines were patrolling from bases in Kandahar and elsewhere in Afghanistan. (Photo by PHC Johnny Bivera)
It was not to be, however. In the summer of 1990, Saddam Hussein moved into Kuwait. The following January, six aircraft carriers acting in concert with other air and ground elements led a coalition that quickly pushed back the Iraqis in Operation Desert Storm. This successful campaign was followed by the establishment of no-fly zones over Iraq, enforced in the south by Naval Aviation. There were also shorter periods of combat such as Operation Desert Fox in 1998 and participation by carrier aircraft and P-3s in enforcement of a no-fly zone over Kosovo in 1999. Meanwhile, there were other efforts in Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia. Then came 9/11: retaliation of some sort was in order and it began with chasing down Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

Landlocked Central Asia presented problems—there was no ready access, except from the sea. Carriers were moved into the Indian Ocean and one of them, USS Kitty Hawk (CV 63), launched a composite Army command of more than 600 special forces by helos into Afghanistan. Other carriers flew reconnaissance and close air support and sustained special forces’ efforts until land-based air forces found proper bases. Thus began a sustained naval effort in support of operations in Afghanistan that continues to this day. When Operation Iraqi Freedom was launched in 2003, Naval Aviation again played a central role. What the “peace dividend” ended up yielding was 20 years of nearly continuous war involving Naval Aviation.

Sustained operations and deployments brought with them unanticipated high usage of airplanes, ordnance, parts, and personnel. At the same time, development and modernization did not stand still. The Naval Aviation force of 2011 is nothing like that of 25 years earlier. Conventionally powered aircraft carriers have left the force, replaced by nuclear-powered ships. Older amphibious ships have been replaced by newer LHDs and a new class of LPD. Gone are Tomcats, Phantom IIs, Corsair IIs, Sea Kings, Intruders, Vikings, and more. In are Hornets, H-60s in several varieties, the AV-8B Harrier II, the MH-53E, and new and more capable H-1s. Those aircraft types that remain such as the P-3, EA-6B, and E-2 may look the same on the outside, but the insides contain completely new weapon systems.

F-14 Tomcats served as the mainstay of Naval Aviation’s fighter force through much of the past quarter century. They would end their service fighting in Iraq—such as this Tomcat with the VF-211 Checkmates aboard USS Enterprise (CVN 65)—and were completely retired by 2006. (Photo by PHAN Milosz Reterski)

The maritime patrol and reconnaissance force is a special case. While those aircraft delivering ordnance against an enemy get most notice, patrol aircraft switched seamlessly from the Cold War posture that emphasized anti-submarine warfare to a variety of other missions such as battle space surveillance, counter-drug operations, and disaster relief support. During Operation Desert Shield, P-3s were the first American forces to arrive in the area. Six months later, P-3s helped detect 55 Iraqi patrol boats that were later destroyed. Throughout Southwest Asia, and particularly over Afghanistan, P-3s proved their worth by providing battle space information to Soldiers and Marines on the ground.

Helicopters are another special case. Little noted is the fact that the rotary-wing community has grown rapidly and will soon represent more than 50 percent of naval aviators. The number of missions has increased but the number of airframes has been reduced to two: the MH-60S and MH-60R (and even these share most of the same components). The two aircraft have different primary missions but there is considerable overlap in all capabilities. Rotary-wing aircraft are supremely flexible and lead in the employment of unmanned aerial vehicles as well. The MQ-8B Fire Scout has begun supplementing and fulfilling important erstwhile manned rotary-wing missions and more besides.

Marines have been in the forefront of helicopter utilization for years. Now they lead the nation in the employment of the first tiltrotor, the MV-22 Osprey. Despite early development problems, the Osprey is now a valued combat vehicle for both the Marines and Air Force. From the prototype JVX and XV-15 early in this past quarter century, the MV-22 has developed into a most reliable, effective, and important part of Naval Aviation. Combining vertical takeoff and landing with speeds much higher than that of a typical rotary wing craft, the MV-22 has potential yet to be realized. It is changing the face of all types of ground combat operations.

A pair of Sikorsky MH-60R “Romeo” Seahawks, TS 400 166402 and TS 412 166532 of the HSM-41 Seahawks”, blaze along the California coast. (Photo by Ted Carlson)
Weapons have changed as well. The multifarious weapons available in 1986 have been reduced to just a few—more effective—weapons today. In the 75th year of Naval Aviation, the measure of effectiveness on target was as it had been at the beginning: the number of weapons required to achieve a certain level of target destruction. In 2011, effectiveness is measured in terms of the number of targets destroyed per single aircraft mission. This was accomplished largely by adding such deadly weapons as Standoff Land Attack Missiles-Expanded Response, Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles, Joint Direct Attack Munitions, and Laser Joint Direct Attack Munitions.

Along with new strike weapons have come new systems such as active electronically scanned array radar, helmet-mounted sights, new air-to-air weapons such as the AIM-9X Sidewinder short range missile, and netted communications. Naval Aviation has begun to adapt to the world of integrated unmanned aircraft systems and soon unmanned aircraft will operate from carrier decks. Naval Aviation also has made giant strides in integration and cooperation with other services and allies—participating in combined air operations centers, delivering close air support, and using Air Force, National Guard, and allied tankers.

Remarkably, as important as these many changes and combat deployments have been to the United States and its allies, Naval Aviation’s people and their families have withstood increased separation and tremendous stresses. Over the past quarter century, but especially during the past 20 years, there have been countless back-to-back and long deployments of Sailors and Marines to the far reaches of the world, as well as short-notice deployments for disaster relief, drug interdiction, and other contingencies. In addition, thousands of Naval Aviation personnel have volunteered for service in Iraq and Afghanistan as individual augmentees, performing important services for deployed ground forces. Retention has remained surprisingly high—in fact, despite seeming overuse of people, the Navy will soon have to begin selectively forcing well-performing Sailors to leave the service.

During all these years of combat and extended deployments, aircraft, weapon systems, and equipment have been overused as well. Hornets, Orions, and other aircraft have exceeded their programmed service life, causing engineers, the supply system, and repair depots to work overtime to repair and extend aging systems. Some aircraft have been retired without replacement. Others have been reworked and stretched, then stretched again. This has sometimes resulted in insufficient aircraft and parts for squadrons and units between deployments, but all those going into combat, or potential combat, have been fully equipped and outfitted.

Hostile fire, difficult missions, pace of employment, long separations from home, and even the closure of the Cubi Point Officers’ Club have not diminished the traditional strengths of Naval Aviation. At the same time, the all-Navy mishap rate is at an all time low. All of this only gives one a glimpse of what the future might hold at the cusp of the second century of Naval Aviation. In the years to come, as in the past, the flexibility, speed, and lethality of that powerful force will prove crucial to the defense of the free world.

Grampaw Pettibone is exceedingly proud.

Established in 1999, VFA-122 was the first Navy squadron to fly the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. Over the past decade, the Super Hornet has become the Navy’s preeminent fighter aircraft. (Photo by Ted Carlson)

Vice Adm. Dunn is president of the Naval Historical Foundation. He is a former naval aviator whose commands included Commander, Naval Air Forces, U.S. Atlantic Fleet, and Deputy Chief of Naval Operations (Air Warfare) before his retirement in 1989.