The Promises and Pitfalls of USAF-Navy Cooperation

Nov. 1, 1982

Airmen have made great contributions to the art of warfare, but one blemish on the record is their continuing inability to work together as a team.

In some cases, this has taken the form of factionalism and competition for resources within a single service. But at its worst it has pitted the nation’s two airpower services—the Air Force and the Navy—against each other in a decades-old roles-and-missions contest.

Probably the real tragedy of the failure of airmen to work closer together is that the military loses control of its profession. Airpower has high visibility in any combat scenario, but when airmen can’t agree on a type of aircraft or engine, the sharing of roles and missions, or mutual support, it creates a void that the civilian sector rushes to fill.

The civil authority assumes control once held by the military professional, which is seldom regained short of full-scale combat—a worldwide war.

There are many who contend that today’s military has lost control of its profession. That may be so, to a greater or lesser degree. But for sure, one step toward helping regain that control is for airmen, more than any other group in the military, to work together—to think, plan, and operate jointly.

Today, neither seapower nor land power can be effective without airpower, which is the common element. Should the unlikely day ever come when we have an excess of airpower, then perhaps we can afford the luxury of arguments about the relative merits of land-based and sea-based air. Meanwhile, we should be wise to make the most of what is available—and that means working together. It means joint training, joint operations, and joint thinking.

Before considering how things might be, a review of how they have been may add some perspective.

Consider History

Before and during World War II the problem of noncooperation was not so acute. The Navy was involved in the Pacific in World War II, where the Air Force was limited until the advent of the B-29 raids over Japan. The Air Force dominated the African and European theaters, where naval aviation was not significantly involved, except in the antisubmarine role. The Marines were teamed with the Navy, operating from carriers at times, and both were ashore together when circumstances dictated.

Among spectacular examples of joint service air operations were the Doolittle raid on Japan from the USS Hornet and the launching of Army Air Forces tactical aircraft into North Africa from carrier decks—a one-time carrier launch for those pilots. But, in general, the services did not operate jointly because the requirement for airpower was great and the capabilities of the services were limited.

The Korean War saw little change in joint air operations as jets made their introduction into combat. In the initial stages, it was an all-Navy show. Carrier aircraft could reach the combat zone in a hurry from the Yellow Sea or the Sea of Japan. They carried significant combat payloads on their propeller-powered AD Skyraider aircraft.

Messages in the archives, particularly from the Navy, are not very complimentary about Air Force airpower during that phase of combat. The Inchon operation in September 1950 saw Navy Carrier Task Force 88 providing almost all the airpower. And the Marine Corps withdrawal from the Chosin Reservoir in December 1950 was covered almost exclusively by carrier airpower mixed with shore-based Marine F4U Corsairs.

But as the Korean campaign progressed, land bases were expanded and the Air Force introduced the F-84 and F-86 in significant numbers. By 1953, one could make a good case for removing almost all carrier aviation from the theater—saving it for something else, because the Air Force was then able to mount a tremendous number of fighter and attack sorties with relative ease.

Joint Operations in Korea

The most significant cooperation in the use of airpower by the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps in Korea took place during the latter months of the war. During June 1953, it became apparent that peace negotiations would succeed, and the North Korean/Chinese forces went all out to gain as much ground as possible to improve their negotiating position. Republic of Korea (ROK) forces were badly mauled under a major Communist offensive.

The Commander of the US Seventh Fleet, Vice Adm. “Jocko” Clark, sent a message to Carrier Task Force 77 that now was the time for all good airmen tot come to the aid of the US’s Eighth Army. He was so determined to gain the maximum from the available airpower that he volunteered to subordinate all Navy attack sorties to Air Force control. As a result, representatives—squadron commanders—from TF 77 moved into Fifth Air Force headquarters in Seoul and conducted joint planning for all attack sorties.

Early every afternoon a meeting was held, chaired by the Air Force operations directorate. At it were representatives of the Eighth Army, the Marine Air Wing, the B-29 bombing force, the A-2 night intruder elements, Air Force fighter and attack wings, and Task Force 77. Each element was empowered to commit a specific number of sorties. All sorties were coordinated to Eighth Army requirements and specific targets were assigned to each force. At the time, the Navy attack sorties numbered about 500 or more per day and were directed essentially by the Air force through the Navy TF 77 representatives.

It was not “joint operations” with Navy and Air Force planes attacking the same targets at the same time, but was a significant example of how sea-based and shore-based tactical air could be coordinated.

That the coordination came about through the in extremis conditions faced by Eighth Army and the ROK is illustrative of how much pressure is needed to force “joint” operations into reality.

SIOP Coordination

In the years between the Korean and Vietnam Wars, vast sums financed strategic nuclear weapons and associated delivery systems. The preponderance of this money went to the Strategic Air Command, much to the consternation of Tactical Air Command and the Navy. The Navy mounted great efforts to gain a nuclear weapons delivery capability. From this came the Polaris submarine/missile program and a tactical air delivery capability from carriers. The coordination between these competing forces was not impressive, as each of the services went its own way. Annual conferences among major commands attempted to bring some order, but like most coordination conferences they were long on rhetoric and short on action.

As the nuclear arsenal reached more than 3,500 weapons, the coordination problem got out of hand. As a result, in 1960 the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff (JSTPS) was created. It reported to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but was directed by the Commander in Chief, Strategic Air Command, and located at SAC headquarters at Offutt AFB, Neb., where it still functions.

Under directives from the civil authorities, the JSTPS produces the Single Integrated Operation Plan (SIOP), which in great detail brings together in a single plan (with many options) all intercontinental ballistic missiles, strategic bombers, submarine ballistic missiles, and Air Force and Navy tactical air delivery systems. The SIOP is a prime example of a true “joint” operation plan that came about through a desperate need to bring order to a massive destructive force. As the arsenal has grown to almost 10,000 weapons with many delivery systems, the value of the joint nature of the SIOP is even more pronounced.

It is of no credit to airmen that the SIOP was forced on the armed services by civil authority without much initiative from the military.

The Vietnam Case

The Vietnam campaign again brought elements of the Air Force and Navy together in the same small theater of operations. Initially, carrier airpower led the show, but as air bases were constructed the Air Force developed a tremendous capability to generate sorties. The utilization of B-52s to deliver iron bombs must have grieved the strategic bombing community, but B-52 conventional operations were most impressive in demonstrating land-based airpower.

Again in the historical pattern, coordination of air operations in Vietnam was minimal, with each service operating independently. The Navy operated from the Tonkin Gulf while Air Force tactical units were shore-based in South Vietnam and Thailand. The nature of that war, controlled in minute detail by the civil authorities in Washington, required little in the way of joint operations between the Navy and the Air Force.

There were, of course, many exchanges of intelligence and tactical information, but few real joint operations until the final phase, the Linebacker operations involving B-52s bombing the Hanoi area. Navy and Air Force tactical air was used as flak and missile suppressors and fight cover. There were exceptions—for example, Navy aircraft working with Air Force forward air controllers in close air support and interdiction operations. But in general, each service went its own way in fighting its own war. Navy aircraft could not even be refueled by Air Force tankers because of equipment incompatibilities, a situation nobody worked very hard to correct.

But that is the past. Each service now possesses far more capability than in the past, and there is an overlap to accomplish certain missions of the other. Navy carriers have a viable nuclear weapons delivery capability, which can augment or in some instances replace Air Force strategic and tactical delivery. Air Force shore-based aircraft have great ranges and payload capabilities, permitting antisubmarine warfare and ocean surveillance—or minelaying—once an almost exclusive mission.

Navy carrier aircraft have enough range and payload to operate in many traditional shore-based theaters. For example, in exercises, such aircraft have operated in support of the Second and Fourth Allied Tactical Air Forces in Europe, launching from the North Sea, the Bay of Biscay, and the northern Mediterranean.

In one NATO exercise, four Navy A-7Es, flying from the USS Roosevelt in the Aegean Sea, were recovered aboard the USS Kennedy off Norway. At the same time, four Kennedy aircraft flew in the opposite direction to land aboard the Roosevelt. The next day, the aircraft reversed the procedure to return to their home carriers.

The demonstration was authorized by the Air Force commander controlling the air aspects of the exercise, but with the understanding that the Navy would not publicize the capability.

In short, there are many comparable and overlapping capabilities in each of the air services. Are these to be constrained in operational employment by roles-and-missions delegations of the late 1940s? Or is it possible to eliminate some of the traditional barriers to make better use of the airpower available?

Regarding tactical air, the Navy is equipped with the superb F-14/Phoenix missile combination, probably the best interceptor in the world today against sophisticated threats like the Backfire comber. Rather than confining it to carrier operations, why can’t it operate from shore bases in Iceland or Southwest Asia

Any why not use Air Force F-15s and F-16s in defense of naval forces? A simple exercise could be conducted with those aircraft acting as combat air patrol when naval units are near land bases. Planning and practicing that kind of joint operation could be preparation for a time when carrier forces may be trying to hold a beachhead in Southwest Asia and shore-based airpower is available from nearby Air Force bases. Again, why must Navy A-6E and A-7E attack aircraft be confined to hitting sea-based and peripheral land targets simply because they are Navy aircraft? They could be used, for example, in Central Europe to augment land-based airpower that is in short supply. Shouldn’t airmen be exercising that role now, rather than waiting until the in extremis conditions of actual combat?

Excellent Capabilities

In electronic warfare, the Navy has developed excellent capabilities, of which the EA-6B jamming aircraft is a prime example. These aircraft could be used to support Air Force missions in Central Europe or elsewhere, and Air Force units could be practicing joint operations with them.

In early warning, the Navy must support USAF’s E-3A AWACS. Fortunately, the Navy’s E-2C Hawkeye seems to be compatible with the Air Force AWACS, and some exercises have been conducted that demonstrate the value of operating the two systems together. Shouldn’t E-2Cs be practicing for a role in support of Air Force operations in the European theater?

And, in terms of antisubmarine warfare, the Air Force could add demonstrably to this tactical Navy mission. There is a move to use B-52s in an ocean surveillance role, equipping them with sonobuoys and appropriate support equipment. That capability could be utilized and integrated into a joint operation with the Navy. In a similar vein, Navy antisubmarine aircraft like the normally carrier-based S-3A could be used in a shore-based role over chokepoints, operating from Air Force bases and flown by Air Force crews.

Mine warfare, particularly that associated with naval operations, has long been an almost exclusive province of the Navy. Mines can be laid by shore-based P-3s or carrier-based aircraft, ships and submarines, and certainly by B-52s. It is noteworthy that this capability has been well recognized and that considerable progress for the inclusion of the Air Force in this mission has been made.

When evaluating Navy and Air Force airpower, one must consider flying training. An almost continual battle exists on this issue, not so much between the services as between certain key civilians and the Navy. For example, when Dr. Harold Brown was Secretary of Defense, he seemed to view the consolidation of all helicopter pilot training at Fort Rucker under the Army as one of the most significant issues on the Defense Department agenda. The Navy feared that such action was merely a nose in the tent, and that the next step would be to place all fixed wing pilot training under the Air Force.

Such perceptions, prompted by parochial roles and missions arguments, are not in the best interest of strong airpower. Many aspects of air training can and should be on a joint basis. If the services put more emphasis on joint approaches to the use of airpower, many objectives of cost savers and efficiency experts will be realized. But action should start with the military services, not by appointed officials in the Department of Defense or staff members on Capitol Hill.

If the Air Force and Navy each learn the capabilities of the other and apply them objectively, the nation’s airpower can’t help but be strengthened.

Vice Adm. Gerald E. (Jerry) Miller, USN (Ret.), enlisted in the Navy on his seventeenth birthday, serving as a sailor in both Atlantic and Pacific Fleets before entering the Naval Academy in 1938, graduating in December 1941. He served in cruisers on combat duty in the South Pacific and the Aleutians campaigns of World War II. After becoming a naval aviator, he served in the Korean War as a jet fighter squadron commander. He has been an air wing commander, commanded an ammunition ship and the attack carrier USS Franklin D. Roosevelt, a carrier division during the Vietnam War, the US Second Fleet in the Atlantic, and the US Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean. He also served with the JCS and with the Nuclear Target Planning Staff at Hq. SAC, Offutt AFB, Neb., and before retirement in 1974 was Deputy Director of the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff, the agency responsible for developing the nation’s strategic nuclear warfare plans. He is a member of the Board of Directors of Gulf + Western Industries, Inc., and serves other corporations in a similar capacity. He has also served as a consultant to the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, the Office of Technology Assessment, and the General Accounting Office.