The Strike Fighter Time Management Problem

U.S. Navy provider air wings will not be successfully managing their time, and this might price America dearly given the centrality of the provider to U.S. naval operations. There is a yawning hole between the wishes of commanders and precise capabilities.

Navy F/A-18E/F Super Hornet squadrons should be specialised in both air-to-surface strike or air-to-air fight. There shouldn’t be sufficient time for squadrons to excel in each. Without this course correction, air wings and their carriers may grow to be floating targets requiring protection however unable to strike again.



How did this occur? The present portfolio of missions is just too bloated given the restricted coaching time accessible. Squadrons exacerbate this time administration downside by disproportionately specializing in air-to-air fight proficiency. And lastly, air wings are clinging to an outdated multi-mission mindset that gained’t work towards America’s most harmful enemies.


Aircraft carriers’ strategic messaging functionality, restricted availability, and firepower make them valuable to combatant commanders, however menace developments are lowering their worth with every passing yr. Navy leaders, together with former U.S. Indo-Pacific commander Adm. Philip S. Davidson, have defined that naval forces ought to possess long-range offensive capabilities to stay related. The Navy has bought the AGM-158C Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile and commanders have elevated demand for observe strikes towards simulated enemy warships to make sure carriers obtain that intent.

The Navy intends the AGM-158C “to play a significant role in ensuring military access to the ocean and littorals” regardless of its restricted numbers and multi-million greenback price ticket. Commanders are relying on carrier-based strike fighters to ship very seen results with this weapon. This context explains why these missions have grow to be so vital to naval commanders. The AGM-158C’s results will influence strategic and operational determination makers past the tactical degree.

Strike fighters produce other missions to arrange for as nicely. Advancing enemy jets and air protection programs imply that air wings ought to rebuild misplaced institutional information for pushing into harmful fight environments. Simultaneously, carrier-based fighters should defend their ship from enemy assault. Each of those duties could possibly be a full-time job.

Air wings embark with 4 strike fighter squadrons. The “Air Wing of the Future,” which is able to quickly grow to be normal, contains one squadron of two-seat F/A-18Fs, two of single-seat F/A-18Es, and one in all F-35C Lightning IIs. Wings that haven’t but acquired the F-35C get an extra F/A-18 squadron. The missions described above translate to a few classes of tactical coaching for aircrews: maritime strike, air-to-surface, and air-to-air. Maritime strike entails attacking enemy naval vessels with the AGM-158C and different subtle weapons. Air-to-surface contains typical strikes, suppression of enemy air defenses, shut air assist, and proficiency with quite a few munitions. Air-to-air is split into two main subcategories: defensive safety and offensive techniques meant to win air superiority.

Large-force employments mix these efforts utilizing quite a few airplanes. These missions require in depth planning and coordination with different naval or joint belongings. When launched from the provider, large-force workouts require a dedication of eight to 10 of the air wing’s 34 to 44 Super Hornets to the tanker position, which negatively impacts the power by lowering the variety of fight plane and skilled aviators accessible. Additionally, deployed wings should present jets for ongoing operations like Operation Inherent Resolve and no less than six F/A-18s as tankers for routine flights.

Expansive Obligations Overwhelm Squadrons

The present portfolio of missions is just too giant for the strike fighter power. Every F/A-18 squadron trains for the entire missions listed above whereas operationally deployed. During deployments, commanders typically take a look at their items’ capabilities by rehearsing large-force workouts. Squadrons are required to finish these workouts, service-mandated readiness coaching, and qualification necessities on the identical time. These necessities are meant to construct fight readiness. Instead, squadrons are worn out as they battle to finish an enormous variety of coaching missions whereas assembly operational calls for. As an instance, whereas deployed to U.S. Central Command in 2020 to 2021, Carrier Air Wing 17 concurrently supported Operation Inherent Resolve, multinational workouts, patrols close to Iran, F/A-18 tactical qualification applications, service-mandated coaching, and large-force employment rehearsals. There shouldn’t be sufficient time for aviators to perform all of those missions and develop true proficiency.

Training necessities are poorly aligned. While qualification applications and large-force workouts are up to date commonly, many service-mandated necessities oblige squadrons to coach for out of date weapons or techniques. This incoherence forces squadrons to expend sorties on coaching that doesn’t enhance their usefulness to commanders. Aligning and lowering these competing necessities could be extra useful than elevated sources or flight time. Otherwise, wings will proceed growing broad, shallow, and redundant capabilities reasonably than deep experience.

Additional components additional scale back air wing functionality. Squadrons are affected by a long-predicted exodus of mid-career officers and coaching delays which have slashed pilot manufacturing by 50 p.c during the last a number of years. Squadrons battle to totally employees billets, leaving them low on certified flight leads. The requirement that tankers be flown by senior aviators will increase the workload on the few flight leads accessible. Training applications require that junior aviators full quite a few graded flights to attain {qualifications}. Each of those missions have to be instructed by a senior aviator and consumes sources.

At first look, these appear to be service points. However, the best contributor to time shortages and expanded coaching necessities is probably going the decades-long demand for prolonged power presence by operational commanders. High demand prevents squadrons from constructing readiness. Reduced demand for provider presence by combatant commanders would ease the issue however is unlikely within the present strategic setting.

Air-to-Air Emphasis Exacerbates Problems

Uniformly excessive funding in air-to-air coaching by all strike fighter squadrons exacerbates the air wing’s downside. Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations warns items to cut back “laborious planning” and develop a sequence of pre-crafted plans to “train with before they are assigned specific missions.” Over-emphasis on air fight precludes such preparedness. Each squadron is so targeted on demanding air-to-air coaching flights that they fail to solidify the institutional information essential to shortly present offensive strikes.

When wings are ordered to plan a large-force strike, squadrons cease their particular person air-to-air coaching, group collectively, and evenly divide duties for the approaching mission. Each squadron will present jets for air-to-air, air-to-surface, maritime strike, and tanking roles. This leads to aviators from every squadron trying to make use of complicated weapons that they’ve hardly ever practiced with. The present mannequin dangers introducing prolonged planning, lowered proficiency, and employment errors. A delegated air-to-surface squadron accountable for creating plans and practising with distinctive weapons could be far simpler.

Training applications developed by F/A-18 tacticians place extra emphasis on air fight than on another mission because of the excessive issue and rising threats inherent to that space. Of the 12 flights that comprise the Strike Fighter Advanced Readiness Program, the primary stage of pre-deployment workups, seven are air-to-air particular, with 4 targeted on fleet protection. Conversely, there are solely 5 floor assault flights, simply two of that are targeted on suppressing enemy air defenses. Maritime strike includes a single simulator occasion and no flights. Squadrons spend no less than 60 p.c of their sources on air fight coaching and 33 p.c particularly on fleet protection throughout this foundational part. Each spends virtually no time on maritime strikes and solely 17 p.c on suppression of enemy air defenses. Later workup coaching focuses extra on large-force strikes, however task-sharing and heavy emphasis on the missions’ air-to-air elements ensures that squadrons proceed to develop broad however shallow capabilities. This improve within the proportion of air-to-air occasions absorbs time {that a} devoted assault squadron may use to observe offensive strikes.

Using the two-seat F/A-18F in the identical capability because the F/A-18E exacerbates the time downside even additional. Wings will not be harnessing the expanded dimension of F/A-18F squadrons, which function roughly 30 aircrew members reasonably than the F/A-18E’s 12 to fifteen, to give attention to extra planning-intensive strike missions. Neither are wings utilizing F/A-18F weapons programs officers to attain experience in difficult air-to-surface weapons. These components threat delayed mission planning and execution if an actual strike is ordered.

The Modern Battlespace

Threats are getting extra harmful and the Navy has acknowledged that the Super Hornet can have a tough time maintaining. Commanders have resisted specialization to this point as a result of the flexibility of any aircraft on the flight deck to carry out any mission gives large flexibility. Commanders ought to hand over that flexibility to present F/A-18s a combating probability towards trendy enemies by specializing.

The versatile, multi-role fighter/assault idea that produced the Super Hornet matured within the Nineties and 2000s when U.S. aircrews held a big air-to-air benefit over adversaries. During the Global War on Terror, permissive skies allowed crews to drop precision bombs with little opposition. There was low demand for long-range assaults towards enemy warships.

Those situations have modified. As former U.S. Navy Fighter Weapons School commander Christopher Papaioanu explains, “The Navy’s current combat systems are relatively equal to those of our peer adversaries, so fighter tactics have become more complex to ensure they remain effective.” Likewise, as mentioned beforehand, superior enemy air protection programs require aircrews make use of subtle weapons from additional away to keep away from losses.

Increasing hazard undermines the benefit of excessive sortie-generation, which is the normal profit of getting equivalent F/A-18 squadrons. High sortie-generation permits many quick missions in fast succession. For many years, air wings supported operations by launching a big amount of strike missions into poorly defended skies. Future fight is unlikely to permit operations of this type.

Strikes towards peer adversaries don’t profit from equivalent squadrons or excessive sortie-generation. Commanders will oversee a smaller amount of longer assaults towards a couple of vital targets. In large-force workouts, wings launch virtually all of their plane to assist only one or two strikes. Once these jets depart the provider deck with particular forms of weapons locked on their wings, they’re dedicated to their assigned roles. Flexibility is much less invaluable in these missions than skilled efficiency of specialised roles towards unforgiving threats.

Recommendation: Specialize F/A-18 Squadrons

Each F/A-18 squadron ought to have a major specialty for large-force employments, with secondary and tertiary roles for contingencies. Each F/A-18 squadron in air wings with F-35C ought to be assigned by the wing commander to a specialization “pipeline” originally of the pre-deployment workup cycle. This would incur no prices, require no new acquisitions, and capitalize on the specialization inherent in F-35C-equipped air wings. Those air wings that don’t but function the F-35C may specialize or keep the present mannequin based mostly on commanders’ prerogative.

Specialization would cut back and align F/A-18 qualification, service-mandated, and operational necessities. Narrowing these obligations would enable squadrons to develop extra functionality with the flight hours accessible. Squadrons would assemble deep experience and be higher ready to carry out their closely practiced specialization. Specialization would additionally liberate senior aviators by lowering the variety of coaching flights requiring their instruction. These adjustments would chop the hole between wings’ marketed and precise functionality.

The F/A-18F squadron would specialise in air-to-surface and maritime strikes. Reliance on weapons programs officers to plan and program complicated employments would capitalize on the F/A-18F’s bigger squadrons and two-person crews. Air protection suppression missions could be led by EA-18G Growlers and supported by F/A-18F aircrews. These flights could be supplemented with F/A-18Es by exception. F/A-18F crews would keep secondary specialization in shut air assist and tertiary proficiency in defensive air fight. Air wings that function a fourth F/A-18 squadron may specialize it as a second strike-focused unit.

F/A-18E squadrons would give attention to air-to-air. Both squadrons would practice for all air fight missions, however one would lead defensive actions whereas the opposite would lead offensive flights. Higher gasoline capability, single-pilot-friendly radar ergonomics, and smaller squadrons make the F/A-18E optimum for this mission. F/A-18E pilots would keep secondary specialization in suppression of enemy air defenses and tertiary proficiency in shut air assist. All F/A-18 squadrons would equally share the burden of aerial refueling till the MQ-25 assumes that position.


Some could argue that specialization would cut back air wing fight potential by lowering crews and plane accessible to carry out sure missions. This argument ignores {that a} diploma of specialization has already been launched by the F-35C. The Lightning II will increase the wing’s means to battle newer threats however deepens the time administration downside for the F/A-18 power. The F-35C squadron has totally different coaching and readiness necessities and can’t share tanking and plenty of different burdensome missions with the three remaining F/A-18 squadrons. Fighting as a group with the F-35C means new techniques and procedures that require much more coaching for Super Hornet crews. Keeping Super Hornets versatile whereas introducing a specialised F-35C squadron additional overwhelms the air wing.

Others could argue that specialization is irrelevant due to the provider’s presumed low odds of survival towards superior threats. They argue that the provider is weak and will probably be ineffective whatever the airplanes it carries. Proponents of this argument elevate reliable issues however can’t want away the provider’s presence. The continued buy of F/A-18s and huge carriers by the U.S. authorities ensures that air wings will take part in any foreseeable battle. Alternative operational ideas and next-generation strike plane are nonetheless years away. For now, carriers are the centerpiece of American naval energy. Specialization will present a extra formidable provider that may land some punches.

Still others argue that air-to-air coaching shouldn’t be decreased, even with specialization, as a result of it teaches superior dealing with and provides extra dynamic challenges than assault missions. They argue that conventional air-to-surface missions like shut air assist ought to be lowered as a substitute. The advantages of air-to-air coaching are actual, which is why F/A-18Fs would nonetheless observe some defensive air-to-air techniques and help with fleet protection. However, equally excessive emphasis on air-to-air by all squadrons doesn’t present ample return on funding because of the rarity of air fight in current many years and its unclear future relevance. Similarly, the continued use of plane carriers for contingency operations requires that wings keep some shut air assist functionality regardless of that mission’s questionable relevance within the Indo-Pacific. Air-to-surface squadrons would preserve shut air assist alive and liberate time for F/A-18Es to give attention to air-to-air. Combining superior strike and suppression by groups of F/A-18Fs and EA-18Gs with air-to-air F/A-18Es would supply commanders with a balanced wing ready to cope with evolving challenges.


The provider air wing’s F/A-18 squadrons ought to be specialised to unravel the time administration downside with the weapons and plane on-hand. The requirement for F/A-18 squadrons to take care of a bloated mission portfolio precludes the event of deep experience. Too a lot give attention to air-to-air fight severely degrades the wing’s placing energy. Using the bigger F/A-18F squadron for specialization in air-to-surface and maritime strike missions would develop assault proficiency whereas permitting F/A-18E squadrons to observe difficult air-to-air missions extra intensively.

The Super Hornet promised an economical various to growing older and costly platforms throughout the Nineties. It was by no means meant for peer fight. Commanders have to surrender the pliability that the F/A-18 has historically offered to make it simpler. Specialization will assist to offer commanders with the air wing they need within the shortest attainable time. Without strike fighters prepared for offense, the provider exists simply to defend itself.



Stephen Walsh is an lively U.S. Navy F/A-18F weapons programs officer and Naval War College graduate. His views are his personal and don’t mirror the official views of the Defense Department, the Department of the Navy, or his chain of command.

Image: U.S. Navy picture by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Richard L.J. Gourley

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