Navy’s Carrier Airpower – 1991 Gulf War


A U.S. Navy F-14 lifts off over arrow of A7 Corsairs on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy in the Red Sea late, Jan. 25, 1991. Allied forces flew more than 8,000 missions in the first five days of Operation Desert Storm; carrier-based fighter bomber were used extensively.

Iraq’s sudden and unexpected invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 presented naval aviation, in particular, with a new and unfamiliar set of challenges. Over the course of the six-week Persian Gulf War that began five and a half months later, the Navy’s carrier force found itself obliged to surmount a multitude of new adjustment needs that only came to light for the first time during that campaign. Few of the challenges that were levied on naval aviation by that U. S.-led offensive, code-named Operation Desert Storm, bore much resemblance to the planning assumptions that underlay the Reagan administration’s Maritime Strategy that had been created during the early 1980s to accommodate a very different set of concerns. Although naval aviators had routinely trained for and were wholly proficient at over-the-beach conventional strike operations, the Navy’s carrier battle groups during that period were geared, first and foremost, to doing open-ocean battle against the Soviet Navy. As such, they were not optimally equipped for conducting littoral combat operations. They also were completely unaccustomed to operating within the Air Force’s complex air tasking system for managing large-force operations involving 2,000 or more sorties a day that dominated the Desert Storm air war.

Simply put, the 1991 Gulf War in no way resembled the open-ocean battles that the Navy had planned and prepared for throughout the preceding two decades. To begin with, there were no opposed surface naval forces or enemy air threat to challenge the Navy’s six carrier battle groups that participated in that war. Moreover, throughout the five-month buildup of forces in the region that preceded the war and the six weeks of fighting that ensued thereafter, the Navy did not operate independently, as was its familiar pattern throughout most of the Cold War, but rather in shared operating areas with the Air Force, Army, and Marine Corps.

During the initial planning workups before the start of Operation Desert Storm, some senior naval aviators sought for a time to push for a distribution of route packages between the Air Force and the Navy along familiar Vietnam-like lines. However, the designated joint-force air component commander (JFACC) for the impending campaign, Air Force then-Lieutenant General Charles Horner, rejected that proposal as an unacceptably suboptimal use of American air assets in joint war- fare. Although Horner did not exercise formal command over the air assets of the Navy and Marine Corps that were deployed to the Gulf, he did wield operational control over them to an extent that empowered him to task them as he deemed appropriate to support the joint- force commander’s air apportionment decisions. That arrangement was unprecedented in Navy experience. In the end, all four participating U. S. services came to accept, at least in principle, the need for a single jurisdiction over allied air power in Desert Storm. Yet three of them (not only the Navy but also the Marine Corps and Army) frequently chafed at the extent of authority given to General Horner to select targets and determine the details of flight operations.

Furthermore, the naval air capabilities that had been fielded and fine-tuned for open-ocean engagements, such as the extremely long- range (90-plus miles) Phoenix air-to-air missile carried by the F-14 fleet defense fighter, were of little relevance to the allied coalition’s predominantly overland air combat needs. Navy F-14s also were not assigned to the choicest combat air patrol (CAP) stations in Desert Storm because, having been equipped for the less-crowded outer air battle in defense of the carrier battle group, they lacked the redundant onboard target recognition systems that the rules of engagement promulgated by U. S. Central Command (CENTCOM) required for the denser and more conflicted air operations environment over Iraq. Relatedly, because of the Navy’s lack of a compatible command and control system that would enable receipt of the document electronically, the daily air tasking order (ATO) generated by the Air Force– dominated combined air operations center (CAOC) in Saudi Arabia had to be placed aboard two S-3 antisubmarine warfare aircraft in hard copy each day and flown to the six participating carriers so that the next day’s air-wing flight schedules could be written. As for the Navy’s other habit patterns and equipment items developed for open-ocean engagements, such as fire-and-forget AGM-84D Harpoon antiship missiles, ordnance supply planning purely to meet anticipated mission needs, and decentralized command and control, all were, in the words of the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), Admiral William Owens, “either ruled out by the context of the battle or were ineffective in the confined littoral arena and the environmental complexities of the sea-land interface.” Naval aviation performed commendably in Desert Storm only because of its inherent professionalism and adaptability, not because its doctrine and weapons complement had been appropriate to the demands of the situation.

As examples of its deficiencies in equipment that impeded naval aviation’s performance during the Gulf War, although it had clearly been equipped with advanced and capable combat aircraft by the time the war began, the Navy mainly dropped Vietnam-era unguided munitions, primarily the Mk 80-series 500-, 1,000-, and 2,000-lb general- purpose bombs. Throughout the war, the only carrier-based attack aircraft that was capable of self-designating laser-guided bombs (LGBs) was the A-6E. The A-7 and F/A-18 could also carry and deliver LGBs but only with the enabling support of nearby A-6Es that could laser-designate their targets for them, which was not an advisable tactic in heavily defended enemy airspace. Moreover, to remain safely above the enemy’s man-portable infrared SAM and antiaircraft artillery (AAA) threat envelopes, they were required to operate solely from a standoff perch at medium and high altitudes, where visual weapon delivery techniques were less accurate because of the longer slant ranges to targets. The Navy’s electro-optically guided Walleye munition could be used only in daylight and in visual meteorological conditions. Carrier- based ground-attack aircraft also did not have anything like the weapons system video capability that was installed in the Air Force’s F-111, F-117, F-15E, and F-16.

Because of the Navy’s lack of a significant precision-strike capability when its call to deploy for Desert Storm arose, its six carrier air wings that participated in the campaign were denied certain targets that were assigned to the Air Force instead by default. The participating carrier air wings also had to turn down some target-attack opportunities because of their lack of a penetrating munition such as the Air Force’s Mk 84 improved 2,000-lb bomb. Other unmet Navy needs were for more LGBs, for automatic laser target designators for all strike aircraft, and for state-of-the-art mission recorders for conducting better bomb-damage assessment (BDA). One strike-fighter squadron’s after-action report not long after the Gulf War ended remarked that the Navy’s general lack of the sort of precision-attack capability that the Air Force had used to such telling effect in the war “was eloquent testimony that naval aviation had apparently missed an entire generation of weapons employment and development.”


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