Email Common Sense (II): TacAir Readiness, Suppressing Email from the Troops, and the Widening Wedge of Mistrust

February 6, 1999

Comment: #233

Discussion Thread:  #s 129, 172, 186, 221


[1] Recent Email from a Fighter Pilot at Sea on an Aircraft Carrier. Attached.

[2] Lieutenant Patrick Porter, U.S. Navy, "A J.O. Looks at TacAir Readiness," Proceedings of the Naval Institute, September 1998. Attached.

[3] Franklin Spinney, Trip Report: VFA-81, Cecil Field, 12-15 July 1994, 29 July 1994. Attached.

The current dustup about military readiness is not recent development nor is it a simple problem that can be fixed quickly by adding money for spare parts and increasing salaries.

Consider please the following -

The three References to this message describe readiness problems in three different Navy tactical fighter squadrons which deployed to quasi-combat or combat operations in Bosnia and the Persian Gulf in 1994, 1997, and 1998.

Yet, as recently as last June, a four-star admiral said there was a "perception gap" within the military ranks [Comment #129]. He said this gap is the "most dangerous" readiness problem we face and is "the greatest challenge facing the U.S. military today" and left "unchecked, this perception [gap] could lead to a loss of confidence in military leadership." But look how he characterized the perception gap: He said senior leaders see ``little or no change in readiness from five years ago'' at the big picture or "macro" level. When it comes to the number and capabilities of ships, planes, tanks and other military assets, the admiral said the "nearly unanimous assessment is we are in good shape" compared to potential adversaries; meanwhile the unwashed masses in the fleet were complaining about details. His point was that the troops did not understand the big picture.

But two months later, the same admiral changed his tune, warning that … "that U.S. military readiness has slipped and that solving the problem could take years." He went on to say anecdotal evidence of manpower shortages and long repair delays [i.e., the complaints of the troops] have proven more accurate than the formal reports on which commanders usually rely [Comment #172].

Some, myself included, believed the admiral awakening was a typical example of how emperors always lose their clothes in Versailles on the Potomac. But a few weeks later, it became clear that the senior leadership of the Navy knew more than readiness than it was saying [Comment #186].

Comment #186 was about an internal Navy audit report, first briefed in November 1997, that concluded the readiness reporting system did NOT provide an accurate picture of readiness to senior Navy leadership. That report also concluded, among other things, that some unit commanders manipulate the numbers, because they view them as scorecards on their own performance (in essence, it said the reporting officials were putting careers and self interest ahead of service). To make matters worse, the results of this audit, which are unclassified, were kept to a small circle of admirals since being briefed in November 1997 (remember, this was nine months before the admiral said the anecdotal information was better than the formal information in Comment #172). Worse still, the results of this audit were withheld from the civilian leadership of the Navy and the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Inspector General's office, the Congress, and the press.

Now, with this background in mind, recall Comment #221, which discussed the world-famous Coondog email message about a recent bombing mission over Iraq. That message turned out to be a good example of the "anecdotal" evidence that the admiral disparaged in Comment #129. But once again, the Navy responded the same old way, this time with an ALLNAV message telling the troops to cool in on the email circuits [see Reference 1 to Comment #221].

That ALLNAV message angered the troops. It was brought to my attention by the commanding officer of a tactical aviation squadron which recently returned from an overseas deployment.

Reference 1 below is yet another email from a different fighter pilot. He is currently at sea flying fighters off an aircraft carrier. He says the readiness problems in Coondog's F-14 squadron were much worse than suggested by Coondog's message. In fact, the F-14 squadron went to sea with unacceptable C-3 readiness rating. To his credit, the skipper of that squadron had the courage to raise the bullshit flag, but then he almost got fired. Fortunately, the skipper's air wing commander (CAG) backed him up.

On the other hand, the senior officers at the headquarters responsible for preparing the aircraft and men for deployment in the Atlantic Fleet (AIRLANT) were willing to send pilots of a C-3 unit into harm's way in a combat zone. Finally, this fighter pilot tells us he and his compatriots are being reminded daily to cool it on the email circuits.

What conclusions can we can draw by reaching across the common elements of this sordid series of vignettes.

Rather than suppressing email, it is clear the Navy ought to be encouraging it. Email has proven to be one of the most efficient ways of spreading accurate information about readiness throughout the military system. Moreover, email gives the people who are living with the day to day problems a voice that can not be squelched. Finally, it provides a useful check on the formal reporting system, which the Navy's own investigative service says is corrupted by bogus information.

There is an interesting contrast in value systems at work here—one that borders on cognitive dissonance. The Navy is pushing a futuristic concept of net-centric warfare, which promoters say will be based on using internet-like battle management communications architecture for the fleet to delegate decisions to lower levels (and which promises to be a cornucopia for defense contractors). But at the same time, it is discouraging an existing, effective, net-centric flow of readiness information (email) from the troops who put their lives on the line.

Senior leadership may be uncomfortable listening to the uncontrolled voices of troops in the field, particularly when it differs from the rosy pictures promoted by their headquarters, but the essence of leadership is having the confidence to tolerate different points of view, as well as the character to support strong-willed, principled subordinates, like the skipper of Coondog's squadron and his CAG.

These vignettes also suggest that leadership may have lot to do with readiness and personnel retention problems. If true, simply throwing money at spare parts and salaries may actually make things worse by rewarding the behavior contributing to the problem.

Anecdotal evidence (which we now know can be a more reliable source of information than the formal reporting system) indicates that many junior people are leaving the military because they sense that the ideals of duty, self-sacrifice, and esprit are being replaced with value system grounded on careerism, self-interest, political correctness, and protection of institutional prerogatives. In short, these anecdotes go to the heart of the most dangerous readiness gap we face: the perception gap referred by the admiral in Comment #129, or put more accurately, the widening wedge of mistrust between senior officers on the one hand and junior officers and enlisted ranks of the other.

Senior officials in the Pentagon and Congress would be well advised to examine these anecdotes before they rush to judgment on how to fix readiness and retention problems.

Chuck Spinney

[Disclaimer: In accordance with 17 U.S.C. 107, the following material is distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and educational purposes only.]

Reference 1

Recent Email from a Fighter Pilot at Sea on an Aircraft Carrier

Response to #221- EMAIL COMMON SENSE: Launch the Generals, but Leash the Coondogs!

[Note: readiness ratings range from C-1 (best) to C-4 (terrible). Fighter squadrons are supposed to deploy in a C-1 condition, with a minimum acceptable rating of C-2. C-3 or worse is unacceptable in theory.]


Very interesting commentary. You are right about the readiness problems

with the F-14. It has severe problems as well as the aircrew training for

the Tomcat community. Coondog was only one example in that squadron. I

don't know if you heard about the readiness flap caused by VF-32 when they

deployed. Their skipper at the time, Cdr XXX launched a message saying they were C-3 (just like Cmdr YYY did when he was CO) where they were supposed to be C-1 by the time they cruised.

VF-32 had undergone an incredible cross decking [i.e., swapping among units] of aircraft (I think the number was around 38) in the past year during workups. The F-14's they took on cruise were received 1-2 months prior to leaving in Nov. The skipper laid it out in a message to AIRLANT. Of course AIRLANT said we will send another squadron (perstemp reality set in) and soon recanted. Bottom line is the skipper said bullshit to the endemic problems with both personnel and equipment and almost got fired for it. His change of command was a month later, as scheduled, and was highly respected in the air wing for showing such courage. By the way, the CAG [the commanding officer of the carrier air wing] backed him up too! [Note: Cmdr YYY was hung out to dry by his CAG for committing truth.]

The senior Navy leadership really looked stupid.

By the way, we are still being reminded daily to be careful with what we say in our emails. Your comments are right on the mark!

Reference 2

"A J.O. Looks at TacAir Readiness"
By Lieutenant Patrick Porter, U.S. Navy
Proceedings of the Naval Institute

September 1998

Fighter Squadron (VF)-211 recently completed an overseas deployment spent largely in the Persian Gulf policing Iraqi violations of no-fly zones, as a component of Carrier Air Wing Nine embarked in the USS Nimitz (CVN-68). We flew tactical reconnaissance, defensive counter air, and simulated interdiction missions that were linked inevitably to our ability to maintain our F-14As.

Over Iraq, there was little room for aircraft that were less than fully mission capable, especially since naval aviation's tactical philosophy has shifted to the concept of strike-fighters with multimission capabilities. The F-14, for example, requires several air-to-air radar modes to tune the missiles properly; the low-altitude navigation and targeting infrared for night (LANTIRN) pod and associated components must work: there is always the unexpected, and you have to be ready.

Our Sailors got the job done during Operation Southern Watch, but it took a Herculean effort.

During the deployment, two briefing papers circulated on board. The first was prepared for Vice Admiral John J. Mazach, Commander, Naval Air Force, U.S. Atlantic Fleet (ComNavAirLant), to deliver at the Air Board concerning an "expectation gap" between the readiness we expect to see in the fleet and the support that the Navy buys. The second was given at a supply conference by the ComNavAirLant Force supply officer and his Pacific Fleet counterpart regarding naval aviation support.

The briefs illuminated the fiscal and logistical challenges faced by Navy supply. The expectation gap stems from the difference between the Chief of Naval Operation's proposed full-mission-capable/mission-capable (FMC/MC) aircraft rates--which vary depending on whether the squadron is in a post-cruise standdown, working up, or deployed--and the rates that operational commanders require to meet tasking.

Fleet F-14As are difficult to maintain. The aircraft remain in service because of the budgetary compromises that borrowed F-14D money to pay for other programs. Without A-6Es, and until F/A-18E/Fs and Joint Strike Fighters (JSFs) become available, adequate numbers of all three F-14 variants (A, B and D) will be critical to maintaining a full deck of capable strike-fighter aircraft. Although our F-14As required considerably more parts support than did a representative F/A-18 squadron (one of three on board), the percentage of time that Nimitz had to go off-ship with a requisition was comparable in both cases. Overall, the ship did an outstanding job of providing F-14A parts.

Enhancements such as LANTIRN and the digital imagery improvement to the Tactical Air Reconnaissance Pod System (TARPS) have made the F-14 almost indispensable. Our squadron deployed with nine LANTIRN- and five TARPS-capable aircraft. The latter were not modified to carry LANTIRN, but aircraft in either configuration remained capable of pure air-to-air missions. The LANTIRN system, with its ability to discriminate among the most difficult-to-acquire targets, made it the wing commander's choice during the weapons-of-mass-destruction impasse. The digital TARPS, the ship's only organic reconnaissance asset, proved its worth daily, especially during several large-scale simulated interdiction missions where imagery of real-world targets was relayed to the ship within minutes--and then forwarded to the desk of the Commander Joint Task Force/Southwest Asia. We also deployed with a cadre of specially trained forward air controllers (airborne).

Prior to the carrier's arrival in mid-October 1997, Iraq routinely violated the no-fly zone. It took a lot of flying to enforce the no-fly zone restrictions--although rarely can crews fly enough to fulfill all training and readiness requirements. Most F-14 and F/A-18 strike-fighter crews will agree that as proficiency increases in one warfare skill, proficiency in others declines.

Do the CNO's goals for deployed FMC/MC aircraft reflect real-world requirements? If the full mission capable goal is 55% and the percentage of aircraft utilization goal is 43%, the FMC goal appears to be more than adequate. What is not so obvious is that utilization can spike dramatically when aircraft start coming back from sorties with down gripes and spares must be launched to fill subsequent events. What looked like a schedule requiring six aircraft (out of 14--a utilization rate of 43%) rapidly turns into one requiring eight (a 57% utilization rate) plus a ready spare--which translates into nine aircraft.


During surge operations, conducted for 100 hours during Joint Fleet Exercise 97, the squadron used 13 of the 14 aircraft assigned. In our planning for potential combat operations in Southwest Asia, the requirement for full mission capable F-14s was considerably higher than the 55% CNO goal, and, had a sustained campaign occurred, the squadron would have been required to meet that requirement daily. Here is an example of the "expectation gap" between the operator and the logistician. Carrying seven or eight up aircraft at any given time will meet CNO's goal and may meet tasking on a given day, but the situation robs commanders of tactical flexibility.

Our squadron goal—to meet tasking comfortably with capable aircraft, absorb unplanned hard downing discrepancies, and remain prepared to surge in case of real-world combat operations--was to attain and sustain 10 of 14 aircraft (74%) mission capable each day. Our chain of command wanted even higher MC rates.

Computing FMC/MC rates is fairly straightforward. Each aircraft has a Mission Essential Subsystem Matrix that details which aircraft systems are required to conduct any particular mission: if it can do all of them, it is full-mission capable; if it can do only some of them, it is mission capable.

The results, however, can be misleading—especially because the inputs are used to create two separate reports: the Subsystem Capability Impact Report (SCIR), which tracks each individual item's effect on the aircraft's ability to perform its mission; and the Aircraft Material Readiness Report (AMRR), which generates a daily report in message format available for all the world to see. The AMRR reads like a report card, comparing how well each air wing squadron is doing, but it is only a morning snapshot of aircraft status. Although many use it to evaluate maintenance performance, it lacks the detail to paint an accurate picture. Everyone wants to look good on the morning report card, and in the past that has resulted in creative reporting, such as logging all supply shortages against one aircraft and calling the others MC.

Unfortunately, because of the methods used to generate the reports, there was almost a full 20% difference in readiness rates between SCIR and AMRR for our squadron. Table 2, a rather busy chart, shows the disparity between the two readiness rates for VF-211 throughout the deployment.

The SCIR data depict aircraft status more accurately because they track detailed system functionality 24 hours a day. Like most reports, garbage in equals garbage out. Because support is funded using SCIR documented data, personnel documenting discrepancies must use the correct codes. Mistakes here can account for major variations in readiness rates; worse, logisticians buy the wrong parts.


As Table 2 shows, we completed 98% of our scheduled sorties in November, and despite the late November and December in-port periods, where Grumman products respond poorly to several days of idleness, the December and January sortie completion rates were better than 95%. During this period, the aircraft we flew were combat-ready, yet the reported FMC rate for January was 48.7% and MC rate was 65%, both below CNO's goals. Since SCIR data will report an aircraft as only mission capable rather than full mission capable when, for example, the fuel totalizer is inoperative or one strobe on the ALR-45/50 radar warning receiver is out in any band, the MC percentage is more useful than the FMC percentage.

Our 65% MC rate equated to 9 of 14 aircraft available for flight each day, close to our goal of 10. The key is what subsystems were inoperative. If all ten jets were knocked out of the full mission capable category for relatively minor discrepancies, that created few problems. But if one of the many important combat systems were in fact inoperable, that is another story. See Table 3 for some readiness trends.

Readiness is much more than simply parts support; it is the sum of many factors. For us, the most important were:

  • Manning

  • Training and experience

  • Cycle-turnaround times

  • Command philosophy


In a perfect world, the only variable influencing the repair cycle would be a component's mean time between failure: a part fails, the failure is identified, and a comparable ready-for-issue component is installed while the failed component awaits repair. The Navy's readiness-based sparing concept stocks spares based on historical failure rates and tailors an Aviation Consolidated Allowance List (AVCAL) of spares for each carrier according to her mix of aircraft. Theoretically, this is a sound approach to minimizing costs while maintaining readiness but the model is not always flexible enough to account for variations within the period of each AVCAL review.

Sometimes, parts are not the issue at all. Numbers of Sailors and their training can have a great effect on individual component repair cycles both on a squadron level and at the Aircraft Intermediate Maintenance Department (AIMD) level. While we were deployed, they were the biggest factors in aircraft readiness.

Table 4 shows the staffing of our aviation electronics technician (AT) work center; it is representative of the others. The work center averaged 13 hours of documented maintenance per man per day for the first month of deployment and an average of 10 per man per day for the remaining months.

Obviously, we did not have enough Sailors. Many, including several senior petty officers, had no previous F-14 experience. When asked, all listed lack of schools and training as serious factors impeding their ability to troubleshoot, diagnose, and repair discrepancies. Senior petty officers recalled when their aviation fire control training track (AQ—now part of the AT rating) consisted of 19 weeks of instruction that included troubleshooting and repair in classroom simulators and on actual aircraft. Today, the average AT en route to his first command attends a five-week course that is barely more than a familiarization. Later, he may attend another five-week course that many consider inadequate for the real world of fleet squadrons. We had excellent weapon systems, but our Sailors paid the price in terms of workload.

Poor reenlistment rates are another reality. It is a vicious circle: the high workload helps drive Sailors out; the same workload must be borne by fewer, less experienced Sailors; more get out. Replacements, including senior petty officers come from other communities. Although these individuals are motivated technicians, schooling and experience remain critical. Surveys indicate that at least one year of experience is required to troubleshoot and maintain the F-14 weapon system, and it is obvious that system knowledge is a critical factor in minimizing down time; we have lost that long-term experience. On-the-job training is a necessary building block, but we saw first-hand that it is no substitute for a sound base of theoretical knowledge backed by hands-on experience.

Given that initial training has been cut short, sending Sailors back to school for additional training immediately after their first cruise is crucial, because they will form the nucleus of technical experts for the next workup cycle and deployment. Personnel flow should be such that a stable group of maintainers is on board prior to workups and is sustained throughout the deployment. Our squadron lost 70 Sailors just prior to this deployment and a significant portion of those losses were unplanned.

Compounding the problem has been the loss of permanently assigned technical representatives. Their day-to-day presence was invaluable on deployments, where they not only fixed aircraft but also helped train our less experienced Sailors. Today, Tech Reps are provided on an as-required basis. Our demands were met (a Tech Rep joined us in the Gulf and remained on board two months), but the lack of continuity and the lag that occurs between request and arrival affect readiness and training.

The intermediate-level maintenance side of the house faces similar issues. Most of the F-14 test benches are older technologies that are as difficult to maintain as the parts they repair; slowly, these are being replaced by the Consolidated Automated Support System (CASS). In some cases, however, components that bench-checked okay did not work in the air; we experienced difficulties with an AWG-9 radar amplifier and the primary rear-cockpit radar display, often caused by similar manning and training issues.

Newer aircraft are not immune. The Lot 18 F/A-18C with the APG-73 Radar Upgrade is a state-of-the-art system, but the ship's intermediate-level maintenance department was inundated with so many bad APG-73 receivers that components were cannibalized from aircraft at Naval Air Station Lemoore, California, and shipped to the Nimitz because there were no spares. Air crews experienced reductions in radar performance that could not be duplicated on the bench. (It turned out that the CASS system monitored different parameters than the aircraft's.) The receiver failure rate was three times greater than its predicted mean time between failure, and spares were nonexistent. This part was consistently in the top five man-hour consumers category for AIMD, and at a cost of $200,000 per repair, it added up to $3 million per month.

Failure modes unfortunately do not announce themselves ahead of time, and a series of failures must take place before accurate trend data can be established to develop an accurate AVCAL model. F/A-18 cockpit video recorders experienced a mean time between failure of 100 hours on the cruise instead of the predicted 6,000 hours.

Reliability and low mean time between failure of components is an Achilles' heel for all aircraft—especially the F-14. Consider the ASN-92 Inertial Navigation System used by the F-14A and the S-3B. It was one of AIMD's highest repair-cost items; costs ranged from a low of $877,610 for 19 units in September to $2.65 million for 30 units in December.

The new ASN-139 ring laser gyro, which costs approximately $159,000, was a candidate to replace the ASN-92. The money was allocated, withdrawn, then a plan to install a next-generation embedded GPS/INS was considered; this went away because of recent funding constraints. Meanwhile, we spend millions repairing ASN-92 components, and aircraft operate with outdated technology.

The news is not all bad. Many of the parts and reliability issues discussed here are being addressed by the F-14 Operational Advisory Group and the Executive Steering Committee. During the past year, for example, the radar intercept officer's tactical information display and a modified computer signal data converter were installed in our aircraft during the workup cycle. In the past, the data converters were failing every three flights; during this deployment, however, we changed a total of 15 over more than 1,000 sorties. That is a measurable improvement.

As aircraft continue to age (the F-14B and D are scheduled to remain in service at least until 2010, and the EA-6B, S-3 and E-2C well past that), the greatest improvements to capability and safety, with corresponding decreases in maintenance time and expense, can be realized by bearing the upfront costs of replacing those items with the highest failure rates. Procurement regulations that prevent the replacement of an expensive-to-maintain navigation system with a new, precision embedded GPS/INS because the aircraft will not meet the five-year life requirement do not make sense when they cost us money. Capability, not cost, should be the driver.

Surprisingly, the difficulties inherent in flying from aircraft carriers seem little appreciated. A majority of surveys from maintenance Sailors indicate that aircraft spotting combined with cycle times reduced from the standard 1+45 of yesteryear greatly affect maintenance. On cruise, our Sailors often had 30 minutes or less to diagnose and repair a discrepancy. Given a limited number of aircraft to meet assigned taskings, this is where the rubber meets the flight deck. Maintainers often have to take an educated guess, order a part, install it, and rely on an aircrew to check the system in flight.

Although the demands of carrier aviation leave little room to alter this reality, the Nimitz crew did a tremendous job accommodating our needs. Inevitably, however, rushed squadron troubleshooters sometimes had to rely on intuition. Faced with a radar problem and no elevator immediately available to move a heavy transmitter to the flight deck, they might change a power supply instead of the transmitter; if they guessed wrong, a component was introduced into AIMD's repair cycle needlessly—and the aircraft discrepancy remained. In other cases, aircraft may sit and accumulate SCIR time when it cannot be respotted to accomplish a repair requiring a wing spread. These factors require further analysis to understand their true effects on readiness rates.

Finally, command philosophy and attitudes have a significant positive impact on readiness. Command attention to training issues and investing time in grooming aircraft during scheduled maintenance intervals paid large dividends in the long run. Serious attention to wiring integrity, connectors, and cannon plugs, for example, often eliminated discrepancies that appeared to be caused by a failed component. Our focus on these scheduled maintenance issues was a major contributor to the improvement of our readiness rates during deployment. But flying aircraft continually without going beyond superficial maintenance is a short-term solution.

"You can pay me now, or pay me later."

Lieutenant Porter is a radar intercept officer with VF-211

Reference 3

Memorandum for Distribution

Subject: Trip Report: VFA-81, Cecil Field, 12-15 July 1994.


I visited VFA-81 on 12-15 July 1994. This unit recently returned from a deployment to the Med, and my purpose was to learn about air operations over Bosnia as well as the readiness situation in the field.


VFA-81, equipped with 11 Lot X F-18Cs, embarked on Saratoga and departed Mayport on 12 January 1994. During its six month cruise, VFA-81 conducted flying operations in the Adriatic operating area (over Bosnia) during the following intervals: 2-24 February, 1-9 and 20-21 Mar, and 2-6 and 15-30 April. Saratoga returned to Mayport on 24 June. While this was Saratoga's last cruise before decommissioning, there are no plans to deactivate VFA-81 and its parent unit, CVW-17.

At least two factors affect an assessment of VFA-81's current readiness situation. The first is VFA-81's position in the operating cycle. Having just returned from six months at sea, it is in the first month of a new turn-around training cycle, which usually includes about 15 months of preparation for the next cruise (see figure).

Typically, when a carrier-based unit returns from six-month cruise, it moves to the end of the operational support "food chain," and for about two months, several constraints limit operations: In terms of logistics support, the unit has the lowest priority. Maintenance activity focuses on aircraft grooming, repairs, and modifications, the objectives being to repair the wear and tear of maritime operations and to upgrade with new capabilities. Combat training is virtually nonexistent during the first two months ashore, and flying operations are limited to maintenance check rides and instrument flight/airways navigation training. Pilots and maintenance personnel take extended leave and go to a variety of maintenance, technical training, professional, and administrative schools.

During the third month, operating tempo builds up to about 60% of normal as the unit begins to train for its next deployment. As a squadron moves closer to its deployment date, tempo increases, priority increases, and logistics support becomes more available as the unit moves to the front of the food chain. Viewed in the context of this cycle, some of the readiness problems described in this trip report reflect the normal famine of a sea-based tactical air unit which just returned home. The relevant readiness questions are, therefore, (1) is VFA-81's situation is worse than normal, and (2) if the situation is worse than normal, is the condition of VFA-81 unique or is it an early indicator of a fleet-wide deterioration?

A second factor relating to VFA-81's materiel readiness condition is that this unit is equipped F-18C Lot X aircraft. Lot X was the first production lot of the "C" model, and there are only 40 to 50 in the fleet. Very often, the first production lot after a major model change exhibits peculiar problems as the bugs associated with the design change are identified and worked out of the airplane and its support system. These particular aircraft were purchased with FY86 funds and were probably delivered sometime in FY88. While the Lot Xs have been very reliable, there were serious maintenance problems on the cruise. Another important question, therefore, is to what extent the materiel problems described below are peculiar to the Lot X variant of the F-18?

I was favorably impressed by the quality, professionalism, and forthrightness exhibited by the officers and enlisted men of VFA-81. My remarks and observations are organized into three parts: readiness during the cruise, VFA-81's post-deployment readiness condition, and operations over Bosnia.

Readiness During Cruise

Aircrew Readiness

According to the squadron commander, pilot training (particularly for those junior officers embarking on their first cruise) was barely adequate prior to the deployment. Optempo averaged about 80% instead of 100% during the three-month fleet exercise phase of the workup cycle. The primary reason for the training shortfall was limited aircraft availability. (The squadron lost six to eight aircraft to modification or depot rework at various times during its 15 month turn around cycle, leaving two to four airplanes available for training purposes during these intervals.) Operating funds were adequate during this period. Furthermore, over the last 12 months of the cycle (the last six months of workup plus the six months on cruise), junior officers averaged 100 instead of the normal 120 carrier "traps." In the squadron commander's opinion, the training shortfall during the workup was never made good during the deployment. He also expressed concern that the new junior officers are not accumulating experience at the same rate as their predecessors. If the trends experienced on this cruise continue, he believes future readiness could be hurt as officers with lower flight experience levels move into leadership positions.

VFA-81 did not maintain C-1 readiness during deployment, in part because of a funding shortfall and in part because of the demands imposed by the air operation over Bosnia. The squadron was funded at 25.5 flying hours per pilot per month (defined as 110% PMR), compared to a C-1 requirement for 32.8 hours. Operations over Bosnia, while potentially a combat situation, were for the most part routine and uneventful and had limited training utility from a combat proficiency standpoint. Moreover, these operations soaked up a large percentage of operating funds and left little for combat training--dropping bombs on ranges, dissimilar air combat, etc. In theory, a reservoir of combat proficiency is built up during the workup prior to deployment, so that a combat-ready crew is an asset continuously available to theater commanders while the squadron is at sea. But in reality, combat proficiency is a wasting asset--it dissipates with disuse. In case of VFA-81, where training during workup was barely adequate to achieve proficiency, the dissipation of proficiency during Bosnian operations seriously impacted its ability to recover from the pre-deployment shortfall and was, in the opinion of the unit commander, another reason why VFA-81 could not maintain a C-1 rating

Materiel Readiness

The F-18C is perhaps the most reliable, high-complexity fighter fielded to date. The remove and replace (RR) maintenance concept also makes the F-18 easy to repair, if two conditions are satisfied: spare parts must be available and the diagnostics computers at the different levels of maintenance (i.e., Built In Test Equipment or BIT on the airplane and the diagnostic computers at the intermediate depot levels of maintenance) must be sufficiently compatible to enable maintenance technicians to reliably identify which part is in fact broken. While these technologies make operational-level maintenance easier, the logistics burden becomes more ambiguous when one examines their effects on the entire support system.

In effect, by focusing on replacement at the operational level of maintenance, RR technologies shift repairs to the intermediate maintenance level and, more importantly, to distant depots. Under this system, the combat effectiveness of a squadron-level maintenance system is made more dependent on immediate spares availability as well as a responsive, tightly-coordinated logistics pipeline reaching back to the depots in CONUS. With the exception of cannibalization, which is made easier by RR technologies, a unit's capability to do "work arounds" when spares are not available is diminished, because a larger portion repairs are impossible make in the field. Moreover, the ease of cannibalization can obscure the severity of fleet-wide supply shortages and thereby encourage an inappropriate allowance for war reserve stockpiles.

Economically, remove and replace technologies greatly increase overhead costs when one accounts for the proliferating variety as well as the quantity of individually accountable items and the cost of maintaining a more closely regulated pipeline. The greater contribution of logistics overhead to operating costs makes the prediction of future costs more uncertain. In a resource constrained environment, where everyone is trying to protect his rice bowl, the economics of RR technologies make it easier to raid the support accounts, for the simple reason that the increased cost uncertainties make high funding levels harder to justify.

VFA-81 experienced major problems maintaining its aircraft in a fully mission capable state during its cruise. Shortages of spare parts were the major driver of the relatively low FMC and MC rates and the relatively high number of cannibalization actions (see figure). Cannibalizations of NMC aircraft as well as AVCAL were also needed to build packup kits to support the shore-based deployments. Moreover, maintenance officials told me that the effect of shortages was magnified, because the supply system often responded to a request with a defective part (e.g., a pump with faulty seals). Despite these problems, VFA-81 completed 96.4% of its sortie requirements by working hard to keep a spare plane available during each launching cycle. The following subsections describe a variety of observations related to the materiel readiness situation:

Avcal. The supply system did not store the correct mix of spare parts, in part, because the high reliability rate of the F-18 implies more erratic breakage patterns, thereby making demand for parts more difficult to predict.

Continual Configuration Change. The configuration of the F-18C continuously changes as new hardware and software are added to the airplane. Compared to earlier aircraft, production lots (production runs embodying a homogeneous configuration) are relatively small and aircraft within lots are modified more frequently (in part because of software reprogramming). Several officers told me that each airplane in the squadron had been rebuilt three times. Constant change makes it difficult to coordinate the incorporation of system upgrades in the aircraft with the concomitant changes in the logistics support structure. Several maintainers stressed that maintenance crews never have time to become expert, because they are constantly having to learn the new procedures and skills required by the new configurations. Furthermore, they argued that the squadron was manned for maintenance, not modifications, and the crews were spending far too much time on modifications.

During the cruise, mismatches in the integration of new hardware and software capabilities with the unit's training program and the logistics infrastructure, particularly the Aircraft Intermediate Maintenance Department (AIMD), magnified the effects of parts shortages. One major software upgrade (OFP-91C) on the aircraft was incompatible with the loading procedures of the computerized test bench in the AIMD, for example. Often, when faced with this kind of incompatibility, the only maintenance "work around" is to use a spare airplane as an intermediate level test bench--a so-called "hot mockup," which increases workload as well as the risk of breaking an airplane during maintenance, but makes it possible to meet sortie commitments. Several major capability upgrades (e.g., the FLIR and the AMRAAM upgrades) were not fully integrated into the airplane until well into workups. Late integration limited training times for the maintainers, as well as combat proficiency training for the pilots. Pilots never had an opportunity to practice with the self-designation targeting capability of the FLIR prior to deployment, for example. (Significant efforts were made in theater to make up for this training shortfall, permitting the achievement of an acceptable LGB delivery capability.) Yet proficiency in self-designation was a particularly important requirement in the Bosnian mission (most flying was at medium altitude and very often FACs were unavailable or did not have laser designators--see below).

A799. This occurs when the BIT on the aircraft indicates a component has failed but it checks out OK when tested by the technician at the operational or intermediate level of maintenance. A799s were higher than normal, particularly at the intermediate level, because of the integration problems described above. (Note: VFA-81's "I" level A799 rate, while high by its standards, was much lower than CND rates for the Air Force. I do not know if this difference is due to a difference in definitions.) A799s magnify the effects of spares shortages and increase workload on maintenance crews.

Cannibalization Actions: The high rate of cannibalization increased workload by 30 to 40 percent, as maintenance crews shifted parts from plane to plane. Of the eight FLIRs assigned to the squadron, for example, the best availability was seven "up," with the eighth used for spare parts. The senior maintenance chief said he believed that continued cannibalizations at this rate would sap morale and lead to retention problems, because people take pride in their work, and it is difficult to do so when one works 16 hours a day to fix an airplane, only to trash it a few days later to provide spare parts to another plane with a "higher priority." He said that the personnel surplus created by the current downsizing was preventing retention problems in the near term, however.

Legacies of the 1200 Hour Inspection. Several maintainers indicated that the F-18 exhibits phenomenal reliability during its first 1200 hours. However, once the airplane is opened up for a corrosion inspection, unexpected problems start cropping up. According to one senior chief, with extensive experience in the F-18 maintenance, once these problems start, a fix in one location tends to create additional problems in other locations, which, when fixed, create yet additional problems. Several maintainers indicated that this was a fleet-wide phenomenon. Moreover, they said "chasing problems downstream" was not only worse, but qualitatively different in the case of the F-18 than other planes they had worked on.

Post-Deployment Readiness

VFA-81 ceased flying operations in July and put 100% of its aircraft in temporary preservation; 75% will remain in preservation through August, and 50% will remain in preservation through September. (CVW-17 and one other air wing have been placed in preservation.) Normal flying operations should begin in October, when new fiscal-year money becomes available. During the interim, all of VFA-81's aircraft are scheduled to undergo modifications in a depot-level modification hangar located on Cecil Field. While these aircraft are in the mod hangar, they are vulnerable to cannibalization. Several maintenance personnel stated emphatically that the materiel condition of aircraft being modified often deteriorates while in the mod hangar, because of low quality work, poor quality control, and high rates of cannibalization. They expected that they would have to rebuild a number of their aircraft after they returned from the mod hangar.

The decision to place VFA-81 into preservation may also be a function of the plans for its next operating cycle, which indicate CVW-17 will have an unusually long turn-around time (24 months) before deployment on Enterprise. While aircraft are in preservation, it is Navy policy that they be protected absolutely from cannibalization. There is one problem, however, could lead to a waiver in this policy: the high number of F404 bare firewalls (engine compartments without engines--186 forecast for July) in the F-18 fleet. To date, shortages in Air Lant have been absorbed by on-station airplanes in the mod hangers, but this strategy appears to be reaching its limit. Moreover, F404 supply and repair patterns are highly unstable (they change monthly) because of additional life limit reductions, high changeout rates, and increasing F-18 usage (as additional units convert to F-18s). A further increase in the number of bare firewalls will probably require cannibalization of flyable aircraft. Obviously, in this case, it would be less disruptive to training operations if the maintainers cannibalized those aircraft in temporary preservation. Given these stresses, Air Lant has already authorized waivers to its preservation policy, permitting a swap of 20 of CVW-17's low-time F404 engines for high-time engines to support aircraft in units with higher priorities (training units and those near the end of their workup cycle).

Operations in Bosnia

Viewed from the orientation of a unit at the tactical level, the command and control system at the operational (or grand tactical) level of decision making seemed encumbered by excessively rigid, non-adaptive procedures. What follows is my understanding of the tactical point of view; it is based on a lengthy discussions with the squadron commander and many of the line pilots.

Command & Control System

The C3 system at the operational level is centered on NATO's Fifth Allied Tactical Air Force's Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) located in Vincenza, Italy. Its principle control device is the Air Tasking Message (ATM) which integrates intelligence, targeting, and flight scheduling at the top of the command structure. Like its predecessor in the Iraq War (the Air Tasking Order or ATO), the ATM operates on a long cycle (48 hours), and its detailed fragging pattern leaves little room for adaptation at the tactical level by the pilots flying the missions. The following bullets describe some features and limitations of this heavily centralized C3 system:

w CAOC built its C3 structure build around ATM, with real-time adjustments made through AWACS or FACs. The confusion exhibited during the Galeb shootdown as well as the close air support response to the Serbian attacks on Gorazde showed that this system was unable to stay abreast of rapidly changing air and ground battlefield in Bosnia. In effect, these C3 arrangements forced the naturally faster observation-orientation-decision-action rhythm of the tactical unit to operate at the naturally slower rhythm of the grand tactical level. This impeded tactical adaptations to changing conditions.

w On the other hand, USN CVW/JTG exhibited the ability to adapt more quickly to changing conditions, when given the freedom to do so--for example, during its SAR (search and rescue) action in response to the shootdown of the British Harrier.

Target Acquisition

Central to mission success was the ability to acquire mobile, artillery-sized targets from medium altitude in a heavily cluttered, alpine urban environment, often obscured by broken cloud layers. While there were frequent periods where visibility and cloud clearances were acceptable, these conditions occurred at unpredictable intervals. All the pilots I talked to said that the imagery provided by the intelligence system of the CAOC was seriously deficient for finding routes of approach or acquiring targets, because resolution was inadequate and photos were out of date (or of unknown timeliness). The F-14 TARPS, while capable of providing high resolution imagery, were fully tasked supporting CAOC requirements. The pilots believed acquiring small mobile targets requires human decision making with the flexibility to adapt to changing conditions while airborne and in visual contact with the target. Their experience over Gorazde demonstrated that this is one most difficult, important requirements of tacair. One pilot described a situation where they were tasked to suppress a tank which was firing on a hospital, but the intelligence system could not even identify the hospital for the pilots, let alone provide the information needed to attack the tank. VFA-81's commander said he believed that an A-10 operating at low altitude was the ideal platform for this mission. From his perspective, the squadron experienced the following targeting problems:

  • While the targeting requirements frequently changed, depending on where the Serbians chose to attack, the C3 decision cycle could not keep pace with the rapidly changing, mobile, close air support battlefield. The CAOC often tasked pilots to hit artillery sites without FACs in areas the pilots had not seen before. In these cases, their targeting difficulties were compounded by inadequate situation awareness and poor terrain orientation. The squadron did not have access to a current photo library of the battlefields of interest. Several pilots said the overhead photos provided by the intelligence community were useless for tactical targeting purposes. They said timely photos were absolutely necessary to cue the FLIR, because the FLIR's limited field of view made it impossible to search for targets unless their location was known beforehand.

  • Given these limitations, the only target acquisition option was to orbit high over target area, out of threat range, and struggle to find the target with the eyeball and FLIR. The squadron commander indicated this was a relatively ineffective tactic, and, in this context, several pilots said they believed the F-18's FLIR needed a higher magnification to identify cued targets.

There were not enough FACs deployed on the ground in Bosnia, and many of those who were deployed did not have laser designators. Often, in fast changing situations, like those around Gorazde, there was a requirement to drop ordnance on a target, but a FAC was not in position to authorize the drop. Consequently, less than 30% of the squadron's pilots received laser-designated targets from ground FACs. Moreover, the squadron commander believed it was unlikely that FAC could designate a tactical target in the confusion of a firefight. The squadron attempted to fill this void with autonomous decision making, but had no airborne FAC ground training prior to deployment, and the medium altitude flight regime made visual/FLIR target search difficult, if not impossible.

  • The squadron commander did not have objective measures for determining the differing battlefield familiarities of the individual aviators. This made it difficult to determine which pilot would be most effective in a given target area.

  • The squadron received its laser designators late in workup (November 93) and did not have the opportunity to practice self-lasing with actual bomb drops prior to its deployment on 12 January. Since pilots did not have any capability 6 months prior to deployment, and they buddy-lased with an A-6 during the Fallon exercise, they trained by lecture, self study, and simulator. VFA-81's commander believed the squadron should have a minimum of 4 (preferably 6 or 8) laser designators at least six months before deployment and prior to Fallon. He said the learning curve is steep, proficiency increases with each drop, but training must be frequent to maintain a viable capability (like training for Walleye).

Rapid Target Acquisition Process

Based on his analysis of the squadron's C3/targeting problems (enumerated above), VFA-81's commander devised an imaginative and effective work around. His aim was to build a continuous improvement process that would train the pilots to quickly adapt to changes in weather and battlefield while reducing cycle times and increasing knowledge and familiarity of the battlefield. The following bullets outline my understanding of his procedure:

  • He started by obtaining 1:100,000 maps of the areas of interest.

  • He assigned officers to monitor the recce tasking messages sent out by the CAOC. Officers also monitored CNN. This activity permitted him to infer what areas were of the highest interest.

  • He assigned teams of pilots with an intelligence officer to specific areas or groups of targets. Their aim was to build up a reservoir of battlefield familiarity.

  • The pilots then used handheld 35mm cameras to take pictures of the assigned areas while airborne. The film was developed within an hour of landing on the Saratoga. The area teams then used the photos to build a collage library that could be directly oriented to the maps (by taping the photos together). This effort produced high quality, timely photos that were a more useful orientation for finding initial points and avenues of approach than the overhead photos provided by intelligence.

  • In addition to its obvious benefits, there were other benefits. First, implicit in this process is continuous self-education and target familiarization. This made it easier for the pilots to adapt quickly when looking through broken cloud layers.

  • Second, the process was flexible and capable of rapid readjustment, because production time was short and reliable and totally under the squadron commander's control. He used these photos to keep abreast of changing conditions, while updating higher authority. Over time, they built a data base that was continuously available at the squadron and wing levels.

  • Third, the process enabled the commander to monitor his unit's effectiveness and assess its ability to respond rapidly to specific requests: The activity of photographing potential target areas revealed a pilot's ability to see and point at target. Moreover, by coupling this system to FLIR video, the commander could make an "objective" assessment of each pilot's ability to acquire targets in his area of interest. He could then advise higher levels which targets the squadron could hit on short notice with high confidence.

  • Fourth, according to VFA-81's commander, the automatic feedback feature provided a measure of program's effectiveness which enabled the members of the squadron to continuously improve their contributions. This increased flexibility by shortening response times, created a pro-active (as opposed to passive) focus at the tactical level, fostered innovation and enthusiasm, and integrated intelligence with operators at the lowest possible level. He believed the squadron got ahead of CAOC's decision process in constructive way, while improving its chances of success and flexibility

Conclusions and Recommendations

It is tempting to ascribe many of VFA-81's maintenance problems to routine griping by overworked maintenance sailors and officers, and it is likely that some of these problems can be fixed by improved management (better liaison between the squadron and the AIMD, for example) at the working level. Nevertheless, I believe these problems also reflect a larger resource allocation issue.

Navy outlays in FY 1994 amount to $86 billion. As the table at the right shows, this spending level is supporting a substantially reduced force structure than was supported by a smaller budget in 1980. Moreover, the current spending level is supporting about the same operating tempo, the only substantial difference being a reduced tempo for deployed ships. Given these circumstances, the fact that a fourth-quarter funding shortfall forced the Navy to place two air wings in "preservation status" raises troubling questions about the decision-making priorities in Washington. At the very least, this extraordinary action seems incompatible with Mr. Perry's policy to maintain readiness as the Defense Department's top priority.

The condition of VFA-81 and her sister squadrons is a flashing warning sign that should be carefully monitored at the highest levels. Reports in the media, as well anecdotal information filtering in from the field, suggest to me that the problems described herein may be harbingers of a larger pattern affecting all the services. If senior decision makers want to relate readiness in the field to the macroscopic setting of budgets and policies in Washington, they must first understand the local pressures affecting the operators' decisions and the nature of their adaptations and "work arounds." These pressures can only be understood by visiting the operational units and interviewing the operators and maintainers in a candid, non-threatening setting.

My first recommendation, therefore, is that the USD (P&R) form a semi-permanent interdisciplinary task force, composed of mid-level military officers and civilians, to determine what is happening in the field. Under this concept, which is inspired by Napoleon's use of staff officers for personal reconnaissance and Patton's household cavalry, teams of two to three people (Majors, Lt. Colonels, GS 14s, and 15s) would visit a variety of combat and support units on a continuous basis. Their goal is not to inspect or evaluate but simply to probe the operating environment and describe what they see. Initially, they would prepare unstructured reports on whatever they believed important to the local unit's combat readiness. In Washington, they (and their counterparts) would assemble this information, analyze it, and compare different units. As common features emerged, it would become possible to sharpen the focus and make additional inquiries. Over time, the accumulating information would permit a synthesis of an overall orientation grounded on an accurate insight into local conditions. This kind of orientation would permit policy makers to harmonize their macroscopic resource-allocation decisions to the changing microscopic conditions in the real world.

Moreover, the operations of the task force might provide a basis for designing a management information system to deal with the biggest management void in the Pentagon—namely the absence of an information system that provides the insight needed to relate resources to readiness. To those who argue that my plan is too ambitious, I would remind them that maintaining readiness is our top priority, and that this effort would consume far fewer resources than those now consumed by the OSD staff supporting acquisition decisions.

My second recommendation relates to VFA-81's problems and her innovative adaptation to the constraints of the C3 system. The Navy should determine immediately whether or not VFA-81's rapid target acquisition process is a suitable procedure for all attack squadrons.

The fact that a combat unit found it necessary to use standard issue, hand-held 35mm cameras to build a photo library supporting operations in a combat zone raises several troubling issues that go well beyond the Navy's operations. The Defense Department is spending tens of billions of dollars on centralized C3 systems, and one would think that these systems could at least provide up to date photography that is useful for strike planning in a relatively small, benign threat environment. When a tactical unit produces more useful information with hand-held 35mm cameras, it is clear that this reconnaissance problem is not caused by technical limitations. Moreover, a control system that impedes adaptation at the tactical level suggests the existence of a weakness in our joint doctrine and organization--one that could create a crisis in a shooting war with an able adversary. The problem of excessive rigidity and incompatible decision cycles among the different levels of command and control has long been recognized in actual operations as well as exercises (during the evacuation of Saigon, Nifty Nugget, Proud Spirit, or with the ATO in the Iraq War, to name a few).

While it is tempting to dismiss these frustrations as fog of war, they are consistent with the long-standing conflict between what works on a real battlefield and the theoretical performance of centralized C3 systems and doctrine. In the late 1970s, for example, I attended a series of interviews with Colonel Hans Rudel, a German Stuka pilot with over 2400 close air support missions on the Eastern Front during WWII (where he ran up a personal score of over 500 tank kills). One of our primary goals was to gain insight into the real-world performance of C3 systems in close air support situations. Many of his problems, such as finding and identifying tactical targets, responding quickly to changing conditions, and harmonizing the inherently slower decision cycles at the grand tactical level with the naturally faster rhythms of tactical decision making were no different than those encountered by the pilots of VFA-81. We questioned Rudel closely on these issues. Rudel's description of the limitations of his centralized system was virtually the same as those described above. He insisted that battlefield familiarity and on-the-scene decision making by the pilot were absolutely essential for timely, effective close air support. He also insisted that pilots must think like infantry men and have an intuitive feel for the ever-changing battlefield. (Germans have a fascinating term for the implicit sensing of the battlefield: the "fingertip touch" or "fingerspitzengefuhl.") Rudel was able to achieve stunning success at the tactical level, because his high stature permitted him to bypass the centralized C3 system and provide effective support by working directly with the army troops on the ground.

Independently, on the Western Front in 1944, General Pete Quesada, reached similar conclusions and designed similar solutions. Moreover, he demonstrated that a decentralized system was more effective than a centralized system at the grand tactical as well as the tactical level. On his own initiative, and to the consternation of many senior Army Air Force officers, he replaced the sluggish, non-responsive centralized system with a decentralized system that delegated decision-making autonomy to the pilots and ground commanders on the scene. Although the overwhelming majority of historians agree that Quesada's system performed superbly in the support of the 1st and 3rd Armies as they advanced across France, it was, nevertheless, replaced after the war with a version of the centralized system Quesada found so deficient. The descendants of this latter system are with us today. These centralized systems were notoriously ineffective in Korea and Vietnam, where average response times were three times longer and precision deteriorated from that achieved by Quesada in WWII. More recently, my interviews with A-10 pilots after the Iraq War indicate that the centralized C3 system caused the same kinds of frustrations as those described above.

Notwithstanding the repeatedly poor performance of centralized C3 systems, American air power theorists continue to cling to the assumption that the mobility of the airplane enables it to effectively attack targets across a broad front of operations (even when the pilot is not familiar with the details of the battlefield), but only if this mobility is centrally controlled at the grand tactical level by a theater air commander.

Moreover, our technologists' habitual response to these C3 problems—more sensors, data links, computers, and fusion centers--has not solved them. Indeed, some people, myself included, believe this habitual reaction has actually made matters worse. (See the attached essay by Col Wyly, USMC(Ret), for a general description of the conflict between what works on a real battlefield and the theoretical performance of centralized C3 systems and doctrine.) The ongoing operation in Bosnia provides a rare opportunity to learn how well centralized C3 systems work in a low intensity operation and to understand the reasons behind the rigid, non-adaptive character of our C3 systems. Again, this is a problem that can only be understood by direct examination.

My third recommendation, therefore, is to form a "lessons-learned" team of mid-level personnel and dispatch them to a variety of operating locations in the Bosnian theater. Their mission would be to determine how well the differing observation-orientation-decision-action cycles of C3 systems at the grand tactical and tactical levels mesh together. In particular, they would aim to understand how quickly, accurately, and harmoniously these cycles respond to changing conditions, and what reasons lie behind any deficiencies and incompatibilities.

Franklin C. Spinney

Attach: Col Michael Wyly, USMC(Ret), "Reestablishing What?" Marine Corps Gazette, August 1994, pp. 27-29.