A Return to Yankee Station: Did the Navy Learn from Nichols and Tillman?

George H.W. Bush is in the Atlantic Ocean conducting carrier qualifications.

Note: I am grateful to Lee Kluck for agreeing to contribute to this blog. He will be a regular contributor and I am certain the reader will enjoy his thoughtful presentation and analysis of naval issues as much as I do. 

The other day, a friend of mine asked me what I thought of the Navy’s “New” rail gun.  The conversation itself is unimportant as far as that content is concerned.  It will be at least a decade before the Navy has a deployable rail gun.  However, that conversation did get me thinking about how the Navy planned (if they planned to do so at all) on meeting a high-low mix of technology to bridge the gap between their current technology and the war-fighting technology of the future.  Of course, I did not come up with the term high-low mix.  To the best of my knowledge, Commander John B. Nichols (USN Ret) and renown naval historian Barrett Tillman were the first ones to use the term in their seminal work On Yankee Station: The Naval Air War over Vietnam.  This fact spawned another thought and this one is important.  Did the Navy learn from the work of Nichols and Tillman?  Simply put, my answer is not as much as it should have.

In the book, first published in 1987, Nichols a former F-8 Crusader driver, and Tillman, the then editor of The Hook (the Journal of Naval Aviation) argued that to truly learn from Vietnam, and to prepare for future conflicts, the Navy needed to focus on the three P’s.

The first of these was personnel.  On this front, Nichols (the book is one part tactics treatment one part Nichols memoir) argued that the Navy had to give their experienced aviators a reason to stay in the Navy beyond just working towards promotion and retirement.  In his mind, this meant giving aviators a chance to keep flying instead of working up the career pyramid.  Otherwise, aviators would continue to leave for the greener pastures of commercial aviation.  Recent treatments show that this is less of a problem than during the “mass exodus of the mid to late 1990s”.[1]  However, the Navy is still losing qualified pilots because many of them would rather keep flying, even in the training command, than be forced to work in non-flying, career enhancing, billet.[2]  When this does not happen, they leave the service.  This fact illustrates that the words of John Nichols went unheeded.

The second P that Nichols focused on was planes.  In his mind, the Navy had become too enamored with technology and aircraft that were designed for multiple missions.  At the time, the F-18 and F-14 were the Navy’s frontline aircraft and, while he appreciated the airframes, it was the belief of Nichols that the Navy needed to augment these aircraft with a rugged, easy to maintain, single mission fighter.  Of course, this suggestion is colored by the fact that Nichols came from the F-8 community and was a huge proponent of the F-5E and F-20 Tigershark.  All three of those aircraft fit that criterion perfectly.  However, the suggestion of adopting single role aircraft that are reliant more on the pilot than a computer is still a good one that the Navy has failed to heed.  This is evident on two counts.

First, looking at a mockup of a future air wing, it is evident that the Navy is not looking to incorporate a relatively low-tech airframe in the attack role.  Instead, a future air wing will rely on the F-18F, The F-35C and its ability to provide a airborne data link to other missiles and aircraft, and the UCLASS UAV to carry the fight to the enemy.[3]  This system works well in theory.  However, there are no guarantees that it will function well in a high threat environment especially against an enemy that has invested in ways to stop the United States.  Another airframe would help cover some bases.    Secondly, the Navy has missed an opportunity to employ single mission, organic, aircraft in vital support roles such as aerial refueling (AAR) and Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW).  This may not seem like a big deal.  However, in the case of AAR even drones run out of gas and it may not be possible for the Navy to rely on the Air Force tanker fleet to augment the buddy tankers currently in use in future conflicts.  In addition, it is quite likely that, in the future, the Navy will fight an opponent with a strong submarine force.  This would require a dedicated carrier-borne ASW component.  At the moment, this does not exist.  However, a rebirth of the S-3 Viking would give the Navy a low-tech, cost affordable, option that would help fill this void.

The last P outlined by Nichols was procedure.  To him, this had to do with building an institutional memory among the naval aviation community in both a training sense and written form.  The training side of the coin is where the Navy has excelled.  Since the publication of On Yankee Station the Navy has developed an integrated training program that brings together every element of naval aviation to train in a realistic environment that encapsulates every kind of possible mission that has been seen in the field since the end of the Cold War.[4]  This has allowed the Navy to deploy to different locales and not miss a step despite any holes in the current air wing composition.  Moreover, Navy aircrews are routinely interjected into Air Force and Allied training exercises in order to maintain a high level of joint interoperability.  Where the Navy could expand their knowledge base, is on the written end of the spectrum.

Specifically, it may be time to see if someone could write the next On Yankee Station.  All these years later, the book is the best source for civilians and military personnel looking to understand how the Navy flew and fought in Vietnam.  Moreover, the book does a great job highlighting the warrior spirit (embodied by John Nichols) of the pilots who flew there.  It is time for someone to continue that legacy so that the lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq are not lost due to combat deaths and retirement.

Lee Kluck is an independent naval historian who specializes in naval aviation topics.

[1] Herb Carmen, “Why Our Best Officers are Leaving: A Naval Aviator’s Perspective”, Information Dissemination http://www.informationdissemination.net/2011/01/why-our-best-officers-are-leaving-naval.html (accessed 5 May 2015).

[2] Ibid.

[3] The best illustration of Navy thinking can be found in Dave Muumdar and Sam LaGrone, “Inside the Navy’s Next Air War”, United States Naval Insitute  (accessed 13 May 2015).

[4] Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center, 2014. “Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center Command Brief.” Powerpoint, http://www.slideshare.net/robbinlaird/nsawc-command-briefjul14 (accessed 13 May 2015).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s