Combat Pair: The Evolution of Air Force-Navy Integration in Strike Warfare

  • Published

Combat Pair: The Evolution of Air Force-Navy Integration in Strike Warfare by Benjamin S. Lambeth. RAND, 2007, 105 pp.

Benjamin Lambeth notes in his latest monograph Combat Pair that the last three decades have seen US Air Force and US Navy air combat operations evolve into a model for joint integration, with no discernable seams. In this concise, well-researched work, Lambeth details the evolution from a rough relationship in Vietnam to the triumph of synergistic action in OEF, OIF, and beyond. An important contribution to the study of service integration, Combat Pair provides a much needed model for closer joint cooperation; the kind of model that may seal fissures among the services.

Air Force and Navy combat airpower were worlds apart before and during the Cold War, in general, and in the Vietnam War, in particular. In Vietnam, operational interaction consisted of “deconfliction” via the “Route Pack” (pp. 5– 6) system. Lambeth notes this “fragmented approach” was anathema to USAF basic tenets about centralized integration and control of airpower; however, it was unavoidable due to complex command and control arrangements between the services. Ultimately, he concludes, for “all intents and purposes, the Air Force and Navy fought separate air wars over North Vietnam” (p. 8). The Air Force-Navy separation continued in the 1990s as the two services’ leaders organized, trained, and equipped them for completely different areas of operation and assigned missions. The Navy was expected to control the seas versus the Soviet navy in the far reaches of the North Atlantic and West Pacific, while the Air Force prepared itself for land war in Central Europe. This separation would likely have continued; however, the disappearance of the Soviet menace and the integration seams exposed by Operation Desert Storm served as catalysts for change.

After air operations during Desert Storm served to highlight joint issues, the services embarked on a 10-year campaign to increase interoperability that concentrated on equipment, doctrine, and command and control. The Navy upgraded much of its precision strike capabilities to meet the demands of land warfare. Both services worked diligently to integrate doctrine, using exchange programs and exercises. Lastly, the Air Force and Navy worked relentlessly to integrate command and control systems, namely the air tasking order (ATO) and air operations center (AOC) processes. Lambeth argues these efforts were aided by the 10 years experience in Operations Northern and Southern Watch, which gave the services a “real-world operations laboratory”(p. 31) within which to merge their operational cultures. Given this time to perfect their craft, they excelled in near-seamless operations during OEF and OIF. With these conflicts in mind, Lambeth offers an excellent discussion of the synergy of land-based strike fighters, carrier-based strike fighters, and bombers. He aptly details the relative strengths and weaknesses of each and correctly argues that the services have reached a point where they are no longer “duplicative and redundant, but rather offer overlapping and mutually reinforcing as well as unique capabilities for conducting joint warfare” (p. 82).

Accordingly, Lambeth looks to the future to discern how the Air Force and Navy can continue this path toward more effective joint integration. While he provides an excellent discussion, two shortcomings became apparent: suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD) and the joint strike fighter (JSF). In discussing SEAD, Lambeth points out a division between the services that I argue is a synergy. He correctly notes the Air Force has largely rid itself of electronic warfare jamming assets, instead depending on the Navy and Marine Corps for EA-6B and EA-18G jamming support. He places some blame for division in this area on the failure of the USAF B-52 stand-off jammer program, which was killed due to excessive cost growth, and notes the Air Force has to act on this “rapidly looming problem”(p. 90).

I disagree and argue that SEAD is another area where the services have had great synergy. The USN/USMC F-18 communities have largely divested themselves of a credible kinetic SEAD capability, instead relying on USAF F-16 and RC-135 support, while the USAF has largely divested itself of electronic warfare, instead depending on the USN/USMC. Essentially, the services have cooperated in this area by bringing essential components to the table for the good of the wider military—the concept of joint interdependence.

Similarly, I was surprised to see the coming of the joint strike fighter merit only one paragraph, as it seems a common airframe has great repercussions for interoperability in the three areas noted before. Given that aviators design tactics, techniques, and procedures with airframe capabilities and limitations in mind, the services should be closer than ever in this area. Likewise, identical avionics in the JSF, including radios and data link, will drive even closer integration for command and control. Finally, it is hard to imagine the services buying different weapons for the aircraft with weapons like the joint air-ground missile on the drawing board.

The lessons recounted in Combat Pair may apply to efforts at improving the Army-Air Force relationship as well. Lambeth gives a nod to this concept, calling it an “object lesson” that can be “successfully pursued” by the “Air Force and Army in the air-land arena” (p. x). Unfortunately, it seems that while the Air Force and Navy continue to get closer together, the Air Force and Army have a mixed record. While some aspects of the Army-Air Force relationship have gotten stronger (such as techniques, tactics, and procedures for close air support), recent rifts over unmanned aerial vehicles have brought questions about joint integration to the surface. While both services have valid perspectives, we can only hope they can find common ground for the good of the nation. Hopefully, Combat Pair may play a role in resolving this and future interservice conflicts.

Maj R. J. Suttlemyre, USAF

Washington, DC

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."