Reorienting naval aviation demands a cultural revolution


So Vice Admiral DeWolfe Miller, the U.S. Navy’s new naval aviation boss, wants to make combat readiness vis-à-vis peer antagonists the aviation community’s central purpose after sixteen years of rendering close air support in theaters like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.

Good. As poet William Wordsworth might say: bliss it is in this dawn to be alive!

Now comes the cultural revolution, or rather counterrevolution. Sixteen years of bombarding ground targets rather than girding to fight enemy air fleets may have altered the culture of naval aviation. The shade of Julian Corbett might point out that exercising command of the common—including the aerial sector thereof—demands different tactics, skills, and even hardware than does battling for command.

And projecting power is what carrier pilots have been doing—many of them for their entire careers, sixteen years into the post-9/11 war on terror.

But when an enemy air force mounts a challenge to American air superiority and supremacy, the fight for command has to come first—and take precedence. Reinstating habits of mind and action that served naval air well during the Cold War and World War II before it should indeed rank atop Admiral Miller’s list of priorities.

Trouble is, institutional cultures don’t change overnight just because someone wearing stars decrees it shall be so.

Ask submariners. The silent service spent the 1920s and 1930s inculcating doctrine for assailing enemy battle fleets. So singleminded were top commanders that methods for raiding merchant shipping languished. In fact, the U.S. Pacific Fleet submarine command had to weed out skippers who couldn’t make the leap from the one to the other mode of operations after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

And submariners then had it easy compared to aviators today. Pivoting from attacking men-of-war to attacking unarmed or lightly armed merchantmen is easier than switching from low-intensity combat to high-intensity warfare in the wild blue.

December 7 is when Chief of Naval Operations Harold Stark issued the order for submariners to sink anything flying a Japanese flag—including, and especially, merchantmen. SUBPAC gave captains two patrols to produce results against Japanese shipping. They were gone if they failed to produce the goods. Youth unencumbered by prewar ways of doing things took their places, and prosecuted the campaign with ruthless efficiency.

Extreme cultural change may demand extreme measures. The air boss may soon find that out.