Between the end of the Cold War and 9/11, U.S. naval aviation transformed itself
Over a decade before he made his own documentary, Francesco “Paco” Chierici appeared in one.
In 1995, the Discovery Channel produced an 11-episode spin-off of its long-running, hugely popular military aviation documentary series Wings. The spin-off, titled Sea Wings, focused specifically on naval aviation, including both aircraft carrier-borne and land-based platforms. “Paco” Chierici, retired United States Naval Aviator and creator and producer of the critically-acclaimed Speed & Angels from 2008, was, in ’95, a Grumman F-14A Tomcat pilot and appeared in the episode about the legendary fighter/interceptor, titled Defender of the Fleet.
Paco’s unit, Fighter Squadron 213 (VF-213) “Black Lions,” was assigned to Carrier Air Wing Eleven (CVW-11) and embarked aboard the Nimitz-class nuclear-powered supercarrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72). Though the Tomcat was well into its third decade of service by then and VF-213 had been flying F-14s since the late-1970s, “Abe” was only commissioned five years prior, with just two deployments under its belt. Likewise, Paco had been flying operationally for little over five years, starting his career in a Grumman A-6E Intruder squadron in 1991 post-Desert Storm before transitioning to Tomcats as the former progressively retired.
Documentaries like Sea Wings are certainly dated but remain highly valuable as time capsules that provide a “snapshot” of U.S. naval aviation in the 1990s. Less than a decade had passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union had ceased to exist less than four years prior. Naval aviation, as it stood in 1995, was an institution built around the mission of confronting the Soviet threat and that threat was now gone.
“It was at the nadir during a low point in global threat and a gap between some aircraft that were being retired or canceled and the future aircraft coming online,” as described by Chierici. Furthermore, smaller wars like Desert Storm had exposed both the strengths and limitations of naval aviation and the ‘90s were a time of re-focus and re-organization as the military as a whole figured out how best to tackle missions of the present and the future.
The most noticeable change was the number of carrier battle groups. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the U.S. Navy possessed 15 carriers across four separate classes. Four years later, the Navy had retired four carriers and gained one, resulting in a fleet of 12. Considering nuclear refueling, overhauls, and repairs, the number of active, available-for-tasking carrier strike groups—as they are now called, was less than that. More cuts were on the horizon and, while new carriers were eventually built, the Navy struggled to maintain a 12-carrier fleet and, from 2013 – 2017, operated 10.
The next major change was in air wing composition and size. In Defender of the Fleet, Paco and VF-213 constitute the lone pure fighter squadron of CVW-11, following decades in which air wings carried two. Some air wings were still assigned two fighter squadrons during this time; another Discovery Channel documentary released in 1995, the highly acclaimed Carrier: Fortress at Sea, featured USS Carl Vinson, which was assigned two F-14D “Super” Tomcat squadrons. But this had become an exception by this point and would become increasingly so going forward.
By 1996, air wings averaged 75 total aircraft, according to retired Navy Captain and defense analyst Jerry Hendrix. Air wings with one F-14 squadron were assigned 14, although they sometimes carried fewer. Paco recalls deploying with 11 in ’95.
Overall, the ‘90s were a time of shrinking defense budgets and military downsizing. But, contrary to conventional wisdom, the “peace dividend” did not have the detrimental impact on capability and readiness as some pundits have claimed over the years.
“Paradoxically, as the fleet of aircraft shrinks, parts and maintainers become more readily available,” Paco explained. “My last cruise in the Tomcat in ’95? I didn’t miss a single sortie in six months. Our jets were all up and ready to rock.”
The changes in air wing composition were not only the result of fiscal decisions, they were also the result of changes in focus. While the aircraft carrier had proved an effective instrument of power projection, experience in the ‘80s and then Desert Storm in ’91 showed it was time to evolve. After the war, MIT professor Barry Posen summarized the Navy’s mission as the service envisioned it as a byproduct of the Cold War:
Their idea is that they steam around in the open oceans and attack naval targets ashore, such as ports and naval airfields, that they fight other people’s navies at sea and defend their carriers and amphibious forces from assault.
With the Soviet air and naval threat having receded, naval aviation shifted its focus towards precision attack on targets further inland. The McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet was arguably the centerpiece of this shift; having initially entered service in the ‘80s as a replacement for the LTV A-7E Corsair II in the “light attack” role. In the ‘90s the Hornet truly emerged as an authentic “strike” fighter capable of precision attack. It was also during the mid- ‘90s that ground-attack capabilities were adapted to the F-14.
Another reminder the ‘90s were a transitional period was the enduring presence of the A-6. Operationally introduced in 1963, the Intruder was on its way out. ’95 was the last time an A-6 would fly aboard Abe and be assigned to CVW-11 and the platform would officially retire two years later, bringing the era of “medium attack” to a close. The Intruder probably exited at the top of its game, however.
Having received its final upgrade under the Systems/Weapons Improvement Program (SWIP), the last Intruders standing exceeded their reputation as mere “bomb trucks;” they could employ a dizzying array of precision-guided weaponry, including AGM-65 Maverick and AGM-84E SLAM land-attack missiles, AGM-88 HARMs for air defense suppression, and laser-guided bombs. While the priceless KA-6D Tanker variant had been retired the year before, A-6Es could still perform as mid-air refuelers using buddy stores, another reminder of the platform’s versatility.
Still, it might have been as good a time as any for the A-6 to go. “Adapting F-14s to the air-to-ground role and the advent of GPS-guided weaponry rendered the Intruder obsolete,” said . “The Intruder was a relic that performed past her prime due to the community’s creativity and professionalism. You don’t need a plane that carries 30 500-pound bombs anymore.” Apart from the tanker role, the F-14 would ultimately fill the A-6’s shoes admirably, in some cases exceeding them.
Other platforms, such as the Sikorsky SH-3H Sea King helicopter, ended operational service with the Navy in the mid-‘90s, replaced by the Sikorsky SH-60F/HH-60G Seahawks in the anti-submarine warfare (ASW), search-and-rescue, and utility roles. The Lockheed S-3 Viking had been upgraded to the advanced ‘B’ variant by this point, though its ASW mission faded in the late-‘90s and serve almost exclusively as a maritime surveillance aircraft and tanker until its retirement in 2009.
Naval aviation underwent changes on land as well. In 1995, the Navy Fighter Weapons School, better-known as TOPGUN, was still located at iconic Naval Air Station Miramar in San Diego. A year later, however, as part of post-Cold War base realignment and closure programs, NAS Miramar was transferred to the Marine Corps and TOPGUN moved to NAS Fallon, Nevada, where Naval Strike Warfare Center (STRIKE “U”) had been located for over ten years. TOPGUN, along with STRIKE “U” and other schools, were consolidated under a single umbrella organization known as the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center, now known as Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center.
The decision to hand Miramar to the Marines had other repercussions. All F-14 squadrons, for example, regardless of whether they were assigned to an East Coast or West Coast air wing, were consolidated at NAS Oceana, Virginia. Of course, the F-14 was set to be retired in the mid-2000s and their units transitioned into F/A-18E/F Super Hornet squadrons, so the decision made organizational sense.
Institutional changes were abound in the ‘90s. The combat exclusion policy for female servicemembers had been lifted in 1993, opening the door for women to serve as combat aviators. Abe saw a number of women flying off her flight deck, including Carey Lohrenz of VF-213. Brenda Scheufele flew F/A-18C Hornets for Strike Fighter Squadron 94 (VFA-94) “Mighty Shrikes” and was featured in the Sea Wings episode The Killer Bee.
Transitional periods were nothing new for the Navy, of course. The service underwent a particularly notable one in the 1970s following the Vietnam War. It is arguably undergoing another one now as the U.S. attempts to leave behind smaller, more limited wars in theaters like Afghanistan and Iraq and re-orient itself towards what it sees as burgeoning “great power” conflict with China and Russia.
But as the saying goes, “it’s not about the destination, it is about the journey.” The mission of naval aviation is an ongoing one, validated not necessarily by what the communities and services anticipate, but by their ability to adapt to new missions and realities that deliver unexpected challenges.
“Because of the history and ethos of the seafaring community, creativity and freethinking are baked into the DNA of the U.S. Navy,” said Paco. “The flexibility of the organization and the delegation of decision making to the lowest level of pilots is unparalleled in the military.”
Indeed, when it came time for the next big war, naval aviation was ready. As Vice Admiral Timothy J. Keating assessed the summer prior to 9/11, “A carrier air wing can strike five times as many aimpoints each day as its predecessors could in Operation Desert Storm.” Which was to say, the 21st century carrier air wing, even with its reduced complement and the retirement of platforms like the A-6, was still able to hit more targets than a larger-sized Cold War-era air wing.
A decade of hard work had produced an even more formidable force. For the men and women who took part in the transition, it was also a great time. Just ask Paco, who has since added novelist to his list of accomplishments by authoring Lions of the Sky, about his appearance in Sea Wings!
“I don’t remember the details, except that it was great, and a lot of fun!”
Edward Chang is a defense, military, and foreign policy writer. His writing has most prominently appeared in The American Conservative, The Aviation Geek Club, The Federalist, The National Interest, and Spectator USA. Follow him on Twitter at @Edward_Chang_8.