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Interview with Rear Adm. Mark A. Vance, Commander, Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center (NSAWC)

Developing tactical excellence

Since the first military pilot took off on a live mission some 100 years ago, combat aviation has been both a favorite of Hollywood and one of the most dangerous of professions in the real world.

High losses in Vietnam led the Navy to create a special advanced pilot training school, known as TOPGUN, at Naval Air Station (NAS) Miramar, Calif. The result was a dramatic improvement in the air combat kill ratio against Soviet-trained North Vietnamese pilots. It also led to a hit movie some two decades later that gave the Hollywood view of that school, for which the film was inaccurately named: Top Gun.   

Advancing technology, changing threats, and new approaches to the use of aviation assets in increasingly complex and networked battle theaters have been reflected in the training now conducted at Fallon, Nev. For 21st century naval combat aviators, TOPGUN is only one part of what has become the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center (NSAWC).

In the early ’80s, we had a strike in Lebanon that was not a success. We lost a couple of airplanes and some airmen. [Navy Secretary John] Lehman at the time said we had to do the same thing for integrated warfighting we did for fighters with TOPGUN, so we stood up the Strike Warfare Center to teach entire air wings how to integrate all their capabilities to do advanced strike tactics and execution.

Today, NSAWC is the Navy’s primary authority on training and tactics development, both for specific aircraft and for integrated strike warfare. In addition to aircrew training, its mission includes aviation requirements recommendations, research and development priorities for integrated strike warfare, maritime and overland air superiority, strike fighter employment, airborne battle management, combat search and rescue, close air support, and associated planning support systems.

In late January 2013, Rear Adm. Mark A. Vance, a veteran F-14 Tomcat pilot who took command of NSAWC in October 2011, spoke with Defense Media Network senior writer J.R. Wilson about the command’s evolution and future.

 

J.R. Wilson: What is the primary purpose of the NSAWC? Specifically, what are the scope and nature of the center’s activities related to: Operational testing?

Rear Adm. Mark A. Vance: We don’t do operations testing; that is at the VX-9 squadron at China Lake [Calif.] and under a different organization. We get together with them to help develop the TTPs [tactics, techniques, and procedures] for new weapons going out to the fleet. We don’t do the testing ourselves, but our weapons and tactics instructors will fly with them as applicable, so when it goes to the fleet, we have the TTPs ready.

 

Tactics development?

We are the primary organization for tactics development for Navy tactical aircraft. And that’s the TTPs. This has always been one of our primary missions and tasks.

The model for training in Navy tactical aviation is we train the trainer; that starts with our weapons schools, where we grow weapons and tactics instructors. A typical student comes out of his first fleet assignment to go through the nine- to 10-week TOPGUN course. He then goes to one of the weapons schools, followed by a tour in the fleet as a squadron training officer, with primary responsibility for tactics and warfighter training.

 

Advanced training?

Training is one of our four primary function areas: training, TTP development, support to COCOMs, and inputs to the requirements process. Training is really our forte and how our organization started.

Ground crew prepares FA-18C Hornet

Members of the ground crew prepare F/A-18C Hornet strike fighters for flights supporting the final phase of training for Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 8 before embarking for a deployment aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71). Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center (NSAWC) is the custodian of 44 aircraft, including F/A-18A and C Hornet variants, F/A-18F Super Hornets, F-16A and B Viper variants, H-60S Seahawk helicopters, and E2-C Hawkeye aircraft. U.S. Navy photo by Intelligence Specialist 1st Class Daniel Penn

TOPGUN was established during Vietnam, when our kill ratio was approaching something like 2-to-1. That led to the “Ault Report,” which recommended an advanced weapons school to teach our fighters TTPs against the Soviet-built fighters the North Vietnamese were flying. By the end of the war, our kill rate was up over 12-to-1.

In the early ’80s, we had a strike in Lebanon that was not a success. We lost a couple of airplanes and some airmen. [Navy Secretary John] Lehman at the time said we had to do the same thing for integrated warfighting we did for fighters with TOPGUN, so we stood up the Strike Warfare Center to teach entire air wings how to integrate all their capabilities to do advanced strike tactics and execution.

We also stood up an E-2 [Hawkeye airborne early warning and control aircraft] weapons school, and in the mid-’90s those three organizations were combined and renamed the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center. Subsequently, we stood up weapons schools for Navy helicopters and most recently for our new EA-18 Growlers [electronic warfare/attack aircraft].

The model for training in Navy tactical aviation is we train the trainer; that starts with our weapons schools, where we grow weapons and tactics instructors. A typical student comes out of his first fleet assignment to go through the nine- to 10-week TOPGUN course. He then goes to one of the weapons schools, followed by a tour in the fleet as a squadron training officer, with primary responsibility for tactics and warfighter training.

That’s our core model for developing tactical excellence individually at the squadron level. They then go through an air combat training continuum, with different levels as they mature in the aircraft and get more flight hours.

Second, before they deploy, each individual squadron that has gone through their advanced readiness program comes here with all their weapons and capabilities. We teach them how to integrate each of those pieces into a whole to do strike warfare.

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J.R. Wilson has been a full-time freelance writer, focusing primarily on aerospace, defense and high...