In January 1986, naval air returned to Libya, with the same freedom of navigation issues at stake.
Two carrier battle groups of the Sixth Fleet, centered on USS Saratoga (CV 60) and USS Coral Sea (CV 43), moved into the seas off the Gulf of Sidra. Gaddafi responded by sending scores of aircraft toward the fleet for the next two months, duly intercepted by U.S. Navy aircraft. In March USS America (CV 66) joined the maneuvers, and on March 24, elements of Sixth Fleet, covered by Coral Sea’s F/A-18s, crossed Gaddafi’s “line of death.”
Almost immediately, a volley of SAMs was launched at the American fighters, and Libyan missile corvettes sortied to attack the fleet. The Saratoga launched A-7 Corsairs from VA-83 armed with HARM missiles, A-6 Intruders of VA-85 armed with Harpoon missiles and cluster bombs, and EA-6Bs from VAQ-132. USS America launched A-6Es from VA-34 and EA-6Bs from VMAQ-2. Coral Sea launched A-6Es from VA-55 and EA-6Bs from VAQ-135; these were supported by several E-2Cs, F-14s, F/A-18s, and KA-6Ds. VA-34 Intruders disabled a Libyan patrol boat with a Harpoon, and Intruders from VA-85 followed up with Rockeye cluster bombsto sink it. Two A-6Es from VA-55 attacked a Nanuchka-class corvette that was heading toward the fleet and severely damaged it.
The next morning another Libyan corvette was intercepted by A-6Es from VA-55, disabled by Rockeyes, and later sunk by a Harpoon missile launched from a VA-85 A-6E. While attacks on Sixth Fleet ceased, Libyan involvement in a terrorist bombing of a disco resulted in Operation El Dorado Canyon, a joint U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force attack on Libyan airfields, bases, and barracks.
The U.S. Navy contributed 14 A-6E strike aircraft, 12 A-7E and F/A-18 Shrike and HARM shooters that undertook air defense suppression for the mission, several F-14 escorts, and four E-2C Hawkeye airborne command and control and warning aircraft from the carriers Coral Sea and America. A total of 12 A-6Es struck the Jamahiriyah barracks and Benina airfield while 12 A-7Es and F/A-18s fired Shrikes and HARMS to take out the Libyan air defense network surrounding the Benghazi and Tripoli areas.
Operation Praying Mantis
Meanwhile, in the Persian Gulf, the frigate Samuel B. Roberts was severely damaged by an Iranian mine. In retaliation, the U.S. launched Operation Praying Mantis on April 18, 1988, destroying Iranian oil platforms used as bases for attacks with gunfire. Several Iranian Boghammer speedboats engaged U.S. forces, and two Intruders of VA-95 “Green Lizards” attacked with Rockeyes, sinking one and damaging several others. The Iranian frigate Sahand sortied and launched missiles at A-6Es of VA-95. The Intruders sank it with two Harpoons and four Skipper laser-guided bombs. Later, the Iranian frigate Sabalan sortied and fired a SAM at several A-6Es from VA-95. One of the Intruders dropped a Mk. 82 laser-guided bomb down the Sabalan’s stack, leaving it crippled and burning.
The decade ended with a final skirmish with Libya, when on Jan. 3, 1989, F-14As from VF-32 were vectored toward two MiG-23 Floggers. The MiGs were heading directly for the Tomcats and their carrier. Although the F-14s turned away several times from the approaching MiGs to show they had no hostile intentions, each time the MiGs maneuvered to intercept. Finally, the two Tomcats fired a Sparrow and Sidewinder, respectively, destroying the MiGs. The Libyan pilots both ejected, but were apparently never recovered.
John Lehman might not be the first name to come to mind when chronicling naval aviation in the 1980s, but Lehman wielded just enough influence to change the way everything was done.
Lehman was a member of the Navy Reserve in 1981 when he was appointed secretary of the Navy. At about the time he was becoming a face in American news, an all-Navy crew manned the space shuttle Columbia on her April 1981 maiden voyage. Lehman was a cheerleader for Navy leadership in space, but his primary focus was the idea of building a “600-ship Navy.”
Lehman championed many other ideas. When he found the S-3 Viking averaging only a 30 percent reliability rate, Lehman prodded admirals to broaden their priorities instead of focusing on fighters. Soon, the S-3 was contributing more.
When he saw the XV-15 prototype tilt-rotor aircraft at the 1981 Paris Air Show – to Ron Berler of Wired magazine it looked “like a moving van stuck between two 38-foot-wide windmills” – Lehman was smitten. “It was very easy to fly,” Berler quoted him, “far more stable than a traditional helicopter and simpler and safer than a Harrier. I was convinced it was what we needed.” Lehman took the initial steps that led to the V-22 Osprey. Today, the Marine Corps is on track to receive 360 of them.
When he received a briefing on the E-6A Hermes (today called the E-6B Mercury) derivative of the Boeing 707-200, designed to handle strategic communication with the Navy’s nuclear submarine force, Lehman arranged for the 16-plane fleet to be based in Oklahoma. Billed as an economy move because they were bedded down alongside Air Force derivatives of the same aircraft, the move may not have actually saved money but enhanced reliability and helped keep submarines operating.
But above all, Lehman was a champion of the supercarrier. According to Hedrick Smith, in his book The Power Game, Lehman, after losing a fight at the Pentagon with Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Thayer over lowering the number of aircraft carriers planned, played the Washington power game. He immediately went to the White House where they were unaware of Thayer’s decision, then obtained a press release declaring President Ronald Reagan had named two of the ships USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) and USS George Washington (CVN 73), thereby endorsing the “600-ship fleet.” Thayer notwithstanding, the supercarrier stayed alive. According to naval analyst Norman Polmar, Lehman’s ability to get one supercarrier funded in fiscal year 1983 and another in 1988 was “a unique achievement of the Reagan administration’s naval buildup under the guidance of … Lehman.”
Observing a modern naval air war between peers when Britain and Argentina fought over the Falkland Islands in 1982, Lehman said that if the British had an E-2C Hawkeye early-warning aircraft in the Falklands, they would have enjoyed air supremacy and would not have lost ships to Exocet missiles. The Hawkeye, introduced during Vietnam and modernized over the years, remains a valuable asset to the fleet.
From the 1970s onward, Lehman was a naval flight officer (NFO) and a bombardier-navigator in the A-6E Intruder attack aircraft. His callsign was “Toad.” Critics said Lehman used his position as an aide to National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger to attain NFO status without going through the usual 18 months of training and this was briefly an issue in his nomination to be Navy Secretary at age 38, but those who flew with Lehman said he performed well.
In part because he had rapport with naval aviators and certainly because of his clout on the Washington political scene, Lehman is credited with orchestrating the Reagan-era military buildup of the 1980s, an effort credited by some with prompting the Soviet Union to spend itself to death. To obtain funding for a planned 600-ship Navy that included new carriers and new strategic homeports designed to counter a perceived Soviet threat, critics say Lehman downplayed intelligence reports that characterized the Soviet navy as defensive. Lehman left office in 1987, the last civilian boss with a strong aviation connection.
In the final decade of the 20th century, the Navy put six carrier battle groups into the fight in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Mariner, an A-7E Corsair II pilot, offered the opinion that the U.S. forces in Operation Desert Storm were the most competent the nation ever fielded – before or since. The Navy fought again in the Balkans in 1999, but much of the decade was spent performing humanitarian missions.
This article first appeared in Air Power at Sea: A Century of U.S. Naval Aviation.