U.S. Navy Pilots Admit: We Could Lose a War With China

David Axe

A panel of young aviators voiced a harsh warning to the audience at the U.S. Navy’s annual Tailhook aviation convention in Nevada in September 2019.

The Navy’s pilots aren’t ready to do battle with a high-tech foe such as China. The sailing branch’s planes must improve. Its training, too.

“Commentary from Tailhook 2019 suggests a new crisis is at hand,” James Holmes, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island, wrote in Proceedings, the professional journal of the U.S. Naval Institute.

Holmes likened naval aviation’s current dilemma to a similar emergency that took place during the 1960s. “Back then the foe was North Vietnam, a doughty opponent that nonetheless posed little threat outside its borders,” Holmes wrote.

By the 1960s the Navy fielded carrier-based fighter jets whose design philosophy centered on guided missiles. It had become an article of faith that U.S. aircraft would prosecute missile engagements at “standoff” range, firing beyond enemy weapons range and beyond visual range. Adversaries would never get off a shot in reply. Missiles had rendered gunfights a thing of the past, or so it was thought in the early 1960s.

Yet Ho Chi Minh’s pilots were an ornery lot, refusing to follow the script American tacticians had written for them. Rather than remain at standoff distance to be blasted out of the sky, North Vietnamese airmen closed to dogfighting range and took their chances in gun duels.

Imagine that: an enemy might decline to do your bidding. U.S. aviators were ill prepared for North Vietnamese tactics. Indeed, the F-4 Phantom—the Navy’s premier fighter in the 1960s—was not even equipped with guns for close-range combat. ….

A tougher-than-expected antagonist stunned naval aviation into arming its warplanes for dogfighting, developing tactics for close combat, and re-grounding naval aviation’s culture on solid precepts—including the soundest of all military assumptions, namely that America’s enemies get a vote in war and will always cast it against our efforts.

The present crisis has its roots in the period of relative geopolitical calm that followed the end of the Cold War, Holmes explained. Naval aviation’s training standards slipped. Its planes went years without meaningful upgrades.

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