Why the Navy's F/A-18 Fighter Pilots Might Not Be Ready for War

David Axe

Key point: Big changes are needed if America is to return to full peer-to-peer competition.

The U.S. Navy’s fighter pilots lack the skills to defeat Chinese and Russian pilots in combat, one officer warned.

To better prepare for high-tech combat, the sailing branch’s F/A-18 crews should fire more live missiles in exercises and better focus their training, Navy officer Graham Scarbro advised at War on the Rocks.

“Current Navy strike-fighter squadrons do not fire enough air-to-air missiles, and their training mission profiles are too fragmented between air-to-air, air-to-ground and other mission areas,” Scarbro wrote. “In a future conflict with China or Russia, as in the past, naval aviators should expect these deficiencies to yield combat losses unless they are mitigated in peacetime.”

“Firing an air-to-air missile in training is a rare event,” Scarbro explained. “It requires weeks or months of planning, occasional squadron detachments to other airfields and the right combination of training range availability, support assets, logistics and more. Many aviators go their entire career without firing a missile. Those who do typically get just one opportunity.”

The Navy’s training requirements for the F/A-18 Super Hornet dictate that each 12-plane fleet squadron shoot a total of four missiles -- two AIM-9 infrared-guided missiles and two AIM-120 radar-guided missile -- before a deployment.

By contrast the Ault Report, a watershed Vietnam War-era study of air-to-air warfare, recommended the Navy give each pilot with two missiles to shoot during early training plus another two per year thereafter.

“Current FA-18 student aviators fire no air-to-air missiles during their training, perhaps due to the expense and complexity of doing so,” Scarbro pointed out. “Fleet squadrons are only assured of shooting the mandated four missiles per two-year cycle.”

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