Improve F/A-18 Super Hornet Training and Readiness with More Missiles and Fewer Missions

Super Hornet

The performance of American naval aviators in the early years of the Vietnam War was dismal. Navy fighter jets, launching from aircraft carriers on “Yankee Station,” flew air-to-air and air-to-ground  missions over North Vietnam. The North Vietnamese sortied their own fighter jets, Soviet-built MiGs to shoot down American aviators, resulting in intense aerial combat between the two forces. From June 1965 to September 1968, U.S. aircraft fired nearly 600 air-to-air missiles. In nearly 360 engagements, the likelihood of a kill was one per ten missiles shot, and the kill ratio between U.S. aviators and the North Vietnam Air Force was two to one. In the Korean War, American fighters had enjoyed a 10-to-1 ratio, in World War II, the Navy F6F Hellcat fighter’s kill ratio was 20-to-1. Something needed to change.

The Navy directed Captain Frank Ault to assess what went wrong. He published his findings in The Report of the Air-to-Air Missile System Capability Review, commonly known as “The Ault Report.” The report led to the creation of the Navy Fighter Weapons School, or TOPGUN. Ault singled out two major problems with fighter squadron training and readiness. First, F-4 Phantom II pilots were not firing enough air-to-air missiles in training to prepare them for employing the missiles in combat. Next, the multi-role Phantom was being over-used for air-to-ground missions, resulting in aviators unskilled in aerial combat. The Navy consequently refocused on air-to-air employment and by the end of the conflict, the kill ratio improved significantly, to as high as 15-to-1.



Modern U.S. Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet squadrons find themselves in circumstances similar to those Ault investigated in 1968. 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. 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. The Navy should increase missile-firing allowances for strike-fighter squadrons and explore ways to specialize squadrons for either fighter (air-to-air) or attack (air-to-ground) roles.

We’ll Do it Live

American naval aviators need more practice firing air-to-air missiles. Currently, firing an air-to-air missile in training is a rare event. 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.

Training requirements for the F/A-18 Super Hornet, the Navy’s mainstay strike-fighter, are governed by a training “matrix,” a spreadsheet that outlines every task required for a squadron to be considered ready for combat. The matrix states that before deploying, each fleet squadron must shoot four missiles: two AIM-9 infrared-guided missiles, and two AIM-120 radar-guided missiles. The training requirements for the F-35C Lightning II — currently equipping just one operational squadron and destined to comprise one quarter of the Navy’s strike-fighter fleet — are still in development. The Ault Report, meanwhile, recommends that the Navy “provide F4 [sic] pilots with one each AIM-7 and AIM-9 per pilot during [Fleet Replacement Squadron] training and two each… per pilot per year in fleet squadrons 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. Fleet squadrons are only assured of shooting the mandated four missiles per two-year cycle.

Vietnam-era aviators fired missiles in exercises and in combat and still performed poorly against the North Vietnam Air Force. As a result, Ault recommended an increase in live missile allowances. The report focused on the “kill ratio,” that is, how many North Vietnamese planes were shot down compared to American planes, and on the ratio of missiles fired compared to missiles that hit their targets. In 1968, both were tilted strongly against the Americans. Using this methodology to describe missile-firing allowances, Ault’s recommendation of two missiles per student was a ratio of 2-to-1. Meanwhile, the current missile-to-student ratio is 0-to-1. For operational fleet squadrons, Ault recommended a ratio of 4 missiles for every one pilot every year, while the modern missile-to-pilot per year ratio is about 1-to-8 (see Figure 1 below).

Ault’s focus on firing live missiles stemmed from improper missile employment, resulting in a high number of misses. Vietnam-era aircraft, with analog computers and vacuum tube radars, required constant tweaking to ensure reliable missile performance, problems today’s computer-driven aircraft largely avoid. Modern software-simulated missile training modes and flight simulators provide aircrew with combat-realistic indications without firing half-million-dollar weapons, while “heads up” and helmet-mounted displays provide missile data without the need to check cockpit displays.

However, these solutions only go so far. The first time a live missile leaves your aircraft is a unique experience. Like the first time driving alone with your driver’s license, there are numerous items to check and recheck, procedures to follow, and a feel to the experience that no simulation can replicate.

Sometimes More is More

Defenders of current missile allowances will say that expensive, complicated missiles cannot be “wasted” on peacetime firings while software and simulations are readily available. The problem is that simulations cannot replicate the psychological and physiological effects on a pilot when firing a real missile at a real target. Although simulation capabilities and aircraft integration have improved exponentially since 1968, there is no substitute for the real thing.

Concerns about expense are not unreasonable. The inflation-adjusted per-unit cost of a Vietnam era AIM-7E missile is approximately $165,000, while an AIM-9D is estimated at $81,000. Capt. Ault’s plan to give every pilot in every squadron four missiles a year, plus the RAG allocations (approximately 535 pilots in 33 fighter squadrons in 1969) would cost $197.1 million annually in 2019 dollars.

Today’s missiles, the AIM-120C and the AIM-9X Block II, each cost approximately $500,000 and $250,000, respectively. A program of two of these weapons each, per pilot, per year, would cost $825 million in missiles alone, assuming that in 1968 each of the 19 fleet F-4 squadrons had 17 pilots, that each of the 11 F-8 squadrons had 15 pilots, and that 20 students trained per year in each of the three fighter training squadrons.  

Fortunately, the lasting impacts of Ault’s other recommendations mean that the number of missiles once required in 1969 can be pared down today. Technological improvements in aircraft and simulators permit practicing the mechanics of missile firing much more easily than in 1969. Tying missile allocation to a squadron’s workup cycle reduces the number of pilots who need to shoot annually.

Issuing one AIM-120C and one AIM-9X to each deploying pilot during the two-year workup cycle brings the costs closer to Capt. Ault’s program. If four air wings, each comprised of four FA-18 squadrons, deploy annually, two missiles per deploying pilot would cost $192 million annually, assuming approximately 550 Fleet pilots for all FA-18 squadrons, with 255 pilots deploying annually.


Figure 1: Missile allowances outlined by the Ault Report (top), current requirements (middle), and the author (bottom), along with a “kill ratio” of annual missiles-per-pilot, assuming a 17-pilot squadron, currently the combat-strength manning of most VFA squadrons. Data compiled by the author.

Little “f”, Big “A”

The F/A-18 Super Hornet is too overtasked with air-to-ground missions to be an effective air-to-air fighter. In both training and combat, the FA-18 has been more “attack” than “fighter.” Given that both missions — air-to-air and air-to-ground — are becoming more complex, it’s increasingly difficult to excel at both. Aerial combat is a constantly evolving battleground, with increasingly capable sensors, electronic attack capabilities, evolving weapons, and changing tactics.

Fighter aviators must excel at long-range missile duels but, due to electronic jamming, stealth capabilities, and rules of engagement, they must also be ready to take the fight to “the visual arena,” where aggressive maneuvering and quick thinking make the difference between victory and defeat. Meanwhile, air-to-ground missions grow increasingly complex as “dumb” unguided bombs are replaced and augmented with “smart” weapons that rely on a variety of guidance systems and incorporate advanced technologies to hit enemy targets from long distances. The likelihood of heavily defended targets and complex weapon-to-target pairing mean the days of plugging a latitude and longitude into the weapon’s computer alone may not get the bombs on target.

From 2013 through 2018, FA-18 squadrons maintained a training profile similar to Phantom combat operations from 1965 through 1968. Flight hour data from this period for East Coast-based FA-18 squadrons show a nearly even split between air-to-air and air-to-ground missions at 21 and 25 percent respectively (Figure 2).


Figure 2: Percentage of FA-18 flight hours by mission area. Data compiled by the author.

Routine navigational, maintenance, and qualification flights comprise nearly a quarter of FA-18 flight hours. Removing these hours from the comparison increases the apparent percentages of air-to-air and air-to-ground flight hours, without changing their proportions relative to each other.

FA-18 combat operations are almost completely air-to-ground missions. Including those hours with air-to-ground training increases its proportion to 54 percent (Fig. 3). Squadrons also supplement air-to-air training with “red air” sorties simulating enemy aircraft. Including these hours with air-to-air numbers yields an air-to-air share of 37 percent.

Master of the Skies

Naval aviators should specialize in either air-to-air or air-to-ground missions. The temptation to do both should be avoided, as it will lead pilots to becoming a jack of all trades, masters of none. If Ault were alive to examine FA-18 mission tasking today, he would discover that little has changed since Vietnam. Like today’s FA-18, the F-4 could shift between air-to-air and air-to-ground missions: a multi-role aircraft. However, Ault, an attack aviator, argued that this flexibility was a detriment. In the two-and-a-half years prior to the Ault Report, Navy F-4 aircrews were flying more air-to-ground than air-to-air; from 1965 through 1968, 44 percent of Phantom sorties were air-to-air and 52 percent were air-to-ground. Focusing on air-to-ground missions dulled the edge on air-to-air capability, combining with systems deficiencies and air-to-air training cutbacks to yield the poor performance that spurred the Ault Report.

From 1965 through 1968, the F-4 averaged a flight hour breakdown of 48 percent air-to-air and 49 percent air-to-ground, with various other tasks comprising the remainder (Fig. 3). These numbers represent combat sorties, with enemy ground defenses and aircraft shooting back. In such an environment, where success was the difference between life and death, Capt. Ault determined that the emphasis on air-to-ground was affecting air-to-air combat performance.

In 1969, Ault’s words found purchase. F-4 air-to-air missions comprised 56 percent of F-4 combat sorties in 1969. On the home front, F-4 air-to-air training increased and improved. However, the conclusion of Operation Rolling Thunder and a scaling back of the air war in North Vietnam meant the results of focused air-to-air training would remain unknown until President Nixon established Operation Linebacker in 1972. That year bore the fruit of the TOPGUN program with 23 aerial victories for the F-4. “With the right tactics and training, the F-4 became a true MiG killer.”

Both datasets – Vietnam and modern squadrons – are subject to important caveats. The Vietnam data accounts only for sorties flown in support of combat operations. Navigational, training, and other non-combat flights are not included. Additionally, West Coast-based F-4 squadrons deployed more frequently than East Coast squadrons, which typically deployed to the Atlantic and Mediterranean. In the modern era, the FA-18’s multi-role capabilities occlude the data: a sortie classified as an air-to-ground flight may have some air-to-air training involved, and vice versa. Additionally, the data does not include West Coast air wings, including Japan-based CVW-5, which does not deploy to the Middle East. Still, over a timespan of several years, trends persist in both the Vietnam- and modern-era data.

If a near 50-50 split in intense combat was not enough to ensure aerial victory in 1968, a heavy air-to-ground emphasis in 2019 is unlikely to yield a different result.

Master of None

Hardware is not the immediate answer for combat aviation, just as it wasn’t for Ault. Building new aircraft may solve some problems, but not all of them. Likewise, building specialized new aircraft takes too long. Adjusting training, on the other hand, could be done tomorrow.

After Vietnam, defense planners seemingly learned different lessons than those in the Ault Report. The multi-role nature of the F-4 became a value, rather than a hurdle overcome by training following dismal performance. Post-Vietnam air-to-air advocates, Air Force officers dubbed “The Fighter Mafia,” wanted to develop fighters like the Vietnamese MiG-21 — light, agile, focused on air-to-air, they would be simple, cheap, single-role fighters. Col. John Boyd, proponent of the “OODA Loop” and the “E-M diagram” of fighter performance, sketched the F-15 and F-16 fighters in line with these principles, but grew frustrated by the decisions to bulk up the F-15 and to transform the F-16 into a multi-role fighter-bomber.

Born from the same program as the F-16, the Navy’s FA-18 Hornet promised to deliver on the multi-role potential of the F-4 thanks to modern, digital technology — even though the most comprehensive study of Phantom performance in Vietnam specifically cited multi-role focus as a detractor from air-to-air capability.

The post-Cold War “peace dividend” reduced the need for an air-to-air thoroughbred and tightened budgets to the point that multi-role aircraft became the only affordable option. The Air Force’s F-22 became known for a brief period as the “F/A-22” in a vain attempt to give the aircraft multi-role credibility and save the Raptor’s production line.

At sea, the carrier air wing withered from a multi-airframe, multi-mission, complementary suite of aircraft into a uniform collection of Super Hornets. The F-35C, beginning to populate flight decks, augments the carrier air wing with improved sensors and all-aspect stealth. However, its common moniker — “Joint Strike Fighter” — betrays it as another jack of all trades, a legacy of the F-4 and FA-18.

Notably, the Ault report does not recommend building purebred fighters to solve the Navy’s MiG problem. Such a suggestion would not have fixed the immediate problems in 1969, and such a suggestion, posed in 2019, would not produce results for years to come with the introduction of new aircraft. The Navy’s use of “F/A-XX” to describe its next generation fighter is a clear indication that developing separate fighter and attack aircraft is unlikely.

Figure 3: Breakdown of flight hours by mission area for the F-4 Phantom II (left) and the FA-18 Super Hornet (right). Combat strike operations have been added to the air-to-ground hours, while “red air” sorties are counted in the air-to-air total. Some non-tactical training flight hours have been omitted from the FA-18 data for clarity. Data compiled by the author.

Fight the Matrix

The multi-role fighter is here to stay. However, recent air-to-air engagements in Syria and India demonstrate that the need for a competently trained, within visual range, gun-equipped dogfighter has not abated since the Phantom’s dark days. Rules of engagement, identification requirements, and escalation of force protocols constrain the ability to shoot down enemy aircraft. Fighter pilots should expect the same in future conflicts in the crowded skies over the South China Sea or Eastern Europe.

The time to leverage a greater split in air-to-air and air-to-ground training is now. Although Super Hornet and the F-35 are flexible strike-fighter aircraft, the “man in the box” is the legacy of the Ault Report. Beyond technological solutions and procurement reforms, Ault understood that Phantom crews needed to be honed to a razor’s edge in air-to-air combat. The F-4 benefited from entire “carrier attack wings” of air-to-ground aircraft, providing the space needed to refocus the Phantom on air-to-air execution. With the attack squadron gone from the carrier deck since 1997, Super Hornet squadrons would benefit from informal re-designations to attack (air-to-ground) and fighter (air-to-air) squadrons, instead of the current “strike -fighter squadron” moniker.

The training matrix, beyond spelling out missile allocation, mandates the “tasks” that each aviator must periodically perform. Generally, the matrix splits the requirements for air-to-air and air-to-ground tasks equally.

Creating two Super Hornet training matrices, one with an air-to-air focus and one tilted towards air-to-ground, would allow the Navy to develop more focused aviators. The Navy could direct each FA-18 squadron to assume a particular role, but a more interesting experiment would be to allow carrier air wing commanders to allocate the matrices for their FA-18 squadrons. In this way, an air wing commander could tailor the wing according to operational priorities.

The problem with dividing the carrier air wing is that the Navy does not operate in a multi-role world. For nearly 30 years, it has lived in the strike domain, supporting ground forces ashore. Squadron skippers will be loath to orbit the carrier waiting for MiGs while the best hunting is ashore and on deck. In Desert Storm, for example, F-14s were marginalized with overwater combat air patrols while Air Force F-15s decimated the Iraqi Air Force. Meanwhile, Navy attack squadrons and the new FA-18 Hornet flew “feet dry,” dropping ordnance all over the desert. Adding insult to injury, Hornets shot down two MiGs while the mighty Tomcats had to content themselves with a lone, defenseless Iraqi helicopter.

What Naval Aviation Should Be Doing

Naval aviation should stop strike operations ashore in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan; increase missile-firing allowances; and specialize each FA-18 squadron for either the fighter or attack role. Combat close air support ashore in the Middle East has become increasingly marginal for carrier air wings. Critics will say that the aircraft carrier adds strike power to forces in the Middle East, which is true, but the need is no longer there. Since 2015, manned strike sorties in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan have fallen by half. Recent aircraft carrier deployments have refocused on the much-ballyhooed “near-peer threat;” carriers spend fewer days in the Arabian Gulf launching strike sorties and more time on the high seas practicing for high-end combat. Refocusing on problems away from “the beach” may not yield as much footage for the post-cruise video, but it will allow air wing commanders to tinker with a mix of fighters and strikers.

The infrequency of missile firings must be corrected through increased allowances. Modern technological advancements mean that a 1-to-1 missile ratio in 2019 can accomplish what Ault sought in 1968 with a 4-to-1 ratio. Simulations can only go so far to replicate the firing of an actual missile however, and so there is ultimately no substitute for the real thing. For example, the Navy’s most recent MiG Killer, Lt. Cmdr. Mike Tremmel, stated that he knew to anticipate a long firing sequence for his missile and how to avoid debris from a Syrian Su-22 based on his experience firing a real missile in training. Although the cost in dollars may be high, advances in technology mean that fewer live missiles are required today, compared to 1968. Tremmel’s experience proves that there is indeed no substitute for the real thing, and his ability to shoot and maneuver benefitted from having practiced with a real missile. The cost in American lives and jets saved may be tough to measure, but it certainly outweighs the costs of several dozen missiles.

Building more flexibility into FA-18 training matrices would allow wing commanders to specialize their air wings for operational requirements. If commanders could specialize their squadrons during pre-deployment workups, they might find that squadrons with more bombing experience are better bombers, and those with more fighting experience are better fighters. The workup cycle includes a wide variety of missions on which to test these assumptions, but the jack-of-all-trades nature of the training matrix leaves little room for specialization. Loosening the matrix opens the floodgates for commanders to pick and choose the missions they like and avoid the ones they don’t. Skippers who fancy themselves “Maverick” Mitchell may leave the bombs at home, while those who are more of a “Cool Hand” Grafton may ditch the missiles. Giving air wing commanders the responsibility for specialization ensures that each air wing is appropriately balanced and allows commanders the flexibility to emphasize a particular mission area if required.

The Key to Victory

Increasing missile allowances to one AIM-120 and one AIM-9 per pilot per workup cycle, and giving air wing commanders the ability to specialize squadrons for air-to-air and air-to-ground missions, will prevent the Navy from a repeat of the early Vietnam War. The lack of familiarity with missile employment and the parity between air-to-air and air-to-ground missions in Vietnam yielded unacceptable losses and poor performance. Expecting modern technology alone to yield different results is the same shortsightedness that led to the Ault Report. These two recommendations amount to an “ounce of prevention” that will keep American aviators alive and provide the key to victory in future combat: highly trained expert fighter aircrew.

Examining the Navy’s poor combat performance, Capt. Ault concluded that increased missile allowances, focused air-to-air training at home, and fighter mission execution in combat would tip the scales in favor of naval aviation. History proved Ault correct: Navy Phantoms achieved 60 percent their total kills in the last two years of the war.

It took the death of many aviators and the failure of millions of dollars in equipment to spur change in 1968, but the Navy can change now and avoid the high costs of learning through failure in war. Capt. Ault’s conclusion that a jack of all trades was no match for a focused fighter pilot turned the tide half a century ago. The same focus should guide FA-18 training today.



Graham Scarbro is an active duty naval officer, his views are his own and do not necessarily reflect the official views of the Defense Department, the Department of the Navy, or his chain of command.

Image: U.S. Navy (Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Cameron Stoner)