For the Sake of Ceremony: Should the U.S. Navy Continue its Airborne Forward Air Controller Program?
No one knows precisely when the last naval sword was used in combat. After centuries of being considered standard military-issued weaponry, the sword’s utility waned in the gunpowder age. The enlisted cutlass disappeared entirely by the 1940s. The officer’s sword, steeped in centuries of military tradition, was spared for the sake of ceremony. A required uniform item for officers above the grade of lieutenant commander, swords can be found at change of command ceremonies and drawn to create sword arches at military weddings. Today, officers may be versed in ceremonial drills, but the skill to effectively use such a weapon in combat is as unsharpened as the edges of these ceremonial vestiges.
The history of the naval sword is an apt metaphor for the state of the Navy’s airborne forward air controller (hereafter referred to as forward air controller) program. Like the sword, the current trajectory of the forward air control program indicates declining relevance due to neglect, changing operational paradigms, and preservation for the sake of tradition. Naval aviation’s commitment to this mission and alignment with previous tenets are atrophying, and the program’s future is at a crossroads. Since the 1990s, the Navy’s forward air controller program has resided within the carrier-based two-seat fast jet community. However, historical and contemporary realities indicate that the true value-proposition of the forward air control program is realized elsewhere. Yet, a sentimental longing for idealized past successes in combat and the excitement the mission evokes in aviators’ minds results in the Navy’s unwillingness to sheathe-the-sword, abandon tradition, and update how it plans to allocate its resources in the future.
While the Navy is directed to maintain a capability in close air support, resource-intensive forward air control capability is not required. The Marine Corps is specifically directed, organized, and equipped to assure amphibious access, a mission that requires the detailed integration of air and ground forces. Representing the primary demand signal for close air support and terminal attack control within the naval service, the Marine Corps has continually resourced the forward air control mission.
Deterring or countering a Chinese invasion of Taiwan looms large with Navy leadership, but Chinese investments in long-range missiles have upended assumptions about air control. Naval aviation leadership is rightly concerned with anti-surface warfare and air and missile defense, and duplicating terminal attack control from the air is a peripheral requirement. Joint air planners postulate that close air support will likely be eclipsed by geographic isolation mitigated by long-range precision missile or drone strikes. In the current austere fiscal environment, the Navy faces a choice: Devote the limited resources required to keep F/A-18F forward air control crews relevant with training that accounts for contemporary realities, or abandon the mission entirely and dedicate the limited resources to mastering sea control. While strategists often inaccurately predict the defining nature of future conflicts, the Navy should relinquish the forward air control mission to its sister service, the Marine Corps, and focus on its core naval missions or place the program in a “slow forward air control” platform in accordance with historical precedents from Vietnam and Korea.
From Korea to Vietnam
Joint Close Air Support doctrine essentially defines a forward air controller as an airborne duplication of a joint terminal attack controller. These controllers work with aircrews to coordinate “reconnaissance, indirect fires [ground artillery] call-for-fire, asset coordination and deconfliction, battle damage assessment, target marking, designation and coordinate generation, suppression of enemy air defenses coordination and deconfliction, and terminal attack control.” In rare cases when an attack controller is not embedded with the ground force, a forward air controller aircrew can direct the entirety of close air support. The training syllabus for this mission provides crews with insight into ground force intent and maneuver schemes. This allows forward air controllers to integrate with friendly forces “in close proximity” to enemy units to mitigate the risk of fratricide while directing fires against the enemy.
The forward air controller lineage began during World War II, and the roles of these aircrews were codified during the Korean War. New jet aircraft based in Japan lacked the range and endurance to provide meaningful close air support due to their limited on-station time, which precluded them from searching for and identifying ground targets. While the Marine Corps invested in the forward air controller mission, the Air Force suffered from a lack of integrated training with ground forces and compatible communications equipment. In response, “Mosquito” air units flying slow propeller-driven aircraft, like the T-6 Texan, were deployed forward and launched from austere strips near the front lines. This improved response and loiter time, leading to the “Mosquitoes” becoming indispensable assets for ground commanders for reconnaissance, target spotting, control of airstrikes, and radio relays. “Mosquito” air units sometimes employed naval observers in the backseat of these aircraft, setting a precedent for today’s two-seat forward air controller crew. Ultimately, Korea-era pilots argued that the ideal forward air control platform operated “at low altitude and slow speed, provided good visibility for the pilot, had long endurance, high mobility, and a robust communications package.” These assertions proved salient in Vietnam.
Like Korea, Vietnam presented ill-defined front lines, a camouflaged enemy, and dogged guerilla warfare. Once again, the Air Force and Navy quickly discovered that their fast jets had difficulty identifying well-concealed targets in the triple-canopy jungle. They simply flew too fast and possessed a limited loiter time. In response, the Air Force and Navy commissioned slower propeller-driven forward control aircraft consisting of the O-1 Bird Dog, O-2 Skymaster, and OV-10 Bronco to locate targets. To deny the Mekong Delta and its vast array of smaller forks and canals to the enemy, the Navy created the “Seawolves” of Helicopter Light Attack Squadron Three with borrowed helicopters from the Army and the “Black Ponies” of Light Attack Squadron Four flying borrowed Marine Corps OV-10As to provide dedicated air support to its riverine patrol vessels and Navy SEALs. Unlike the Seawolves, the Black Ponies adopted the air controller mission. Despite their ad-hoc status, the rotary-wing Seawolves and propeller-driven Black Ponies proved daring, accurate, and highly effective.
As air defenses stiffened, jet forward air controllers flying F-100Fs, known as “fast FACs,” callsign “Misty,” were introduced to overcome air defenses through speed. Nevertheless, the “Misty” forward air controllers suffered the same shortcomings as jets in Korea. As a result, the Air Force ultimately determined that pairing “Misty” air controllers with propeller-driven air controller aircraft was the most effective solution.
History Repeats Itself
After abandoning the forward air controller mission with the dissolution of the “Black Ponies,” the Navy revived the program in the mid-1990s. The two-seat F-14 Tomcat was chosen for the mission. Lacking resident intuitional knowledge, the Navy turned to the Marine Corps to train F-14 aviators in terminal attack control of close air support at Expeditionary Warfare Training Group Atlantic and Pacific. This close relationship remained for decades, with the Navy sending prospective air controller candidates through the schoolhouses for instruction and ground controls before starting the air controller flying syllabus.
Unlike Korea and Vietnam, most Navy F-14 forward air controller aircrews conducted strike coordination and reconnaissance missions, where aircrews located and designated targets and directed other attack aircraft to interdict. As this mission is not conducted in close proximity to friendly ground forces, a terminal attack controller is not required because the risk to friendly ground forces is low or nonexistent. Moreover, the equipment ground forces now carry into combat has also changed considerably in recent years. Most forces now possess an array of beyond-line-of-sight communications gear that reduces the requirement for radio relay by air platforms — a fundamental mission for the slow forward air control crews in Korea and Vietnam. Before these changes, expeditionary Navy forward air controller crews at the forward edge of the battle endeared themselves to ground commanders and excelled in irregular warfare environments. The tenet of conducting face-to-face meetings with ground commanders remained salient. Although begrudgingly, the Navy created an expeditionary force of F-14s at Al Uedid Air Base in Qatar to support Task Force 20, much like they had with the Black Ponies during Vietnam. Task Force 20 was a special operations joint task force tasked with locating weapons of mass destruction during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The usefulness of propeller-driven aircraft in irregular warfare was again demonstrated in 2013 when the Navy resurrected OV-10s for an experiment called Combat Dragon II. These aircraft were subsequently employed in 2015 against the Islamic State in Iraq. Like their use during Vietnam, the slow-flying OV-10s proved well-suited for this irregular warfare environment. However, despite reliable performance and a budget-friendly price tag, speculation attributed the project’s abandonment to a distraction from core Navy missions and competition to the expensive capabilities Navy leaders feel are necessary for high-end combat.
De-prioritization and Divergence
Currently, the Navy is hampered by aviator shortages, declining aircraft availability, and a time management problem. While arguably one of the most enjoyable and rewarding training programs, the modern-day nine-sortie F/A-18F forward air controller flight syllabus is extremely resource intensive. The syllabus pilfers finite aviator and aircraft availability from squadrons that, in a zero-sum game, are needed to build fundamental credentials through the 18-sortie Strike Fighter Weapons and Tactics Program in air and missile defense and anti-surface warfare: the core missions of sea control. Forward air controller candidate crews inevitably re-fly some syllabus events, demanding a cast of three to five supporting aircraft each time. Additionally, the syllabus still employs simulated Soviet-era surface-to-air missile systems and pits candidates against so-called “high-threat” environments in which close air support, let alone airborne terminal attack control, “is not a practical option.”
Unlike other services’ syllabi, F/A-18F air controller candidates do not integrate with ground forces or terminal attack controllers. This is because the training scenarios are highly scripted to ensure the forward air controller candidates meet all the qualification requirements during the limited training flight endurance. The dynamism of integrating with a ground force or terminal attack controller would unavoidably upset the choreographed sortie, and only one terminal attack controller (airborne or ground-based) can receive “credit” for the attack. As a result, ground terminal attack controller schoolhouses end-up scheduling contract air support for their training programs.
At the F/A-18F forward air controller program’s inception, candidate aircrews were experienced aviators, required to have 500 flight hours and a four-ship lead qualification. Due to resource limitations, however, the minimums were reduced to 350 flight hours and a two-ship lead qualification. Some squadrons have even applied for and received waivers to these diluted requirements to fulfill their mandate to qualify and maintain four F/A-18F air controller crews. In addition, the requirement to send pilots to the Marine Corps’ comprehensive schoolhouse was rescinded. Squadrons could not afford to sacrifice sending their aviators to the five-week course at the cost of other flying requirements. Instead, forward air controller candidate crews attend a two-and-a-half-day class at their home station, primarily focused on directing indirect fire support and the “gouge” necessary to complete the flight syllabus. In a testament to the importance of aircrew experience, Prairie Fire pilot Tom Yarborough blamed himself for not realizing that he had paired inexperienced pilots with inexperienced observers after losing three air controller aircrews in rapid succession – a result that had not occurred with his training or surviving old cadre.
Once F/A-18F forward air controller crews receive their initial qualification, squadrons must devote additional resources to maintain currency, but not enough to maintain proficiency in dealing with complex integration scenarios. The carrier air wing’s force generation and readiness program, during which a preponderance of training assets are available to exercise the entire remit of naval aviation’s missions, does not include dedicated forward air controller missions. Moreover, the Strike Fighter Advanced Readiness Program, “designed to maximize the tactical proficiency of strike fighter aircrews across the full spectrum of F/A-18 mission sets,” was recently absolved of close air support events altogether. While forward air controller crews are the standard-bearers of close air support training and doctrine for the carrier air wing, the immense resource requirement to generate and maintain four qualified crews is not worth this peripheral benefit, especially when the readiness program does not prioritize the mission.
The future of manned jet aircraft forward air control platforms looks dim across the joint force. Wed to the two-seat aircraft requirement, the Navy seems uninterested in bestowing the mission on its newest platform, the single-seat F-35C Lighting II. Furthermore, the number of two-seat F/A-18F Super Hornet squadrons continues to decline through 2025, commensurate with the planned decrease of Super Hornets per carrier air wing, from 34 to 28 aircraft amongst three squadrons by 2030. The Marine Corps holds a similar position regarding its F-35B – a single-seat platform. When the legacy F/A-18 Hornets are finally retired, only its attack helicopter force will retain forward air control as a core mission essential task. The Air Force, also impacted by aviator shortfalls and declining aircraft availability, no longer generates F-16 forward air controllers, leaving the A-10 Thunderbolt II as the only fixed-wing platform to maintain the qualification. When the A-10 fleet is retired, so will the Air Force’s conventional airborne forward air controller program.
The Way Forward
While conventional forces’ prioritization of airborne terminal attack control is waning, Special Operations Command (SOCOM) is fully invested in the “slow forward air control” mission and just launched its Sky Warden overwatch platform to complement its other dedicated helicopter forward air control assets. Like Korea and Vietnam’s successful forward air controller aircraft, the Sky Warden is a slow, propeller-driven aircraft with a crew of two intended for armed overwatch in uncontested, austere environments.
The explosion of drones and organic precision firepower has given ground commanders unparalleled situational awareness and more striking power than ever before. Soldier or vehicle-portable drones can act as communication relays and reconnaissance platforms, much like the first airplanes used in war for scouting and spotting. In Ukraine, drones have mostly supplanted crewed aircraft. Furthermore, with high-resolution electro-optical payloads and loiter times exceeding those of any crewed aircraft, modern-day drones like the MQ-9 Reaper provide unrivaled friendly force tracking and pinpoint weapons accuracy. These drones could make for a potent airborne terminal attack control platform, possessing many qualities of the “slow-forward air controller.” While the flight profile of the MQ-9 precludes it from executing the most restrictive type of control, where it must visually acquire an attacking aircraft and target simultaneously, and served as the basis to dismiss the idea, traditional crewed-aircraft parochialism likely played a significant role. Without a clear demand signal from conventional ground forces, the forward air controller capability will continue to wither. Absent conventional ground forces engaged in combat, naval aviation leaders are unshackled to focus on acute, pacing threats and dream of grander projects.
As such, the Navy is losing touch with the forward air controller mission and is drifting away from previously established, combat-proven training tenets and requirements. The extrication of allied forces from Afghanistan in 2021 and the completion of large combat operations against the Islamic State closed consequential chapters in the War on Terror. Even before these events, occupation forces settled into a stable routine, meaningful enemy attacks dwindled, and increased competition with near-peer and peer rivals began to draw the gaze of naval aviation leaders. Jet aircraft forward air controller crews have not performed terminal attack control in proximity to friendly forces in nearly two decades.
In the short term, the Navy has a couple of viable courses of action. First, it can remove the requirement for terminal attack control and convert the air controller program to one focused on strike coordination and reconnaissance, concentrating on airspace management, target identification, and attack aircraft direction and control. Historically, this has been the predominant mission of fast jet air controllers and will continue to be relevant in any future conflict during the remaining life of the two-seat F/A-18F.
History has shown that close air support has played a significant role in every conflict in which ground forces have been involved since the invention of the airplane. However, the forward air controller’s effectiveness rested on the platform’s suitability for the mission and responsiveness to the ground force’s needs. Typically, this was accomplished by expeditionary basing and the use of slow, low-flying aircraft. Currently, naval aviation only has one group of aviators that align most closely with those tenets, the MH-60 Seahawk community. Transforming to prioritize expeditionary strike coordination and reconnaissance and combat search and rescue missions, the MH-60 Seahawk community has a closer lineage to the original vision of the forward air controller than does the Navy’s modern two-seat fast jet program and will be staged closer to the contact layer in a future conflict. If the Navy wants to keep the forward air controller program alive to preserve the institutional knowledge of the mission, it is best placed within the modern-day “Seawolves.”
What is clear is that the Navy is going through the motions of maintaining its air controller program, unwilling to kill a capability that has brought so much good but increasingly unable to preserve its fundamental tenets. This risks a hollow capability, worth only the paper it is written upon, a ceremonial vestige of successes in Korea and Vietnam. If the Navy wants to maintain the air controller program out of fear that its utility will be required in future naval warfare, much like the skill required to effectively wield a sword in combat, it must nominate experienced crews, provide sufficient training, and offer meaningful opportunities to practice in realistic environments beyond the initial qualification. But, facing the inescapable reality of limited resources and the readiness to conduct the Navy’s core mission of sea control at risk, it may be too much to ask.
Trevor “Mrs.” Phillips-Levine is a U.S. naval aviator and a special operations joint terminal attack controller instructor. He currently serves as the Joint Close Air Support branch officer at the Naval Aviation Warfare Development Center, which has purview over the Navy’s joint terminal attack controller and airborne forward air controller programs.
Andrew “Kramer” Tenbusch is an F/A-18F Forward Air Controller (Airborne) and Halsey Alfa research fellow at the U.S. Naval War College. He is a graduate of the Navy Fighter Weapons School (TOPGUN) and previously served as a carrier air wing integration instructor at the Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center.