When the U.S. military launched its first airstrikes in Iraq in three years on Friday, it was F/A-18F Super Hornets flying off the USS George H.W. Bush that carried the mission out. That’s no accident, current and former defense officials say. The aircraft is used for the Navy’s “forward air controller-airborne” mission, meaning it is more effective in surveying the battlefield, identifying targets and painting them with lasers for bombs.
What’s the difference? The “F” model of the F/A-18 is a two-seat aircraft, giving the pilot a “back-seater” who also would be able to make sense of what they were flying over and finding appropriate targets, said two sources with knowledge of carrier flight operations. The first strikes were carried out by planes from the “Black Lions” of Strike Fighter Squadron 213, of Naval Air Station Oceana, Va., Navy officials said. Individuals familiar with naval aviation said it’s likely the unit will be relied on heavily as long as the United States is carrying out airstrikes in Iraq without combat troops on the ground.
In some ways, the F/A-18F is the successor to the A-6 Intruder. But only indirectly.
When the A-6 community was drawn down in the mid-1990s, it wasn’t a big deal to transfer its enlisted types into other parts of the aviation community. But for the aircrew, it was another matter. For the pilots, depending on their seniority, they had an option to transfer to the Prowler, early model Hornets, the S-3 Viking or the Tomcat community. For many more senior pilots simply moved on to non-flying jobs waiting until they were eligible for retirement. And others left the Navy for civilian employment.
The Bombardier/Navigators, being Naval Flight Officers, were in a pickle. Some transferred to the Tomcat or other platforms or took non-flying jobs. But taking an experienced specialist B/N and trying to make him an expert in an entirely different community (which already had its own full population of NFOs) wasn’t very easy. Quite a few A-6 B/N types were left in the lurch.
Worse still was to come for the NFO community. When the decision was made to retire the entire F-14 community, the thinking was that it would be replaced with the single seat F/A-18E SuperHornet. Small numbers of two-seat, dual-control F/A-18Fs would be built, primarily as for training pilots running through the replacement community.
For NFOs, that would have been a disaster. There simply would not have been any place for all the dedicated, talented NFOs in the Tomcat community to go.
Furthermore, the F-14 community had for the few previous years taken up the slack in long range precision strike left by the A-6 retirement. They had also put a great deal of effort into learning and promoting the Fast FAC/A doctrine, or Forward Air Controller/Airborne, which put eyes (and sensors) over the battlefield to spot small and fleeting targets. The workload was simply too much for any single crew aircraft to effectively fulfill.
Both the Tomcat crews, and the commanders of carrier strike groups, were dismayed at the thought of losing the long range strike and FAC/A capability. And the NFO community looked to be virtually cut in half. Given the success the Marines had with their “missionized” rear seats in their own F/A-18D Hornets, the Navy was persuaded to instead only put one squadron of E-models aboard a carrier, with the second Super Hornet squadron to be equipped with an F-model with both a pilot and a missionized rear cockpit complete with NFO.
Much as the F-4 and the A-6 showed half a century ago, the flexibility and adaptability added by a second crewman in high workload environments is an asset that outweighs the penalty in performance and range associated with the second seat.