The Air Force and Army may think otherwise, but in the opinion of one senior Navy admiral it is carrier aviation that is key to victory in Afghanistan.
"Clearly," Vice Adm. John Nathman writes in an internal message to commanders, "we have been America's main battery in this war and because of our strength and guts we are winning." Adm. Nathman commands Navy air forces in the Pacific and has a big say in how all Navy aviators are trained. Two of his carriers, the Kitty Hawk and Carl Vinson, are mounting air strikes on the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan. And the USS John Stennis left San Diego 21/2 months earlier than originally scheduled to join the armada later this year. "Because it is our duty, the Navy, its fleet and flattops, will stay until this violent and lethal war is won," the admiral wrote in his Nov. 26 message titled "Fly, Fight, Lead."
The four military services have worked remarkably well together since the campaign began Oct. 7. But Navy officers tell us Adm. Nathman is expressing in a message what some don't dare say in "mixed" Pentagon company: that carriers are showing their full worth off the coast of Afghanistan, delivering the bulk of tactical strikes while the Air Force still searches for a nearby land base. Some Air Force brass have preached for years that the Pentagon can cut Army troops and Navy carriers in favor of air power.
Afghanistan, say carrier advocates, proves otherwise.
Cmdr. Jack Papp, Adm. Nathman's spokesman, said the message is the admiral's "assessment of where we as a naval aviation force has been, where we are today and his vision for where we are headed. He wanted to recognize the superb job our naval aviation force is doing and the important role they are playing in the war on terrorism in Afghanistan."
Indeed, Adm. Nathman's message is part pep talk, part status report. "We have made incredible progress in flight training in the last three years from a system that was almost broken to one that is whole," he writes.
The admiral credits a program called Naval Aviation production rocess" that reduced the time it takes to convert a civilian into a carrier aviator - the "street-to-fleet" transformation. Naval aviation has suffered from shortages of munitions, equipment and flying hours. The Navy inspector general issued a blistering report that said non-deployed air units were in particularly bad shape. Adm. Nathman sees improvements. "Our deployed readiness is good and our efforts in this war reflect it," he said. "Our non-deployed readiness is not as good as it could be." Still, he wrote, "We have significant manning challenges in naval aviation If we are to improve our opportunities, we must reduce this challenge.
"We have seen much improved retention of our enlisted men and women and many of our aviators have been pulling their resignation and retirement letters," he added. A naval aviator told us he was struck by several of the admiral's points. Said the aviator, "We have embarked on a long war that, at this stage, is being waged primarily by carrier- based Navy. It's probably safe to assume that wherever phase two takes us, the Navy will continue to bear the lion's share. None of this will be easy because deployments are likely to be longer and more often for some unknown period of time."
Who's the 911 force?
The U.S. Marine Corps was upset by a speech given at Fort Bragg, N.C., last week by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. The defense secretary told a gathering of soldiers at the Army base, "The world knows why when the president dials 911 it rings right here in Fayetteville." The base, home to both special-forces troops and the front-line airborne paratroop units, is located near Fayetteville, N.C.
The Marines' problem with Mr. Rumsfeld's remark is that they considerthe U.S. Marine Corps to be America's "911 Force" - the first troops the president calls on in an emergency requiring military force. The Marines even have put out brochures identifying themselves as the 911 force.