TACTICAL COMMAND AND CONTROL OF CARRIER OPERATIONS
Admiral James L. Holloway III, USN (Ret.)
President, Naval Historical Foundation
These remarks are based mainly on recollections from the perspective of a carrier commanding officer and a fleet commander during the Vietnam War. From July of 1965 to July of 1967 I served as Commanding Officer, USS Enterprise, the first nuclear powered aircraft carrier, which made two complete combat deployments to the SEVENTH Fleet for Vietnam combat operations during that time. Later in 1972 and 1973 I was Commander of the U.S. SEVENTH Fleet.
The operational chain of command for combat activities within the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) emanated from the National Command Authorities (NCA) -- the President and the Secretary of Defense; to Commander in Chief Pacific (CINCPAC), the unified or theater commander; then to Commander, U.S. Military Assistance Command Vietnam (USMACV), who further delegated operational authority to his subordinate service commanders. In the case of naval forces (in country) these were under Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Vietnam (COMNAVFORV). The forces assigned to NAVFORV were mainly military assistance people and the riverine forces. There were no major combatants assigned to NAVFORV.
The aircraft carriers and their task forces came under a different chain of command, originating with the NCA through CINCPAC, but then via Commander in Chief Pacific Fleet (CINCPACFLT), Commander SEVENTH Fleet (COMSEVENTHFLT), and Commander Task Force 77 (CTF 77), the Carrier Striking Force. The rationale for this separate chain of command was that COMSEVENTHFLT had broad area responsibilities throughout the Western Pacific, which included the command of major naval forces in employment plans and war plans covering a wide array of contingencies outside of the Vietnam conflict, and responsibility for the planning and the conduct of a general war with the Soviet Union, including the fleet's nuclear capability. The doctrine of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) had for years included a provision for such a chain of command for naval forces, in consideration of their mobile character and the wide range of their responsibilities from contingency operations to general war plans. Under the JCS doctrine, naval forces in the SEVENTH Fleet operated "in support" of USMACV.
Task Force 77, the Carrier Striking Force, included all of the carriers and major combatants assigned to the carriers in a support role. Although the major surface combatants -- cruisers, destroyers and frigates -- were deployed from their administrative commands in the Continental United States (Cruiser Force, Atlantic Fleet or Pacific Fleet) to Task Force 75, the Surface Warfare Force of the SEVENTH Fleet, these units were transferred to Task Force 77 in order to form up the carrier task groups which were the basic tactical entities for carrier strike operations. A typical carrier task group would consist of one carrier, several destroyers, and three or four frigates. Occasionally a cruiser would be assigned to a carrier task group when it was not committed to gunfire support or other independent operations.
The major surface combatants rotated in and out of the carrier task groups to other assignments such as gunfire support (shore bombardment) and escort of the underway replenishment groups (URG). The carrier task groups (CTG) always remained about the same size, but the identity of the surface combatants in the group was constantly changing.
Commander Task Force 77 (an aviation vice admiral) and his staff did most of the tactical planning for the carrier air operations. In particular, CTF 77 was responsible for the coordination of carrier air operations with land-based tactical air operations of U.S. Air Force units based both in Vietnam and in Thailand. For this purpose, CTF 77 had a permanent representative at the USMACV headquarters in Saigon, usually a senior Navy captain. CTF 77 and his staff were embarked in a carrier. As the carriers rotated in and out of the SEVENTH Fleet on six or seven-month deployments, CTF 77 was continually shifting his flag. This also meant that when CTF 77's carrier flagship went into port after thirty days on the line for a week of maintenance, replenishment, and R&R, CTF 77 and his staff were absent from the Gulf of Tonkin.
To cover these absences of CTF 77, the position of Commander Task Group 77.0 was created. This was an aviation two star flag officer, one of the several carrier division commanders constantly being rotated to the SEVENTH Fleet on six or seven-month deployments from Air Forces, Atlantic Fleet and Air Forces, Pacific Fleet. CTG 77.0 was always on the scene in the Gulf of Tonkin and was assigned operational control (OPCON) of all of the carrier task groups in the gulf. The carrier task groups in the SEVENTH Fleet, and there could be as many as six, were assigned designations of CTG 77.1 through CTG 77.6.
The tactics employed by the carrier task groups and their embarked air wings were the standard doctrines set forth in the U.S. Fleet Tactical Publications and the Naval Air Training and Operational Procedures (NATOPS). NATOPS by that time had largely eliminated the differences that had grown up during previous years between the Atlantic and Pacific Fleets. However some modifications to the NATOPS were made specifically for "special operations," the euphemism used to describe combat operations in the Gulf of Tonkin against the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese.
The carriers and their air wings trained and exercised in these special doctrines during their work-up periods in preparation for deployment to the Western Pacific area.
The targeting, in terms of general policy, broad guidelines, and sometimes even specific objectives, came from Washington to CINCPAC. A specificity of the Washington targeting directions varied, depending upon political circumstances in the White House and the degree of involvement on the part of key individuals in the Pentagon. From the Washington guidance provided through JCS channels, CINCPAC prepared a target list, which was drawn on by MACV and CTF 77, who coordinated carefully to ensure that national and JCS priorities were followed, that all assigned targets were covered, and that Air Force and Navy units were given targets that best suited their special capabilities. CTF 77 and USMACV could also add targets, as long as the national requirements were fulfilled.
CTF 77's target list and general guidance was provided to CTF 77.0 who then assigned daily strike responsibilities to the carriers, depending upon how many carriers were on the line and the aircraft composition of their air wings. Upon receipt of the daily air plan, each carrier's operations department then assigned specific mission sorties to the squadrons. It was up to the squadrons to ensure that adequate planes were available and that pilots and strike leaders were detailed.
Over the period of the Vietnam war, the Navy carrier force level was stabilized at sixteen attack carriers, although this number included one antisubmarine or CVS carrier operating in the role of an attack carrier, or CVA. Administratively, nine carriers were assigned to the Pacific Fleet and six to the Atlantic Fleet. However all carriers, regardless of fleet assignment, shared in the combat deployments for special operations (SPECOPS). This was different from the Korean War when Atlantic Fleet carriers continued to exclusively deploy to the SIXTH Fleet in the Mediterranean, while the Pacific Fleet carriers made their deployments to Korea. For the Atlantic Fleet carriers deployed to Vietnam, Commander in Chief Atlantic (CINCLANT) retained administrative control (ADCOM) but the units were chopped (meaning that their operational control was changed) to CINCPAC when the ships entered the geographical boundary of CINCPAC's theater. In addition to keeping five or six carriers in the SEVENTH Fleet, the U.S. Navy also was committed to maintaining at all times two carriers in the SIXTH Fleet. The pressure of maintaining half the carrier force deployed over the long period of the Vietnam War eventually caused severe deterioration in the material condition of the ships, from which the carrier force really didn't fully recover until the late seventies.
General Westmoreland, as COMUSMACV, defined two air wars in Vietnam. The "in-country" war was that in which U.S. Air Force and Navy (including Marines) tactical aircraft operated in close support of U.S. and allied ground forces fighting in South Vietnam. The Air Force and Marine tactical air operated from bases both in Vietnam and Thailand. The other air war, known as special operations, were the strikes into North Vietnam. These operations, which had the code name of "Rolling Thunder," were conducted by SEVENTH Fleet carriers and U.S. Air Force tactical air units from Thailand. Marine A-6s from bases in South Vietnam also participated in "Rolling Thunder."
There was considerable difference in the character of these two wars. In the South, the operations were less complex, more efficient, and considerably less hazardous. The antiaircraft artillery (AAA) was not intense, there were no surface-to-air missiles (SAM), or fighter planes. As a consequence, the composition of the strike groups consisted mainly of weapons carriers. There was no need for flak suppressors or fighter cover. If a friendly plane was shot down, it was highly probable that the crew would be rescued because of the presence of friendly forces in the vicinity and the absence of a hostile civilian populace.
The air war in the North was quite a different story. Strike groups had to penetrate what at that time was the most intense and modern air defense environment in existence. The strike groups faced fighters, high and medium-altitude surface-to-air missiles, and highly accurate automatic weapons fire at low altitudes. Flight groups had to be accompanied by fighter cover, "Iron Hand" anti-SAM pouncers, electronic jammers, antiradar missile shooters, plus rescue units held in reserve for downed aircraft. Most of the shoot-downs of friendly aircraft occurred in the North, and although in many cases survivors were able to eject and land safely in their parachutes, only a small percentage of the surviving air crews were rescued. The air defense environment encountered by rescue helicopters was simply too intense in most cases to penetrate any distance into North Vietnam to rescue downed air crews.
Except during the several bombing pauses that occurred during the war, the principal combat effort of the carriers was in the air war in the North. However some tactical air effort from the carriers was still employed in the "in-country" war in South Vietnam.
Carrier operations in the northern gulf were conducted from the vicinity of a geographic reference point Y, called "Point Yankee," so called because Y is "Yankee" in the phonetic alphabet. Carrier assignment to SPECOPS in the northern gulf came to be known as "Yankee Station."
Operations in the southern Gulf of Tonkin into South Vietnam were conducted from an area referenced to a grid lock point, "Point Dixie," so that carriers conducting the air war in the South were termed at "Dixie Station."
Normally three carriers were at Yankee Station at all times, each conducting air operations for twelve hours, and then repairing, replenishing, and doing maintenance for the next twelve hours. One carrier operated from noon until midnight, the second from midnight until noon and the third covering the daylight hours. This meant that targets were covered twenty-four hours a day, and the heaviest effort was during daylight hours when tactical air was most accurate and effective.
The large deck carriers -- Forrestal and subsequent --normally had a complement of between 80 and 90 aircraft, consisting of two squadrons of F-4 Phantoms, two squadrons of A-4 Skyhawks or A-7 Corsairs, and one squadron of A-6 all weather Intruder medium bombers. In addition, the carrier operated helicopters, tankers, reconnaissance aircraft, and early warning E-2 aircraft in its organic air wing.
The Phantom squadrons flew combat air patrol (CAP), armed reconnaissance, and strike missions. The Skyhawk and Corsairs flew strike and air ground support missions, using visual detection and arming. The A-6 Intruder squadrons had the only real capability for all weather attack. In this role they proceeded individually into their targets, bombing by radar. The A-6 was also the main element in the major daylight strikes because of its heavy load-carrying capability. An A-6 could carry more than 15,000 pounds of bombs. The F-4s, A-4s and A-7s also flew night missions using flares to locate and illuminate targets for visual attacks by bombs and rockets. They, like the A6s, also operated either alone or in pairs at night.
The carriers employed two modes of flight operations, cyclic operations and Alpha strikes.
During cyclic operations, a carrier would launch and recover 25 to 40 aircraft every hour and a half during its twelve-hour assigned period of flight operations, conducting eight cycles or events during each flying day. The first event would launch, the second event would launch an hour and a half later, and the first event would immediately land. Planes from the first event would be quickly refueled and rearmed, pilots briefed, and then launched again before the second event landed. Launch and recovery times were staggered among the carriers during the day to keep planes over the target area at all times. The largest number of aircraft committed to a single target in one strike under the cyclical mode would be 15 or 20.
Alpha strikes were used when it was needed to put a very heavy weight of effort on a single target complex in a very short period of time, either for the shock effect or because of the necessity to penetrate very heavy defenses, such as in the case of attacks in the vicinity of Haiphong and Hanoi. On an Alpha strike, all available aircraft on the carrier were organized into a single strike group. Alpha strikes were normally coordinated with the other carriers on the line and quite often with major U.S. Air Force strike efforts coming out of Thailand. On occasion, as many as five carriers could be available on the line due to overlapping of carriers arriving and departing. Then five Alpha strikes could pound a single target within an hour, with the Air Force also coming in before and after the Navy effort. To prepare for an Alpha strike, air operations were suspended for about two hours prior to launch time to permit all aircraft to be refueled, rearmed, and spotted for the launch. It took up to an hour and a half after the recovery of an Alpha strike to resume cyclic operations, which could then continue for the rest of the flying day or night.
It is interesting to compare the Air Force and Navy tactical air operations during the Vietnam war. The Air Force flew out of bases mainly in Thailand. Because of the distances involved, the strike group would refuel once or twice enroute to the target, and after the strike would rendezvous over the Gulf of Tonkin and refuel from tankers under Navy control. Air Force tactical operations were basically a continuous series of Alpha strikes. On the other hand, the Navy conducted mainly cyclic operations, with occasional Alpha strikes when targeting demanded. In this way, more targets were being covered on a more continuous basis, but with much lower level of effort per individual target than was provided by either the Alpha strike or the Air Force system.
The carriers were able to move about within the Gulf of Tonkin to bring their aircraft closer to their targets, thereby eliminating or substantially limiting the amount of refueling necessary. This was important because aerial refueling facilities from the carriers were limited. Carrier-based tankers were normally used only in emergency situations when planes became inadvertently low on fuel because of unplanned occurrences, such as rescue operations or striking fleeting targets of opportunity. On one occasion, for example, for an Alpha strike on Haiphong, the Enterprise moved to within 30 miles of that port city to launch its strike group, and the A-4s were able to remove their drop tanks and carry three 1,000-pound bombs into the target.
One of the most remarkable features of the carrier operations in the Gulf of Tonkin was its logistic support. This entire effort came directly from the United States; there was virtually no transhipment through Far Eastern ports.
Although the carriers went into the naval base at Subic after almost every period on the line, this was mainly for ship repairs, the off-loading of dud aircraft (those which had received battle damage and were unable to be flown off), and crew R&R. More than 99 percent of all other logistical support ammunition, ship and aircraft fuel, food, and general supplies was delivered to the carriers from logistics support ships during underway replenishment at sea.
In turn, most of those underway replenishment ships were loaded out in U.S. ports. The ammunition ships (AE) would load out at the depot in Concord, California, and then transit to the Gulf of Tonkin. The AE would transfer ammunition to the carriers several times a day for a month or so until their holds were empty. Then they would go to a U.S. depot for another load of ammunition. The same routine applied to the general stores ships, which delivered fresh vegetables to the crews directly from California farms. The oilers carried both aviation fuel (JP-5) and ship's fuel. Although much of this came from the Continental United States, some was also picked up from U.S. petroleum, oil, and lubricant (POL) stocks at storage sites in the Pacific where it had been delivered by commercial tankers.
All of this provided enormous efficiencies in not having to move these supplies through a port in the Philippines to a depot, then move it from the depot to the port again, and have the carrier spend three or four days out-loading.
The entire logistics support operation was a model of efficiency. The underway replenishment groups, known as URGs, operated as task groups in the Gulf of Tonkin and consisted of an ammunition ship, a fleet oiler, and one or more store ships which carried a variety of consumables. Each carrier replenished virtually every twenty-four hours from at least one of the ships in the URG: from an oiler to top-off ship and aviation fuel, from an ammunition ship to fill the magazines, and from a store ship to take on food or replacement parts. By this system of constant replenishment, the carriers did not wait for their fuel bunkers or magazines to become low or empty. They were kept topped-off so that the ship always had about ten days supply of fuel and ammo n the event logistics support was interrupted, or so the carriers could be sent on an unsupported mission immediately without taking time to load out.
The URGs were supplemented by COD aircraft, COD meaning "carrier onboard delivery." The COD was reserved for high priority freight that could be efficiently air transported: people, lightweight replacement parts, and mail.
In a standard replenishment operation, the URG ship served as the guide and the carrier made the approach. With the URG steaming on a steady course at 18 knots, the carrier approached at 25 knots on the reverse course, made a 180 degree turn, and ended up with a 500-yard straight-away coming up from astern. As it pulled alongside of the replenishment ship at 25 knots, the carrier reversed its engines and then matched the URG's 18-knot speed to end up alongside, right in position to receive the refueling lines or replenishment rigs. A proficient carrier-oiler combination was expected to start pumping fuel in less than three minutes after the carrier's bow had crossed the oiler's stern.
With the carriers conducting replenishment almost every day, the crews became very proficient at these operations. Replenishment was conducted day and night under weather conditions up to gale winds and heavy seas, and when visibility was reduced down to a quarter of a mile. During my Enterprise cruises there were several occasions when the fog was so thick the replenishment ship could not be seen by the Conning Officer on the bridge, even as the Enterprise's bow crossed the other ship's stern.
The carrier and the replenishment ship were capable of maneuvering while transferring. This was necessary for several reasons. Usually it was to change course to keep the wind properly off the bow of the replenishment ship. Quite often it was necessary to maneuver the URG to avoid the Soviet trawlers which appeared to have a principal mission of getting a position directly ahead of our replenishing carriers in an attempt to disrupt the process and slow down our operations. It was not unusual for an URG to change course 180 degrees while transferring, simply to stay within the prescribed operating area.
Replenishment operations in the Gulf of Tonkin usually took about 45 minutes per URG ship, because most of the loads were top-offs. However, a carrier could make stops at three different replenishment ships in a single URG operation. Normally these operations took place right after flight operations were completed. Just after the last plane landed, the carrier immediately turned to head for the URG to commence its approach. In this way, the aircraft were respotted and the crew secured from flight quarters about the same time that replenishment was completed. The carrier then had about four hours before the next period of flight operations, to accomplish some of the other things that needed to be done, whether it be church services or shutting down a main engine for repairs.
Although replenishment operations tended to be short in the Gulf of Tonkin, there were times when refueling could be a long drawn out affair. The Enterprise departed San Juan, Puerto Rico, bound for the Gulf of Tonkin in the fall of 1965. The carrier proceeded at high speed around the tip of Africa and through the Indian Ocean, conducting flight operations and refueling its escorting destroyers, none of which was nuclear-powered, en route. As a consequence, the carrier's on board supply of jet fuel and fuel oil for its destroyers was running low when Enterprise was approaching the end of its transit. Therefore a replenishment from a U.S. Navy fleet oiler was scheduled at the east end of the Strait of Malacca. The two ships rendezvoused by radar at about 2100, hooked up and started pumping. Enterprise was alongside for almost eleven hours, receiving more than a million gallons of ship and aviation fuel. Enterprise then went directly on to the Gulf of Tonkin and launched its first combat strikes three days later, having proceeded to the theater of operations in the Gulf of Tonkin from the United States without having to stop at a port in the Pacific.
The character and tempo of the air war is well illustrated by a few key statistics.
The Navy lost a total of 67 air wing commanders, squadron commanders, and squadron executive officers in combat during the air operations in the Vietnam War.
More than half of all the combat sorties flown into North Vietnam were by naval aircraft.
For the USS Enterprise, the following statistics apply to a single combat cruise of that carrier in 1966-1967:
Air Wing Composition:
24 F-4 fighters
28 A-4 light attack
9 A-6 medium attack
4 RA-5 reconnaissance
3 A-3 tankers
4 E-2 AWACS
3 H-2 helicopters
11,470 combat sorties
6,740 strike sorties
14,023 tons of ordnance
114 tons per day
2 tons per attack sortie
230 days out of homeport
47 oiler refuelings
550,000 gallons per unrep
39 ammunition unreps
300 tons of ordnance per unrep