Lessons Learned At Fallon: The USN Trains for Forward Leaning Strike Integration


2014-11-14 By Robbin Laird and Ed Timperlake

The USN both in its carriers and its amphibious fleet provides a significant expeditionary capability.

The USMC-USN team has been reshaping amphibious assault forces under the influence of the Osprey, the coming of the F-35B, the addition of new ships such as the T-AKE and USNS Montford Point, the USS Arlington, and the USS America.

Less visible has been the coming of the USS Ford and the reworking of the strike fleet.

The USS Ford is less about operating as a traditional carrier than as a key C2 and strike enabler for an entire sea-base force, surface, subsurface, joint and coalition.

As Admiral Moran, then the head of Naval Warfare in the Pentagon noted in an interview which we did with him in 2013:

The Ford will be very flexible and can support force concentration or distribution.

And it can operate as a flagship for a distributed force as well and tailored to the mission set.

When combined with the potential of the F-35, Ford will be able to handle information and communications at a level much greater than the Nimitz class carriers.

People will be able to share information across nations, and this is crucial. 

We call it maritime domain awareness, but now you’ve included the air space that’s part of that maritime domain.

To get an update on how the USN aviation leadership is preparing for the coming of the F-35 and other new strike assets as well as for the USS Ford pairing with these strike assets, we have travelled to Fallon Naval Air Station to understand how the USN trains for forward leaning strike integration.

And we followed up that visit with a discussion with the new head of Naval Air Warfare, Rear Admiral Manazir.

The two visits function as two parts of the same puzzle:

How is the Navy preparing for current strike integration as it anticipates the future? 

And how is the Navy shaping concepts of operations for the future and providing that approach to those who are preparing strike integration?

Fallon Naval Air Station is in the desert of Nevada.

It is where the Navy trains for the advanced tactics for core air platforms but most importantly shapes its integration of the air wing prior to going to sea for final preparation for combat.  Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center (NSAWC) is known in the Navy as “strike university.”

Strike U was set up to deal with combat failures of naval aviation, and to shape better tactics, training and concepts of operations to prevail going forward.

As the head of NSAWC, Admiral Scott Conn, told us:

The mission we have here started with TOPGUN, 45 years ago.

TOPGUN was founded out of failures in combat during the Vietnam War.

TOPGUN training led to measurable improvements in Air to Air kill ratios.

Through the years, other communities have mirrored the TOPGUN model including the EA-18G HAVOC course, the E-2 CAEWWS course, and the H-60S/R SEAWOLF course.

These courses target advanced training at the individual level.

Additionally, as a result of failures in combat in Lebanon, STRIKE University, now call simply Strike, was stood up in 1984 to target training at the Integrated warfighting level.

We have learned a lot of lessons at Fallon and we have had a lot of time to shape an effective combat learning environment.

Bottom line: My job here is to prepare our forward deployed air wings to fight and win in a wide variety of missions across the globe.

Strike Integration Training and Support to the Deployed Fleet

The first lesson learned from a visit to Fallon is how the Navy is doing strike integration as part of the deployed fleet.

That is, it is not a process of integration focused on the past, but it is part of support for the currently deployed air wings.  Training encompasses not simply preparation for integration; but “consulting services” to the deployed fleet.

As Captain Kevin “Proton” McLaughlin:, outgoing STRIKE CO put it:

We support the Combatant Commanders as well as prepare strike integration ashore so to speak.

For example, we have had daily contact with the USS BUSH via email, phone calls and VTCs. 

This is an aspect of connectivity, which folds nicely into reshaping the impact and meaning of the training function.

Admiral Conn provided us with a concrete example of the approach:

An historical example of how NSAWC provided reach back support to the forward deployed warfighter was in the early stages of Afghanistan operations.

Ground commanders needed aircraft to strafe at night. To do this strafing mission at night, aircrew needed to put an airplane below mountaintops, perhaps in a valley, provide bullets precisely and then pull off target, and not fly into the terrain.

When NSAWC got this request, in a matter of weeks because it wasn’t overnight, a couple weeks, we came up with the tactics, techniques, and procedures for the fleet to execute that mission.

We then folded those Training, Tactics and Procedures (TTPs) into our training for follow on deployers.

And the connectivity we have with the fleet through modern communications allows for an ongoing combat learning process between Fallon and the fleet and this flow of information is central to the process of training in the 21st century.

Training for the Expanded Battlespace

The second lesson learned is that the Navy is not waiting for an adversary to hone its anti-access area-denial skills to reduce the capability of the USN-USMC team to operate where they need to.

The USN is not sailing ashore and surrendering its sword to adversaries claiming capabilities which they may or may not have, and certainly understands the need to prepare now for the evolving future.

As Admiral Conn put the challenge:

I think it important to emphasize that adversary A2AD capabilities pose a serious threat not only to Navy, but to our entire Joint ability to fight and win.

Again, I think of A2AD as the proliferation of precision for potential adversaries and how this proliferation of precision effects joint forces ability to maneuver where we need to be and when we need to be there.

For me, it is about expanding the battlespace and training with regard to how to do this.

Training for an expanded battlespace means that the extensive ranges at Fallon are not enough to train to prevail in the evolving battlespace.

This is why the Navy is spearheading a broad effort to expand the envelope of training to combine live training with what is called Live Virtual Constructive training.

What is entailed is folding in red and blue assets to shaping an evolving strike integration training process.

As Captain McLaughlin explained:

The current Fallon ranges – although large – are too small to train against an advanced threat, which can shoot longer than the ranges. 

We need to train to a 21st Century Plus type of threat with very long-range missiles in the mix. 

It is not about succeeding; it is about how are we going to do this with highest probability of success.

We are rolling in Live Virtual Constructive Training to provide the extenders for our operators to work in that threat environment and to reach out to other assets – Navy and joint – which can allow us to fight in an expanded battlespace.

Forward Leaning Integration

The third lesson is that NSAWC is focused on the Rumsfeld admonition that you have to fight with the force you have, they are anticipating ways to work more effectively in the expanded battlespace.

There is clearly a “red” component to the LVCT effort – folding in new assets and tactics of adversaries – as well as a “blue” component, how to leverage a diversity of USN, joint and coalition assets in expanding the capability of an integrated fleet as new capabilities are added.

For example, CDR Charles “Scotty” Brown, current STRIKE XO, previous TOPGUN Instructor noted that:

We work closely with VMX-9 at China Lake to work with them in connecting their testing efforts with how those efforts might integrate with the strike force. 

They will come up on a routine basis and support NSAWC where we can take a look at some of the newer systems that they have in developmental or operational testing and see what kind of results you get with using those systems.

The F-35 is a key element of shaping Navy thinking about operating in an expanded battlespace.

Aviation leadership is looking forward to the impact of F-35 on the evolution of the strike fleet, much as a leaven for change than the sum and substance of that change.

As Admiral Conn put it:

Looking forward, we need to continue to provide trained and ready aircrew to operate forward.

In looking to the future, in five years we are going to have JSF in the fleet.

In five years we may have UCLASS on our carriers. In five years, the Super Hornet of today is going to be different. In five years the E-2D capabilities and our networks will have matured. In five years the threat is going to change and competitors will have more capability.

In working with Naval Aviation Leadership, we are on a journey of discovery of how to best create a training environment that replicates potential adversary’s capabilities.

Training for Future Dynamics of Integration

The fourth lesson is that the focus on forward leading integrative training means that each element of the strike force needs to train for a particular platform’s proficiency but to do so with an understanding of what is coming with regard to future dynamics of integration.

For example, with regard to rotorcraft training, CDR Herschel “Hashi” Weinstock, current Department Head for SEAWOLF, NSAWC’s Rotary Wing Weapons School noted that:

The USN as a whole is working through how to best use UAVs in the years ahead. 

There are so many missions where they can bring complementary capabilities, or new ones.

We have subject matter experts in my department and others who work on these issues, and we are paying close attention to the opportunities in that arena.

I can clearly see the day when manned assets operating above the water will work closely with UAVs, managing them and sending them forward as needed for coverage.

The UAV’s would greatly expand the battlespace awareness of the strike group, and if necessary, the manned assets could redirect UAVs to areas of greater interest.  They could, and probably will, play in other mission sets as well.”

Taping Into and Supporting Joint and Coalition Forces

The fifth lesson is that augmenting the capability to tap into joint and coalition assets is a key enabler for the naval strike force as well as learning how best to support joint and coalition forces as well.

In the past decade the USN has provided important support for the joint forces.

For example, in an interview with CDR Mike “Beaker” Miller, Naval Strike and Warfare Center, Airborne Electronic Weapons School (HAVOC) we learned from his experience how he supported the US Army in Iraq.

We flew carrier planes – the Prowler – out of a former Soviet base, that was an Army base, as part of an Air Force Air Expeditionary Wing in Afghanistan (one of the most land-locked places on earth) in support of the ground scheme of maneuver. 

We had not really focused on that mission before Operations ENDURING FREEDOM and IRAQI FREEDOM, but the red side was leveraging commercial technology to create an asymmetric advantage against the ground forces. 

We were tasked to disrupt and deny those advantages, by providing supporting non-kinetic fires to protected entities (mounted and dismounted troops).

Following my deployments with the Navy to Afghanistan, I had the opportunity to embed directly with the Army as a Brigade EWO with the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 101st Air Assault Division in Iraq. 

That experience helped me understand the synchronization and employment of non-kinetic fires from the supported commander’s perspective.

In effect, our effort became part of a broadened notion of close air support (CAS) or “fires.

In the four-week course which NSAWC offers as the various elements of the strike force train to integrate prior to going to sea and their final training before operational deployment, the last week is spent taping into the joint community.

As Captain McLaughlin explained the process:

We have a number of core training programs for graduate level proficiency of the primary platforms, such as TOPGUN, for example, with regard to fighters. 

But that is for training at the individual level. 

The next round of training is for what we call ARP or Advanced Readiness Phase, which is primarily focused at the squadron level.

While the Fallon Ranges are used for ARP’s, the primary instructor cadre comes from the weapons schools located at the fleet concentration centers.  Again, using the F-18 example, the weapons schools at Naval Air Station Oceana and at Naval Air Station Lemoore are primarily responsible for ARP training.

The final strata are at the integrated level, which is what we do here at STRIKE.  This involves not only all the squadrons in a given air wing, but external naval and joint assets as well.”

MEDITERRANEAN SEA (Aug. 15, 2013) An EA-18G Growler assigned to the Zappers of Electronic Attack Squadron (VAQ) 130 lands on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75).
MEDITERRANEAN SEA (Aug. 15, 2013) An EA-18G Growler assigned to the Zappers of Electronic Attack Squadron (VAQ) 130 lands on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75). 

As part of the broadening of the training environment, NSAWS has Aegis weapons officers and others to shape an expanded strike envelope for the training process.

As we learned from our interview with Rear Admiral Manazir and will discuss in the next article: “The initial operational capability of fifth generation fundamentally changes the way that we’re going to fight.”

It is Manazir’s job to sort through how to shape capabilities to do that; it is Fallon’s to deliver combat capability, which embodies those capabilities in the world of real combat.

For as the successor of “Proton,” CDR James “Cruiser” Christie put it succinctly:

And clearly, you want to train to the high-end threat, the most capable potential threat out there — their hardware, their assessed pilot capabilities, their integrated air defense networks. 

You train against that as best you can, or something generically mimicking a high-end threat.  

Combat is a complex environment that does not suffer fools.

For the interviews conducted at Fallon Naval Air Station see the following:










For a Special Report with all the Fallon interviews along with interviews with the past and current heads of Air Warfare for the USN see the following:

The Future of Naval Aviation Special Report

As PDF version:


As an E-book: