Combat Pair

The Evolution of Air Force-Navy Integration in Strike Warfare

by Benjamin S. Lambeth


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This report documents the exceptional cross-service harmony that the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy have steadily developed in their conduct of integrated strike operations since the first Persian Gulf War in 1991. That close harmony contrasts sharply with the situation that prevailed throughout most of the Cold War, when the two services maintained separate and unique operating mindsets and lacked any significant interoperability features. The most influential factor accounting for this gradual trend toward integration was the nation’s ten-year experience with Operations Northern and Southern Watch, in which both Air Force land-based fighters and Navy carrier-based fighters jointly enforced the United Nations-imposed no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq that were first put into effect after the conclusion of Operation Desert Storm. That steady-state aerial policing function proved to be a real-world operations laboratory for the two services, and it ended up being the main crucible in which their eventual merger of operational practices was forged. The results were finally showcased by the all but seamless Air Force and Navy performance in their joint conduct of integrated aerial strike operations in the largely air-centric war in Afghanistan in late 2001 and early 2002. They were further dramatized by the similarly near-seamless air-warfare performance of the two services during the three-week major combat phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom that ensued a year later. These real-world experiences suggest that the U.S. Air Force and U.S. naval aviation should now consider each other natural allies in the roles and resources arena, since they did not compete but rather mutually supported and reinforced one another in the achievement of joint strike-warfare goals.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One


  • Chapter Two

    A Backdrop of Apartness

  • Chapter Three

    The Watershed of Desert Storm

  • Chapter Four

    Post–Gulf War Navy Adjustments to New Demands

  • Chapter Five

    First Steps Toward Integrated Strike-Warfare Training

  • Chapter Six

    Continued Sources of Navy–Air Force Friction

  • Chapter Seven

    A Convergence of Integration over Afghanistan

  • Chapter Eight

    Further Convergence in Operation Iraqi Freedom

  • Chapter Nine

    Emergent Trends in Air Force–Navy Integration

  • Chapter Ten

    A New Synergy of Land- and Sea-Based Strike Warfare

  • Chapter Eleven

    Future Challenges and Opportunities

Research conducted by

The research reported here was sponsored by the United States Air Force and conducted by RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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