News

Florida Times Union (Jacksonville)
January 27, 1999

Navy Jets On Chopping Block

Jacksonville NAS to lose 8 aircraft, 400 jobs

By John Fritz, Times-Union staff writer

In a controversial, budget-driven decision, the Navy is doing away with its fleet of ES-3 Shadow electronic reconnaissance planes and slashing the anti-submarine capabilities of its S-3 Viking jets.

The decision will result in the loss of eight aircraft and about 400 jobs at Jacksonville Naval Air Station, as well as stripping aircraft carriers of their only on-board signal intelligence aircraft.

Some within the Navy and Congress, meanwhile, are questioning the wisdom of the move.

They argue that there aren't enough other land-based intelligence-gathering aircraft to fill the gap left by the departure of the ES-3 and that the flexibility of the carrier will be diminished. It also underplays the submarine threat, opponents said.

''I have yet to meet a battle group commander or CAG [air wing commander] who has agreed with this decision,'' said Cmdr. Chris Bergey, commanding officer of Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron 6 inJacksonville.

Decommissioning the Navy's two ES-3 squadrons is expected to save at least $65 million annually, money that can be pumped into remaining aircraft to pay for maintenance and upgrades. And it avoids hundreds of millions of spending for future modernization.

The Navy also is eliminating the S-3 Viking's antisubmarine warfare and mine-laying capabilities and turning half of the aircraft - there are 40 at Jacksonville NAS - into tankers.

Officers said the plan for the Viking - which now will focus even more on surveillance and anti-ship warfare, already primary missions - was a compromise to doing away with the plane altogether.

Capt. Mark Kikta, commander of the Sea Control Wing in Jacksonville, said the ES-3 squadron will be decommissioned in September, while nearly 100 Viking crew members will be gone by the end of the year.

Most of the 400 sailors affected are being transferred to other Navy jobs.

A message from the chief of naval operations' office said these ''tough decisions'' were made on the basis of ''war-fighting capability, risk and affordability.''

''In reaching these decisions, we do not minimize the contributions of these communities to the fleet, but rather after careful analysis it was decided that the risks are acceptable,'' the message said.

In a letter to U.S. Rep. Tillie Fowler of Jacksonville, Adm. Jay Johnson, the Navy's top officer, said it would cost $701 million over six-plus years to modernize and make required safety improvements to the ES-3.

''Likewise, the decision to remove S-3B anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities was made after very careful deliberation,'' Johnson said. The cost of maintaining them was ''deemed unaffordable,'' he said.

But Bergey, who has been flying ES-3s since shortly after they were introduced in 1993, said he thinks the Navy is making a mistake. ''I think they're going to have a hard time'' picking up the ES-3 mission, he said. ''We fulfill a unique role.''

The Shadow, a Viking modified with an array of electronic sensors and communications gear at a cost of $65 million each, collects and analyzes electronic signals. It can pinpoint enemy missile and anti-aircraft positions, painting an electronic picture of the battlefield.

There are only two other aircraft - one Navy and one Air Force - that can match the capabilities of the ES-3, Bergey said, but those already are stretched thin.

''There's just not enough of them. They're really heavily tasked now,'' he said.

In addition, ''the more and more you tie yourself to landbased assets, the more flexibility you lose on that aircraft carrier,'' Bergey said.

During the recent U.S. strike on Iraq, for instance, the ES-3s were the only intelligence gathering aircraft used in the early stages of the four-day bombardment because launching ground-based planes would have tipped off the Iraqis.

Fowler, a Republican member of the House National Security Committee, said she is concerned about the consequences of losing the ES-3. ''Without these aircraft, I fear the lives of our young pilots are going to be put more at risk during these missions,'' she said.

Fowler, who is scheduled to get a classified briefing on the issue this week, said she hopes that the Navy's decision can be turned around in the upcoming budget process. ''I'm concerned the Navy is being penny-wise and pound-foolish here,'' she said.

On the opposing side, retired Vice Adm. Richard Allen, former head of the Navy's Atlantic Fleet air force, said he considers arguments being made within the ES-3 community as largely ''self-serving.''

''Decisions are not easy sometimes. The Navy has made tough decisions before, and this happens to be another one of them. Naturally, there are those in the ranks who disagree,'' he said.

Noting that the Navy didn't have carrier-based signal intelligence before the recent introduction of the ES-3, Allen said the service will figure out how to do without and get over the trauma of losing the aircraft.

Fowler said she also is concerned about the loss of the S3s anti-submarine capabilities.

A letter to Adm. Johnson signed by Fowler and nine other lawmakers said that given reports of foreign submarines being able to operate undetected around U.S. ships, the Navy ''would be making a mistake'' to eliminate the S-3s' submarine hunting equipment.

''The proliferation of advanced diesel-electric submarines and submerged-launch anti-ship missiles to potential adversaries means that it will remain imperative to be able to address these challenges successfully,'' the letter states.

Kikta said he thinks the submarine threat is being underestimated. ''My concern is ASW is a very perishable skill. If we give that up it will take a very long time to get it back,'' he said.