24 March 2010

The Ault Report: Improving USN Fighter Effectiveness

After the dismal performance of the naval fighter pilots during the Rolling Thunder campaign in Vietnam between 1964 to 1968, the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), Admiral Thomas Moorer, ordered a wide-ranging and critical review of US Navy air-to-air missile performance during the first half of the war. He put in charge of the study Captain Frank Ault, who served as captain of the aircraft carrier USS Coral Sea in 1966-67. During Ault's command of the Coral Sea, his air wing suffered fifty combat losses, three of them to North Vietnamese MiG fighters and only a single air-to-air victory by the entire air wing. He had made suggestions on improving the performance in particular of the semi-active radar homing AIM-7 Sparrow and in 1968 he was commissioned by the CNO to review the Navy's air-to-air weapons, training and tactics in what is now known as the Ault Report.

The most visible result of Ault's investigation and recommendations was the creation of the Navy's Fighter Weapons School better known as TOPGUN. But Ault's purview also included a review of missile performance as the Navy's F-4 Phantoms had no guns and had rely on missiles for air-to-air kills. In the Ault Report's review of missile performance, the maintenance of the missiles themselves came under scrutiny.

During the conflict in Vietnam, there were numerous occasions where the AIM-7 Sparrow had been fired correctly, but the solid rocket motor failed to ignite and propel the missile to the target or the electronics failed altogether, creating "one expensive unguided rocket". Rather than load "fresh" Sparrow missiles to the underfuselage recesses on the Phantom before each mission, the hard-pressed carrier deck crews often left the delicate missiles on the aircraft for the next mission and it wasn't unusual for a Sparrow missile to sit in its recess on the Phantom for months at a time, flying mission after mission (it was common for an unfired Sparrow missile to fly over 50 missions before it was demounted for maintenance work) and the delicate electronics getting jarred repeatedly by multiple catapult shots and arrested landings. In addition, the tropical moisture and salt air as well as the changes in temperature from the heat of the carrier deck to the freezing cold of the Phantom's cruising altitudes took their toll on the Sparrow missiles.

During the same time period the USAF's standard was to at least demount the missile and bench check the electronics and systems after every ten missions flown. Simple maintenace procedures were found to vastly improve the reliability of the Sparrow missiles. For example, there was a disposable "wafer" switch that allowed an electrical connection between the Sparrow's rocket motor and the Phantom. This switch was designed as a one-time use item to be removed at the end of a mission and replaced with a new switch, but in the interests of saving time and money, Navy Phantom squadrons never changed out the component which caused it to corrode and fail, causing a significant number of the Sparrow missile malfunctions.

While TOPGUN is the most visible result of the Ault Report, his recommendations would wide-ranging implications that not only increased the combat effectiveness of the US Navy's fighter squadrons in Vietnam, but also influenced contractor and logistical support of all of the Navy's aviation assets in years to come.

Source: Gray Ghosts: US Navy and Marine Corps F-4 Phantoms by Peter E. Davies. Schiffer Publishing, 2000, p139-140.

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