Air University Review, March-April 1967
Captain William A. Cohen
Somewhere within the great spectrum of aerospace warfare evolved the military navigator. Most aviation historians trace his origin to the rated observer of World War I, but he was not really doing much navigating in those days. His job consisted of artillery spotting, taking note of enemy concentrations, and photographing troop movements: an “observer” in the true sense of the word, On occasion he was required to drop everything and fire his machine guns at unfriendly aircraft attempting to discourage the accomplishment of his mission, With the end of World War I, the “O” designation for observer faded into disuse.
The postwar aviation boom was accompanied by a wave of long-range aerial exploration. It can be quite properly compared to the great sea voyages of the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries. With aircraft venturing great distances from land, the aerial navigator was badly needed—but no “aerial navigator” existed. Marine navigators were soon called to serve. The methods they had used to navigate at sea were not always acceptable for use in navigation, but the principles were the same. The aerial navigator took those principles, adapted the methods, and learned how to navigate in the new medium. He became an essential member of the overwater aircrew.
Technology marched on, and in the years prior to World War II long-range bombing became feasible. “Trained aerial navigators are now much in demand,” said General “Hap” Arnold.1 Young officers of that day prepared to meet that demand. One such officer was a certain Lieutenant LeMay, who in the years 1937-41 learned the trade the hard way: by serving as a navigator in the B-17. These young pilots, learning the complicated skills of aerial navigation almost from scratch, came to a definite conclusion:
What the Air Corps would need in the foreseeable future, it seemed to John Egan and myself, was more and more men specifically trained for navigation—not those who had just dabbled in it.2
World War II was soon upon us. It saw the elimination of the pilot trained as a navigator, the acceptance of the idea that what the Air Force needed was “men specifically trained for navigation.” The rated military navigator was born.
The navigator’s equipment during World War II was still, in general, very simple. It consisted primarily of Weem’s plotter, set of dividers, circular slide rule (dead-reckoning computer), and aeronautical chart. The nearest most navigators got to automation was a sextant that incorporated an averaging device.
After the war, high-performance aircraft and a rapidly developing technology changed all that. By 1959 General Bertram C. Harrison, a former SAC wing commander and then Director of Personnel Procurement and Training, was declaring:
Probably no breed of modern military man has as much single responsibility as the navigator, nor as much technological magic at his fingertips. His training is painstakingly arduous and unbelievably costly. Not only must he master thorough knowledge of complex mechanical systems, physical laws, and mathematical principles, but he must also develop the qualities of leadership, responsibility, and the difficult job of deciding, at any minute, between right and wrong and then staking his life upon it.3
The military navigator had arrived, but the question remained: Where? The question remains but partially answered today. How can this highly trained airman be best utilized within the framework of aerospace warfare?
In general, two concepts are in evidence among those of the world’s air forces that employ military navigators. One concept, typified by the United States Air Force, visualizes the navigator primarily as a highly trained specialist to be utilized solely in the sphere of his specialty as a practicing navigator. After a number of years engaged in this task, those navigators so qualified are encouraged to emigrate to other fields of Air Force specialty, such as intelligence, guided missiles, or research and development. Their development as commanders and senior staff officers is begun and continued in these nonflying specialties. A limited number of them are retained in the flying commands in various staff positions. The other concept, established in the Royal Air Force, Soviet Air Force, and Armée de l’Air, conceives the navigator primarily as a flying officer on a par with the pilot flying officer, and in some cases higher standards for entrance into the profession are required. A description of flight training in the RAF is an example:
If anything, the navigator must have educational attainments higher than those looked for in a pilot, so that, other things being equal, a candidate who had hoped to be chosen for pilot training might find himself picked for a navigator’s course. This, as we mentioned earlier, is a direct compliment to him, and he need not fear that his superior mental powers will imperil his chance of promotion for the duration of his service career. All the appointments open to a pilot are open to him.. . .4
. . a navigator often captains an aeroplane and can command a squadron. 5
Not only are there different attitudes toward the qualifications and role of the navigator, there is also some question of the continuing need for navigators at all. Like the pilot, the navigator is linked closely with the manned aircraft and manned spacecraft. Also like the pilot, there exists a school of thought that counsels elimination of the navigator in favor of some combination of black box and electronic wizardry. The navigator’s employment as a practitioner of navigation will depend on his capabilities versus requirements generated by future aircraft and spacecraft supporting the aerospace mission. His use as a commander of flying units in the USAF will depend both on the extent of his engagement as a crew member and on some modification in thinking as to his status as a flying officer.
capabilities of the military navigator
Perhaps the military navigator’s chief trait is his ability to adapt his past experience, knowledge, and training to changing concepts, tactics, and weapon systems. Twice in the last few years, this adaptability was a major factor in retaining in the SAC inventory a manned bomber, designed for a tactic grown obsolescent in the face of a vastly altered technology. The first instance came about as a result of a requirement for prolonged low-altitude, high-speed flight. The second came with the introduction of the air-launched stand-off missile. Could an officer other than a navigator, styled, say, an “airborne missile operator,” have been trained to operate the Hound Dog air-to-ground missile system? Unquestionably! But would this have been accomplished as easily, as speedily, and at unit level as was in fact done? And would such an officer have been able to handle the multiple of complex navigational tasks which the present operator of this system is also responsible for?
The experienced navigator can accomplish remarkable feats under highly adverse conditions when bringing his judgment to bear on operational situations. If a portion of his automatic navigation system fails, he manipulates what he has left and fills the gap by manual skill. If all computers break down, he switches to an alternate, completely manual method of navigating, such as celestial navigation. If that is not available, he uses what information is available to compute a position by dead reckoning. The definitive work on navigation, The American Practical Navigator, puts it this way:
Human beings who entrust their lives to the skill and knowledge of a navigator are entitled to expect him to be capable of handling any reasonable emergency. When his customary tools are denied him, they have a right to expect him to have the necessary ability to take them safely to their destination, however elementary the knowledge and means available to him.6
When black-box mechanisms grind to a halt and preplanned conditions vanish in a puff of smoke, the navigator can utilize a judgment educated by training, knowledge, and experience to complete the mission successfully.
The navigator has the capability of applying experience gleaned from the navigational sciences to problems occurring in administrative areas. Thus, he has the capability of serving as commander or staff officer. For example, sending an ICBM from launch point to target involves complicated electronic equipment and computers, but above and beyond that the very principles of guidance and control are based on the science of navigation. Today many USAF navigators serve as commanders and staff officers of guided missile units. In flying organizations, they serve as unit navigation officers and on the staffs of higher headquarters. At the present time, however, the USAF does not employ navigators as commanders of flying units, although it is apparent from the experience of various foreign air forces that navigators do possess this capability.
future employment of the military
navigator in the USAF
The navigator’s future use in aircraft will depend upon the doctrine of aerospace warfare under which the navigator will work and the weapon systems supporting this doctrine. Long-range strategic bombers have traditionally used the navigator. That he is still considered indispensable in this role is attested to by the fact that both the FB-1l1 and the Advanced Manned Strategic Aircraft (AMSA) plan to make use of the specialty. Navigators of transport aircraft increase the mission reliability of their aircraft at no penalty in aircraft performance. For certain specialized activities of transport aircraft, such as air refueling or airdropping of troops or equipment, their services are absolutely essential to mission accomplishment. The navigator is found in almost all transport aircraft currently in use, and plans call for his presence in the C-5A. Reconnaissance aircraft use navigators or not, depending upon the particular type of reconnaissance required. Battlefield reconnaissance with “Bird Dog” type aircraft rarely requires the services of a navigator. On the other hand, the type of strategic and tactical reconnaissance performed by such aircraft as the RB-57, RB-66, and SR-71 demands a navigator’s assistance. Most fighter aircraft have never had the need of a navigator, but there have been exceptions, the fighter-interceptor for one. The F-4C, crewed by a pilot and a “pilot systems operator,” might also be considered an exception. Although the “pilot systems operator” is a rated pilot, it is generally conceded that he is employed in navigational duties.
The reasons for the navigator’s extensive use in aircraft are not difficult to ascertain. Long distances coupled with combat conditions make for a complex, continual, fatiguing navigational task. Under wartime conditions, radio navigational aids are frequently unavailable or unusable. New tactics necessary to permit aircraft to live in the air in this day of the ground-to-air missile require the pilot’s full attention. Specialized tasks of navigation—bombing and aerial rendezvous, to mention but two—must be left to the navigator. Finally, the critical nature of modern warfare demands that every effort be expended to accomplish the mission, regardless of equipment malfunction or adversity en route. The navigator ensures that the mission will be accomplished.
As the Air Force becomes more deeply immersed in spatial activities, it will be increasingly confronted with spiraling demands made against on-board means of navigation in space. This is a result of two fundamental drawbacks of navigational assistance rendered from ground stations: (1) the range limitations of optical and radar tracking, and (2) the time delay aspect of radio communications. The range limitations of optical and radar tracking dictate that, in the vicinity of the moon and beyond, their ability to fix a space vehicle’s position in space accurately is negligible.7 The time delay aspect of radio communications relates to the fixed speed of radio waves (186,000 miles a second) and the delay incurred when a ground station attempts to issue navigational instructions to a space vehicle some distance from the earth. In the cislunar environment, this means a delay of about one second, but when the distance is from the Earth to Mars, the delay would be almost five minutes!
Fantastic computers, inertial guidance, and automatic astrotrackers are in use in aircraft, and much of this equipment is adaptable to navigation in space. However, the mean time to failure of the components of these electronic marvels is measured in hours or days, while extended voyages into space will require months or even years. The solution to this problem is manual navigating in space for all manned space flights operating at the limits of ground-based tracking capabilities. Space navigation, then, must never become completely divorced from the human navigator.
What is the reasoning behind the USAF regulation that permits only pilots to command aircraft and flying units? The logic goes something like this: since the pilot has his hands on the controls of the aircraft, for safety reasons only he can command that aircraft; since only the pilot can command a single aircraft, the pilot alone is qualified to command a flying unit made up of a number of aircraft. This thinking, however, is not entirely irrefutable. A precedent was set as early as 1919 when the Navy’s NC-4 made the first transatlantic flight. The commander of the NC-4, Commander A.C. Read, was not the man with his hands on the controls but the aircraft’s navigator. Today navigators have the opportunity to command aircraft and flying units in several major foreign air forces.
How is the operation of an aircraft affected with the navigator in command? Consider the aircraft with a pilot commander. The navigator locates weather on his radarscope. He reports to the pilot that they must alter heading 30 degrees to avoid it. The pilot, as commander, can accept the navigator’s decision as to how to cope with the situation or, if the mission warrants, reject it. Consider the aircraft with a navigator commander. The pilot notes an engine problem. He reports to the navigator that they should land as soon as possible. The navigator, as commander, can accept the pilot’s decision as to how to cope with the situation or, if the mission warrants, reject it.
The fear that a nonpilot flying officer would be unable to cope with emergency situations is unfounded—provided he is made responsible for them as the pilot is. After all, training can be given, and experience acquired, without the necessity of physically controlling the aircraft. There is nothing to prevent the navigator’s being made responsible for sections of the flight manual now the sole domain of the pilot, as the pilot was made responsible for certain bombing systems of primary interest to the navigator.
Another question raised is that since the pilot has physical control of the aircraft, he could disregard the navigator’s orders if the navigator were the commander. At the same time, being a commander permits the pilot to use physical control of the aircraft as a technique to insure that his own orders are followed. No one can deny that this is a possibility, but I submit that the hypothetical situation overlooks the very essence of command. “Command,” says one definition in the Dictionary of United States Military Terms for Joint Usage, “is the authority vested in an individual of the armed forces for the direction, coordination, and control of military forces.” This definition gives no hint that having physical control over a vehicle is a prerequisite for commanding it. Nor is the commander of a tank, or the captain of a ship, the man having physical control over the vehicle. Command depends not on an artificial device but rather on “the authority vested in an individual of the armed forces.” Success as a commander is achieved not by having physical control of an aircraft but rather by the commander’s personal qualities and abilities and the mutual trust between himself and his subordinates. In an aircraft, the pilot and the navigator are mutually dependent on each other for their lives and the success of the mission. Both must contribute to the mission by operating to the maximum of their abilities within their specialties. Whether the pilot or the navigator is the commander, he must give much weight in his decisions to conclusions arrived at within the sphere of the other’s specialty.
Assuming that the navigator can command aircraft, squadrons, wings, etc., What, then, is the advantage to the USAF? As a specialist in navigation and related skills of aerospace power, the navigator, with his background and experience in navigation, brings his own particular viewpoint to the solution of operational problems. As a unit staff officer, he can only advise and counsel the commander; he cannot insure that his ideas will be adopted, since by regulation he is not an executive or decision-maker in the sense of having overall command authority and responsibility for the unit. It would seem logical that the Air Force’s ability to accomplish its mission would be enhanced by giving command authority and responsibility to the slightly different approach in aerospace problems: that, for example, a unit whose mission is predominantly bombardment might benefit from having a navigator-bombardier as its commander.
In B-52 type aircraft, there are five officer crew members, two of whom are rated as pilots and three as navigators.8 This means that out of 100 officer crew members, 60 are navigators and 40 are pilots. Yet commanders at all levels of unit command will be drawn from the 40. If of these 100 officers in the B-52 force 25 have the potential of being outstanding commanders, the Air Force is getting only 10 ( 40 percent on the average). Can the Air Force afford to waste 60 percent of its potentially outstanding commanders in noncommand positions?
In 1958 a Second Air Force (SAC) project, known as the Connolly Component Project, was initiated with the purpose of improving the overwater and long-range navigation capability of B-47 crews. Among the many facets of the problem investigated was “navigator morale,” of which the report had this to say:
Close association with crew and staff navigators during this project has indicated a general dissatisfaction with the navigator career field. . . . It is generally felt that limitations within the navigator career field require a transfer into some other and often unrelated field in order to progress, It may be debatable whether navigation capability is affected by this dissatisfaction, or whether steps should be taken to alleviate it. The fact remains, however, that many navigators are taking what actions they can to get into such fields as materiel and intelligence.9
A wealth of operational experience is being lost to SAC due to the diversion of operationally qualified navigators from operations to other career fields such as Intelligence, Materiel, Missiles, etc. Most of the weaknesses in the navigator program have long been recognized at crew and wing level but there has been a natural reluctance to “fight the system,”l0
Whether the situation described by the Connolly Project report is due to dissatisfaction with the navigator career field or is with the blessing and by design of the Air Force, a wealth of navigational and operational experience is being lost to operations, where it is most needed, because of the USAF’s present restriction of the command of flying units to pilots.
The Navigator can either be utilized within the strict framework of
navigation, chalking up his operational experience in flying organizations as
background for other Air Force specialties, or he can be utilized in the
operational flying field on an equal basis with the pilot. Both these concepts
concerning the use of the navigator in aircraft, spacecraft, and as a commander
must be closely examined and decisions made with reference to the navigator’s
capabilities to meet the demands levied by the weapon systems supporting the
aerospace mission. Like the pilot, the navigator has won a respected niche as a
military specialist. With the pilot and the missileman, he shares the crucial
responsibility for the defense of the
1. Curtis E. LeMay with MacKinlay Kantor,
2. Henry H. Arnold and Ira C. Eaker, Army Flyer (New York: Harper and Brothers. 1942), p. 217.
3. Bertram C. Harrison, “A Speech to the 15th Annual Meeting of the
4. The Wonder Book of the RAF (6th ed.;
5. Ibid., p. 130.
7. Select Committee on Astronautics and Space Exploration, Space Handbook: Astronautics and Its Applications (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1959), p. 68.
8. One of these three navigators is not a navigator-bombardier. He is a navigator who has undergone additional training to acquire the AFSC of Electronic Warfare Officer.
9. Connolly Component Project, Final Report (Second Air Force, SAC, 1959), pp. 14-15.
10. Ibid., p. 36.
Captain William A. Cohen (USMA) is
currently assigned under the Air Force Institute of Technology to the
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this
document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression,
academic environment of
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