Navy Secretary John F. Lehman Jr. summoned a select group of Navy leaders to Fallon, Nev., yesterday to hear his view that they must stress high-tech bombing rather than continue planning to fight the last war.
Lehman also was expected to unveil a plan to change radically the career pattern of the most successful naval aviators.
Part of the backdrop to the meeting at "Strike U." -- the Navy nickname for the center at Fallon where bombing tactics are developed and practiced -- is the controversial Navy bombing raid of Dec. 4, 1983, against Syrian positions in Lebanon.
The Navy lost two bombers, one each from the aircraft carrier USS Independence and the USS John F. Kennedy. Lehman has deplored the tactics, calling them the same as those of a Vietnam air strike where a formation of planes would dive bomb a target. He has championed the tactic of bombers going in one at a time with precision weapons against a target at night.
One of the flag officers summoned to the meeting at Fallon is Rear Adm. Jerry O. Tuttle, commander of the carrier task force that carried out the Dec. 4 raid.
Tuttle has told associates that antiaircraft missiles and guns have become so lethal that the government must expect losses whenever it sends bombers against them, regardless of the tactics. The Syrians in the Dec. 4 raid fired a barrage of heat-seeking missiles, which were deadly against aircraft at low altitude.
Lehman and Adm. James D. Watkins, chief of naval operations -- the nation's highest-ranking sailor -- believe that tactics, training and career patterns must be changed to combat the new threats to carrier-based aircraft, Navy sources said.
Lehman has pressed for more emphasis on learning how to conduct long-range bombing strikes at night with the A6 medium bomber using "smart" weapons, ones that can follow a laser beam to the target.
Lehman's critics contend that he is overlooking the advantages offered by lighter bombers like the A7 and the F/A18 that is replacing it. Many pilots consider the A7 and F/A18 more suitable for precision daylight bombing than the A6. The targets in the Lebanon bombing raid were too small for the high-tech gear on the A6, some pilots say.
Besides giving Navy pilots more training in high-tech bombing with such "smart" weapons as laser-guided bombs, Lehman and Watkins planned to sound out senior officers on the idea of revamping career patterns of officers who command all the aircraft squadrons on a carrier.
These officers, called CAGs from the time when they commanded carrier air groups, now come to their jobs after commanding one Navy squadron. The most successful CAGs are selected to captain a deep-draft ship, like an oiler, and then move up to the prize job of commanding an aircraft carrier, queen of the fleet.
Under the new plan, a squadron skipper selected to become a CAG first would serve as a deputy CAG to give him more time to bone up on high-tech tactics and other matters related to combating the new threats confronting aircraft carrier air wings, including terrorist attacks. The CAG would be eligible for flag rank without having to go to sea as a line officer in command of a deep-draft vessel.