Friday, September 18, 2015

The Next Carrier Air Wings

Hudson Institute’s Center for American Seapower will release on 8 October on Capitol Hill a report on the future of the aircraft carrier. Titled “Sharpening the Spear: The Carrier, the Joint Force, and High-End Conflict”, it systematically analyzes Carrier Strike Group vulnerabilities and offers a number of innovative recommendations in terms of concepts, capabilities, and capacities.

Here's a quick peek!

By 2015, a typical carrier air wing consists of two squadrons of F-18C/D Hornets strike aircraft (10-12 aircraft per squadron), two squadrons of F-18E/F Super Hornets strike aircraft (10-12 aircraft per squadron), one squadron of EA-18G Electronic Attack aircraft (5 aircraft per squadron), one squadron of E-2C/D AEW aircraft (4 aircraft), and varying numbers of SH-60 and MH-60 helicopters, for a total of approximately 64 aircraft.

The C-2 Carrier Onboard Delivery detachment aircraft do not fall under the CVW construct.  The air wing eliminated S-3s that had provided organic open ocean ASW capabilities, replacing it with the short range SH-60 helicopter.

Moreover, the carrier’s dedicated organic aerial refueler, the KA-6D, had been replaced first with tanking from the S-3B following elimination of its ASW role and then solely with buddy tanking from F-18Es and F-18F’s, significantly reducing the organic range of the air wing, making the air wing more reliant on Air Force tanking and reducing the number of aircraft in the air wing available for combat missions.

Compared to the 1980s, the contemporary air wing is significantly smaller. In the 1980s a typical air wing had approximately 90 aircraft, 60 of which were fighter or strike aircraft; in contrast, contemporary air wings hold a mere 64 aircraft approximately, 44 of which are fighter or strike aircraft. Consequently, the fighter or attack portion of the air wing has been cut by more than a quarter and the total size of the air wing has diminished by approximately 30%.

The planned introduction of the F-35C to the air wing is expected to further cut the size of squadrons by 2-4 aircraft. The F-35C’s low observable features, advanced sensors and networking, and approximate 613 NM combat radius will improve carrier fighter performance compared to the 390 NM combat radius of the F-18E/F.  Overall, though, the size of the air wing has been shrinking. Ironically, the Navy has gone on to procure the FORD Class carrier, capable of embarking more aircraft and conducting operations at a higher sortie rate than the NIMITZ Class.

In summary, contemporary and projected air wings display three key trends: they are shorter in range than its Cold War predecessors, they host significantly fewer aircraft than their Cold War predecessors, and they have eliminated dedicated fixed-wing aircraft for ASW and aerial refueling.

Differences between the current and projected air wing include the addition of the F-35C and potential incorporation of a carrier-launched unmanned aircraft system. Of note, Section 220 of the FY 2001 defense authorization act stated, “It shall be a goal of the Armed Forces to achieve the fielding of unmanned, remotely controlled technology such that by 2010, one-third of the aircraft in the operational deep strike force aircraft fleet are unmanned.” Clearly, the Joint Force has failed to meet Congress’ 2010 goal.

On 8 October, the Hudson Institute’s Center for American Seapower will release a report that will examine whether it is worthwhile to continue to build large, nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, given their considerable cost and mounting Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) threats to sea-based operations.