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A New Kind of Carrier Air Wing


Proceedings, September 2012
What types of aircraft will be deployed on tomorrow’s flattops?

What should the carrier air wing (CVW) of the future look like? This rather abstruse topic has taken on new significance of late as a consequence of the article in the July issue of Proceedingsby Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert. The title of the article, “Payloads over Platforms: Charting a New Course,” the discussion in it of the diminishing value of stealth, and the positive mentions of both the F/A-18 Hornet and unmanned systems such as the Scan Eagle and Fire Scout led some observers to accuse the CNO of somehow being secretly opposed to the carrier variant of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Under intense criticism, Admiral Greenert and his staff appear to be employing the “Humpty Dumpty” defense (“When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”), asserting that the article did not refer in any way to the F-35 but instead to stealth in the future. 1

The F-35 non-controversy aside, Admiral Greenert made a profound statement that could have dramatic implications for the character of U.S. air power in general and the future CVW in particular. The CNO declared that “we need to move from ‘luxury-car’ platforms—with their built-in capabilities—toward dependable ‘trucks’ that can handle a changing payload selection.” Why? Well, by definition “luxury car” platforms are expensive both to buy and maintain. In addition, they tend to look good and have great performance but can be of limited utility. A dependable “truck” has a wider range of uses, particularly if one doesn’t mind riding in the back. A payload-centric approach also allows for more rapid technological refresh at lower cost as well as the ability to tailor forces for the conflict du jour.

One conclusion to be drawn from the CNO’s assertion is that the value of the performance characteristics associated with so-called luxury-car platforms is declining. Those include stealth, speed, maneuverability, perhaps even survivability. There are several reasons for the Navy’s tastes in tactical aircraft to be changing. Obviously, two related ones are declining defense budgets and the high cost of advanced manned platforms. Another is concern regarding the anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) threat.

Some argue that the combination of advanced sensors, data fusion, high-performance missiles, and directed-energy weapons will bring the era of unstealthy and stealthy-but-short-legged platforms to an end. Like the newly married individual trading in his or her Porsche for a more sensible minivan or sport utility vehicle, Admiral Greenert is suggesting that the Navy’s circumstances have changed, warranting the swapping of style and performance for reliability, relevance, and cost-effectiveness.

What does the CNO’s construct imply for the future carrier air wing? The Navy’s current plan is to deploy a mix of F/A-18 E/Fs, F-35Cs, EA-18 Growlers and E-2D Hawkeye airborne-surveillance aircraft. While not as “luxurious” a collection of purpose-built platforms as those that populated the air wing of an earlier era—the A-7, A-6, F-14, EA-6B, and S-3—these are all still relatively high-end vehicles. None was designed as a “truck.” Moreover, the operational effectiveness of the CVW can be realized only when all the parts are employed together, which is still relatively costly. It is possible to hang advanced weapons and sensors on the F/A-18s and F-35s, but they are still comparatively short-legged and will require significant off-board intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) to successfully employ their long-range payloads.

A near-term challenge to a payloads-over-platform strategy for the CVW is the lack of advanced, long-range weapons and supporting capabilities. The Naval Aviation Vision would employ standoff weapons such as the Joint Standoff Weapon (JSOW), the Standoff Land-Attack Missile-Expanded Response (SLAM-ER), Harpoon, and Tomahawk at least until 2030. However, even then the majority of aircraft-delivered weapons will be relatively short-range Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs), Laser-Guided Bombs (LGBs), and small-diameter bombs. So it appears that there will be a requirement for a significant number of “luxury” platforms to deliver these weapons for at least the next two decades.

The current and planned array of platforms, sensors, electronic-warfare systems, and weapons is more than enough to confer on the air wing a decisive advantage in most near-term conflict situations. The question is, what needs to be done to ensure that edge, as budgets continue to decline, forces and programs are cut, and A2/AD capabilities proliferate? In this environment, the CVW will require a new set of capabilities and tactics not only to defeat A2/AD threats but to do more with less across its entire range of missions. The new Joint Operational Access Concept (JOAC) seeks to “leverage cross-domain synergy to establish superiority in some combination of domains that will provide the freedom of action required by the mission.” The JOAC proposes a number of “precepts” intended to exploit vulnerabilities or deficiencies in A2/AD forces and operations. These include disruption of the adversary’s command, control, communication, computer, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems, reduction in the footprint or visibility of U.S. forces and bases, counter fires against critical nodes and systems, greater use of defensive capabilities, and exploiting the capabilities of new domains such as cyberspace. 3

Defeating A2/AD threats and simultaneously doing more with less will require reconceptualizing the role of the carrier and its air wing as a critical node in an integrated air and sea force. This is the essence of the emerging AirSea Battle concept. As envisioned by recently retired Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz and Admiral Greenert, AirSea Battle will create a framework in which Navy and Air Force fighters, bombers, patrol aircraft, ships, and unmanned systems can exchange data seamlessly and each and every platform can perform strike, command-and-control, sensing, and communications missions. Schwartz and Greenert have talked about forward-deployed Air Force fighters retargeting Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from Navy submarines, Navy systems jamming enemy sensors and command-and-control systems in order to allow strikes by Air Force bombers, and Aegis missile-defense-capable surface combatants providing protection for forward-deployed B-52s conducting antisubmarine warfare missions in support of forward-deployed carrier battle groups (CVBGs). 4

A seamless, integrated-battle-management and C4ISR network is no longer merely the stuff of fantasy. The Navy has already demonstrated many of these capabilities in its Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air system. It provides an engage-on-remote and over-the-horizon air-defense capability using an airborne and sea-based sensor network to achieve the maximum effectiveness from the employment of active missiles against manned aircraft and cruise missiles, overland and at sea. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is working on the Heterogeneous Airborne Reconnaissance Team concept that integrates large numbers of ISR platforms, managing the employment of dozens of sensors and rapidly collecting and fusing the data generated. 6

With its combination of mobility, offensive and defensive capabilities, airborne- and sea-based sensors, and powerful command, control, and communication (C3)systems, the CVBG is uniquely suited to play a central role in the AirSea Battle framework. In the future, the primary mission of the carrier might not be to generate strike sorties but instead to function as a command-and-control platform, deploying the future air wing as a distributed network of C3 nodes to support and direct an orchestrated set of kinetic and non-kinetic actions by planes, ships, submarines, and even land-based assets across an entire theater of operations.

Proponents of an unmanned aerial system (UAS) solution argue that replacing manned systems with unmanned platforms is an answer to the A2/AD challenge. At a minimum, UASs will permit the military to conduct operations in a high-threat environment with less risk of casualties. Without the requirement to support and protect a person in the cockpit, new platform designs and tactics could negate the A2/AD threat. In addition, some believe that UASs offer an inherent cost savings over manned platforms (in procurement, operations, and support), thereby allowing the military to proliferate the numbers of aerial systems.

The only near-term opportunity carrier aviation has to break out of the “luxury-car” pattern, deploying a Ford F150 instead of a Porsche or Lexus, is the unmanned carrier-launched surveillance and strike system (UCLASS). Unfortunately, the Navy does not appear to have made up its mind on what it wants in a UCLASS. Is it going to be a platform designed to deal with the A2/AD threat or a dependable truck? The plan is to deploy no more than four per air wing, which suggests that the UCLASS will be relegated to those missions that are long, boring, and dangerous. This is likely to make for a narrow trade space between stealthiness, range, payload, performance, and cost.

An articulate proponent of the UCLASS in the future carrier air wing is Congressman Randy Forbes (R-VA), who recently wrote:

Along with squadrons of F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets and the F-35C, I believe the CVW of the future should include a detachment of 4–6 UCLASS so that it could have a larger strike radius. A UCLASS program with an endurance of greater than 12 hours (or roughly a 1,000 nm combat radius), that is moderately stealthy, and can carry as much or more payload than the F-35 carries internally would transform the CVW from a capability with short tactical reach to a global naval strike and reconnaissance platform. A UCLASS with 12–14 hour endurance would allow for 2 launch/recoveries each day to provide full 24-hour ISR coverage from each platform. More importantly, a UCLASS outfitted with JSOW could operate as a “missile truck,” to borrow the Chief of Naval Operations terminology, while freeing up high-end platforms like the F-35C to perform other missions.In short, a CVW with a detachment of UCLASS equipped with stand-off weapons would give the CVN of the future the capacity and reach to hold targets at risk while operating outside the ASBM [antiship ballistic missile] envelope. This would help to reduce the operational advantage the ASBM offers while increasing the strategic and operational flexibility of American decision-makers. 7

What much of the pro-UAS arguments fail to sufficiently appreciate is that when a UAS goes out on a combat mission it leaves its brains behind. Yes, the UAS will have computers, a GPS receiver, navigation software, perhaps even collision-avoidance and target-recognition capabilities. But so, too, does a cruise missile. If a weapon is going to be deployed on a UAS, it is because of some uncertainty regarding the target’s identity, location, value, or legal status. Typically, the rules of engagement in such a situation require a person in the loop. Even if the rules were relaxed, it will be a long time before a computer can equal the pattern recognition capabilities of the Mark I eyeball in the head of a trained pilot. The same requirement for a human decision-maker also exists for any mission that requires enroute replanning, as when the location of the target is not precisely known, hostile forces are maneuvering, or a decision must be made concerning which of several targets to strike.

This should not be a problem, so long as the communications links between the UAS and the controller are intact. But how likely is that? China’s People’s Liberation Army has gone to school on the so-called American Way of War. It is fully aware of how much the U.S. military relies on its networks, space-based assets, and global command, control, and communications. That is why these will be among the first targets in a Chinese A2/AD campaign. U.S. military leaders are now talking of training their people to operate in an A2/AD environment in which communications, navigation, and sensing are degraded. Once the Global Positioning System is jammed, long-range sensors are degraded, and communication links are blocked, what happens to the UAS? It will have undergone a virtual lobotomy.

For the near future at least, the insecurity of C3 systems and networks alone all but guarantees that UAVs will not replace manned platforms. But operating together, manned and unmanned platforms can create a powerful synergistic capability. For example, a UCLASS could act as an advanced scout for manned platforms, perhaps deploying small, sophisticated decoys, to locate enemy radars that could then be attacked by Growlers or jammed by F-35s. Or the UCLASS could provide long-range threat detection, using passive sensors to avoid being discovered. The information from the UCLASS would be passed to the E-2D Hawkeyes that would orchestrate the NIFC-CA defensive battle. 8

Some sources have suggested the need to coordinate development of the Navy’s UCLASS and the Air Force’s Long-Range Strike System programs. In a budget-constrained environment, neither service can afford the platform with all the characteristics they desire: long range, large payload, advanced sensors, and stealthiness. Consequently, what is needed is a family of platforms with a basic, heavy-duty “truck,” a long-range strategic bomber, complemented by a set of smaller, stealthier, shorter-range unmanned platforms that would conduct a range of supporting missions including ISR, electronic attack, suppression of enemy air defenses and possibly long-range communications. The UCLASS would seem to be remarkably well-suited to performing this second role with the Air Force’s new long-range bomber providing the massed firepower. This is not all that new an idea. Since the retirement of the EF-111s, the Navy has provided the Air Force with all its airborne-electronic-warfare support, first with the EA-6B Prowler and now the EA-18 Growler.

Taken to the next level, perhaps two decades hence, the A2/AD challenge and a payload-over-platform acquisition strategy would suggest a very different carrier air wing. If the C3 vulnerability problem can be resolved, manned platforms will be gone. The air wing will consist of two or possibly three classes of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The first would be a highly stealthy, long-range vehicle able to carry a limited payload. This platform would be designed to conduct very challenging ISR and strike missions in an intense A2/AD environment.

The second class would be a relatively large, slow, non-stealthy “truck,” deploying an array of long-range weapons, both offensive and defensive. This would represent the epitome of the payloads-over-platforms philosophy. The third class would be a high-altitude, long-endurance platform for sensors and communication packages. One mission of this class could be to allow the CVBG to maintain long-range communications even in an A2/AD environment by relying on line-of-sight from one UAS to another. There might even be a role for a large, vertical-launch-and-recovery UAV that would replace current helicopters.

If the next generation of surface combatants also reflects the payloads-over-platforms design philosophy then they may be the repositories of most of the battle group’s weapons, obviating the need to deploy them on UAVs. Complementing the carrier-based UAVs would be other types launched and recovered by surface combatants and even submarines. These could perform close-in missions such as tactical ISR and targeting, ASW, and electronic combat.

Reports of the large-deck carrier’s imminent demise have been seriously exaggerated. A host of options are available to extend the life of the CVN fleet and expand its utility. By modifying the composition of the future carrier air wing, expanding the kinds of payloads that are available, deploying UCLASS, and developing new operational concepts, the Navy can remain the world’s dominant sea service for decades to come.

1. ADM Jonathan W. Greenert, USN, “Payloads Over Platforms: Charting a New Course,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , July 2012, 16.

2. Thomas Ehrhard, An Air Force Strategy for the Long-Haul , Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2009; David Axe and Noah Shachtman, “‘Operation Chimichanga’ Tests Pentagon’s Stealth Strike Force,” Wired, 11 April 2012.

3. Department of Defense, Joint Operational Access Concept (JOAC) , 17 January 2012, 14–17; Also, Robert Haddick, “JOAC begins the discussion on access, but tough problems remain,” Small Wars Journal Blog , 25 January 2012.

4. Philip Ewing, “CSAF, CNO attempt to demystify Air-Sea Battle,” DoDBuzz , 16 May 2012.

5. VADM J. T. Blake, “Integrated Air and Missile Defense,” Briefing For NDIA SLAAD Symposium , 13 July 2010.

6. David A. Fulghum, “Self Regulated World Sought For UAV,” Aviation Week & Space Technology , 17 October 2011.

7. J. Randy Forbes, “What is the potential and what are the challenges the Navy faces in fielding a UCLASS to the fleet?”www.informationdissemination.net/2012/06/what-is-the-potential-and-what-… .

8. David A. Fulghum, “Old Weapons Renewed As ISR, EW And Cyber-Operations Merge,” Aerospace Daily & Defense Report, 1 September 2011.

9. David A. Fulghum and Bill Sweetman, “New Bomber Brings ISR Surprises,” Aviation Week & Space Technology , 29 August 2011.