The U.S. Navy: Reshaping the Wings

By Norman Polmar, Author, The Ships and Aircraft of the U.S. Fleet

Gone from the carrier wings is the A-6E Intruder, the last straight attack aircraft (VA) in the fleet. 2 Many lament the passing of the Intruder, with its large payload and all-weather capability, but the Navy failed to develop a follow-on aircraft, despite several efforts such as the A-6F and A-6G variants of the Intruder, the A-12 Avenger, and the AX concept. Fortunately, the large number of vertical-launch missile ships in the fleet—now carrying Tomahawks and in the future to carry Fasthawks and the Army tactical missile system (ATACMS)—can provide an effective sea-based, long-range strike capability. 3

The McDonnell Douglas-Northrop F/A-18 has proved to be a highly effective fighter and strike aircraft (changing roles with the flick of a switch), but the existing carrier-based F/A-18C variants have less range than desired for many mission scenarios. The improved F/A-18E will have greater range, albeit in a larger aircraft that costs considerably more.

The F-14, one of the most capable fighter aircraft in the sky, continues to fly in carrier air wings. Upgrades have given the Tomcat enhanced air-to-air and air-to-ground capabilities in the form of laser guidance, low-altitude navigation and targeting infrared for night (LANTIRN), and the ability to carry several attack missiles as well as "iron bombs." LANTIRN provides an autonomous target designation capability for day-night attacks from high/low altitudes. Fighter Squadron 103, which deployed last year on board the carrier Enterprise (CVN-65), was the first F-14 squadron to receive LANTIRN. The F-14 also is being fitted with enhanced defensive countermeasure systems (BOL chaff and the AN/ALR-67 threat warning receiver), a night-vision capability, and the global positioning system.

In addition, F-14s will continue to provide the only manned tactical reconnaissance capability in the fleet, with each carrier having several aircraft fitted for the tactical air reconnaissance pod system (TARPS) camera pod. The Gulf War and post-Gulf War operations have indicated that despite high-flying spy planes, unmanned aerial vehicles, and satellites, low-flying photo planes still provide invaluable intelligence. The TARPS is being tested with a digital imaging and data link to provide near real-time imagery to commanders ashore and on board ship. No production decision has been made.

The F-14's days are numbered, however. The F/A-1 BE joins the fleet in 2001, and within a decade, that aircraft and the two-seat F/A-18F should completely replace the F-14 in air wings.

Thus, by about 2010 the carrier air wings will have 50 F/A-18C and F/A-18E and F Hornets for the fighter and strike roles, with the older C-model Hornets being phased out. Beyond the first decade of the 21st century, the joint strike fighter will begin joining the fleet, providing a multirole stealth aircraft to complement the F/A-18. 4 However, the joint strike fighter promises to be a controversial program, and the Navy may have all F/A-18 air wings well into the next century.

Carrier air wings also operate several special-purpose planes:

Electronic Countermeasures (ECM) : A four-plane EA-6B Prowler ECM squadron is assigned to each air wing. The effectiveness of the Prowler is demonstrated by the Air Force's decision to retire its EF-I IA Ravens and replace them with five Navy tactical electronic warfare squadrons flying Prowlers manned by composite Navy-Air Force crews.

Airborne Early Warning (AEW) : Each carrier air wing will have a four-plane squadron flying the E-2C Hawkeye AEW aircraft to provide early warning and command-and-control functions. These planes are continuously undergoing equipment upgrades to enhance their mission capabilities.

Air Antisubmarine Warfare (ASW) : The ASW squadrons flying the S-3B Viking are being increased from six to eight planes. With the increase in aircraft, however, the Viking's missions are being increased: they are to be used as tankers (caused by the loss of A-6E and KA-6D Intruders that served in the tanking role), as surface surveillance craft, and for other jobs. In this environment, the time available for ASW training is declining.

Helicopter Antisubmarine Warfare : Each carrier wing has a squadron of four SH-60F and two HH-60H Seahawk helicopters. The SH-60F variants are specialized ASW aircraft; the HH-60H variants are configured for combat search and rescue and the support of special forces.

The SH-60F and the SH-60B helicopters based on surface combatants are being modified to the SH-60R configuration. This upgrade will extend the life of the helicopters while providing them with more sensors and an antiship missile with the Penguin weapon. Their new capabilities also will detract from specialized ASW training.

The HH-60H will be succeeded by the CH-60—a "new" helicopter combining the Army's UH-60 Black Hawk airframe with the SH-60 Seahawk dynamic components. A CH-60 demonstrator was scheduled to fly this summer. (The CH-60 also is scheduled to replace the Navy's UH-46D Sea Knight and the SH-3 Sea King in the cargo and utility roles.)

Signals Intelligence : When a carrier deploys into a forward area, one or two ES-3A Viking signals intelligence aircraft normally come on board to provide battle group commanders with tactical intelligence. The ES-3A—unofficially called Shadow—is converted from the S-3 aircraft and replaces the long-serving EA-3B Skywarrior in the carrier-based signals intelligence role. (Battle group commanders also are provided with signals intelligence from land-based EP-3E Orions and satellites.)

The future of the special-purpose aircraft is unclear. There have been proposals to replace the EA-6B with an ECM version of the two-seat F/A-18F. This seems logical, as it will provide an ECM aircraft that can accompany F/A-18 strikes.

The potential replacement for the other aircraft now is being addressed by the common support aircraft (CSA) study, an ongoing two-year effort by the Navy to determine replacements for the S-3 Viking, ES-3 Shadow, E-2 Hawkeye, and the C-2A Greyhound. The last is a land-based cargo aircraft that delivers people, mail, and high-priority cargo to carriers at sea.

The Navy envisions a CSA-derived aircraft entering service in 2012. This is not the first attempt to develop a common support aircraft. The advanced tactical support (ATS) concept, for example, was a Navy plan for a "new start" aircraft to replace the E-2, EA-6B, S-3, and EA-3 while possibly providing new capabilities to support carrier battle groups. The ATS aircraft was conceived in the late 1980s, with funding for advanced development provided by Congress until fiscal year 1991, when all ATS funding was deleted and the project terminated.

The V-22 Osprey VSTOL aircraft was at one point considered a candidate for the ATS role, until Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney canceled the program in 1989. Although the V-22 has been resurrected and is entering production, there does not appear to be a major effort to adopt the Bell-Boeing VSTOL aircraft to special-mission configurations.

The Navy has identified two other potential roles for the ATS:

  • Airborne battle management, having the computer power and other facilities to enable a force commander or tactical action officer to direct operations from above the force
  • The missileer concept, first advanced in the 1960s with the never-built Douglas F6D aircraft, to allow a relatively low-performance aircraft to remain on station for long periods with advanced air-to-air missiles to intercept incoming attackers

Many questions remain concerning the future composition of carrier air wings. The reduction to 50 fighter and strike aircraft and the demise of the A-6E reduce the strike capabilities of the carriers; still, the F-14 upgrades and the versatility of the F/A-18 increase the effectiveness of the carrier force because of their mission flexibility and greater survivability. For the joint strike fighter there also remain critical questions, and, if past multiservice aircraft are a guide, there will be rough waters ahead. More critical in some respects are the successors to the special-purpose aircraft. Here, too, history indicates that the replacement program will be difficult.

Finding answers to these questions is important to the future of the Navy.

1 RAdm. Bernard J. Smith, USN, statement before the Subcommittee on Military Readiness and Personnel, National Security Committee, House of Representatives, 4 March 1997.

2 See N. Polmar, "No More Intruders," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, September 1996, pp. 87-88.

3 Sometimes referred to as NTACMS for the ship-launched variant.

4 See N. Polmar, "Next Generation Strike Fighter," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, January 1997, pp. 89-90. 


More by this Author

None found for this author.

Events and Conferences

None found for this author.


Conferences and Events

Defense Forum Washington 2016

Wed, 2016-12-07

Defense Forum Washington 2016 “Competing Global Threats: What are the Priorities?” Knight Conference Center, Newseum...

WEST 2017

San Diego Convention Center, San Diego, CA

View All

From the Press

Guest Lecturer & Book Signing

Sun, 2016-12-04

Guest Speaker

Tue, 2016-12-06 - Sun, 2016-11-06

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 135 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership