Carrier-based aircraft bring massive firepower to the fight—but magazine capacity and weapons buildup remain limiting factors. Vertical replenishment and ordnance augmentees can make all the difference.
A carrier battle group brings 72 aircraft and approximately 200 Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles to a commander-in-chief's (CinC's) operational objectives. Exactly how much firepower is this? What can be done to realize fully the capacity of these assets—and why hasn't the full firepower capacity of the carrier battle group (CVBG) been tapped in real-world operations? The answers lie in understanding the factors that constrain naval firepower and the way the operational situation influences those factors.
What does a CVBG bring to the table?
U.S. armed forces are being called into action with increasing regularity. As Operations El Dorado Canyon, Vigilant Warrior, and Desert Fox demonstrated, however, support from host nations and permission for overflight are not always forthcoming. As a consequence, during the 1990s the United States has relied increasingly on CVBGs to provide presence and serve as mobile air bases.
Since U.S. naval forces are forward deployed and can be quickly repositioned, they frequently are the first on the scene. This capability to project firepower when and where desired may deter an adversary. But if it does not, naval firepower can impede or repel an adversary's advance until reinforcements—the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Army, and allied forces—are in place. As mobile air bases, carriers help the United States avoid the high cost of supporting forces on foreign shores (a cost that is primarily siphoned off to foreign economies) and decrease significantly the threat from terrorist attacks.
The group brings a balanced combat capability. In addition to 46 strike/fighter aircraft, the carrier brings EA-6Bs, increasingly important in this era of electronic warfare. The carrier's escorts are loaded with Tomahawk cruise missiles, which can be critical in the early stages of a conflict because of their ability to destroy air defenses This triad of strike/fighters, EA-6Bs, and Tomahawks provides a comprehensive power-projection tool.
The force does have limitations. F/A-18C Hornets rely on airborne refueling for operational missions beyond 225 nautical miles; when land-based tankers are not available, the air wing's S-3Bs can fill the tanking requirement to a limited extent. By dedicating the air wing's S3Bs to the tanking mission, all F/A-18C strike sorties can be supported out to 375 nautical miles from the carrier. The F-14 Tomcat strike-fighter—and in the future the F/A-18E/F—has a greater striking range than the F/A18C; the Tomcats can strike targets out to 375 nautical miles without tanking support. EA-6Bs can suppress enemy air defenses at these ranges without refueling. For targets at even greater range, Tomahawk missiles can be brought to bear.
How much firepower is possible?
Naval firepower relies on the coupling of man and machine. Although historical evidence provides some indicators of how these components influence firepower, history does not provide the full story. Recent technological advances in strike/fighter reliability have shifted the balance between man and machine—frequently man, not machine, is now the primary constraint to the generation of firepower.
In 1997, the U.S. Navy decided to determine operationally the capacity of the machines used to generate naval firepower. The efforts culminated in the July 1997 Nimitz (CVN-68) surge demonstration. During the evolution's 98 hours, the Nimitz, Carrier Air Wing (CVW)-9, and 255 hand-picked personnel augmentees generated almost 1,000 sorties that delivered 1,336 heavy bombs on target. The Navy made every effort to make this as realistic a test as possible, within the constraints of operational risk management and fiscal limits.
The Navy continued its operational assessment of firepower by evaluating ordnance processes during the Spring 1998 CVW 11 weapons detachment deployment to Naval Air Station, Fallon, Nevada. In these tests, the Navy measured the time and manning required to build and load precision-guided munitions on strike/fighter aircraft.
What was gained from these peacetime evaluations? The participants received unparalleled training in high-tempo operations. Beyond that, however, the demonstration highlighted the two primary factors that constrain firepower—the number of trained and qualified personnel available to support those machines and, in operations calling for expenditure of large numbers of weapons, the ordnance process. Further, the U.S. Navy now can estimate the numbers and types of sorties that can be generated using available resources within the constraints of the mission. Similarly, U.S. Navy can estimate the number of men and machines needed to achieve a desired level and type of sortie generation. Most important, these estimates are based on operational data.
How much firepower can an unaugmented carrier and air wing generate? The answer depends, of course, on the types of targets assigned, the length of the flying day, the amount of strike planning required, the weather at the carrier and in the target area, and the amount of post-strike analysis required. None of these factors is under the control of the carrier and her air wing. Weather permitting, however, operational data indicate that for typical operational conditions, over a four-day operating period in situations emphasizing precision-strike operations, a carrier and her embarked air wing can generate between 630 and 670 combat sorties, 465 to 550 of which deliver ordnance on the target. Carrier firepower will increase, provided that the flow of ordnance to the flight deck is increased and key personnel positions are augmented.
How can the fleet produce more firepower?
Now that the constraints are better understood, the Navy is exploring innovative ways to ease them. For the ordnance process, the problem is twofold:
- The weapon buildup and transfer process on the carrier is intricate and time-consuming.
- The magazine capacity of the carrier is fixed; a carrier generating sorties at peak capacity can exhaust her magazines in a few days. And, currently, rearming from a replenishment oiler (AOE) cannot be conducted concurrent with flight operations without a special waiver.
Efforts to alleviate the first problem exacerbate the second—the faster ordnance is readied and loaded on aircraft, the faster the carrier depletes her weapons inventory.
To address both problems, the U.S. Navy is exploring alternate concepts for rearming its carriers. The goal is to increase the rate at which weapons are brought to the flight deck and extend the number of high-tempo operating days before a carrier must stand down to replenish. In one process under consideration, pallets of weapons are vertically replenished (VertReped) from the AOE directly to Elevator 3 on the flight deck between recovery and launch operations. Figure 1 shows the resulting increase in operating days. As few as two VertReps each day dramatically extend the time before a carrier must stand down to replenish. The USS Constellation (CV-64) is testing this procedure under a variety of operating conditions with promising preliminary results.
To ease the personnel constraints, the Navy is exploring three avenues:
- Reallocating personnel on board the carrier in times of crisis
- Tapping Naval Reserve personnel
- Creating a rapid deployment augmentation cell of warfighting specialists
These are not new concepts: ship's company personnel were reallocated successfully during the Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars (during which yeomen routinely loaded ordnance on aircraft); the Naval Reserve was created for the purpose of augmenting the active-duty forces; and the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center (NSAWC) already sends teams of mission specialists to augment naval forces in times of conflict. To build on these concepts, the Navy is identifying carrier and air wing billets that are candidates for temporary reassignment, working closely with the Naval Reserve to determine the training required for reservists who may fill some billets during times of crisis, and examining ways the composition of a rapid deployment cell should be tailored for different operational situations.
If these two efforts are successful, carrier flight operations could be extended to 24 hours a day for four days. Under these conditions over a the four-day period, the firepower available from a properly augmented carrier could range between 850 and 1,000 combat sorties, 650 to 800 of which could carry ordnance to the target.
So why hasn't the Navy's full firepower potential been realized in real-world situations? For starters, the Navy is but one player in the joint world and, as such, executes its portion of a CinC's plan and no more. During Operation Desert Storm, for example, the carriers' sortie generation was far below their capacity—F/A-18s operating off the carriers in the Persian Gulf averaged only 1.73 sorties per carrier operating day per aircraft, which is not too bad considering the Joint Forces Air Component Commander (JFACC) tasked them to produce only 1.78 sorties per aircraft per day. The Navy actually had assets available to do more, had it been tasked.
Naval assets continue to be underused today. During Operation Desert Fox over Iraq, senior military commanders directed that U.S. Navy strikes be conducted only under the cover of darkness. Thus, the timing of these strikes were not driven by limitations of the CVBG, but by operational constraints present at the time. Further, when the USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) and CVW-11 arrived on scene, the JFACC did not identify new targets for CVW-11 to strike. Instead, planned targets were reallocated from the USS Enterprise (CVN-65) and CVW-3 to CVW-11 on the Carl Vinson, which hardly realized the full firepower potential of the two-carrier battle force.
Generating firepower is a complex process influenced by many factors. Some of these factors are under the control of the battle group commander and some, such as whether the JFACC tasks the carrier and air wing team to capacity, are not. To tap fully the warfighting resources in future operations, the Navy may want to pursue the following initiatives:
- Strengthen naval firepower expertise at the unified combatant commands. In forward theaters with significant naval forces assigned, CinCs who are not naval officers must have dedicated, strong, on-scene Navy component commanders to render advice regarding naval warfare. Specifically, the unified commands must have a thorough understanding of Navy air power and Tomahawk capabilities. With this expertise, plans for the use of naval firepower during contingency operations and major theater wars (MTWs) can be compared to the capacity of naval forces and modified, if necessary. This would ensure the full potential of the Navy can be realized. One means to this end is to ensure that senior Navy officers fill key positions on the staffs of the CinCs.
- Increase the number of advanced munitions in the Navy's inventory. Because naval forces operate forward, they are often first on the scene of a crisis. Further, land bases may not exist or, where they are present, host-nation support may not be forthcoming. So, naval forces may be the major component of the striking force, especially in the early days of a campaign. In many operational settings, however, the weapons of choice initially will be the technologically advanced munitions; with these weapons, collateral damage tends to be less and the weapons' effectiveness higher. Because the number of advanced munitions in a battle group is small, the inventory can be quickly exhausted. It is paramount that the operating forces have access to adequate numbers of advanced munitions during a conflict's critical early days if the nation's substantial investment in power projection is not to be squandered. To procure additional advanced munitions for the operating forces, the Navy should reprogram funding internally and make its case for a larger portion of the overall budget.
- Lower its expectations of the sortie-completion rate achieved. For years, the Navy has used the sortie-completion rate—the percentage of the number of sorties scheduled that are flown—as a measure of carrier and air wing performance. Typically, sortie-completion rates are in the high 90s. However, too much emphasis on the sortie—completion rate—at the expense of sorties flown-can adversely affect the use of naval firepower. For example, if schedules are written to ensure a high sortie-completion rate, the actual number of sorties flown will be less than what might be possible. Recent studies have shown that the carrier and air wing firepower capacity can be realized if the sortie-completion rate is around 85%.
- Drop sortie-generation rate as a measure of firepower. In the 1980s, the Navy placed a premium on the incorporation of aircraft reliability in the design of new aircraft. And now, the Navy is reaping the benefits of that foresight. For the most part, aviation systems no longer are the limiting factor in the generation of naval firepower. A consequence of this is that the sortie-generation rate—the average number of sorties per day per aircraft—is no longer a valid measure of firepower capacity. Any measure used to capture performance, or potential performance, must be adequately supported by the operational assumptions behind it. Specifically, the number of sorties flown (by mission type) is a better indicator of the firepower generated, as well as a more meaningful measure.
- Develop plans for augmenting carrier and air wing personnel. In many cases, the limiting factor to firepower is the number of people qualified to support, maintain, and operate the aircraft and flight deck. To fully tap the investment made in the systems of warfighting, the Navy must find ways to temporarily increase the manning of billets critical to the generation of firepower.
Dr. Jewell is a research analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses. She was on board the USS Nimitz (CVN-68) for Surge 97.