Air Wing Shortfalls
Today’s air wing bears little resemblance to the one in service nearly 25 years ago during Operation Desert Storm. Into the mid 1990s, the carrier deck was full of a variety of single-role platforms—fighter, attack, antisubmarine, and early warning. All were designed from the ground up to fulfill a specific role in naval operations. The F-14D Tomcat projected long-range air superiority, while the A-6 Intruder carried bomb loads of up to 18,000 pounds 878 nautical miles from the carrier.1 The S-3 Viking was able to project both antisubmarine and antisurface warfare power in defense of the strike group.
Currently, a pair of multirole fighter-attack aircraft make up the striking power of naval aviation. The F/A-18 “Legacy” Hornet, capable of carrying 25 percent less ordnance half as far as the A-6, is notorious for its high fuel consumption rate. The F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet, with its increased range and capacity, still equates to a 35 percent reduction in combat radius compared to the A-6.2
In the near future, the F-35C Joint Strike Fighter will be added to the CVW, intended to supplement and eventually replace the Hornets in the fleet air defense, strike, and antiair roles. With an estimated combat radius of 615 nautical miles, the F-35C does not sufficiently increase the range of the carrier over the current CVW and does not approach the striking power of days past, given its requirement to carry stores internally to maintain its stealth characteristics.3
Since the retirement of the ES-3 Shadow, the carrier has been without an organic indications-and-warning (I&W) platform. While the EP-3E provides critical intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and real-time I&W support to the carrier when in the same area, the inorganic nature of this low-density/high-demand asset results in coverage gaps, which will be exacerbated when the EP-3E is retired in the 2020 timeframe without a clearly defined replacement. The MQ-4C Triton theoretically will provide the persistent ISR the CVN requires, but it too will be limited by its ability to be in the same place as the CVN. While this is not so much of an issue in the Arabian Gulf, the tyranny of distance in the Pacific almost guarantees that the Triton and CVN will not be in the same vicinity at the same time. As noted by Commander, Naval Air Forces, Vice Admiral Mike Shoemaker at the recent Maritime Patrol Association Symposium, the carrier strike group cannot rely on ISR assets that could be pulled away for other tasking.4
Joint land-based ISR unmanned aerial systems (UASs) are viable sensor platforms for a wide range of naval operations, especially in peacetime. In combat, however, the diverse and expeditionary nature of carrier operations—both nuclear aircraft carriers (CVNs) and amphibious assault ships (LHAs)—can provide numerous scenarios in which the carrier is too far from land-based ISR support or is not deemed a high enough priority by the theater air operations centers, or the land bases become unusable as a result of enemy attack.
The reduction in capacity has serious implications for national security as it forces carrier aviation, usually the first and potentially the only strike platforms available, to operate closer to the antiaccess/area-denial (A2/AD) systems of a belligerent. With the threat of A2/AD proliferation, every mile farther from shore that the carrier is forced to operate equates to one less mile of inland striking capability. Future conflicts will not guarantee a safe, hundreds of miles long refueling track with ready availability of U.S. Air Force tankers as the overland approaches to Afghanistan did. To address this shortfall, the Navy must take advantage of rapidly maturing UAS capabilities, while concurrently increasing its ability to project power across the entire range of conflict. By using a UAS derived from lessons learned from the X-47B demonstrator, a large-payload, long-endurance platform could produce a flexible response option for a variety of crises.
Reinvigorating the Air Wing
The Navy needs to address both its deep strike and organic ISR shortfalls. In a constrained fiscal environment, without clearly defined strategic opponents, it would seem daunting to try to make up for 20 years of procurement gaps. Fortunately, however, the Navy has the option to develop a single platform baseline with multiple variants to address both mission areas. This platform would not be multirole in the traditional sense of an F/A-18, for example, expected to be capable of numerous disparate missions while excelling at few. Nor would it be a type of plug-and-play mission module, creating naval aviation’s version of the supply and operational challenges of the littoral combat ship. Picture instead the varied composition of the P-3C and EP-3E—a common airframe and powerplant configuration but with completely different internal mission systems and crew compositions.
These new aircraft would roll off of the assembly line in their final configurations but would be designed from the ground up with as much commonality as possible. Under this multivariant construct, one could envision an AQ-X strike platform and an MQ-X ISR platform as symbiotic halves of the same system. With an almost identical airframe, the planes’ main differences would be in their mission systems. The AQ-X, for example, might have a more advanced targeting radar, while the MQ-X would have additional generators to supply power to on-board sensor payloads.
There are potential pitfalls in developing a multipurpose airframe. In attempting to fulfill multiple diverse mission sets, the platform may be compromised in its ability to excel in any mission.5 Rather than seeking to avoid the issue by developing single-purpose, dedicated airframes—currently a fiscally unsupportable option—the Navy instead must identify the most critical requirements for each variant. Stealth capabilities, for example, have become less critical given adversary technological counters.6 In low-end conflicts such as Afghanistan or anti-Islamic State operations, stealth is not a requirement. In a high-end, peer-peer conflict, a strike aircraft necessarily will be part of a strike package encompassing electronic warfare aircraft, again negating much of the need for significant investments in stealth.
As the Navy looks to build the MQ-25A Stingray for aerial refueling, it must do so with the requirement to evolve into deep strike and ISR platforms, reducing follow-on development costs and enabling the MQ-X and AQ-X to leverage the established infrastructure of their sibling variant. To create the strike/surveillance platform the Navy needs, the MQ-X/AQ-X must be able to meet four key requirements:
The platform must be capable of launching from both CVN- and LHA-type platforms.
AQ-X payload capacity must exceed that of a Hornet and should approach the capacity of the Intruder.
The platform must have the capability to remain aloft for 24 hours with a combat radius of at least 1,000 nautical miles.
The platform should address the initial Joint Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) mission requirements from 2003—precision strike, ISR, electronic attack, and suppression of enemy air defenses.7
Limiting the AQ-X to counterterrorism and “targets of opportunity” is to miss the vast potential the systems possess.8 Just as the MQ-4 Triton is sold as a persistent ISR platform, so too can the AQ-X serve as a persistent strike asset. An AQ-X with the payload characteristics of an A-6, especially in a lower threat environment, could loiter for hours with a substantial payload, providing close air support, show of force, or other critical ground-support operations. An MQ-X could provide time-critical information directly to the strike group, as well as stream the information over the horizon to fleet watch floors and command centers.
Carrier Cost as Liability
During the January 2015 debate on the future of the aircraft carrier as a central point of U.S. security strategy, one of the main points of disagreement was the cost/benefit analysis of the CVN and the likelihood that such an expensive platform would be placed in harm’s way. What both parties did agree on, if not explicitly stated, was that the limited range and striking power of the current carrier air wing is a hindrance to the power projection capacity and capability of the CVN.9 It stands to reason then that if the Navy can develop solutions to address CVW range/payload gaps, the aircraft carrier can reassert its preeminence in the naval force structure. It may, however, not be the aircraft carrier to which we are accustomed.
More Ships, More Presence
While the AQ-X would mark a significant shift in the combat power of the CVN, its true force-multiplying capabilities would come when deployed on a smaller air-capable vessel. In a 2009 Proceedings article, “Buy Fords, not Ferraris,” Navy Commander Jerry Hendrix called for the creation of influence squadrons built around the America (LHA-6) class.10 His argument was that in lower intensity conflicts, LHAs equipped with F-35Bs could provide enough firepower to satisfy U.S. objectives. Fuel consumption and sortie generation rates, combined with the limited payload weights permitted by vertical take-off aircraft, have the potential to limit the overall sustained combat effectiveness of this option; nonetheless, Hendrix’s question remains valid: How do we project U.S. sea power to multiple crisis points simultaneously without continuing to overstress the CVN force?
The answer is the creation, or resurrection, of a third class of air-capable ships sized to fit between the CVN and the LHA—the escort carrier (CVE). Smaller, light auxiliary carriers have played significant roles in the U.S. fleet in the past, and we should reexamine that utility today. There are two options to develop these escort carriers on the compressed timeline that would be required to maintain adequate numbers of aircraft-carrying platforms to project power forward:
The Royal Navy is in the final stages of construction of the first two Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers. Licensing the design for production in the United States would infuse capital into the defense industry of a vital ally while still employing U.S. industry. The added benefit of building a smaller, non-nuclear carrier is that shipyards other than Huntington-Ingalls Industries would have the capacity to construct the vessel. More yards capable of constructing vessels is good for the defense industrial base and can help ensure critical technical skills are maintained.
Alternatively, the Navy could modify existing LHAs to support MQ/AQ-X. The addition of a ski-jump, and possibly an arresting gear system, would necessitate a larger flight deck than currently exists, as well as the possibility of a redesigned island/tower. These modifications are not unprecedented, as evidenced by the redesign of the USS Midway (CV-41) to incorporate an angled landing area.11 The cost of these modifications, in both time and expense, would be less than designing and fielding an entirely new class of ship. The changes then could be incorporated into new construction vessels. With proper analysis, it may even be determined that significant modifications are not required. Given the long endurance of UAS platforms, the launch/land cycle would not face the same constraints a traditional CVN/CVW experiences.
Better Value, Better Options
Tandem development of the CVE and MQ/AQ-X provides two improvements to the current state of the Navy in general and naval aviation in particular. The first, and perhaps most persuasive, improvement is to the budget. The Royal Navy’s two Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers are costing approximately $4 billion each to construct, only slightly more than the $3 billion cost of the America class.12 While the original Nimitz (CVN-68)-class carriers cost around $8.5 billion, the unit cost for the new Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) class is expected to be some $14.5 billion.13 This is an enormous investment in capital ships that, as Hendrix asserts, we will not hazard short of the type of existential crisis the nation has not faced since the end of the Cold War.14 The option of a licensed Queen Elizabeth or modified LHA-6 would provide sizable cost savings that could be reinvested in the shipbuilding budget.
Halting production of the Gerald R. Ford class after completion of the John F. Kennedy (CVN-79) would allow the United States to build two CVEs instead of CVN-80, with an additional $6.5 billion in savings. That $6.5 billion then could be funneled into SSBN(X) and SSGN(X) platforms, ensuring that the Navy is able to retain and enhance its global deterrence and global strike capabilities far into the future. A $6.5 billion “surplus” every five years would provide considerable additional shipbuilding capacity to create the fleet that is needed to meet U.S. global interests.
Operational flexibility is the second improvement. Driven by global events, the carrier force is under significant strain, with long deployments, surge deployments, and deferred maintenance the norm. The addition of fixed-wing-carrying CVEs eases the carrier deployment cycle by providing presence and striking power to support U.S. strategic requirements across a wide range of operations. Incorporating the MQ/AQ-X complement into the CVW on a CVN could rectify current deficiencies during high-level operations. Embarking the MQ/AQ-X pair on a CVE would provide a flexible response to a wide variety of low- to mid-level crises, saving a reduced number of CVNs for higher-end engagements against near-peer competitors.
If procurement were undertaken in the near term, by 2030 the United States would have ten CVNs in the inventory, retiring the Nimitz and Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) but accepting the Gerald R. Ford and John F. Kennedy. With one in refueling and complex overhaul and one as forward deployed naval force, that leaves eight CVNs in the rotational fleet. By 2030, however, the Navy could have four to six CVEs in a deployable rotation. The decision point would be 2025, as three CVNs are scheduled to be retired in the 2030s (CVNs 70-72). If the strategic environment indicates the aircraft carrier, by that time more than 100 years old as a weapon system, still is a viable warfighting platform, then CVN-80 would need to be ordered to enter the fleet by the mid-2030s.15
The current complement of expensive CVNs and generalized strike aircraft has devoured an outsized portion of the Navy’s shipbuilding budget, overtaking other priorities and resulting in a compromised fleet that cannot be everywhere as expected. An evolution in ship design and aircraft development can have a revolutionary effect on the composition, capacity, and capability of the fleet. We must take advantage now of the U.S. lead in unmanned aerial systems and incorporate them into the fleet. With an ever-growing list of geopolitical areas of concern, the fleet will continue to be stretched to the breaking point if we cannot increase fleet size to meet the demand. A fleet organized around carrier units, both CVNs and CVEs, that are scalable to the level of crisis at hand and equipped with long-range strike aircraft provides national decision makers with the right mix of presence and firepower.
2. Naval History and Heritage Command, “F/A-18 Hornet and F/A-18 Super Hornet,” www.history.navy.mil/research/histories/naval-aviation-history/naval-aircraft/current-aircraft-inventory/f-a-18-hornet.html.
3. Dave Majumdar, “F-35’s Range Falls Short of Predictions,” 12 May 2011; f-35-update.blogspot.com/2011/05/f-35s-range-falls-short-of-predictions.html.
4. Vice Admiral Mike Shoemaker, U.S. Navy, 13 April 2016, in response to a question regarding the MQ-4C’s integration into the CSG.
5. Sidney J. Freedberg Jr., “CBARS Drone Under OSD Review; Can A Tanker Become A Bomber?” BreakingDefense.com; http://breakingdefense.com/2016/02/cbars-drone-under-osd-review-can-a-tanker-become-a-bomber.
6. Mike Pietrucha, “The US Air Force and Stealth: Stuck on Denial Part I,” 24 March 2016, http://warontherocks.com/2016/03/stuck-on-denial-part-i-the-u-s-air-force-and-stealth/.
7. Jeremiah Gertler, “History of the Navy UCLASS Program Requirements: In Brief,” Congressional Research Service, 3 August 2015, http://news.usni.org/2015/08/17/document-report-to-congress-on-history-of-the-navy-uclass-program-requirements, 1.
8. Gertler, “History of the Navy UCLASS Program Requirements,” 5.
9. U.S. Naval Academy, “Debate on the Future of Aircraft Carriers,” http://www.usna.edu/Museum/CurrentEvents/Panels.php.
10. Commander Henry J. Hendrix, U.S. Navy, “Buy Fords, Not Ferraris,” Proceedings 135, no. 4 (April 2009), 56.
11. Thomas C. Hone, Norman Friedman, and Mark D. Mandeles, “The Development of the Angled-Deck Aircraft Carrier: Innovation and Adaptation,” Naval War College Review 64, no. 2 (Spring 2011), 70.
12. BBC News, “The True Cost of aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth,” www.bbc.com/news/uk-28153569. Sydney J. Freedberg Jr., “Navy’s Newest, LHA-6, A Dead End For Amphibious Ships?” BreakingDefense.com, 3 October 2012, http://breakingdefense.com/2012/10/navys-newest-lha-6-a-dead-end-for-amphibious-ships.
13. U.S. Navy, “United States Navy Fact File- Aircraft Carriers,” www.navy.mil/navydata/fact_display.asp?cid=4200&tid=200&ct=4. Congressional Budget Office, “An Analysis of the Navy’s Fiscal Year 2015 Shipbuilding Plan,” 15 December 2014, http://news.usni.org/2014/12/15/document-cbo-report-u-s-navys-fiscal-year-2015-shipbuilding-plan, 21.
14. U.S. Naval Academy, “Debate.”
15. Estimated retirement dates based on commissioning of each CVN, as defined on Navy.mil/navydata/ships/carriers/cv-list.asp.
Commander Woodworth is a naval flight officer with a background in EP-3E and P-3C aircraft. He currently serves as operations officer for Patrol Squadron 30. He holds a master’s in military history from Norwich University.