Debate over the utility and relevance of the U.S. nuclear-powered aircraft carrier (CVN) in a high-end fight continues unabated. Most recently, retired captain and naval aviator Robert C. Rubel argued in Proceedings that its role in such conflicts should change in the face of current and emerging antiaccess/area-denial (A2/AD) threats. The carrier air wing should now primarily support missile-capable surface combatants, Rubel claims. 1 This is one of several articles published in recent years advocating a role reversal for the CVN that, at least during the initial stages of war with an A2/AD-centric foe, would place it in a secondary position to its missile-armed escorts.2
Rubel presents a number of sensible ideas to make this new concept work, including programming for a long-range interceptor variant of the F-35C (similar in mission to the Cold War–era F-14) and expediting development of the MQ-25 unmanned aerial tanker. However, the concept could be jump-started right away by maximizing capabilities that already exist. One defense writer suggested increasing the number of F/A-18E/F Super Hornets and EA-18G Growlers in the carrier air wing (CVW).3 Given the two aircrafts’ very important primary missions in a contested battlespace—air superiority and electronic warfare (EW) respectively—it is worth exploring this idea in greater depth in relation to Rubel’s argument.
Deploy More F/A-18s
In a concept of operations where the CVN plays a supporting role to missile “shooters,” CVW fighter aircraft would provide the requisite counter-air umbrella for the latter to operate effectively with minimal interference from the enemy. The F/A-18 strike fighter is currently the mainstay Navy aircraft for attaining air superiority. Increasing its numbers in the CVW would go some way toward strengthening the CVN’s role as an air cover provider not only for surface combatants, but also for highly vulnerable surveillance and reconnaissance assets such as the P-8 Poseidon and MQ-4 Triton. Rubel posited that these will be of profound importance in a contested battlespace.
The fighting power of the CVN today is concentrated in its four squadrons of F/A-18s. Because each one comprises 10–12 aircraft, the total number of strike fighters in a typical CVW ranges between 44 and 48. The F/A-18 will still need to perform the strike attack mission, even in a heavily contested air defense environment, so it is likely some will continue to be allotted for offensive tasks. In addition, approximately one-quarter of the CVW F/A-18s’ flying time is currently delegated for aerial refueling, which significantly reduces the CVW’s combat power. This is unlikely to change anytime soon, given that the MQ-25 will not be in the fleet until at least 2024.
In a highly contested operating environment, quantity matters. The more fighters the CVN has, the better. Carrier aircraft availability rates hover around 80 percent, and this figure could well be lower against a capable A2/AD enemy.4 Indeed, Rubel maintains that “the defensive effort [to protect the missile surface force] could require many fighter aircraft in a carrier air wing.”5 Thus it is hardly surprising that a retired Navy admiral once said, “With squadrons of [Chinese] J-20s coming eastbound, a supercarrier in the China Seas might need all 44 of those F-18s just to defend itself.”6 After all, an adversary like China is likely to employ its forces in massed, multivector attacks to overwhelm the carrier group’s defenses. Such a threat could be mitigated by increasing the carrier’s F/A-18 complement, perhaps by a squadron.
Increase the EA-18G Complement
Rubel noted that a “modern over-the-horizon missile fight will be highly information-dependent.” Here he is right on the mark. Battlespace awareness will be pivotal in a high-end contest with a peer adversary; whoever can “see” better undoubtedly will hold the winning edge. This is especially important for anyone trying to impose A2/AD on U.S. naval forces attempting to hide in the vast expanses of the open sea. Indeed, one senior Pentagon official stressed that “A2/AD is basically a fight in the electromagnetic spectrum.”7
Many observers have noted recently that Russia and China are making advances in EW capabilities to “blind” the U.S. military in conflict.8 In this regard, the United States would do well to fight fire with fire by increasing its own CVW EW capability to gain the upper hand in the “hider-finder” competition. To this end, doubling the carrier’s present five-plane EA-18G detachment would certainly help. Such a move also would increase the carrier’s combat airpower in other ways. The Growler is capable of executing conventional strike missions on top of its regular EW portfolio, and this could be carried out after EW requirements had been satisfied. Moreover, given that the EA-18G has an air-to-air capability—it carries AIM-120 advanced medium-range air-to-air missiles—it can be used for in extremis fleet air defense during the expected massed, multi-vectored enemy attack.
Ideally, the increase in aircraft and crew would be funded in a larger Department of Defense budget. One estimate puts the cost of adding a squadron of Super Hornets and doubling the Growler detachment at slightly over $1 billion.9 Implementing this proposal throughout the entire ten-strong carrier fleet would cost $10 billion or more.
Should more defense funding not be forthcoming, the additional aircraft could come from land-based U.S. Navy and Marine Corps units. A few such units could be deployed at sea on an experimental basis. This would mean that the increased operational demands of handling up to 17 extra aircraft and the attendant flight and hangar deck choreography, could be accurately measured and adjusted to. Wargames and other stressful simulations could then follow to test the enlarged CVW.
There is enough space on board a CVN to accommodate the increase in aircraft. U.S. carriers currently deploy with about 70 aircraft, well below their maximum complement. During the Cold War, carriers routinely deployed with well over 80 aircraft. Thus there is room for a new F/A-18 squadron and another EA-18G detachment.
Historically, the carrier air wing has adapted to meet new threats. At the start of World War II, U.S. carriers typically had an attack-centric air group of 18 fighters, 36 dive-bombers, and 18 torpedo-planes. Toward the end of the conflict, with the kamikaze threat exacting a serious toll on U.S. forces, the emphasis shifted to fleet air defense. Then the aircraft complement included some 90 fighters and only a dozen torpedo-planes. Profoundly significant developments in today’s operating environment could similarly necessitate change for U.S. carrier operations. Increasing the F/A-18 and EA-18G numbers in CVWs could be one way for this capital ship to contribute more effectively in a high-end fight against a highly capable A2AD enemy.
2. See for instance, Philip E. Pournelle, “The Rise of the Missile Carriers,” Proceedings, March 2013, and Ben Wan Beng Ho, “Opinion: It’s Time to Rethink U.S. Carrier CONOPS,” USNI News, 24 May 2016.
4. galrahn, “https://blog.usni.org/posts/2009/08/27/the-monster-myths-of-the-cvl-concept,” U.S. Naval Institute Blog, 27 August 2009.
6. James Hasik, “A Trillion Dollars Saved: What Would the Air Force Look Like with No F-35?,” The National Interest, 8 September 2017.
7. Sydney J. Freedburg Jr. “Electronic Warfare ‘Growing’; Joint Airborne EW Study Underway,” Breaking Defense, 23 June 2017.
8. See for instance, Samuel Bendett, “America Is Getting Outclassed by Russian Electronic Warfare,” The National Interest, 19 September 2017, and Amanda Macias, “China is quietly conducting electronic warfare tests in the South China Sea,” CNBC, 5 July 2018.