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Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Make America’s Carrier Air Wing Great Again

 Image 1: F-35Cs onboard the USS George Washington. Image Credit: Lockheed Martin & taken by Todd R. McQueen.

Author’s Note: For the purpose of this article, the majority of analysis will concern the role of carrier based fighter aircraft. For a quick primer on the roles of other carrier based aircraft, please refer to Sam LaGrone’s “Inside the Carrier Air Wing”.

In response to the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) rise as a near-peer competitor, bipartisan support continues to grow in support of rebuilding the American Navy. However, the U.S. Navy (USN), Congress, and the Administration officials continue to neglect modernizing the carrier air wing (CVW) as part of any major naval build-up. The current CVW is smaller than any deployed since the USN’s first super carrier in 1955 and consists of short range aircraft ill-suited for sea control and power projection operations against high-end adversaries. The F-35C is a critical component to the future CVW as the Lightning II greatly extends the reach, survivability, and lethality of the entire carrier strike group. Despite suggestions by the President that the F-35C could be replaced by a “comparable” F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, both the F/A-18E/F and F-35C will serve complementary roles as part of a high-low mix force structure. In order to demonstrate the necessity of funding the full procurement of 260 F-35Cs for the USN, an analysis of how the threat environment in the Western-Pacific challenges the modern CVW will be provided in parts I and II. Part III will discuss the unique capabilities of the F-35C and how its presence on USN carriers will multiply the effectiveness of other USN assets. Lastly, the fourth article in the series will conclude with a list of recommendations on the future structure of the CVW such as the role and ideal requirements for the Carrier Based Aerial Refueling System (CBARS) and the need for a carrier based long-range anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capability to replace the S-3 Viking.

Future Threat Environment & the Role of Carrier Based Fighters

Chart 1: Planned CVW in the mid to late 2020s. 

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the USN obtained uncontested dominion over the world’s oceans for the first time since the end of World War II. The USN no longer needed to prioritize sea control assets, munitions, and doctrines such as the F-14D, the anti-ship variant of the Tomahawk cruise missile, and the Outer Air Battle concept. Given the permissive operational environment, the USN gradually tooled the CVW to provide persistent presence and air power against non-state actors following 9/11. The USN will have to relearn the institutional knowledge, skills, and doctrines associated with sea control in addition to procuring new ships and aircraft to face the modern threat environment. The Department of Defense (DoD) defines sea control as:
…operations designed to secure use of the maritime domain by one’s own forces and to prevent its use by the enemy. Sea control is the essence of seapower and is a necessary ingredient in the successful accomplishment of all naval missions…Such operations include destruction of enemy naval forces, suppression of enemy sea commerce, protection of vital sea lanes, and establishment of local military superiority in areas of naval operations.[1]
CVW fighters are an indispensable means towards establishing sea control in terms of providing defensive counter air (DCA) cover for the strike group, conducting anti-surface warfare (ASuW) operations, denying an adversary’s air and maritime use of a particular geographic region, and securing freedom of action for maritime forces. Once sea control is established, carrier based fighter aircraft facilitate power projection operations in the offensive counter air (OCA), suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD)/destruction of enemy air defenses (DEAD), interdiction, and strike roles. Given the sparse availability of land bases in the Western-Pacific, USN carrier based aviation will play an indispensable role in any U.S.-PRC conflict.  

Image 2: SAM coverage of Type 052 destroyer. Image Credit: Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI), 2015.

The PRC is quickly fielding anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) systems such as anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs), submarines, sea mines, and anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs) which will force carrier strike groups to operate hundreds of miles from directly contested regions at the start of a major conflict. However, PRC ASCMs and ASBMs will be heavily reliant on a mix of space, sea, and air based intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets to provide over the horizon (OTH) targeting information. The PRC is also fielding an increasingly potent mix of integrated air defense systems (IADS) such as the HQ-16, S-300PMU, HQ-9, and S-400 surface to air missile (SAM) systems cued by a mix of VHF search radars and passive electronically scanned array (PESA) as well as active electronically scanned array (AESA) fire control radars.
These systems will pressure non-stealthy U.S. aircraft to operate at greater distances from A2/AD zones thereby greatly diminishing the utility of short range weapons. For example, adversary aircraft conducting DCA missions have the option of staying within the protective cover of their own IADS which limits the ability of non-stealthy CVW fighters armed with medium range air-to-air missiles (AAMs) to conduct OCA missions. Long-range SAMs will also degrade the utility of direct attack munitions, air-to-surface weapons with a range less than 50 nautical miles (nm) such as the 13 nm range Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM), in the strike and interdiction roles.[2] In terms of both munitions and aircraft, the current CVW is ill-suited to execute sea control and power projection missions against high-end A2/AD adversaries. Both the current and planned CVW will be assessed with respect to sea control capabilities (ASuW, DCA) as well as power projection in a contested environment (OCA, SEAD/DEAD, strike, and interdiction).


Current CVW Sea Control

Image 3: Exploitation of critical sea lines of communication and geographic features will be crucial towards successful carrier operations in any U.S.-PRC conflict. Image Credit: RAND.

 The fighter contingent of the current CVW consists of one to two squadrons of F/A-18C/Ds Hornets and two to three squadrons of more capable F/A-18E/Fs Super Hornets for a total of 44 fighter aircraft.[3][4] Both the legacy Hornet and Super Hornet are reliable and versatile strike fighters, but they are severely constrained by their relatively short combat radius of approximately 290 nm for the legacy Hornet and 390 nm to 410 nm for the Super Hornet depending upon the flight profile and configuration of external stores.[5] With the retirement of the S-3 Viking in 2009, between five to six F/A-18E/Fs are used in the buddy tanking role to extend the reach and endurance of the remaining Hornets which further erodes the effective strength of the CVW.[6] 

Image 4: PLAN fleet distribution. Image Credit: ONI, 2015.

The sea control mission will greatly vary depending upon the nature of the PRC-U.S. conflict in terms of objectives and geography. Namely if the conflict occurs in the South China Sea (SCS), East China Sea (ECS), or is part of a broader Indo-Asia Pacific regional contingency. For example, the PRC would not be able to mass and sustain the same degree of air and sea power in the SCS as the ECS given its greater distance from the Chinese mainland.[7] However, across all plausible contingencies the PRC will retain an in theatre numerical advantage in combat aircraft and aggregate sortie generation rates; the PLAAF and PLANAF field more than 800 modern fighter aircraft including 400 J-10s and approximately 400 Flankers across all variants. In order to obtain sea control, CVW fighters must:
1.      Establish localized air superiority while maintaining a heavily favorable exchange ratio against People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and People’s Liberation Army Navy Air Force (PLANAF) fighter aircraft given the numerical advantage of PRC forces and the difficulty in resupplying the carrier with new aircraft in the midst of a conflict.
2.      Disrupt or destroy PRC OTH sensors enabling long-range employment of ASBMs and ASCMs
3.      Target PLAAF and PLANAF aircraft and surface combatants caring ASCMs-ideally before they are able to engage the strike group thereby reducing the cruise missile defense burden of the surface combatants
4.      Fleet anti-air warfare (AAW) assets must ensure the survival of special mission aircraft such as the EA-18G and E-2D as well as USN land based ISR and ASW assets supporting the strike group such as the P-8A and MQ-4C
5.      Facilitate collection of OTH targeting information for the strike group such that USN surface combatants can conduct long-range ASuW
6.      Destroy or disable enemy surface combatants as part of a broader ASuW effort.

Image 5: Carrier strike group composition. Image Credit: NAVSEA. 

Defensive Counter Air

Even without the F-35C, current CVW fighters will be able to achieve high exchange rates against PLAAF and PLANAF fighters within the defensive cover of the strike group. The USN has heavily invested in its AAW capabilities with the development of Aegis baseline 9.0 combat system, E-2D Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) aircraft, Air and Missile Defense Radar (AMDR) for the DDG-51 Flight III, 200 nm + range SM-6 SAM, 90 nm range SM-2 Block IIIA SAM, 27 nm + range Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM) SAM, SeaRAM, and upgraded CWIS Block 1B. A strike group typically consists of four DDG-51 guided missile destroyers and one CG-47 guided missile cruiser which collectively have 506 vertical launch cells (VLS); the USN is considering expanding the number of surface combatants per strike group up to seven or eight for a total capacity of 698 to 794 VLS cells (not including the SSN which is typically assigned to the strike group but in practice often operates autonomously).[8]

The USN has been proactive investing in its F/A-18E/F fleet with its spiral upgrade flight plan which will add additional APG-79 AESA capabilities, enhanced electronic warfare (EW) and self-protection capabilities, IR search and track (IRST) pods, and improved software to support sensor fusion as well as network centric warfare and multi-missile shot capability.[9][10] Furthermore, the USN has been procuring AIM-120D and AIM-9X AAMs at an accelerated place with 1,170 and 758 missiles requested in the five year defense plan (FYDP) respectively.[11] Within the short-term, F/A-18C/Ds and F/A-18E/Fs will maintain a significant qualitative edge over PLAAF and PLANAF aircraft in beyond visual range (BVR) combat engagements. The vast majority of current PLAAF and PLANAF aircraft utilize mechanically scanned array radars such as the indigenous Type 1473 and Type 1474 for the J-10A and J-11B which are further constrained by obsolescent fire control computers and networking capabilities. Therefore, most current PRC fighter can only engage one to two aircraft simultaneously at BVR which mitigates their numerical advantage in contrast to the Hornets and Super Hornets which can engage multiple targets at longer ranges simultaneously.[12] Over the next decade, the PRC will field increasingly capable Flanker variants such as the Su-35, J-11D, and J-16 as well as the fifth generation J-20 which will significantly erode the quality advantage of current CVW fighters.

Image 6: Pair of J-20 fighters on display at Zhuhai 2016. Note the Luneburg lens radar reflectors mounted on the underside of the aircraft to mask the J-20's real RCS. The J-20 program continues to make steady progress as shown by design refinements made between the initial J-20 prototypes and the low rate initial production (LRIP) aircraft. The DoD estimates the J-20 will reach initial operational capacity (IOC) around 2018. A production run of a few hundred airframes is plausible and the design will only become more formidable as Chengdu engineers thoroughly examine the PLAAF's new Su-35s. 

Detection of low observable aircraft such as the J-20 will present a significant challenge for the current CVW and AAW assets within the strike group. The unique design traits of the J-20 airframe suggest it is a low observable interceptor designed to destroy the enablers of U.S. power projection such as AEW&C, EW, ISR, and tanker aircraft.[13] All of these aircraft have minimal maneuvering capabilities, with the exception of the EA-18G, which thereby increases the no escape zone of long-range AAMs launched against them. The E-2D Hawkeye AEW&C’s APY-9 VHF AESA radar is likely the asset best suited to locate PLAAF stealth aircraft given that the J-20’s use of planform alignment is optimized against the X and S-bands. The APY-9 has a maximum detection range of over than 300 nm and a 250% greater surveillance envelope compared to the legacy APS-145 on the E-2C.[14] The SPY-6 AMDR may be able to locate and track stealth aircraft at tactically significant ranges despite operating in the S-band; the AMDR is composed of thousands of gallium nitride (GaN) transmit receiver modules which grant the AMDR 30 times the detection capability of the legacy SPY-1 on the DDG-51 Flight I and IIs. It is worth noting that both the APY-9 and SPY-6 were built to aid in the defense against cruise missiles which feature a comparatively low RCS. Alternatively, EA-18Gs may be able to locate J-20s with their emission location equipment or F/A-18E/Fs would be able to detect the J-20 with their IRST pods at relatively short ranges.

Even if the current CVW is able to detect low observable aircraft, the USN’s current qualitative edge in fighter aircraft is significantly declining. Without the F-35C, the current CVW will increasingly have to rely upon support from surface combatants and shore based USAF aircraft to establish localized air superiority. CVW fighters will eventually have to leave the protective cover of the strike group to target PRC OTH sensors, ASCM carrying aircraft, and PLAN surface combatants at extended ranges. Even with extensive EA-18G EW support, current CVW fighters will struggle to accomplish the aforementioned missions without high attrition rates.

Anti-Surface Warfare

Image 7: Super Hornet configured for ASuW with four AGM-84D Harpoon missiles. Image Credit: USN. 

The current CVW is armed with two principal anti-ship weapons, the AGM-154 C-1 JSOW and the AGM-84D (Block 1 C) Harpoon both of which have a range of approximately 70 nm.[15][16] In the fourth quarter of FY 2017, the USN will begin fielding the upgraded AGM-84N Block II + which includes a two-way data link, GPS guidance, and enhanced electronic counter measure performance.[17] However, U.S. CVW aircraft will be significantly outranged in the ASuW mission when compared to their PLAAF and PLANAF equivalents. The most numerous air launched ASCMs in service with the PRC are the subsonic YJ-83 (70 nm), YJ-63 (108 nm), YJ-83A (135 nm), and YJ-62A (215 nm) as well as the supersonic YJ-12 (135 nm).[18][19] PLAN surface combatants are also fielding increasingly longer range ASCMs such as the YJ-62A and supersonic YJ-18 (97 nm +); the PLAN’s Russian acquired Sovremenny-class destroyers are armed with 3M54E Klub (108 nm) and SS-N-22 Sunburn (130 nm) ASCMs.[20] Nearly every PLAN surface combatant is armed with ASCMs and at SAMs including smaller corvettes and frigates which greatly increases the number of targets CVW aircraft must engage i.e. the PLAN has been practicing “distributed lethality” for years while the USN continues to make meager process enacting distributed lethality.

The limited standoff ranges of the AGM-84N Block II + and JSOW C-1 degrade the survivability of current CVW fighters in the ASuW role. PLAN surface combatants will continue to improve their own AAW capabilities with continued production of the Type 052D which incorporates the Type 346 Dragon Eye AESA radar and extended range HQ-9 (80 nm). Furthermore, PLAN surface combatants may choose to stay within the protective cover of land based SAMs depending upon the nature of the conflict and resulting geography which would further degrade CVW survivability. In order to successfully conduct ASuW missions with the current AGM-84N and JSOW C-1, current CVW fighters will require substantial MALD/MALD-J decoy and EA-18G EW support. The interim fielding of the 300 nm + range capable Lockheed Martin AGM-158C long-range anti-ship missile (LRASM) in 2019 as part of Offensive Anti-Surface Warfare (OASuW) increment 1 will greatly improve the survivability of the current CVW in the ASuW role.

The AGM-158C features a low observable air frame, jam resistant two way data link, semiautonomous targeting modes, 1,000 pound warhead, and multi-mode seeker.[21] Despite the significant capabilities of the AGM-158C, the USN has only requested 60 AGM-154Cs in its FYDP as of FY 2017 with procurement ending in 2019.[22] The limited procurement quantities likely reflect the interim nature of the OASuW program prior to OASuW increment 2 which will field a larger number of ASCMs across the fleet starting in 2024. The main competitors of OASuW increment 2 are the LRASM, an advanced active seeker equipped derivative of Raytheon’s Tomahawk Block IV, and possibly Kongsberg’s Naval Strike Missile (NSM).[23]

Author’s Note: Part II will discuss the CVW's power projection capabilities against the PRC.

[1] “Command and Control for Joint Maritime Operations”, Joint Staff, 2013.
[2] “United States Navy Fact File: Joint Direct Attack Munition”, USN, last accessed February 2017.
[3] “The Carrier Air Wing of the Future”, David Barno, Nora Bensahel and M. Thomas Davis, February 2014. pp. 8
[4] “The Basics: Inside the Carrier Air Wing”, Sam LaGrone, April 2014.
[5] “F/A-18 Hornet Specifications”, Global Security, last updated July 2011.
[6] “CNO: Navy Should Quickly Field CBARS To Ease Tanking Burden on Super Hornets”, Megan Eckstein, February 2016.
[7] “The U.S.-China Military Scorecard Forces, Geography, and the Evolving Balance of Power, 1996–2017”, Eric Heginbotham, et al., 2015. pp. xxx
[8] “Navy Wants to Grow Fleet to 355 Ships; 47 Hull Increase Adds Destroyers, Attack Subs”, Sam LaGrone and Megan Eckstein, December 2016.
[9] “FY 2015 Programs: F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and EA-18G Growler”, DOT&E, 2016.
[10] “RDT&E Budget Item Justification: PE 0204136N / F/A-18 Squadrons”, USN, February 2016.
[11] “Highlights of the Department of the Navy FY 2017 Budget”, DON, 2016.
[12] Modern Chinese Warplanes, Andreas Rupprecht and Tom Cooper pgs. 66, 72, 81
[13] “PLAAF Fighter Modernization & J-20 Updates”, Matt, October 2015.
[14] “Lockheed Martin AN/APY-9”, Scramble, last updated July 2011.
[15] “Joint Standoff Weapon (JSOW)”, NAVAIR, last accessed February 2017.
[17] Ibid.  
[18] “A Potent Vector Assessing Chinese Cruise Missile Developments”, Dennis M. Gormley, Andrew S. Erickson, and Jingdong Yuan, 2014.
[19] “YJ-63”, Deagle, last accessed February 2017.
[20] “A Potent Vector Assessing Chinese Cruise Missile Developments”, Dennis M. Gormley, Andrew S. Erickson, and Jingdong Yuan, 2014.
[21] “Offensive AsuW Weapon Capability”, Lockheed Martin, 2015.
[22] “Highlights of the Department of the Navy FY 2017 Budget”, pp. 4-7, DON, 2016.
[23] “Navy: Raytheon Tomahawk Likely to Compete in Next Generation Anti-Ship Missile Contest“, Sam LaGrone, August 2015.


  1. Does E-2D use UHF antenna to guide SM-6 missiles? And does the APG-81 have 1672 T/R or 1200 modules?

    1. It is interesting since UHF radars are generally acknowledged as not being able to provide target quality track data to missiles. But, the SM-6 has its own active radar guided seeker from the AIM-120 so it might be guided to the target and receive updates via data link until its close enough for the active terminal seeker to acquire the target.

      As for the T/R modules I doubt you will get a satisfactory answer from unclassified sources. I always cite the 1,200 TR figure to be safe, but it is certainly plausible that it could be as high as 1,676 provided other figures for U.S. fighter radars are also higher than advertised e.g. APG-77 and APG-82 are greater than 1,500 T/R. I recall a USAF official remarked that the APG-81 had roughly 75% of the detection power of the APG-77. If 1,500 TR figure for APG-77 is to be believed its about 1,125 for F-35 (off by 75), if 2,000 T/R figure is to be believed than its 1,500 (off by 166).

    2. Thank you. I am Brazilian :). Your blog is the best.

    3. Haha, glad you enjoy it. Thanks :D

    4. Do you have the power of the APG-77 and APG-81 T/R module?

    5. Hi Richardo,

      Like peak power output? I'm 99% sure the actual figures are classified. The following are the three best sources on the APG-77 that I've seen, its probably the best we are going to get in the public domain:

      "The Avionics Handbook: APG-77":

      "Forecast International: APG-77(V)":


      Sorry, hope that helps.



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    1. Sustained radius turn is 28°/s with an instantaneous turn rate exceeding 28°/s.