Manvel: Necessity of America’s aircraft carriers

By Talbot Manvel

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld once said: “Don’t give me numbers. What I want is capability; give me capability.”

The extraordinary capability of our aircraft carriers is on display in the continuing air campaign against ISIS started by the USS George Bush (CVN 77) and continued by the USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70). It will be needed more than ever to continue the air campaign against them.

Independent of land bases, the aircraft carrier’s air-wing must simultaneously perform surveillance, battle-space dominance, and strike in extended combat operations forward.

As with all Nimitz class carriers and the new Ford class, the Bush and Vinson can carry forward up to 80 aircraft, 3,000 tons of ordnance comprising more than 36 different types of weapons, and over 3 million gallons of aviation fuel. Because of tight budgets, they carry only 67 aircraft now.

Starting on Aug. 8, aircraft from the Bush in the Arabian Gulf repeatedly flew over 1,200 miles to northern Iraq and back to drop bombs on ISIS.

The 67 aircraft on the Bush included: 24 F/A-18E and F Super Hornets, and 20 F/A-18C Hornets; five electronic attack EA-6B Prowler aircraft; four radar-flying E2-C Hawkeyes; two C-2A Greyhound aircraft; and 12 HM-60R/S Seahawk helicopters.

To make those long flights, some of the strike fighters had to provide in-flight refueling. The Hornets and Super Hornets can deploy not only 25 different types of weapons, they can also replace weapons with fuel tanks and act as tankers. But because they had 44 of them, they could perform all three roles: fighter, strike and tanker. That is unparalleled flexibility.

Not until Oct. 2, 54 days later, did NATO ally Turkey allow an airbase to be used by coalition forces to attack ISIS forces in Iraq. While drones attacked ISIS, the only aircraft for 54 days capable of dropping heavy weapons came from the Bush.

In October, the Vinson replaced the Bush in the Arabian Gulf along with a new electronic-attack aircraft without missing a beat.

But what truly demonstrates our large aircraft carrier’s capability is that it can prevent a recurrence of what happened to that unfortunate Jordanian pilot ISIS shot down and killed.

The Vinson’s new EA-18G Growlers can detect, jam and destroy enemy radars better than ever with two fewer airmen. Like the Prowler, it can deploy a Homing Anti-Radiation Missile – HARM – that can streak down the path of a radar signal and destroy it.

They are the only aircraft in the U.S. arsenal that can do that. They can fly from land bases as well, but should those be closed, they can fly from our carriers.

But since those ships carry only 67 aircraft, there is room to add more Growlers.

Late in November, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Greenert announced on the Vinson that a “test” had added more Growlers.

By announcing that test on social media, Greenert told our coalition allies (and ISIS) that there are more than enough Growlers able to fly that long mission from the Arabian Gulf to protect not only the Vinson’s aircraft but also coalition aircraft against any anti-aircraft battery that ISIS might have.

Greenert knows how to play the social media card as well as ISIS.

To the surprise of no one except ISIS, the air campaign against it continues. No other aircraft has fallen from the skies. The wedge ISIS had hoped to drive between coalition allies failed because of the extraordinary capability of the Vinson and its airwing.

Our large, nuclear-powered aircraft carriers with less than a full complement of aircraft can confidently deploy if they have all the right types of aircraft.

But should the threat change, we can add more of any of these aircraft quickly, within days, as we did with the Growlers.

No other weapons system in the world can provide that capability. Our large, nuclear-powered carriers and airwings are worth every penny they cost.


Talbot Manvel, a retired Navy captain, served on three aircraft carriers, last as chief engineer of the carrier America in Desert Storm, and led the development of the new Ford Class. His opinions are his own.

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