Expanding the Reach of the Carrier Strike Group

Naval Air Station Fallon trains the naval air wing for aircraft carriers; Rear Adm. Mike Manazir, director of Navy Air Warfare, works to improve its capabilities. Manazir is a battle-hardened carrier admiral.

By chance our interview with the admiral occurred shortly after the successful initial tests of the F-35C aboard the USS Nimitz. He focused on the impact of fifth generation aircraft— stealthy, advanced radar and avionics etc — and the building out of the integrated capabilities of the air wing which is the focus of Fallon training.

(The Navy has been much less enthusiastic about the F-35 than its two sister services, the Air Force and Marines. That seems to be changing now that the F-35C has successfully landed and taken off repeatedly from an aircraft carrier. The Editor.)

“The F-35 is not an A or an E or an F; it is all of those. Earlier we had an F-14, an A-6 and an EA-6B and needed all three to do our job; now one airplane blends those capabilities and we can leverage that as we look at the integration of the other capabilities of the air wing we are developing. Fifth generation is opening up so many possibilities that how we used to think about our capabilities is changing. How do we wring out the full capabilities of the air wing with the fifth generation as a catalyst for change?” Manazir said.

“Where it used to be platform-to-platform, we now have inherent in a single weapon system, the capability to fold in all those things that we used to think were single missions, like the fighter mission, like the attack mission, like the electronic warfare mission.” That “fundamentally causes us to look at the way in which we do business in the future.”

But for Admiral Manazir, the F-35 is about what it can bring to the joint and coalition fight, not just about adding a new aircraft to the mix. The Navy needs to train differently to figure out how to do forward leaning integration and shape fifth generation warfare most effectively.

“The current air wing that we have is capable of training inside the Fallon battlespace in a way in which we normally train. You use simulators to practice, and then you get in your airplane and you go against representative threat systems. Most of the representative legacy threat systems are on the Fallon ranges. And they are either physically there or we have a simulation that emulates the threat presentation. And all of that can be contained in that air space,” he explained.

But the threats America faces in the mid-2020s and beyond are so much more advanced that Fallon “cannot replicate it using live assets” so the Navy is exploring “a different way to train.”

The F-35C and the reworking of the air wing are viewed as working very well with the new capabilities being built into the first of the next generation of carriers, the USS Ford.

As Manazir put it: “What the Ford does is it optimizes the things that we think are the most important. Some of those capabilities are clear: Enhanced sortie generation capabilities or the number of times you can get airplanes into the mix to keep the reach out there; the power generation capability, so advanced systems can operate off of the ship; the ability to take the information that is brought back through the airborne network into the ship and be able to disseminate it to decision makers is enhanced over the Nimitz class.”

But for Manazir the process of change is not simply about what the carrier and the carrier air wing can do. “I am the son of a Marine. What you are talking about is in my blood. And the Marines are leading the charge on fifth generation capability and bringing it into the fleet.

“And when we think back to World War II, the Navy-Marine team in the Pacific was the integration of core capabilities, which defeated the Japanese forces. The new ships, the coming of the F-35 and reworking our concepts of operations enhance such integration.

“And a key element is the capability to evolve our systems over time. It needs to be recognized that the Navy shares its investment in F-35 combat systems with the Marines, the Air Force and coalition partners – we are all using the same combat systems in our aircraft. That is an investment multiplier.

“As the F-35 and its fifth-generation data fusion capabilities continue to advance through the follow-on development of the software, processing that information that we’re going to be able to get from the environment through the fifth-generation systems into the carrier, and then to be able to input that information into a decision loop, and then acting will be a big step forward.”

USS Ford is also about the ability to work more effectively with evolving joint and coalition forces as well. “Reach not range is a key aspect of looking at the carrier air wing and its ability to work with joint and coalition forces,” he said. “This is clearly enhanced with the F-35. What you can do with a carrier, given joint and coalition perspectives is the Carrier automatically extends your reach because you can put it anywhere you want. The mobility of the carrier is a key point. You can put it up against the problem set the national command authority or the joint force commander wishes to address; and then you can move it to deal with an evolving target or operational set of challenges, again aligned with the commander’s intent.

“You can move the reach of the carrier wing as you redeploy it and connect with joint or coalition assets. The carrier has a core ability to operate organically, but its real impact comes from its synergy with the joint and coalition force, which will only go up as theglobal F-35 fleet emerges.

Robbin Laird, a defense consultant, is a member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors and owner of the Second Line of Defense website. Ed Timberlake is a graduate of the US Naval Academy, a former USMC squadron commander and a carrier qualified pilot.

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