Report: Carrier air wing must be reconfigured to stay effective

By Meghann Myers, Staff writer

Today’s carrier air wing is obsolete against sophisticated foes.

So argues a retired naval flight officer in a controversial new report that calls for the Navy to reconfigure its air wings to fly farther to keep the aircraft carrier beyond the range of the latest generation of anti-ship missiles.

China’s long-range ship-killing missile would force the U.S. to keep its flattops nearly 1,000 miles off shore to avoid damages that could kill sailors and render the ships ineffective. The Navy must reconfigure the air wing to get close enough to be effective while keeping the carrier out of missile range, retired Capt. Jerry Hendrix wrote in his new report, “Retreat from Range: The Rise and Fall of Carrier Aviation,” released by the Center for a New American Security. The report comes amid concerns about the rising costs of the newest supercarrier class and a debate about the effectiveness of the carrier against advanced adversaries.

“The answer in the back of my mind was that if the carrier was unable to come up with a plan for striking from range, where you have an asset that’s worth $15 billion with 5,000 American lives on it, but is being held out by [anti-access/area denial] threats such as [China’s Dong-Feng 21 rocket], the answer is either that you have to find some way of operating the carrier inside that bubble … or you’re going to have to get an aircraft on that carrier that’s going to be able to span that distance,” he said in a Monday phone interview.

It’s unlikely that the Navy will choose to operate in range of China’s shore-based DF-21 batteries, he said, so the best option would be to add aircraft with enough endurance to strike the enemy.

The air wing as it’s organized isn’t set up that way. Carrier fliers have had unfettered access to the skies of Iraq and Afghanistan, and their floating carriers have been largely unharmed. Their planes are typically refueled mid-air by Air Force or allied tankers.

That won’t work in a fight with a country like China or Russia that boasts a hostile air force.

“The campaigns that the nation and the Navy found themselves participating in gave a false sense of permanence,” Hendrix’s report said. “Today there is an entire generation of naval aviators, to include rising admirals, who do not ‘remember’ the long-range fighter-interceptor or deep strike missions of the past. They also don’t remember the pain of long slog campaigns, and have even recommended a return to a sea control, long war, and attrition strategy as a means of dealing with anti-access/area-denial capabilities.”

There are several solutions, Hendrix said. One is to reconfigure the air wing with a mix of EA-18G Growlers, F-35C joint strike fighters, F/A-18 Super Hornets, E2-D Hawkeyes and an unmanned airframe, the future Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Strike and Surveillance program.

He presents three options, with varying ranges, payload capacities and years needed to get to that range. All three are within the Navy’s current budget restrictions.

The combination with the most range in the shortest amount of time is 16 unmanned jets and 44 Super Hornets, but no F-35s, though the payload would top out at under 12,000 pounds. That would bring the carrier strike group’s lethal range out to 902 nautical miles in five years.

For more payload, you could get up to nearly 16,000 pounds with six UCLASS, 10 F-35s and 36 Super Hornets, but that would take 15 years to put together.

Or the Navy could stick with its current plan, which is an air wing with almost an equal amount F-35s and Super Hornets that also includes six UCLASS drones.

The problem there is stand-off distance. Hendrix said the Navy’s current plan only gives the air wing missions a 725 nautical mile-range — putting the aircraft carrier well within DF-21’s reach of 900 nautical miles.

“The one thing I am concerned about is, DF-21 could become DF-26, and the 900 nautical miles that unclassified sources say DF-21 can reach out to, can become 1,500 nautical miles,” Hendrix said of the 35-foot-long missile that reportedly travels at Mach 10 out to distances to 900 miles, or beyond. Any long-range rocket will have declining accuracy that far out, Hendrix said.

“I do think that there’s a sweet spot between the 1,000 to 2,000 nautical miles range that we would be able to operate and have a carrier remain relevant,” he said.

The unmanned question

The drone that emerges in the UCLASS program will be the key to keeping that range, Hendrix said.

While the Navy is in the early planning stages of a hybrid strike-surveillance airframe, Hendrix emphasized that it should be primarily a strike aircraft, with the ability to load ISR equipment into the bomb bay.

The Navy’s original unmanned carrier vehicle plan, the Navy Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle, which became the Northrop Grumman X-47A Pegasus, had the right idea, Hendrix said.

“It was supposed to be long-range strike. But the Navy, over the past five years, has morphed N-UCAV to UCLASS, which places much more emphasis on surveillance and reconnaissance,” he said. “I think the time is now to pivot back from the UCLASS to the UCAV.”

Most ISR unmanned vehicles, like the MQ-4C Triton being built to sweep large sections of the ocean for submarines, are large and sport high altitude endurance, but they’re not suited to speed or penetrating hostile airspace.

In order to do both, Hendrix said the Navy needs a UAV with a strike-fighter skin but interior hardware for ISR capabilities.

“What I’m essentially arguing for is that we need something to be primarily designed as a bomber, but it would also serve as an organic tanker for its brethren, as well as provide surveillance for the air wing,” he said.

One of Hendrix’s peers, retired Cmdr. Bryan McGrath, also argued for a similar mix of capabilities in future carrier air wings in a study he co-authored and released Oct. 5.

Both studies were inspired by a debate at the Naval Academy in January, where McGrath and Hendrix went head to head on the relevance of the carrier strike group and its air wing against high-end threats like China.

McGrath came down on the side of the carrier air wing as the Navy’s best option, while Hendrix has explored alternatives, like using Virginia-class and Ohio-replacement submarines loaded with guided missiles, or low-observable surface vessels with strike missiles.

However, he said, he doesn’t see the Air Force taking over in that environment, as some critics have suggested, because long-range rockets could force the Air Force bases close to China to evacuate.

“The Navy has the advantage of being able to have its air field wherever it wants to in international waters,” he said. “I think that the solution will be a combo of the two services, just as it’s been the past 70 years.”

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