A recent study release by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) claims that the United States has made a huge strategic mistake in how the Navy has composed its air wings. But what the study does not mention is probably more important than what they say.
You see, the air wings of 1962, for instance, relied on getting a lot of planes on target. Back then, though, you needed a lot of planes to carry a lot of bombs to get a few hits on a target (say, a bridge the other side is using to supply its troops in the field). But things changed – starting in the Vietnam War, when bombs using laser or TV guidance were first introduced. Now, you didn’t need to drop 20 or 30 bombs (or more) to get a direct hit. It only took one.
What that now means is that with today’s precision-guided bombs, what might take four Intruders carrying 24 Mk 82 dumb bombs to hit during the Vietnam War, can now be taken out by one F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, which drops a pair of GBU-24 laser-guided bombs or GBU-31 Joint Direct Attack Munitions, then flies to the next target. So, that alone changes the game. The game changes even more when you consider the fact that these days, a plane doesn’t have to get close to a target to destroy it.
The CNAS report pointedly ignores the presence of the AGM-158B JASSM-ER in the military’s inventory. This missile has a range of 620 miles, and can be carried by virtually any strike aircraft. The Navy is also acquiring the AGM-158C, the Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile, with a slightly different seeker head, and with a range of 580 miles.
In other words, today’s naval aircraft don’t have to fly all the way to the target to hit it, the way planes used to. Granted some precision-guided systems have short range, but there are long-range systems in the inventory that allow carrier planes to fly to a launch point, fire their JASSM-ERs, and return to base, letting the JASSM-ERs make that final run to the targets – without risking a pilot’s life to do so.
That’s just looking at the options from a carrier before one even looks at another weapon in the DOD arsenal usually carried by the carrier’s escorts that the CNAS report also neglected to mention. It’s the BGM-109 Tomahawk Land Attack Missile, which first made its bones in Desert Storm. The BGM-109C Block III Tomahawk has a range of 1,000 miles – and can deliver its 1,000-pound high-explosive warhead very accurately.
This is not to say that the carrier air rings couldn’t be formatted better than the Navy is currently planning. Back in the Reagan Administration, the typical carrier air wing had 24 F-14 Tomcats, 24 F/A-18 Hornets, and 14 A-6E Intruders. That made a total of 62 combat aircraft supported by a mix of E-2s, S-3s, EA-6Bs, among other aircraft. Today’s air wing has four squadrons of 12 F/A-18C or F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, and the Navy is considering taking the F-35 squadrons down to 10 planes – leaving future carrier air wings with only 44 combat aircraft – a 29% reduction in airframes. Even with the advances in precision-guided weapons and the ability launch from long range, this is cutting it close. It gets worse with the loss of the S-3 to retirement – which deprived the Navy not only of a good ASW aircraft, but a valuable tanker.
Here, the CNAS report does make some sense. If the aircraft carrier, its escorts, and the air wing are America’s first responders to a global emergency, then these units should be as powerful as possible. A better idea would be for the Navy to shoot for an air wing centered around two F-35C squadrons of 12 planes each, two F/A-18E squadrons of 12 planes each, and a single F/A-18F squadron of 16 planes. That would give each carrier 64 combat aircraft, to be supported by E-2s, EA-18G Growlers, and other planes.
The Navy would be well-served to reverse its reduction of combat aircraft per carrier. But let’s not ignore the fact that today’s aircraft – and long-range cruise missiles launched from ships, subs, and aircraft – are very capable systems. We just need more of them.