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US Navy Details Future Carrier Air Wing

Stealth fighter jets, carrier-launched drones, V-22 Ospreys, submarine-detecting helicopters, laser weapons and electronic jamming are all deemed indispensable to the Navy’s now unfolding future vision of carrier-based air power, senior service leaders said.

Citing the strategic deterrence value and forward power-projection capabilities of the Navy’s aircraft carrier platforms, the Commander of Naval Air Forces spelled out the services’ future plans for the carrier air wing at a recent event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington D.C think tank.

Vice Adm. Mike Shoemaker, commander of naval air forces, argued in favor of the continued need for Navy aircraft carriers to project power around the globe. His comments come at a time when some are raising questions about the future of carriers in an increasingly high-tech threat environment.

“Even in contested waters our carrier group can operate, given the maneuverability of the carrier strike group and the composition of the carrier air wing,” Shoemaker told the audience at the Aug. 12 event.

In fact, the Navy is working on a year-long study of aircraft carriers with a mind to lowering the cost of building the platforms and considering the possibility of some alternative designs for future carriers.

Meanwhile, the shape and technological characteristics of the carrier air wing mentioned by Shoemaker will be changing substantially in coming years. The Navy’s carrier-launched F-35C stealth fighter will begin to arrive in the next decade and the service will both upgrade existing platforms and introduce new ones, Shoemaker explained.

The Navy plans to have its F-35C operational by 2018 and have larger numbers of them serving on carriers by the mid-2020s.

The service plans to replace its legacy or “classic” F/A-18s with the F-35C and have the new aircraft fly alongside upgraded F/A-18 Super Hornets from the carrier deck.

While the F-35C will bring stealth fighter technology and an ability to carry more ordnance to the carrier air wing, its sensor technologies will greatly distinguish it from other platforms, Shoemaker said.

“The most important thing that the F-35C brings is the ability to fuse information, collect the signals and things that are out in the environment and fuse it all together and deliver that picture to the rest of the carrier strike group,” Shoemaker explained.

At the same time, more than three-quarters of the future air wing will be composed of F/A-18 Super Hornets, he added.

The submarine hunting technologies of the upgraded MH-60R helicopter is a critical component of the future air wing, Shoemaker explained.

“The R (MH-60R) comes with a very capable anti-submarine warfare package. It has an airborne low-frequency sensor, an advanced periscope detection system combined with a data link, and forward-looking infrared radar. With its capable electronic warfare suite, it is the inner defense zone against the submarine for the carrier strike group,” Shoemaker said.

Electronic warfare also figures prominently in the Navy’s plans for air warfare; the service is now finalizing the retirement of the EA-6B Prowler electronic warfare aircraft in favor of the EA-18G Growler aircraft, Shoemaker said.

“We’re totally transitioning now to the EA-18G Growler for electromagnetic spectrum dominance. This will give us the ability to protect our strike group and support our joint forces on the ground,” he said.

The Navy is also moving from its E-2C Hawkeye airborne early warning aircraft to an upgraded E-2D variant with improved radar technology, Shoemaker explained.

“We've got two squadrons transitioned -- one just about to complete in Norfolk and the first is deployed right now on the Teddy Roosevelt (aircraft carrier). This (the E2-D) brings a new electronically scanned radar which can search and track targets and then command and control missions across the carrier strike group,” Shoemaker said.

Shoemaker also pointed to the Navy’s decision to have the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft take over the carrier onboard delivery mission and transport equipment, personnel and logistical items to and from the carrier deck. The V-22 will be replacing the C-2 Greyhound aircraft, a twin-engine cargo aircraft which has been doing the mission for years.

Regarding unmanned systems, the Navy is greatly anticipating the arrival of its first-ever carrier-launched drone, called the Unmanned Carrier Launch Airborne Surveillance and Strike, or UCLASS.

The UCLASS drone, slated to arrive in the mid-2020s, is being engineered to conduct long-dwell surveillance missions as well as strike missions.

“UCLASS can operate inside those contested environments and provide the strike group commander information ahead of the strike group moving in. It can essentially be the eyes and ears ahead of the strike group,” Shoemaker added.

Overall, Shoemaker emphasized that these future technologies and platforms designed for the carrier air wing will be ideally suited to serve aboard the Navy’s new high-tech Ford-class aircraft carriers. The first of the class, the USS Gerald R. Ford, is slated to enter service next year.

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