Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Carriers - It's the Air Wing that Matters

I think we've all read the arguments for and against the carrier until we're tired of it.  However, all of the arguments, both for and against, have missed the most important point.  The carrier, itself, is irrelevant; it's what the carrier can do that matters.  And what is it that a carrier can do?  Well, obviously, it's to launch combat aircraft into battle.  I'm belaboring the point, you say?  Well, bear with me. 

It's the Air Wing the Matters, not the Carrier!
The value of a carrier is, of course, wholly contained in the air wing.  If the air wing were to become "devalued" beneath a critical threshold, the carrier itself would cease to have any reason to exist.  How can an air wing devalue?  Well, reduction in number of airframes, reduction in combat radius, or reduction in stores capacity would render the air wing less effective.

What few people seem to realize is that current air wings are around half the size of air wings from the '80s.  In 1981 the typical air wing had 5 squadrons (VF & VA) totalling 60 aircraft. These are the combat planes. The remaining helos, ASW, AEW, electronic warfare, etc. brought the total to around 92 planes.  Compare this to the current air wing which consists of 4 squadrons (VFA Hornets) totalling 44 combat planes and around 60-64 for the overall wing size.  Going further, the Navy has already announced that when the F-35 enters service, the squadrons will be reduced by 2-4 planes, each.  Note - WWII Essex class carried around 100 combat planes!
Less Capable Air Wings
Consider, now, the combat radius of the Hornet versus its predecessor, the A-6 Intruder.  The Intruder had a combat radius of around 1000 nm versus the Hornet C/D with around 200 nm and the E/F with around 300 nm.  The F-35 will have a radius of around 400 nm.

Finally, the stores capacity of the Intruder was 18000 lb versus the Hornet C/D of 13700 lb and the E/F of 17700.  The future F-35 will only have 3000 lb of stores capacity without resorting to external hardpoints and sacrificing stealth and range.

So, air wings are becoming less "valuable" with each passing year.  We appear to be headed for a point where the supercarrier's cost can't be justified due to the ever decreasing effectiveness of the air wings.

People who argue either for or against the carrier, miss the point that it's the air wing that's important, not the carrier.  Unfortunately, the air wings are getting steadily smaller and less capable.  As you make your arguments for or against the carrier, do it from the perspective of the air wing.  Thus, the question becomes, is the cost of a modern supercarrier justified to carry around 40 combat planes?  I'll leave it to you to decide that.

On a related note, the new Ford class is bigger than the Nimitz but will carry an air wing approaching half the size that the Nimitz first carried.  Am I the only one who sees a logical inconsistency here?


For those interested in the numbers, here are the Air Wing sizes as of April 2012 as listed in the May 2012 issue of Proceedings.

CVW-1   44 combat / 58 total
CVW-2   46 combat / 70 total
CVW-3   45 combat / 66 total
CVW-5   46 combat / 67 total
CVW-7   44 combat / 59 total
CVW-8   44 combat / 70 total
CVW-9   44 combat / 75 total
CVW-11  44 combat / 67 total
CVW-14  46 combat / 55 total
CVW-17  44 combat / 59 total

The large variation in the totals is due to some Air Wings carrying an extra squadron of helos, for some reason. 

All Air Wings also embark 2 CODs (C-2A) when deployed but they aren't part of the wing.

1 comment:

  1. That's a new spin on an old argument. Thanks!