Friday, October 3, 2014

Carrier Squadrons To Shrink Again

ComNavOps has documented the steady shrinkage of naval aviation for some time now.  Carriers have declined from 15 to the current 10 (9 active).  Worse, the airwings have shrunk from around 90+ aircraft during the Cold War to the current levels of around 65.  Carriers embarked 6 combat squadrons (VF and VA) in the mid-60’s and now embark 4 squadrons (VFA).  Even worse, combat squadrons (fighter and strike aircraft) have shrunk from around 14 planes to the current 12 (nominal, actual average is around 11).  The Navy stated some time ago that squadrons would shrink even further when the F-35 entered service.  USNI website now reports (1),

“Seven F-35C squadrons of 10 aircraft and a Fleet Replacement Squadron (FRS) of 30 aircraft will begin to be based at Lemoore starting in 2016, according to the statement.”

Current airwings have around 44 combat aircraft in four squadrons.  This is going to drop to 40 aircraft (nominal).  That’s not a lot of combat aircraft.  Note that the goal of 10 aircraft per squadron is the nominal figure.  The reality is going to be squadrons with 8 or 9 actual aircraft and airwings are going to shrink from the current actual combat count of around 44 to around 36.

You know, of course, what all this suggests?  That’s right.  We need bigger aircraft carriers.  The Ford was a step in the right direction but with airwings continuing to shrink, we need to go further and build an enlarged Ford. 

Ahh ………..   Wait a minute.  I’m re-reading what I just wrote and something seems off.  If the airwings are shrinking, why do we need bigger carriers?  The Fords are bigger than the Nimitzs but will embark fewer aircraft.  That would seem to suggest the opposite – that the carriers should be getting smaller.  Now I’m all confused.  Smaller airwings but bigger carriers?  I can’t figure this out.  I’m just going to trust that the Navy knows what it’s doing.

(1) USNI, "Navy To Base F-35Cs at NAS Lenmoore", Sam LaGrone, October 2, 2014 3:48 PM


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  2. is this right? we're going to have aircraft carriers that once carried 100 plus aircraft reduced to just 44?

    1. 44 refers to combat aircraft - fighters and strike (Hornets, currently). The total airwing is 44 combat aircraft plus around 25 Growlers, Hawkeyes, and helos for a total of around 65 aircraft in current airwings. During the Cold War era, airwings were 90+aircraft with five or six squadrons of combat aircraft with each squadron being 12-14 aircraft for a combat total of 60-70 or so.

      See Carriers - It's The Air Wing That Matters for the current airwing sizes. The Marines aren't the only ones shedding high end combat power!

    2. Note the the Navy is experimenting with adding 2-3 more EA-18Gs to each Growler squadron, increasing their complement to 7-8. Not that they carry a heavy offensive load out, but they can add HARM and AMRAAMs to the strike package.

  3. The good thing is that the CVNs can easily surge the number of aircraft embarked in a crisis. The bad news is that an F-35 squadron has only 10 aircraft, and the F-35 has an abysmal availability rate. On an average day, you can assume 6 aircraft to be available at any one time.

    1. Charley, where will these surge aircraft come from? There are no reserved squadrons.

    2. While I agree that there are no formal "reserve" squadrons, the Navy still has 500+ F/A-18C/Ds, and 400+ F/A-18E/Fs. Plus, it's likely that only two CVNs will be deployed at any one time in the next few years. Surely something can be cobbled together if needed. The interesting thing is that the Navy only plans to buy 260 F-35Cs to eventually replace over 500 F/A-18C/D. Not sure how that plan will work out, but here's my guess what will happen: The Navy will not buy 260 F-35Cs because they are simply unaffordable. They will buy enough to fill out one squadron per CVW and training requirements. They will continue to SLEP decent F/A-18C/Ds, and continue to buy small quantities of E/F/A-18E/F/Gs until both UCLASS and F/A-XX requirements are sorted out.

    3. Its all well and good to talk about surges, but 400 is 400
      OK, there are only 6 active carriers, so technically, its 400/6 not 10, but, that ignores the whole spares training and port time for jets and pilots as well as carriers and crew.

      Multirole *will* improve things somewhat. A sixties strike package would have two dozen jets with dedicated AWACS, jammers, interceptors, SEAD, Air Superiority, ground attack ect, with little to no cross covering of roles.
      The F35 can cover all those roles.

  4. In expansion of my multi role.
    Lets say you send in a fantasy strike package.

    An AWACS, 2 Jammers, 2 SEADS, 2 BVR, 2 WVR and 4 Strike
    Old school, thats 13 Jets from 5 different families
    Now, thats 13 Jets from one family.

    Old school, you might want 4 AWACS, because if you cant operate one, you lose your entire AWACS, now any one of your F35s can cover the AWACS role.
    Old School, you might want 4, 5 or even 6 Jammers, because its just those airframes that can do the job, now, any two F35s can do the jamming.
    Old school, your SEAD was less of a problem, you might have a few modified strikes to do SEAD, or the basic model might be capable.
    Ect ect ect.

    Of your 44 F35s, ANY 13 airborne gives you a full spectrum strike package, and the chances of 27/31 being out of action is almost none.
    Of your pre teen series, there are half a dozen possible failure points, your AWACS cant (usefully) carry ASRAAMS, your Jammers and SEAD cant bomb the target without breaking the Jam/SEAD.
    The first F35 to drop its bombs can take over the SEAD and let the SEAD bomb the target (assuming both have HARMs) ect.

    60 or even 80 F35s would be fantastically better, but 40 probably arent that much worse than the current 60, not that much worse is hardly a ringing endorsement.

    1. Except you air craft don't have range to hit the target so you need to bring the carrier in near the coast where it will be sunk.

  5. A generic 1985 airwing had 86 aircraft, with 58 fighter or attack type, and 10 sea control. The current numbers gap is a result of the A-6 and S-3 being retired without a direct replacement. A 1980s airwing had 10 of each.

    A future airwing will not have 44 F-35Cs. If the DoN completes its full buy of 260 Navy and 80 Marine F-35Cs, there will likely be 20, directly replacing the two F/A-18C squadrons. A generic airwing is planned to have 79 aircraft:

    20 F-35C
    12 F/A-18E
    12 F/A-18F
    5 EA-18G
    5 E-2D
    6 UCLASS
    19 Helos

    The Navy is considering increasing the numbers of EA-18Gs per airwing, as well as increasing the types of weapons it can carry. Helicopters (60R/S) have replaced the S-3 surface and subsurface missions near the ship; UCLASS is intended to fill the long range high endurance surveillance and strike mission.

    If you increase the Growlers by 3 and add 4 more UCLASS, your back to the 86 aircraft of 1985.

    The questions that remain:
    1. Will F-35C deliver on its promises, on time?
    2. Will the Navy get its way on UCLASS, or will the "experts" in Congress and think tanks win the debate?
    3. How much of the Advanced Super Hornet concept will be retrofit into the existing E/F/G fleet?
    4. What's the COD replacement?
    5. What capabilities will F/A-XX need?

    1. TA, the key point is that airwing aircraft numbers have dropped significantly and, worse, the combat aircraft numbers have dropped markedly. In the 60's an airwing had six combat squadrons of 12-14 aircraft for a total of 70+ combat aircraft. In the 70's and 80's that dropped to five squadrons totaling around 58 combat aircraft. We're currently at four squadrons totaling around 44 combat aircraft. Worse, because we've lost the tankers, the combat aircraft are being used as tankers (typically 4-6 at a time) so the available combat aircraft is actually only 38-40.

      We can play whatever games we want with imaginary additions to the airwings but the reality is that they are continually shrinking and will not increase in the foreseeable future. In fact, it is quite likely (nearly certain) that the nominal 10-aircraft F-35 squadrons will actually only have 8-10 aircraft.

      Your questions are all relevant and timely!

    2. CNO,

      That structure is the published future airwing plan per Naval Aviation Vision.

      There are 49 air to air capable aircraft (E/F/G, F-35C).

      There are 55 fixed wing strike capable aircraft (E/F/G, F-35C, UCLASS).

      There are 19 helicopters that can employ Hellfire, advanced torpedoes, gun pods, and crew served.

      That's 74 of 79 aircraft capable of providing a variety of combat effects.

      IF everything goes as planed with the F-35 transition, the Navy will transition all of the legacy Hornet squadrons and 10 SH squadrons to JSF. Given the navy will procure over 560 SH, there will be plenty of airframes that could be designated KA-18s. Remember, KA-6s were just worn out A-6As and Es.

      If things don't go as planned, and JSF gets cancelled or truncated, continue to buy SH and Growler for the Navy and Marines at 48 per year, and get to work on F/A-XX and UCLASS.

      If you want to expand the number of fixed wing strike aircraft per airwing, I believe a UCLASS Naval Reaper (as USMC 0802 has called it) has the potential to be the modern A-4 (that brought our Vietnam-era airwings into 90 aircraft territory).

      It's not all gloom and doom.

      I forgot one question. If 100 F-35s are going to LEEmore, where are the other 160 going?

      V/R TA

    3. TA, the Navy publishes all kinds of wonderful and amazing plans - none of which have a prayer of happening. The 30 year shipbuilding plan, for example, calls for around 313 ships using amazingly optimistic construction costs and significantly increased construction budgets. I don't know why the limited the future fleet to just 300+. If they're going to use made up numbers they could just have easily claimed a fleet of 600!

      No sane person believes the Navy will actually acquire anywhere near the goal of F-35 numbers. I think it's highly unlikely that the UCLASS will contribute any significant combat capability for many years to come. There is no committment to any future Hornet buys. In short, there is absolutely no realistic expectation that any planned airwing will be achieved.

      There's nothing wrong with noting the plan but believing it is something else.

      As far as gloom and doom, the facts are what they are. The airwings are shrinking which was the point of the post.

    4. CNO,

      Airwings are not shrinking. You've misinterpreted what's been reported. There are 2 10 Primary Aircraft Authorized VFA squadrons and 2 12 PAA VFA squadrons in a standard airwing - 44 strike/fighters. There is no "nominal." PAA is PAA. You do not try go to sea with less than PAA without incurring 3 and 4 star visibility.

      The numbers have nothing to do with beliefs or sanity. I'm citing official DoD, DoN, and Congressional acquisition reports.

      The current Super Hornet Program of Record is 552 aircraft with an additional 11 budgeted. Two became Growler demonstrators, I believe 10 or 11 have been lost. The inventory is intended to support 19 12 plane squadrons, 11 10 plane squadrons, 2 85 plane Fleet Replacement Squadrons, and various test and training units. Note: several 10 PAA Super Hornet squadrons exist now.

      The current Growler PoR is 135 aircraft, plus 3 from the A-12 settlement. This inventory is intended to support 16 5 plane squadrons, 1 20 plane FRS, and various test and training units. There are currently only 10 fleet squadrons, 3 expeditionary, one reserve, and one FRS. Note: more new aircraft are available than squadrons, aircrew, and maintainers to operate them.

      If there was an actual existential level crisis that forced the US to surge every carrier that's not in dry dock, and take every available E/F/G not in Depot to go to war, the Navy could theoretically put 60-70 Super Hornet/Growler airframes on each carrier. That's not including the few hundred Cs that are still in service. There are a lot of E/F/G airframes in the inventory.

      There are no future commitments beyond 2016 because F-35 is the program of record to replace the remaining legacy Hornets and eventually early lot Supers. A contract is a contract. DoD has programmed the F-35 procurement and budget out to 2034. If F-35 problems continue, its procurement can be shifted in the FYDP, or decreased, and the Navy can buy or SLEP Super Hornets and Growlers if the decision is made before the line closes. The Navy, Congress, and others have studied the problem extensively.

    5. What was the size of an airwing in the '60's?
      What was the size of an airwing in the '80's?
      What is the size of an airwing now?

      You can access the same data I can. The airwings are shrinking. There's nothing to interpret. It's just raw data.

    6. The largest airwing referenced in the 2012 Proceedings article you cited was 75, the smallest was 55. The airwing I cited is 79 aircraft.

      79 is greater than both 75 or 55. Strike fighter numbers are static, overall numbers are expanding, not shrinking. That still doesn't account for any of the Growler expansion I discussed.

  6. Where have y'all been? These numbers has been part of the "vision" since Black-Jack Nathman set it in motion early last decade..... Why act surprised now gents?

    The worst part of it is that 1/3 (not a misprint) of all F-18 E/F Superhornets (not legacy Hornets) on any carrier flight deck have to relegated to the critcal task of overhead (recovery) tanker. That cuts down our power projection/strike capability big time plus being so heavy they burn up thier Fatigue Life Expended (FLE). Of course all these things are well known in carrier aviation but little understood outside........

    This is a bowwave withinn the acknowledged SFG that will only become worse when other fuel suckers show up like the F-35C or the UCLAS....What you are seeing is the slow strangualtion of carrier aviation.


  7. I am jumping into this discussion a bit late, but doing so because no one has brought up the change in effects of these strike aircraft. Before the advent of precision munitions, it was almost always multiple aircraft for a single target/aimpoint, now it is multiple targets/aimpoints per aircraft. The smaller number of aircraft is somewhat justified by the ability to prosecute multiple targets with one airplane, thus having a larger net-effect with less airplanes.

  8. Anon, this point has been raised many times throughout these posts. While valid on the face of it, it fails to account for attrition effects, the inability to be in two places at once, and the greater impact of the loss of an individual aircraft. I refer you to the excellent RAND report.

    Our potential enemies are building aircraft that are just as good and in greater numbers.

    1. No disagreement regarding risk being taken, just pointing out the "logic" behind the shrinking numbers. On paper, the math adds up, but when the shooting starts and the airspace is contested, different story.


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