Saturday, June 13, 2015

Offensive Carriers

We’ve had previous discussions about the future of the Navy’s supercarriers and their role in major combat operations.  ComNavOps has opined that the role of the carrier has devolved to become that of an escort for the “shooters”, meaning the Burkes/Ticos with their load of Tomahawks, and an escort for the Air Force’s long range bombers, meaning that the carrier’s air wing will establish local air superiority to allow the AF bombers to carry out their penetration missions.

We’ve also discussed the migration of the Navy from an offensive force to a largely defensive one.  A purely defensive force, of course, becomes the epitome of the self-licking ice cream cone – existing solely to protect itself.  Unfortunately, that is pretty much what the Navy has become.  The Burke class is a defensive platform.  The carrier is largely defensive.  Our focus is on ballistic missile defense for its own sake rather than as an adjunct to offensive operations.  We have allowed our offensive mine warfare capability to atrophy.  Our amphibious fleet is doctrine-less.  And so on.

Tying these two thoughts together is this article from Breaking Defense website which touches on the origin of the supercarrier and suggests a future based on a return to the past (1).  The article notes the A-3 Sky Warrior as the justification for the supercarrier and the offensive nature of carrier air power during that time.

“ ‘The A-3 came online in the early to mid 1950s, and for most of the next fifty years the Navy was able to do long-range deep strike,’ said retired Navy captain Jerry Hendrix, who moderated today’s discussion with Rep. Forbes. Most of those old strike aircraft had an unrefueled range of 1,000 to 1,2000 miles, he told me after the event, but the A-3 itself ‘had a range of 1,800 nautical miles — unrefueled — and could carry a 12,000-pound atomic bomb.’

‘If you look at the A-3 Sky Warrior….that plane was the reason why we developed theForrestal-class, the first super-carrier, [in the first place],’ said Hendrix, who’s writing a study of carrier air wing evolution at the Center for a New American Security. The 1,000-foot flight deck of a modern carrier was originally designed to give large, long-ranged jet aircraft room to take off. Its massive maintenance spaces and ordnance storage were originally intended to support heavy bombers, not just strike fighters. As anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles get more threatening, it may be time to use the super-carrier for its original purpose again.”

The article suggests, correctly, that the carrier is, or should be, an offensive weapon.  If not, its reason for existence becomes highly questionable.  Today’s short range aircraft and shrinking air wings are severely limiting the offensive capability of our carriers.  Sure, today’s carrier is still a formidable threat against a third rate opponent but so is a prop driven aircraft launched from a barge and at a fraction of the cost.  The carrier justifies its price tag in combat against a peer and that’s where today’s air wing comes up short – literally, when you look at its combat range.

I stated that the role of the carrier is to escort the “shooters”.  That statement is based on the current (Hornet) and near future (Hornet + F-35) air wing composition and the recognition that the air wing composition will not significantly change from that mix for the next few decades.  However, if the Navy would acknowledge its offensive responsibilities, drop or severely curtail the F-35, and develop a truly long range, penetration strike aircraft, my opinion would change.

A-3 Skywarrior - Offensive Threat

Of course, hand in hand with a long range, penetrating strike aircraft must be a long range air superiority fighter.  Modern surveillance has advanced too far for an unescorted, defenseless aircraft to have a hope of penetrating an enemy defense zone.  The path of the multi-role strike/ECM/AEW/surveillance fighter is a false one.  It produces a mediocre aircraft for any specific role.  We need to return to optimized, single function aircraft (yes, a pure air superiority fighter can have a secondary role as a strike aircraft as long as it doesn’t detract from its primary role). 

I’m not going to discuss the single versus multi-role aircraft debate any further.  That’s not the point of this post.  The point is the offensive nature of the carrier and how to restore it.  If a multi-role aircraft can fill that requirement (it can’t) then I’m fine with it.

We must return to offensive carrier groups and an offensive Navy, in general.  As we’ve discussed in the past couple of posts about A2/AD combat, the Navy desperately needs new, very long range strike missiles, IRBMs, very long range aircraft, long range tactical targeting, and other ships and weapons that recognize the reality of the vast distances of modern A2/AD zones.  Of course, to play the broken record, we also need a viable strategy and operational concept for combatting an A2/AD zone.  The strategy and operation concept will serve as the guide for the specific developments and acquisitions required.

We had all of this figured out, once upon a time, but have since wandered far afield in the name of transformation, cost efficiency, or whatever other misguided fad-ish notion ruled the day and led us astray.  We need to look to the future with one eye firmly on the past and solid grip on history.  The Gods of the Copybook Headings will allow no less.


(1)Breaking Defense, “From Sky Warrior To UCLASS: Back To The Future Of Carrier-Based Strike?”, Sydney Freedberg Jr., June 11, 2015,


  1. Developing two long range manned aircraft for carrier ops is unaffordable at this time. My solution would be to develop the F/A-XX weighted as an air superiority aircraft with a light strike secondary role (like the F-14,) and UCLASS as the bomb truck. The F/A-XX could optionally control the UCLASS locally and us it as a magazine.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Was that always true though? The Tomcat and Intruder were both pretty high performing aircraft in their era.

    3. "Developing two long range manned aircraft for carrier ops is unaffordable at this time."

      Charley, that's simply untrue. What IS true is that we can't afford to develop two carrier aircraft using the same ill-conceived methodology we've applied to the F-35. On the other hand, if we defined a very clear requirement for an air superiority fighter with long range (a modernized F-14 or navalized F-15/22 as a base) and using only existing technology and with NO additional capabilities that don't directly contribute to the role, we should be able to build it for a fraction of the cost of the F-35. Now, do the same for the strike aircraft and you've suddenly got a very effective and affordable air wing.

  2. Unlike many of the other commentators here, I do not consider the F-14 to be a great air to air fighter. It was more of a bomber interceptor and the AIM-54 Phoenix seemed to be not as reliable as claimed (in the case of the US, it missed 6 out 6 times it was ever fired, although there have been claims that the Iran-Iraq war saw many AIM-54 kills).

    Another problem is that the aircraft had variable swept wings, which although they do save fuel somewhat in getting the airplane up to speed, there is a penalty in terms of weight, complexity, and cruise speed. This also led to a very poor maintenance to flight ratio.

    Finally, earlier revisions of the aircraft with the TF30-P-414A had engine problems, later mostly fixed with the F110.

    In a dogfight, the F-15 or F-16 even more so, would be more maneuverable too than an F-14.

    1. I'll bite.

      IIRC the Tomcat was primarily a fleet defence interceptor for the outer air battle. The thing was huge. And while it wasn't perfect as an air to air fighter it wasn't bad. I'd argue that against its contemporaries it was at least as competitive as the F-35 will be, with more 'upside' in terms of other roles (fleet defence).

      As a plus to the air wing it was long legged, fast, capable of taking out what it was intended to as well as many other fighters of the day, and later had a good secondary bomb role.

      Yes, it was a maintanance hog, but they thought they could fix alot of that in the SuperTomcat models Grumman was proposing. Yes, the TF30's had major issues, but it was never intended to have them as long as it did. No, it wasn't more manueverable than the Eagle or Viper, but it wasn't a dog, and arguably had better BVR.

      An Eagle or Viper strike against a carrier group that consisted of tomcats would have a real fight on its hands, a long way from the carrier.

      Finally, the Tomcat also had a completely different role, so comparing them is a bit apples and oranges.

      Of the two maybe a navalized Eagle might do the job the Tomcat did, but the Viper never could. It would be more of a Hornet competitor.

      I still say had they done the SuperHornet treatment to the Tomcat rather than the Hornet, we'd be in better shape now. A modern tomcat with modern mechanicals, avionics, missiles, increased range, and a secondary bomb capability would be a powerful weapon.

    2. The F-14 didn't have as long legs as you think it would. It had a low fuel fraction of about 0.28. Granted the swing wing would somewhat save a bit of fuel, but at the expense of weight.

      An Eagle strike on a carrier would not have the fight you think it would. If the AIM-54 missed (which is very likely), it would be a dogfight. In a fighter to fighter match, I would bet on the F-15 or F-16 easily. Actually there were tests that showed a 10:1 kill:death ratio in F-15 vs F-14, in favor of course of the F-15.

      Also, it was not as fast as you think it is. It's not the paper specs that matter. It's the cruise speed that matters. And there, the F-14 was slow - Mach 0.7, maybe Mach 0.8 with the newer engines. That is not fast at all.

      Afterburner max speed doesn't matter for most aircraft - it's only going to be for a small fraction of life. Granted there have been aircraft designed for afterburner (SR-71 comes to mind), but those are highly specialized designs.

    3. "I do not consider the F-14 to be a great air to air fighter."

      The F-14 was intended to be an interceptor, not a dogfighter. As an interceptor, and coupled with the AIM-54, it would have been outstanding. As a dogfighter, it was still better than most of its comtemporaries. Comparing an F-14 to an F-15/16 is no more valid than the reverse of comparing an F-16 in the fleet interceptor role to an F-14. The F-15, as you well know, was designed as a pure air superiority aircraft - not at all what the F-14 was designed for.

    4. "... Phoenix seemed to be not as reliable as claimed (in the case of the US, it missed 6 out 6 times it was ever fired ..."

      I'm not aware of a single combat firing of the Phoenix by a US Tomcat. What were the incidents/dates?

    5. "The F-14 didn't have as long legs as you think it would."

      Wiki, and other sources, credit the Tomcat with a 500 nm+ combat radius. Do you have data which indicates otherwise?

    6. The AIM-54 was fired 3 times in 1999, 2 were launched against a pair of Iraqi Mig-25 aircraft and another against a Mig-23. 2 of these firings led to a rocket motor malfunction, the other one missed the target.

      As far as the F-14's performance, a buddy of my calculated it a while back. I don't have the exact numbers, but the easiest way is through Brugeut's range equation (which is standard for all aircraft). Typical fuel fraction on the F-14 could be as low as 0.25, unless external tanks were used.

      To recreate the exact numbers, I'd need the numbers:
      - Fuel fraction (0.28, although with combat load, it could be 0.25)
      - Empty, the F-14D was about 20,000 kg, and at typical combat weights, it could be on the order of 28000-30000 kg.
      - There was about 7.5 tons of fuel, plus small external tanks (variable sweep fighters have limited hardpoints for carrying large fuel tanks otherwise)

      - Lift to drag ratio will depend on the angle sweep of the wings (the advantage of swept wing fighters is that they can sweep to the optimal angle for each airspeed), but there is a penalty in parasitic drag

      - They used the F110, but I'm not sure the fuel consumption of the variant

      I don't have all the numbers, but off the top of my head, they were not good. They did not at all compare very favorably to the Su-27 variants. I know for sure they cannot be good - the reason is the very low fuel fraction of 0.27 (and possibly 0.25 with the Pheonix missiles loaded on). That's simply the laws of physics at work here - it's a short ranged fighter.

      Anyways, the book that I would need to find is the F-14D version of this:

      As far as combat radius goes, it's going to be a function of how much time you want on station. The numbers you see on wiki don't specify how long on station.

      The reason why I say that is because it takes fuel to take off, climb to altitude and to get into hostile (or the destination) airspace. Then you have to burn fuel on station and then go back.

      500 nm is probably a fair estimate though, considering ferry range was about 1900 nm.

      I'm saying you could get a much longer range. The other problem with calculating range is that at full military thrust, you get a much lower range.

    7. Some searching around and I find this:

      Note the cruise speed. The poster of that picture put it in red. That is slow for a modern fighter aircraft.

    8. LOL. I'll take your word for it on fuel fraction; its something I don't understand well.

      I do find it interesting that even with a limited fuel fraction its range was greater than the SH.

      As to loiter time or time on station, I've spoke to Tomcat pilots that said it was great. I realize, however, that this is just ad hoc data and may be colored by the fact that the guys loved their bird.

      One of the things that the Tomcat21 was supposed to add was much increased fuel capacity in the glove, IIRC, as well as larger, more powerful engines for supercruise.

      I still think we are comparing apples and oranges for what the F-14 was vs. the role for the F-15/16.

      All that said, could we agree that the Navy could use something like what the Tomcat or Tomcat21 should be today? A long range fighter?

      I look at other fighters (Flankers, Rafales) and almost all of them have a much higher combat radius than ours.

    9. I did find this:

      F-15 (E/F): Speed 1,875 mph (Mach 2.5-plus). 1,433 kt (1,650 mph; 2655 km/h) maximum level speed 'clean' at high altitude
      495 kt (570 mph; 917 km/h) cruising speed at optimum altitude
      1,000 nm (1,150 mi; 1,853 km) Max Combat Radius
      685 nm (790 miles; 1270 km) combat radius

      Cruise Mach Number = .72 (which I calculated out to be ~548)
      500 nm (930 km) Hi-Med-Hi strike profile
      380 nm (700 km) Hi-Lo-Lo-Hi strike profile

      Armament: One 20mm M-61A1 cannon and various combinations of air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles and bombs
      Engine: One Pratt & Whitney F100-PW-200 of 23,830 lbs. thrust with afterburner
      Crew: One
      Maximum speed: 1,345 mph
      Cruising speed: 577 mph
      Range: 1,407 miles
      Ceiling: 55,000 ft.
      Span: 32 ft. 10 in.
      Length: 49 ft. 6 in.
      Height: 16 ft. 5 in.
      Weight: 29,896 lbs. loaded

      (Sorry, I know the A is ancient, but its all I could get.The E/F was all that I could get cruising speed for, but I honestly think its more of a match to the Tomcat anyway)

      So, at least according to global security, the Tomcat did have a lower cruising speed, but not crushingly so.

      The -16 and the -15 are definite range kings; which goes more towards your fuel fraction argument. The Tomcat had a significant weight penalty (which makes sense for the 16, less so for the 15).

      One thing that was hard to get a handle on was configuration. All of the cruising speeds were 'clean'. If your other data showed a cruising speed of 421 I'm guessing it was fully loaded? I wasn't able to get a fully loaded cruising speed for the other two. I'd suspect their cruising speed drops when you load them.

      I do know from other things I've read the performance specs for almost every fighter are in a clean configuration. Start loading bombs and missiles on them and performance suffers significantly.

      Similarly, the range of the -16 was eye popping in one measure... until I realized it was with two 2000lbs drop tanks.

    10. Fuel fraction = mass of fuel/total take off mass

      So if a plane weighs say, 10,000 kg on take-off and has 4,000 kg of fuel, then in theory, the fuel fraction is:

      4,000 / 10,000 kg = 0.4

      In general,
      - Anything below 0.3 is pretty short-legged (you will often see such aircraft with external fuel tanks or conformal ones or be dependent on tankers)
      - 0.3 - 0.349 is good for a subsonic cruiser
      - 0.35 - 0.399 would be good for a quasi-supersonic aircraft
      - 0.4+ would be good for a supercruiser or an aircraft with very long endurance

      The Concorde for example had a fuel fraction of 0.55. The Mig-31 I believe is 0.45 in some variants.

      The reason why I say the F-14 is not too good is the fuel fraction of 0.25 makes it very limited. The Su-27 has a fuel fraction of 0.37 and the Su-35 is as high in some variants as 0.42.

      Anyways, that's very important because calculating range is from the Bruguet Range Equation (for steady level flight):

      Range = Velocity x (Lift / Drag) x specific fuel consumption x ln (take-off / final mass)

      ln (take-off/final mass) is where fuel fraction comes into play here.

      You still need fuel of course to take off and climb to altitude. Variable sweep wings do have an advantage here (and they can optimize their LD ratios somewhat), but this comes at a huge expense in mass (lowering fuel fraction) and complexity (so costs to buy, operate, and less favorable flight to maintenance ratios).

    11. Also, I don't think you quite understand how big a flaw having a slower cruise speed than your enemy is. It's a huge drawback.

      If you are faster then your enemy, then they will struggle to be able to catch up to your rear.

      If you are slower than your enemy, then you are vulnerable to being "bounced" at your 6 o'clock and you will be hindered in your ability to catch him.

      There's a reason why I emphasize high cruise speeds. And of course, high cruise speeds require a high fuel fraction.

    12. @Alt:

      Thanks for the explanation. That helps. I'm guessing that part of the fuel fraction problem for the Tomcat came from its huge mass.

      As I said, the Grumman proposals are intriguing. But that ship has passed, the factory shuttered and torn down, and the old planes gone into the shredder.

      I do like the idea for a navalized Silent Eagle. But that's just a blue sky idea.

      I do get the idea of the cruise speed. One of my big worries about the F-35C is that the cruise speed figures I've seen are all over the place; from some saying it can super cruise to some saying its a lead sled that is slow throughout its performance envelope.

      I'm cynical by nature, and if its the latter... the F-35 could be in big trouble if it ever has to run.

    13. @Alt:

      Thanks for the explanation. That helps. I'm guessing that part of the fuel fraction problem for the Tomcat came from its huge mass.

      As I said, the Grumman proposals are intriguing. But that ship has passed, the factory shuttered and torn down, and the old planes gone into the shredder.

      I do like the idea for a navalized Silent Eagle. But that's just a blue sky idea.

      I do get the idea of the cruise speed. One of my big worries about the F-35C is that the cruise speed figures I've seen are all over the place; from some saying it can super cruise to some saying its a lead sled that is slow throughout its performance envelope.

      I'm cynical by nature, and if its the latter... the F-35 could be in big trouble if it ever has to run.

    14. Well let me put it this way - have you ever seen pictures of the Russian Su-27 (or variants of it)? You'll notice the Russians don't rely as heavily on external fuel tanks. That's because of the Su-27's high fuel fraction.

      By contrast, you will often see American aircraft with either external drop tanks or conformal tanks (drag penalty there).

    15. The F-35 cannot really supercruise - all it can do is to go to afterburner then slowly go back to subsonic.

      The thing about supercruise is that you need a very good thrust to drag ratio. That means a very aerodynamic fuselage and a good thrust to drag ratio (thrust - drag)/mass of aircraft. You also need enough fuel on board to sustain it for a useful period of time because going supersonic is very high on drag.

      Although the F-35 does have a decent fuel fraction but, it's got a very draggy fuselage which would hinder this.

      Actually there is one other problem, this is not entirely on topic, but one very serious problem with the F-35 is how it's designed - they have wrapped the fuel around the engine and use it to cool the engine. That makes the aircraft incredibly vulnerable. A shot in the right place would bring it down.

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  3. What will be needed then I think if your dream is to be realized would be:

    Fighter: Are you going bomber interceptor or fighter?
    - Bomber interceptor would mean something like the Su-33
    - Fighter would mean something like the F-16, only smaller
    - High fuel fraction >0.40
    - Probably a delta wing design
    - Close coupled canards and leading edge design
    - Better gun (use a revolver or gas-operated gattling, not an electric one)

    Strike aircraft
    - Medium to large sized
    - Again, high fuel fraction >0.4 (possibly even >0.5)
    - Depending on attack speeds, long arm canards
    - Could go with medium wing loading, but if you want self-defense, low wing loading with a big wing would be nice (it will come at the cost of higher maximum afterburner speeds though)

    I'd argue a case for a navalized CAS aircraft as well.

    1. "What will be needed then I think if your dream is to be realized would be"

      First, you need to understand that my "dream" is based on strategy. The aircraft (one or many) that we need is dependent on the strategy we want to pursue. That said, for the case of a strategy that calls for an air superiority aircraft and a strike aircraft as I laid out, the fighter would be a modernized and reasonably stealth-ified F-15 or navalized F-22. This would be a very long range aircraft and, hence, need to be a fairly large aircraft as opposed to an F-16-ish plane. It needs to have a good long range attack system analogous to the F-14 radar and Phoenix combination and a superb A2A capability like the F-15/22.

      The strike aircraft needs to be a modernized, stealth-ified A-6 or F-15E with longer legs.

    2. Grumman came up with an advanced derivative of the F-14 back in the early 1990's, namely the ASF-14 Super Tomcat, which would have been ideally suited for the fleet air defense and air superiority roles, while also having excellent strike capabilities.

      According to one of the engineers who worked on the project, it would have been able to supercruise at Mach 1.3 (more if it were equipped with the same engine as the F-22) and would have had better endurance and maneuverability than a late-model Flanker. It would have been far superior to the Super Hornet and could have been produced at a reasonable cost. It would be a much better fighter and strike aircraft than the F-35, while costing quite a bit less. Perhaps we should dust off the blueprints for the ASF-14, incorporate some new technologies such as an AESA (just imagine what kind of performance, detection ranges and electronic warfare capabilities you could get with an AESA sized to fit inside an F-14's radome!) and put the ASF-14 into production as our next generation strike fighter in lieu of the F-35.

      Sadly, it will never happen because it makes too much sense and the DOD and the MIC are far too corrupt to interrupt the F-35 feeding frenzy/corporate welfare scam.

    3. @ComNavOps

      I agree that it is based on strategy, but I called it a dream because, given the current situation, it remains a "dream". A very sane dream, but still a dream.

      Now that said, I am not sure about a stealth variant of the F-15 or F-22. They are very maintenance intensive (although the USAF apparently insists otherwise, the F-22 needs about 40 hours of maintenance per hour of flight.

      Anyways, it works out that an F-22 in 2013 needed about $68,000 (2013 USD) per hour to fly:

      I fear it could end up even higher for the navalized variant. The problem is that historically, stealth has not stood up to humidity well (apparently B2 cannot fly in rain) and by nature, a naval fighter will be exposed to a lot of it (that and salt).

      Bear in mind you are talking about
      $68000/hour x 8000 hours per airframe x number of aircraft

      The F-22 has a life of about 8000 hours.

    4. Blueback, I don't recognize your username so, if you're new to the site, welcome and thanks for participating!

      That's a nice background comment. I've always felt that we terminated the F-14 prematurely. I know one of the major driving forces was the desire to reduce aircraft maintenance and there's nothing wrong with that, per se. However, if you give up combat capability in pursuit of maintenance efficiency gains you're following the wrong path. Working with the F-14 to improve the maintenance issue while keeping the combat capability may have been the preferred way to go, as you suggest.

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    6. Thank you for the warm welcome. I have been a long time reader of Navy Matters but this is the first time I have posted a comment. You have one of the most intelligent and informative military related blogs out there and I have several friends who are also regular readers of Navy Matters. Navy Matters ranks right up there with SNAFU, Information Dissemination and Air Power Australia as one of my favorite military related websites. I really appreciate what you doing with this website and love the discussion threads almost as much as I do the articles themselves. It’s great to able to carry on an intelligent conversation about matters of such importance to our nation. Keep up the good work!

      In addition to the ASF-14, I would agree that we need a dedicated strike aircraft with greater range, performance and payload than the Super Hornet or F-35. A couple of off the shelf possibilities come to mind, both suggested by your comment. The USN and Grumman were working on an advanced version of the A-6, the A-6F. This was a derivative of the A-6E TRAM, but with updated avionics and a non-afterburning version of the same F-404 engine used by early model Hornets. It was cancelled in the post Desert Storm budget cuts, just like a lot of other promising programs. We are going to be paying for the Clinton administration’s negligence when it came to national security for a very long time to come. The Bush Jr. and Obama administrations simply continued down the same road to ruin that the Clinton administration started us on, and not just in the area of military procurement.

      My preferred option for a strike aircraft would be a navalized F-15E Strike Eagle. McDonnell Douglas did some studies on a navalized F-15 Eagle back in the early 1970’s called the F-15N Sea Eagle as a possible alternative to the F-14 Tomcat. My proposal would be to develop a navalized F-15E that incorporates design elements and technologies from the Sea Eagle and the F-15SE Silent Eagle. One of the things I like about the Strike Eagle is that it can carry a huge fuel load, especially when carrying FAST packs. It also has the ability to carry up to 3 600 gallon drop tanks and can still carry a heavy load of missiles and bombs even when carrying FAST packs and all three drop tanks. This would be hugely important in a naval campaign in the Pacific against a peer competitor, where carrier based aircraft might not be able to count on tanker support from the USAF, but still need to able to fly long range missions while carrying a useful load of bombs and missiles. The USN should also acquire a dedicated carrier based tanker, something along the lines of the KA-3. It doesn’t need to be anything fancy, just the ability to fly long distances while carrying lots of fuel that it can offload to other aircraft.

      There is a website that shows all the different loadouts a Strike Eagle can carry. This is one insanely powerful strike aircraft and as the F-15N studies showed, a navalized version is quite possible.

      Contd below:

    7. Contd from above:

      My ideal CVN wing would have a mixture of ASF-14’s and navalized Strike Eagles, which for purposes of convenience lets call the Sea Eagle. The ASF-14’s would act primarily as air superiority and fleet air defense fighters, but also be able to undertake strike missions, particularly in a permissive environment where the air threat has already been suppressed and we no longer need to have as many fighters flying CAP missions. The Sea Eagles would be primarily tasked as strike aircraft, but could also be used as highly effective interceptors and long range patrol fighters alongside the ASF-14’s in a high threat environment.

      One of the biggest mistakes the DOD has made is trying to come up with one airplane to fly every type of TACAIR mission profiles under the sun. This has been the biggest problem with both the Super Hornet and F-35 programs. Jack of all trades, master of none, as the saying goes. You would think the DOD would have learned something from the TFX program back in the 1960’s.

      Historically, the USN generally had 2 different fighter types in service at any one time and 2 or 3 different attack types, which provided a wide range of different capabilities. During World War II, the USN for instance had both the F-6F Hellcat and the F-4U Corsair. During the Vietnam War, the USN used a mixture of F-4 Phantom and F-8 Crusaders. In the post Vietnam era, it operated a mixture of Phantoms and F-14 Tomcats, with the Phantoms later replaced by F/A-18 Hornets. The same pattern was also true with attack aircraft as well.

      While I don’t think we need that many types today, I think we should have at least two TACAIR types aboard our carriers, one optimized for air superiority and fleet air defense with a secondary strike role and a strike aircraft that also has good air combat and long range air intercept capabilities. The two would operate in a complementary fashion. I would replace the Growler with a Sea Eagle optimized for the electronic warfare and SEAD/DEAD roles. A revived ASF-14 and a navalized Strike Eagle would provide an extremely powerful and capable one-two punch and would be ideally suited for a carrier wing engaged in a future air and naval war in the Pacific against a first rate military power like China.

      I might add this not a new idea. I remember reading a magazine article back in the 1990’s asking why was the Navy pushing ahead with the Super Hornet and JSF programs when the F-14D and F-15E already existed and advanced carrier capable derivatives of both could be developed that would have been more capable than either the Super Hornet or the JSF.

      As for the Air Force, I would keep the F-22 service and reopen the production line to build least 200 more, while replacing the F-35 and current legacy fighters with a mixture of ASF-14’s, upgraded Strike Eagles (something along the lines of the Silent Eagle) and upgraded F-16’s (perhaps something along the lines of the F-16E/F Desert Falcon or the F-16XL).

    8. "From what I remember, the argument was that you could never improve the F-14's maintenance issues enough, without completely redesigning the aircraft. "


      I think this is where the paening comes for the SuperTomcat concept: That's almost exactly what they did with the SH.

      Now, we have to keep in mind, I love the idea of a ST21. However, it too could have run into problems like the SH. The 5 degree outward cant of the weapons stations was something they had to do with a nearly new design.

      Who knows what compromises they would have had to make with an ST21.

      Still, I think it had more 'upside'.

    9. Blueback,

      I like alot of your ideas. The A6-F is one of those 'might have been's' that, coupled with a longer range Tomcat, is intriguing.

      Still, I think that while we'd be in better shape today (a 1000 mile range on an A6-F that could hoist JASSM-ER or LRASM could give the Navy some long range strike options into an A2/AD, I think) we still have other things we could do.

      I really like the idea of a navalized Strike Eagle. The Tomcat is dead, and making a new one would be holy crap expensive. I don't know if its possible to navalize a Strike or Silent Eagle now for a decent price (The Silent Eagle is ~100 million, IIRC, a Strike Eagle with Silent Eagle upgrades may be ~130 million... which approaches the F-35C IIRC).

      But IF it could, then it gives the Navy a long range aircraft capable of both strike and air superiority. If they can give it front aspect stealth it would help with strike. A Navalized Eagle with the AIM-120 D has a long range missile that might make an outer air battle possible if its needed.

      I'm not sold that the Eagle is obsolete. Its a heck of an airframe, and evolutionary improvements with improvements in avionics really could help. Its not going to be a sitting duck for a Flanker. With a powerful enough AESA radar it likely won't be a sitting duck for a Stealth fighter either.

      If I'm going way out into fantasy land... are there any Intruders left in the boneyard? I'm not thinking for a strike role. I'm thinking for an A-6F configuration prowler. We still have the F-404 if it could still be fitted.

      It would give the carrier a very powerful air wing. No all aspect stealth craft, but maybe alot of more affordable 'close enough' stealth craft combined with powerful jamming aircraft. And you're right, add FAST packs would help extend the range even more.

      Now, I know nothing of maintanance on the Eagle. Is it more F-14 or more Superhornet?

      Finally (And I'm far out on my limb...)

      Is there a navalized aircraft out there like the Super Tucano?

      I just can't help but think that a plane like the old SkyRaider would have been really nice to have on hand for
      missions like those against ISIS. If we could find a plane like that that could take off from an America class it would be even better.

      We're burning the wings off the SuperHornets on those missions, for which they are very over qualified.

    10. Blueback, I pretty much have to agree with your carrier air wing make up. Good thoughts!

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    12. @Smitty;

      I see your point.

      A Sea Eagle would have been a great idea 15-20 years ago if we weren't going to upgrade the Tomcats. Now, it would be putting alot of money into improving our air wing... but at the cost a new design would be much better.

      I just think that unless we find or build a fighter with more range and upside than the 35C, the air wing will face irrelevance sooner than we imagine.

    13. "There's no point in navalizing the Strike Eagle. It would cost nearly as much as a new design."

      That's absurd! Navalizing involves structural mods to handle the cat and trap stresses and some corrosion resistance treatments and changes. Not a trivial effort, to be sure, but nowhere near the cost of a blank page, new design. Good grief, not even close.

      Now, this comment does not address the desirability of such an upgrade, only the relative cost.

      A brand new design is the F-35 which has cost billions and taken decades. There's not comparison.

    14. "Is there a navalized aircraft out there like the Super Tucano?"

      Jim, that's a great question. It suggests the possibility of a two-tier naval aviation force: one for the low end scenarios that make up 99% of our missions and one for the higher end which requires the F-35/18.

      Honestly, if we were operating air wings with mostly a low end aircraft, would we be at any great disadvantage day to day? No, and our high end aircraft could sit in maintenance and not rack up hours plinking pickup trucks.

      Great question!

    15. Thanks!

      My happy place would be for a navalized Super Tucano that could launch off of a 'phib. :-) But I think given the needed payloads that is a bridge too far.

  4. Providing forward based air superiority for distantantly based bombers isn't a bad thing in itself
    A b2 is certainly a better bomb truck than an a3

    That's not to say that the carrier air wings are optimal as are.

  5. The cruise missile fill much of the roll of the classic carrier-borne, long-range strike fighters.

    1. I don't disagree with that but our aircraft are so short legged even if they can loft the missiles the carrier has to get within range of their missiles.

    2. To an extent, it does. On the other hand, we've thoroughly covered the need for manned aircraft to provide flexibility and judgement until such time as our programming capability allows truly effective autonomous operation.

  6. dont forget the rise of land based point defense AAA/SAM that can stop Cruise missiles and HARM missiles from hitting their target(s)

    1. "b", HARM has a fairly extensive combat history and few have ever been shot down or otherwise stopped. The Mach 3+ speed and relatively small size make them a very difficult target. They may miss their target but not due to enemy defenses.

      Cruise missiles have, likewise, never been effectively stopped though they have never faced a competent opponent either. Unlike the HARM, there is every reason to believe that cruise missiles like the Tomahawk (subsonic, not stealthy, no on-board ECM, no significant terminal maneuvering) would be susceptible to enemy defensive efforts.

  7. In the last (and hopefully only) Carrier vs Carrier war, the super Carriers became Fighter (providing defense for the Fleet and Operations) platforms, while the light Carriers became the Strike (providing offense for the Fleet and Operations) platforms.

    Read The Pentagon Paradox: The Development of the F-18" to see the figures on Carrier Air Wing Composition.

    So maybe we on track with the Big Carriers becoming defense oriented. The problem is we have not small carriers or strike aircraft to put on them.

    1. It is unknown what the optimal carrier size is, likely it is not one specific size but a series of sizes for different purposes. There have been proposals like the Sea-control-ship (14K tonnes, similar in size to converted cruiser based CVs of ww2), medium carrier, etc..etc.. Sizes ranging from tiny ships, to massive carriers >100K tonnes.


      There is likely scales of economies to be gained as carrier size increases, although this is most likely not linear, and probably stops around where the US carriers are.

      Then there is probably also something to be said about converting commercial style ships, or modifying hulls (from design stage) so as to take advantage of commercial shipping production as much as possible.

      Also we can probably build ships with IEP (electric based propulsion, suitable for large ships because it reduces the drive train which must be long because engine must be placed in centre of ship for balance reasons), and magnetic launchers built into a ramp. Therefore lowering take-off distance requirements!

      I definitely think there is much to be said about force composition and smaller carriers, where we can have carriers that are smaller, cheaper, lower-end than super-carriers, which can be deployed in numbers suitable for securing control of the seas in less hostile areas. And can operate in areas that super-carriers can't, because super carriers are so few in numbers, they can not be lost!

    2. Anon, the carrier size issue has been studied to death. For the classic carrier operations, the large carrier is far and away the most efficient. That's not really debatable.

      What becomes debatable is when other factors such as budget or limited strategic goals or specialty aircraft (jump jets, for example) enter the picture. When one or more of these factors become important then the large carrier may not be the best choice.

  8. As far as my thoughts on carrier air wings:

    - First, I may be the only one here who thinks that variable sweep wing fighters are not worth the disadvantages they bring.

    - Second, I am probably the only one here who also views the F-15 airframe as obsolete. It was obsolete 20 years ago actually - arguably 30 years.

    1. You will never be able to make a variable sweep aircraft as good as a fixed wing one in terms of performance and flight-to-maintenance.

    For reasons of laws of physics, there will always be a weight penalty in the sweep mechanism of the swing wing. This will in turn, mean slower cruise speeds, lower fuel fractions, and poorer flight-to-maintenance ratios than a fixed wing aircraft.

    Although the advantages of variable sweep can somewhat mitigate the low fuel fraction (there are fuel savings during the climb), they net lead to a shorter ranged plane than what a well designed fixed wing aircraft could have been.

    In a dogfight, the swing wing would prove a drawback due to the lower cruise speeds. It will also lead to more demands on the internal structure, which can limit the maximum G tolerances (or reduce airframe life compared to a fixed wing aircraft).

    As far as the idea of "bomber interceptor" not fighter - in that case, a fixed wing aircraft, a long-arm canard delta would make a much better high speed interceptor and offer the opportunity for superior range OR higher speeds. For a bomber interceptor-fighter mix, something like the Su-33 (a navalized variant of the Su-27) would probably be better.

    2. As far as the F-15, it is generally well known in aviation circles that the Su-27 (which was a similar era aircraft) was a much better designed airframe.

    Although a larger fueslage, the airframe design is more maneuverable due to the wing-body blending and the use of leading edge extensions (useful for generating lift during turns). Some variants also make use of close coupled canards, which should improve turn performance even more.

    The F-16 makes use of similar features. Actually - probably the best designed (aerodynamics-wise) aircraft right now is the Dassault Rafale.

    I'd go with something Rafale centric (or a smaller, single engine variant).

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. I think 'Obsolete' is a bit over the top. It suggests the Eagles are flying targets.

      The SU-27 is a good airframe... very arguably better than the F-15, but its no spring chicken either, originally coming out in '82.

      I get a little hinky with comments like 'Generally known in the aviation community'. I've known aerospace engineers and pilots and none of them were 'OHMYGOSHTHEFLANKERISTHEULTIMATE!'. They recognize its a great design, but also don't thnk its perfect or massively better.

      Most of the stuff I've read have the Flanker as better, but not 'the new order' or 'Much better' while the F-15 is 'Obsolete'. Further, I've read that while the Flanker puts on a heck of an airshow, the other air forces that use it (SU-30 for India) say its is its own maintanance nightmare, particularly with the engines, to the point where the Indians were looking at other airframes for the next buy. Stuff like that counts.

      A Saberjet is obsolete today. An F-15 with AESA and AIM-120D is still a hell of a fighter. A Silent eagle could be even more so. I'd argue that an effort to make a 'SuperEagle' could be a real path forward. I do like the evolutionary changes the Russions have gone for. But lets remember that both Flanker and Eagle are still 4th generation jets.

      We've learned time and time again that 'obsolete' jets used properly in the hands of good pilots do just fine. The Phantom flew for years when it was 'obsolete'. The 'obsolete' MiG's in Vietnam gave the Phantom's a hell of a problem for a long time.

      If we decided to go cancel the F-35 and go with a more evolutionary approach based on the F-15, even a rebuild like the SH was to the Hornet, I'd be fine. If we had to face a peer flying flankers, with proper pilot training I think we'd be very effective and stand a very good chance.

      Just my $0.02

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    4. All, do any of you have any actual data or reports that state that the Flanker has an advantage over the Eagle in a relevant A2A scenario as opposed to aerobatic maneuvers at an air show? I'm unaware of any relevant information in the public domain and I suspect that any real info is classified in the military. Still, does anyone have any hard info before we crown the Flanker as the ultimate fighter?

    5. Just the general Wiki stuff. GlobalSecurity is paywalled now. :-(
      Nothing here suggests to me a clear dominance by the Flanker and its variants:

      General characteristics

      Crew: 1
      Length: 21.9 m (72 ft)
      Wingspan: 14.7 m (48 ft 3 in)
      Height: 5.92 m (19 ft 6 in)
      Wing area: 62 m² (667 ft²)
      Empty weight: 16,380 kg (36,100 lb)
      Loaded weight: 23,430 kg. (51,650 lb.) with 56% internal fuel
      Max. takeoff weight: 30,450 kg (67,100 lb)
      Powerplant: 2 × Saturn/Lyulka AL-31F turbofans
      Dry thrust: 7,670 kgf (75.22 kN, 16,910 lbf) each
      Thrust with afterburner: 12,500 kgf (122.6 kN, 27,560 lbf) each
      Fuel capacity: 9,400 kg (20,724 lb) internally[98]

      Maximum speed:

      At altitude: Mach 2.35 (2,500 km/h, 1,550 mph)
      At sea level: 1,400 km/h, 870 mph[96]
      Range: 3,530 km (2,070 mi) at altitude; (1,340 km / 800 mi at sea level)
      Service ceiling: 19,000 m (62,523 ft)
      Rate of climb: 300 m/s[99] (59,000 ft/min)
      Wing loading: 377.9 kg/m² (444.61 kg/m² with full fuel) (77.3 lb/ft² with 56% fuel)
      Thrust/weight: 1.07 with 56% internal fuel; 0.907 with full fuel

      Maximum g-load: +9 g


      Crew: 1: pilot
      Length: 63 ft 9 in (19.43 m)
      Wingspan: 42 ft 10 in (13.05 m)
      Height: 18 ft 6 in (5.63 m)
      Wing area: 608 ft² (56.5 m²)
      Airfoil: NACA 64A006.6 root, NACA 64A203 tip
      Empty weight: 28,000 lb (12,700 kg)
      Loaded weight: 44,500 lb (20,200 kg)
      Max. takeoff weight: 68,000 lb (30,845 kg)
      Powerplant: 2 × Pratt & Whitney F100-100 or −220 afterburning turbofans
      Dry thrust: 14,590 lbf[125] (64.9 kN) each
      Thrust with afterburner: 23,770 lbf for −220[125] (105.7 kN for −220) each
      Fuel capacity: 13,455 lb (6,100 kg) internal[126]

      Maximum speed:

      High altitude: Mach 2.5+ (1,650+ mph, 2,665+ km/h)
      Low altitude: Mach 1.2 (900 mph, 1,450 km/h)
      Combat radius: 1,061 nmi (1,222 mi, 1,967 km) for interdiction mission
      Ferry range: 3,450 mi (3,000 nmi, 5,550 km) with conformal fuel tanks and three external fuel tanks
      Service ceiling: 65,000 ft (20,000 m)
      Rate of climb: >50,000 ft/min (254 m/s)
      Wing loading: 73.1 lb/ft² (358 kg/m²)
      Thrust/weight: 1.07 (−220)

      Maximum design g-load: 9 g


      Crew: 1
      Length: 21.9 m (72.9 ft)
      Wingspan: 15.3 m (50.2 ft, with wingtip pods)
      Height: 5.90 m (19.4 ft)
      Wing area: 62.0 m² (667 ft²)
      Empty weight: 18,400 kg (40,570 lb)
      Loaded weight: 25,300 kg (56,660 lb) at 50% internal fuel
      Max. takeoff weight: 34,500 kg (76,060 lb)
      Powerplant: 2 × Saturn 117S (AL-41F1S) afterburning turbofan with 3D thrust vectoring nozzle
      Dry thrust: 8,800 kgf (86.3 kN, 19,400 lbf) each
      Thrust with afterburner: 14,500 kgf (142 kN, 31,900 lbf) each
      Fuel capacity: 11,500 kg (25,400 lb) internally

      Maximum speed:

      At altitude: Mach 2.25 (2,390 km/h, 1,490 mph)
      At sea level: Mach 1.15 (1,400 km/h, 870 mph)

      At altitude: 3,600 km (1,940 nmi)
      At sea level: 1,580 km (850 nmi)
      Ferry range: 4,500 km (2,430 nmi) with 2 external fuel tanks
      Service ceiling: 18,000 m (59,100 ft)
      Rate of climb: >280 m/s (>55,000 ft/min)
      Wing loading: 408 kg/m² (500.8 kg/m² with full internal fuel) (84.9 lb/ft² 50% fuel)
      Thrust/weight: 1.13 at 50% fuel (0.92 with full internal fuel)

      Maximum g-load: +9 g

    6. Stats, while somewhat indicative, do not convey the actual performance of any aircraft in its role (A2A, in this discussion). What is the maneuverability, roll rate, acceleration, detectability, sensor performance, weapon sensing, etc.? Those are the things that determine the "goodness" of an aircraft. The published stats capture only a small portion of that. Then, there's the toughness and survivability (can an aircraft absorb damage?) as well as maintenance (is the aircraft available and will its systems perform as advertised?). Remember, after the fall of the Soviet Union, we learned that much of the Soviet equipment was non-functional due to poor construction quality and inability to maintain the systems.

      Could a perfectly maintained Flanker with their top pilot outperform an Eagle? Maybe (maybe not), but the real question is can a line Flanker even get into the air, will its systems work, and can the average Flanker pilot use it to beat an average US Eagle/pilot?

    7. CNO:

      Totally agree. I'm just trying to get out what I could find.

      I guess my greater point is that I don't believe the Eagle is a dead end; nor do I think its obsolete. Basic specs can at least give an idea. (Though, as you say, its not perfect. With the above types of stats a MiG 21 might look pretty darned competitive...)

      Pilot training and tactics can make you competitive even if you don't have as good of a product: I.E. Boyington's tactics vs. the Zero, or the Thatch Weave.

    8. @CNO

      A simple look at the airframe design will tell you what you need to know. That requires a bit of knowledge about aerodynamics, but nothing too advanced.

      The Su-27 through it's leading edge extensions is simply a better designed airframe. The F-16 does have similar extensions, as does the F-22 to an extent (they didn't make it super aerodynamic as it would have compromised radar stealth). Despite being larger, in actual combat, it will be able to regain energy much faster in actual combat than the F-15.

      Also check out fuel capacity / typical combat load - that will be your fuel fraction - the Su-27 family wins on that as well. If an Su-27 and F-15 engaged in a dogfight, the Su-27 might simply be able to outlast the enemy. Another is that the Su-27 has the option of a higher cruise speed (note I emphasize the cruise, not the maximum afterburner speed, which most aircraft will only go for a small fraction of their life).

      Finally, the way the intakes are designed on the F-15 compared to the Su-27 might be a drawback in complex maneuvers (could lead to problems at higher angles of attack).

      An evolutionary approach based on the F-15 as Jim has noted would be the best response. IN some ways, that is exactly what the F-22 did - added LERX and some degree of stealth.

      But the other issue is that such an aircraft would be expensive (as the F-22 has demonstrated), hence my advocacy for a small, single engined Rafale-like aircraft. Something like the Gripen, but purely air to air focused. It would be more like the F-16, but with a modern airframe than anything else.

  9. A3 photo is a photo recon variant - camera ports and tail letters PR.


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