Sunday, July 31, 2016

Carrier Task Force

The most powerful naval force is a carrier task force.  Unfortunately, the Navy has completely forgotten what a carrier task force is, how it’s structured, and, most importantly, how to use it operationally and tactically.

A WWII carrier task force consisted of multiple carriers and lots of escorts.  Wikipedia describes Adm. Marc Mitscher’s vision of the ideal carrier group,

“Said Mitscher: "The ideal composition of a fast-carrier task force is four carriers, six to eight support vessels and not less than 18 destroyers, preferably 24. More than four carriers in a task group cannot be advantageously used due to the amount of air room required. Less than four carriers requires an uneconomical use of support ships and screening vessels." (1)

Compare that to current Navy practice, if not theory, concerning carrier groups.  Today’s carriers seldom combine for operations and never train for multi-carrier operations and tactics.  The rare occasions when multiple carriers operate together are, invariably, in zero-threat scenarios where they conduct simultaneous or alternating strikes against low-threat land targets.  The Navy simply does not train to operate multi-carrier groups.  The Navy has abandoned Mitscher’s combat-proven vision in favor of an operationally and tactically unwise, unproven, and unsound one.

Consider what a WWII carrier group represented.  Each carrier had an air wing of close to 100 aircraft.  A group of four fleet carriers could muster around 400 aircraft!  Today’s carrier “group” of one carrier contains 38-40 Hornets, depending on how many are being used as aerial tankers.  A WWII group could send 300 aircraft on strikes and sweeps and still have 100 aircraft for defense of the group!  Today, if we want to retain a viable defense, we can’t spare any aircraft for strikes or sweeps – there simply aren’t enough aircraft on a single carrier.

Speaking of carrier group defense,

“Mitscher determined that the best defense for a carrier was its own air groups, and that carriers were more easily defended if they operated together in groups …” (1)

Multiple carriers can pool and concentrate their aircraft and their escorts.  This seems obvious, doesn’t it?  Not to today’s Navy. 

Enterprise, early in the war, operated with 2 cruisers and 5 destroyers as escorts.  This was not due to optimal force distribution but to a “make do” with the limited number of ships the Navy initially had.

It’s also interesting to consider the carrier group’s escort composition.  A typical WWII carrier group escort force consisted of battleships, cruisers, and destroyers.  As an example, Global Security website cites the following carrier group composition.

“Ideally each task group would have four carriers (three CVs and one CVL), two fast battleships or battle cruisers, four heavy or light cruisers and sixteen destroyers.” (2)

Today, a Ticonderoga would be a loose (and poor) equivalent to a battleship and Burkes would be a loose equivalent to cruisers.  Today’s Navy doesn’t have anything equivalent to WWII destroyers.  We desperately need a destroyer to perform ASW and add layers to the defense.

Once upon a time we knew how to operate multi-carrier groups.  We knew how to space and arrange the carriers to maximize their mutual support.  We lost that knowledge and are making no attempt to regain it.  It’s quite likely that the spacing, arrangement, and, possibly, even the ideal number of carriers has changed as jets have taken over and as air wings have shrunk.  If we don’t exercise and rediscover these things, we’ll be lost when war comes.

Today’s carrier group sails with a typical escort of one Ticonderoga and two or three Burkes.  That’s a pretty weak escort by historical norms.  We would expect that if war came the escort force would be increased by adding a second Ticonderoga and a couple of Burkes.  Of course, that assumes the Navy hasn’t eliminated the Ticonderogas as they’ve been doggedly trying to do. 

That brings us to the next point.  If today’s carrier group escort would be increased in war, why aren’t we training for that right now?  You train like you fight, right?  Well, we’re training with a very small escort.  No Navy officer today has any idea how to tactically utilize a larger escort because we don’t operate large escorts.  Is this really the way to prepare for war?

Along the same line, no Navy officer today has any idea how to operate a multi-carrier group because we never practice it and yet, when war comes, we’ll attempt to operate multi-carrier groups and we’ll have to learn on the fly.  That’s a surefire recipe for disaster.  Unlike WWII, we won’t be able to build twenty or so new carriers in four years.  Recall that we lost 4 of the 6 carriers we started the Pacific war with.  It takes us five-plus years to build one carrier today.  In a modern war, we won’t be getting replacement carriers.  We can’t afford the losses that will come with relearning carrier tactics on the fly.

Yorktown Sinking - We Can't Afford The Learning Curve

There’s never been a better time to experiment with multi-carrier groups.  We generally have 7 or so carriers tied up in home ports now due to budget constraints.  This is an ideal time to take those carriers out for exercises and start developing some tactics.  Here’s a few tactical questions that need answers.

  • How many carriers should be in a group?  Note: even three carriers can only muster 120 combat aircraft – barely more than a single WWII carrier worth of aircraft!

  • How many escorts are needed?

  • What kind of escort spacing is needed to provide effective defensive coverage?

  • What kind of separation do carriers need to operate their air groups without impacting each other’s air space?

  • How many aircraft are needed for an effective task force defense?  This will also determine how many can be available for strikes.  I suspect we’ll find that all the aircraft are needed for defense and that there won’t be any available for strikes.  If that’s the case, one has to ask why we have carriers if the only task they can perform is self-defense.

  • How do we co-ordinate the engagement ranges of aircraft, Standard missiles, and ESSM, all with significant overlaps, from two dozen ships and many dozens of aircraft without interfering with each other?

Set aside all the make-work, peacetime, garbage jobs and the Navy’s ultimate reason for existence is to fight a high end war.  The Navy’s steadfast refusal to prepare for high end war is absolutely baffling. 


(1)Wikipedia, “Fast Carrier Task Force”, 18-Jul-2016,

(2)Global Security website, “Carrier Task Force”,


  1. The reason why is that we have a bloated officers' core with overpriced pet projects that will have prohibitively expensive maintenance costs. Training? That costs money. Until we deal with the root causes, these problems will continue. President Eisenhower foresaw this back in the 60's with his "military-industrial complex" speech and its been proven true.

    We can't have the troop levels, ships, planes, training etc. we need until we fundamentally change on how we conduct business. Unfortunately, history has proven that "change" is usually war.

  2. Off topic but if you want to ready a great modern war story join Its a 'what-if' the Berlin Wall and the Soviets never fell with WW3 breaking out in 2006.

    Very well done and written by people who know stuff. Ex-services, etc.

  3. Video game.

    If AI can consistently whip top gun pilot (i.e. F-35ish future maybe?)in dog fight in simulator, the whole thing can be scaled up to simulate a combat control room on a ship for various scenario. Build 4 sets for carriers, another 10 for burk..etc, and network them together and fight the AI.

    1. I want to flesh out this a bit,

      1. The Google AlphaGo was a learning AI that: it 'studied (download)' past matches, and then iterate the process of 'learning and playing' against real players and itself. Isn't this what aspiring Naval officers do in their studies in college (or post-graduate schools): to learn past lessons and how to fight a future one? Also, the above link tells me, along the line of AlphaGo, there is viable AI that can outdo real pilot. To me, that means AI can already performs (or wins) on a one-on-one match, a point solution. How about scaled that to 2-on-2, squadron-on-squadron, or CSG-on-whatever, of different variety platforms and scenarios.

      2. The original AlphaGo team is maybe 3-4 person. That flight simulator came from a phD student. That means, the resource to build different point-solution AI (i.e. F-35), or a platform-solution AI (i.e. Burke), or tactical-solution AI (ie. CSG)should be do-able (and hopefully not too expensive).

      3. For the simulator hardware, the combat-control-room for each platform can be build (after all, modern naval engagement is done on LED screen and mouse clicks anyway). This is where you can stick student officers and NCOs within, lock the door for a week, and ask them to 'fight and win'. The best part is: they can afford the iteration of fail-and-learn without actual failures (as in $$ and blood).

      4. Also, it will be an experiment to incorporate man-and-AI interface on how to share the task in the combat-control-room.

      5. Also, one can plug in existing assets (i.e. number of carriers, burks, subs..etc) into the simulation to find out optimal solutions under different scenarios. One of AlphaGo's take away is that the opposing man-player said that the AI don't 'play like humans do'. Therefore, AI result should help Navy to have a better grasp of hardware need (thus budgeting); something us human might not be able to think beyond '1st or 2nd order'.

  4. Combined carrier operations are a regular occurrence in the Gulf, at least between the USN and French carriers.

    2014: Truman + de Gaulle
    2015: Vinson + de Gaulle
    2016: Truman + de Gaulle

    Typically these last about 4-6 weeks and include combined strike packages, mixed CAP (Hornet/Rafale), shared logistics (AORs, COD), shares AEW and buddy tanking coverage, swapping escorts, cyclical operations etc.

    Given the frequency and increasing level of operational sophistication of these dual carrier operations, someone somewhere is probably thinking about fully integrated task force operations, if not already doing it for real...

    There may also be diplomatic reasons not to publicize this too much, as clearly one target of this training is China.


    1. The US and France will never fight together. These are PR/diplomacy stunts.

      The US carrier movements are pretty well documented. I'm quite comfortable in saying that we have not, and are not, practicing multi-carrier ops.

    2. My point was that a lot of the thinking that goes into these 2 carrier operations (as well as the lessons learnt) would be applicable to a USN-only setting, and it seems likely that the officers involved and hopefully some of the desk jockeys in DC are taking notes and writing the future handbook of what it could look like to have 2 USN CVNs operating together in the South China Sea...


    3. HK, I have to absolutely disagree. It's analogous to training to walk across the street when the real event is a marathon. There's almost nothing that would carry over.

      These PR stunts just trade landings back and forth and make photo ops. They have nothing to do with actual tactical, doctrinal, and operational training for a major, high end war. You read the list of questions in the post that need to be answered. A US-French PR stunt did/does nothing to address those. Sorry, but they're worthless exercises.

    4. "The US and France will never fight together. These are PR/diplomacy stunts."

      The 86 French soldiers who died in Afghanistan might be surprised to hear that.

      It has become somewhat popular to dismiss America's allies as freeloaders and pacifists, we would do well to remember the price they have paid and will most likely will again at some point.

    5. We would do well to remember that France is one of our least reliable "allies". I won't bother to list the times they have failed to support us. You know the examples as well as I do.

      With friends like these, who needs enemies?

    6. I don't disagree. I doubt that we're at the marathon stage.

      But... from what I've read we are well past the PR stunt stage. Three years of increasingly complex dual carrier operations, including some of the tactical aspects I've listed: combined strike packages, combined escort groups, combined logistics, AEW and buddy tanking, mixed CAPs, cyclical operations. All in the context of a persistent and unpredictable 3D local threat (Iran) that needs to be managed without disrupting the tempo of long-range strikes.

      It's not a bad starting point, especially for those USN officers involved who are experiencing this first hand. If the s**** hits the fan, I'm sure they'll be pulling their notes out on lessons learned to apply them to USN carrier task force ops. Maybe even one of them will be writing doctrine once he cycles back to shore duty.


    7. "Maybe even one of them will be writing doctrine once he cycles back to shore duty."

      That would be a major disaster.

      You even said it - the training was against a local, low end threat, against the backdrop of routine long range strikes. This is nothing like 3-4 carrier major ops against a peer in high end combat.

      I'll repeat, look at the list of issues that need to be addressed in the post and compare them to the "training" that you're claiming we're conducting. There's almost nothing transferable between the two.

      Some idiot writing carrier doctrine from that will get a lot of people killed in the future high end combat when it comes.

      Reread your own comment and compare it to the needs outlined in the post. This training accomplishes nothing.

    8. "The US and France will never fight together."

      Hmm. ISIS might disagree on that one. I also suspect if anything happened in the Gulf with Iran that France might well cooperate.

      US-French CV cross-decking probably makes sense, given their more recent interventionist policy.

  5. How many carriers should be in a group? Note: even three carriers can only muster 120 combat aircraft – barely more than a single WWII carrier worth of aircraft!


    The optimum carrier task force buy the end of the cold war was four carriers - three attack and one "ASW" (think sea control - generally older, smaller CVs).

    I am sure that todays CVN *could* operate with 86-90 deck spots, the wings today are small because of USN mismanagement.


  6. It wasn't that long ago that a carrier air wing had 70-80 fixed-wing aircraft. The current carrier air wing is woefully undersized. At a minimum we should add 2 more squadrons on Super Hornets, a few more Growlers, and a couple of more Hawkeyes.

    1. If we'd scrap two carriers and go to nine, we'd could afford adding all those aircraft to each of the nine, plus a couple extra escorts for each. Then keep those two carriers in reserve that could be refitted during wartime within in a year, compared to five years for a new one. This is a realistic proposal, but I know most prefer to advocate a non-starter: give us more money!

    2. If you're serious about your proposal then you need to put some serious thought into it. Address these questions/issues,

      1. We have more than 80 Aegis escorts (Burkes and Ticos) so we do not have a shortage of escorts.

      2. It costs significant money to keep a nuclear powered carrier in active reserve. It's a savings, probably, but not all that much.

      3. When the two reserve carriers are called up, where do we get the aircraft for their air wings? That's around 130 aircraft of various types. They don't just magically appear! A carrier without an air wing is useless. We have no reserve squadrons or air wings.

      4. If we call up these reserve carriers, where do the pilots come from, assuming we have aircraft for them? Again, it takes a couple of years to produce a pilot and if there's a war going on, I'm sure any pilots we train would go immediately to replace war losses. We can't even ramp up training much because we have only a very limited stock of trainer aircraft!

      5. Where do we get highly trained crew for two reserve carriers if they're called up? You can't just draft someone and turn them into an electronics tech or other high tech crew in a matter of weeks.

      6. If we call up reserve carriers, it takes months to train a crew to safely and effectively conduct flight operations. Again, you don't just draft a crew and have them conducting flight ops a week later.

      Address these issues and then you may or may not have a viable proposal. Let me know what you come up with.

    3. Reserve carriers are much quicker to bring up than new builds. But I agree, use some of the savings to build up 100 or so new aircraft in depots as a wartime reserve. There is lots of skilled manpower in the inactive reserve (to include recent retirees) We also have lots of Marine Corps aircraft that can fight from ships since we will not do amphib ops until the seas are clear. But the best case is our carriers will get hit in wartime, if not sunk. That will free lots of manpower and aircraft.

    4. Hmmm .... So, you propose building around two air wings worth of aircraft and putting them into idle status? At $100M per aircraft (just for easy arithmetic), that's $10B worth of war machines that may never fire up their engines. That might be a tough sell to Congress and the nation!

      How do you maintain these 100+ aircraft? They can't literally sit or they'd never work. Engines have to be run, fluids changed, software updated, seals replaced, and a hundred other routine maintenance tasks - multiplied by a hundred aircraft! People think we can just toss equipment into some kind of magic reserve status and it will be there a decade or two later, ready to push the start button and run perfectly. That's not how it works and I'm sure you know that. So, in addition to that $10B of idled aircraft, we have to add facilities, repair shops, many dozens of mechanics and technicians, basing and support for the maintenance personnel, and so on.

      Reserve forces are a good idea under the right circumstances but they are not as cheap as so many people think.

    5. We have 9 active carrier air wings. Adding 30 aircraft to each wing, at an average cost of $100 million each, totals to $27 billion. That's roughly equivalent to the cost of 2 Ford class carriers.

      Maybe the tradeoff is forgoing 1 to 2 carriers to buy more aircraft.

    6. Store new aircraft the same way we store missiles like Tomahawks for wartime use. Then you rotate stock every few years so they will get used after a few years and ideally replaced by other new ones.

      Store them in dehumidified bunkers, mostly disassembled. When needed, they can be ready within 30 days. We should do this regardless. Aren't going to lose lots of aircraft in combat anyway. What's the plan to quickly replace them now?

      If you want to keep the nuclear reactors working, hook them up to the base power grid and save money that way.

    7. Well, that's one option though not a good one. A better option would have been to forgo 55 LCS at $0.5B each for a total savings of $27.5B. We could have kept our carriers, added the aircraft, and avoided a completely useless LCS. By the way, we would also have saved umpteen billion in LCS developmental costs, too.

  7. CNOps, is this a fair summary of what you are saying, here and in other posts:

    Navies train as they expect to fight.
    But the USN do not expect to fight.
    Therefore, they do not train.

    1. Kind of but I would sum it up by saying that the Navy's focus is budget slice rather than warfighting.

      It's not that they don't expect to fight, it's that their priority is budget rather than combat.

    2. The only way that would be a useful exercise is if the US CBG was hunting the CdG, which I think ALL SIDES would learn an enormous amount from.

    3. "The only way that would be a useful exercise is if the US CBG was hunting the CdG, which I think ALL SIDES would learn an enormous amount from."

      ????? You completely lost me.

    4. I clicked the wrong reply

      "Combined carrier operations are a regular occurrence in the Gulf, at least between the USN and French carriers.

      2014: Truman + de Gaulle
      2015: Vinson + de Gaulle
      2016: Truman + de Gaulle"

      Silly TrT

  8. Read the book

    Pentagon Paradox: The Development of the F-18 Hornet
    by James P. Stevenson

    It gives an excellent historical perspective of what the WWII Carrier mix grew into. It was completely different from what the everyone thought it would be during peacetime. Just like today!

    Short term - the Navy has to figure out how to reduce carrier and A/C costs.

    Why build a Ford Class that costs more (and as documented here offers very little improvement) when we could be falling down the learning curve costs slide on the Nimitz? STOP making changes to every hull that negates the learning curve.

    As for Aircraft the last time an aircraft costs less than what it replaced was the F-16/F-18A. Better learn from history in both instances.

  9. I don't understand at all the reason for the shrinking airwings. The lack of legs of the SuperHornet is bad enough. But couple that with airwings that are 1/2 as large as their cold war counterparts and we have major issues in a peer fight.

    What would serve the Navy better, the LCS class as a hole, or complete airwings? I know what the Navy thinks, but right now I have my doubts.

    Ford won't fight. And the Nimitz's out there are all operating truncated airwings.

    1. Do you really need me to answer this? It's all about money and the Navy's ultimate priority which is building ships (because they justify the budget!). Aircraft are not really a priority - hulls in the water are.

      The LCS serves no purpose whatsoever but the Navy would rather have 55x $500M LCS than full air wings that could actually fight because the LCS ensures ongoing budget slices.

      You know this. You didn't need my answer!

    2. You are correct.

      I just don't understand the *why*. Okay, so they get a bigger budget and more ships.

      But if those ships get their arse kicked so what?

      Where is the sense of pride? How do you get there after going through a naval academy, and having a long career?

      I can't think of any admirals who were happy with Jefferson's mosquito fleet even though there were more hulls.

      I'd think today you'd want an admiral who was in charge of a real bloody asset.

    3. 2 phases/jokes answer this:

      First - IBGYBG

      Second - Of the 3 envelopes open the first one.

      First one: I'll Be Gone, You'll Be Gone

      Second One - An old joke about a relief showing up finding a pass down consisting of only 3 envelopes labeled open in order of crisis's. The first envelope contains a sheet of paper saying: I just got here. The Second envelope says I'm studying that. The Third envelope syas: Prepare three envelopes.

      Cynical - yes, correctly describes the current situation yes.

    4. "I just don't understand the *why*."

      And this is where my analysis hits a brick wall. I can see the actions. I can describe the behavior. I can predict future actions. But, I'm completely lost as to the thought process behind it. Navy leaders are not stupid people (though their actions strongly suggest otherwise) and yet they persist in demonstrating stupid actions and decisions.

  10. I enjoy the though provoking argument but your not exactly right. Every carrier aviator realizes that you need 2 and better off 3 carriers for continuous 24 hour combat ops operating roughly together. Each deck servicing about 14ish hour days. Then you also have to consider UNREPs every 2-3 days. Thus you get 3 carriers to provide for truly 24h ops. You could make some modifications to flex deck ops and expand the deck some but not much due to flight deck crew numbers.

    Anyway in WWII the TF size was influenced by the fact that you could rarely fight at night (the Big E actually led one night TF but was one group out of 6+) thus you got big surges 2-4 times a day based on range of the strike targets. Also a large factor was the lack of an angle deck. CAPT Hughes's book (Fleet Tactics) has a good description of Carrier concepts and how the US changed over time. Also Fleet Carriers is also a good book (btw I wrote one of my NWC papers on US carrier ops in WWII and implications on today.. ie Kamikazes the orginal A2AD)
    Anyway, our current CVN ops are predicated on having a carrier near a potential hot spot so it can answer the "Politician Class" call. 40ish strike aircraft is larger than almost any third world hots spot (the gap is bigger if you consider training and C2) anyway training for large scale strikes from multiple groups (what you would need for really only 2-3 countries) as well as provide a large CAP to cover your remaining TF assets is costly (and I am not saying we should not do it from time to time) but for 85% of our needed missions (ie presence and strikes against third world locations like all of the ME) then budget cutters have won.

    Now I have served in a 3 carrier strike formation and while it worked...we had a step learn curve and having several flag staffs hurt (same problem at BA and having a MEB staff in the space for MEU staff and having the other LHA/Ds have too much space for their command staffs). I think that is one of the reasons that the America will likely be the Command Ship/JSF carrier for multiple ESG ops (like in IF) because if you remove the troops then you have excess space to shove a larger MEB staff.

    Anyway we do have limited training events with multiple carriers and some of those are synthetic. Generally the training staff tries to get a post cruise carrier (before it heads into the yards) to come out and play during one of the two major training events for the deploying carrier. However maintenance has been a bitch and as you have seen in the news we have more slipped deployment dates due to unavailability and thus returning boats have to get into maintenance period faster thus reducing their availability to play multi carrier ops. Hell we did Libya with a MEU and not a CVN.

    Should we look at what a 3-4 carrier group looks like? Can you take off most of the Helos and add additional strike assets? Can we deploy only 2 admirals vice 3 or 4? How do we work AA and the rest of our CWC... can we dust off the LL from the end of the cold war, DS and part of EF/IF? This is before we get to the hard tactical questions. How can I share planning across several ships without using SAT broadcasts. Can I plus up the size of 2 E2 squadrons and remove the other (1 or 2) from the remaining Carrier(s) to add more strike assets.

    1. Um, you just agreed with me. What part do you think I got wrong?

      Also, you understand that I'm only talking about major war, here. For third world, low threat work we can get by with any number of carriers (or even none, as you point out in the Libya case) and we don't need group doctrine and tactics.

      Unless you did something of which I am totally unaware (in which case, enlighten me!) you did not serve in a 3-carrier group of the nature that I'm describing. To repeat, I'm talking about a multi-carrier group to fight a high end war (China, Russia). If you were in a 3-carrier group you were probably doing simple strike practice in a permissive environment. For example, we had multi-carriers off Vietnam but they were not even remotely operating or training for the scenario I'm describing. Like I said, if you trained for a multi-carrier, high end combat scenario, tell me about it! Heck, you can guest author a post on it!

    2. "Now I have served in a 3 carrier strike formation ..."


      Was this a task force with three carriers, or three TFs that conducted coordinated operations?

      Your description suggests the latter.

      In any event, the organization described in this post was for a single TF with three carriers as elements.


    3. "Every carrier aviator realizes that you need 2 and better off 3 carriers for continuous 24 hour combat ops operating roughly together."

      This statement sums up the main problem. Current naval officers believe that carrier warfare consists of sitting off some coast in benign waters and leisurely conducting strikes. The Navy has completely forgotten what naval warfare against a peer is and how to conduct it. We have Admirals, officers, and pilots who think they know how to operate a carrier but the reality is that they haven't got a clue.

      Sending out daily strikes according to a published schedule isn't going to happen in a peer war. In a peer war, the carrier group will be constantly on the move, fighting for its life every second, conducting ASW around the clock, darting into a launch position for a single strike and then retreating as fast as possible, operating under EMCON (to the extent that we even can anymore), maintaining a significant CAP 24/7, and so on. Nothing we've done has prepared any naval officer for this.

      Think I'm wrong? What will you do with the group if an enemy attack shows up in the middle of our strike launch? We're screwed because we haven't worked out the doctrine and tactics for launching a strike in an opposed environment. And that's just one tiny example of the kind of thing we need to be training for.

  11. Com Nav,

    As long as regional conflicts and near-peer combat ops are only war college discussions nothing will change.

    The status quo is what we have been doing for the past 15 years- generating an anti-terrorism, on call CAS and selected target strikes, requiring minimal aircraft daily air tasks.

    The Nimitz class can handle more fixed wing aircraft, nearly 30 more, easily plenty of room everywhere, but we've gotten used to the 65 air craft airwing... Almost impossible for them to easily go back without a lot of pushback.

    With the F-18 A-G pipeline (Legacy/Superhornet) at the depot in such desperate straits, we don't have the aircraft to man more strike fighters even IF we bought those (3) extra squadrons tomorrow.

    In the olden days we used to conduct 3 carrier war game scenarios against both the USSR's Kamchatka and Kola peninsula's. I've been in both type exercises with the "old" 90 aircraft airwings and been on the FID, alongside TR when she deployed with (2) A-6E squadrons. I've forgotten their recurring names. My last was participating as an airwing "tanker king" on the US only, PACEX 89, the largest accumulation of "Naval might" assembled since WW-2. 3+ aircraft carriers and their large "battle Group" elements fought their way along the Aleutian Chain.. A lot of aircraft sorties were generated using organic and USAF mission tanking that could handily defend itself against regimental raids of Soviet strikers. I have a picture of the huge formation of ships post-ex...impressive. Undoable in 2016.

    Today, there is a diminished capability because of the particular type aircraft we operate and the self imposed (due to $$) 65 aircraft airwing limitation. I remember when this "airwing numbers" discussion happened around the turn of the century.... OPNAV/NAVAIR commissioned a NAWCWD study to makes claims on how much more accurate bombs were (JDAM/LGB) thus negating all the re-attacks necessary from the old days of my time that seemingly rationalized the reduced numbers. The result was- all croppies laid down- by Black Jack Nathman. Our feeble retort was you can't be in two places at one time because of the reduced numbers available, but we lost that fight too. We only needed to operate brown water and maybe a little green water in this new order....Blue water was out for planning. As a result airwings went to 65. Shortly after that, the SuperHornet took on all tanking roles diminishing even that number.....

    We have what we have today because of conscious decisions constantly made in a reduced budget mentality, the fight on terrorism itself (not peer adversary) and a whole lot of shortsightedness and kicking the can down the road, amongst others.....


    1. All too true. Nice reminder of where were and how we got to today.

    2. Here’s a wacky idea: the US Air Force should buy some of their F-35s as C models instead of A models.

      A USAF squadron operating the F-35C would then train to be able to surge onto a CVN and augment the air wing. (The F-35C’s auto-landing capability makes this idea more feasible.)

      The carrier air wing would go from 70 aircraft back to 90+ as in Cold War days, with a much higher percentage being long-range (relatively speaking) and survivable.

      And we’d get greater utilization of Air Force F-35s that might otherwise be sidelined if no friendly land bases are within range of a conflict.

      Inter-service rivalries and turf protection aside - why not?


    3. Look to the UK on this. The Joint Harrier Force and the coming use of 617 Sqn for F35B. 617 Sqn is slated to deploy on HMS Queen Elizabeth.

  12. "How many escorts are needed?

    What kind of escort spacing is needed to provide effective defensive coverage?"

    The UK had to learn these lessons on the fly in the Falklands War, we lost one escort learning Sea Dart was vulnerable to pop up attacks even in the deep sea and three more because we didn't know how degraded all our AAW would be by ground clutter, and by the time we found out, we had no option but to stay put.

    1. You nearly lost your Navy to a third rate opponent because you wouldn't do the hard testing and training. Sadly, the US is going down the exact same path.

  13. One reason for scattered carriers is that it makes it very tempting for the other guy to use a nuke if he can bag more than one CVBG.

    1. Not even remotely true for a variety of reasons. For starters, research carrier group spacing, Bikini Atoll test results, and MAD doctrine and then try again.

  14. Interesting story, if anyone hasn't seen it:

    From that, it looks like the navy was at least doing 2-carrier ops in 1982. It also surprised me how difficult it can be find a carrier group.

    In a world dominated by anti-ship missiles, there's a reasonable argument that a defensive fight is a loosing one. That makes the decisive (or at least defining) part of an engagement the detection fight. That's one argument for single carrier groups, you would never want your opponent to find multiple carriers at once.

    I don't know what kind of spacing you're thinking about, but worth reflecting on what a modern SSN/SSGN could do if it found itself near multiple carriers.

    One could disagree with any of these assumptions, but adding together modern communications, the lethality of ASMs and modern subs, and the ability of VLS tubes to partially substitute for defensive air cover, it makes a lot of sense to keep your carriers a few hundred miles apart.

    1. This is one of the famous stories that a lot of people forget about. Good reminder.

  15. "The most powerful naval force is a carrier task force."

    But is it really the most powerful naval force? I tend to think not. Or at least that it's up for debate.

    A CSG is certainly a very effective (albeit very expensive) method for conducting power projection in low threat environments. And in terms of displaying US strategic interested in an area of the world - it's hard to match a 90,000 ton supercarrier.

    But in terms of war at sea? I'd say it's days of operating in an A2/AD environment are numbered. A modern CSG has really become a bit of a "self-licking ice cream cone". Much of its capability (air wing, AEGIS, etc.) exists largely for its own defense.

    I'd say that the SSN/SSGN has overtaken the CSG as the most powerful naval force - when measured in terms of pure offensive capability against a modern adversary.

    1. If you are talking nuclear why of course. But you are not.

      If you are talking conventional, not even close.
      First we don't have that many SSN/SSGNs
      Second their load outs are relatively small and take forever to reload
      Thirdly, they are slow to deposition. Carries are 40% faster.
      Lastly they do not have the logistics - food fuel weeps pare parts replenishment and reset capabities.
      Nope. They are important firstly as members of a team constructed around the modern carrier.I won't even go into comms and targeting capabilities.

    2. Hard to use this tiny phone
      Please forgive typos and misspells!

    3. Numbers: We have 57 SSNs and SSGNs in commission. We have only 10 CVNs - and really only nine when you count the one in RCOH.

      Weapons: The Virginia Payload Module (VPM) program is going to more than triple the number of Tomahawks (12 to 40). A MK-48 heavyweight torpedo is a heck of a ship killer.

      Speed: from a practical standpoint, a CSG is really not all that fast. All the ships in a CSG (other than the CVN itself) are conventionally powered and really don't have the legs to run at the same speed as a carrier.

      Logistics: a CSG requires an immense and very vulnerable logistics chain. Bombs for the aircraft, provisions for the ships crew, fuel and food for the conventional escorts, etc. SSNs are largely self-contained.

      Stealth: hardly even worth comparing. A CSG is relatively easy to locate. But good luck finding a modern SSN.

      Tying our subs to the Carrier Strike Group is a pretty bad idea. They need to roam free - as they did in WW2 and Cold War. They are essentially capital vessels in their own rite.

    4. "But is it really the most powerful naval force? I tend to think not."

      It depends what you want it to do. If you're talking about a pure, deep inland strike capability then an SSGN is the best. If you're talking about establishing a mobile zone of air superiority (to support landings, to safeguard Air Force bomber flights, to deny enemy air ops, etc.) then only a carrier will work. And so on.

      What makes the carrier group the most powerful naval force is its versatility. A submarine is very good at clandestine strikes but that's all it can do. It's limited.

    5. A submarine is not particularly "limited" in sinking enemy ships. At least not if history/recent exercises are any indication.

      You are correct that "it depends". Which is why your first sentence is both right and wrong.

      PS - A carrier strike group is not all that versatile. At least not it's airwing - which is optimized for land strike and not much else!

    6. "A carrier strike group is not all that versatile"

      Oh good grief! It's one thing to have an opinion but it's another to ignore reality. A carrier group is about the maximum degree of versatility there is, especially compared to a submarine. A carrier group can,

      -conduct land strikes
      -conduct anti-shipping strikes
      -provide close air support for troops in contact
      -provide graduated strike force, meaning anything from a strafing run to a massive entire air wing strike. A submarine has only two weapons: Tomahawk and torpedo. It has no gradation of power.
      -conduct wide ranging intel, surveillance, and maritime patrol
      -conduct VBSS
      -provide AAW protection for ships and troops ashore
      -establish local, mobile air superiority
      -provide ballistic missile defense
      -establish wide area surface tactical awareness
      -visually identify targets
      -conduct wide area ASW and prosecute multiple, separated targets simultaneously
      -conduct humanitarian missions (shouldn't be a mission but it is)
      -provide overwatch for other forces

      And so on...

      Have an opinion but not at the expense of reality.

    7. “A submarine is not particularly "limited" in sinking enemy ships. At least not if history/recent exercises are any indication”

      I’m no expert on naval matters, but I believe the recent success of submarines in getting within the Carriers protective screen and sinking her can be attributed to not delegating enough escorts to the Carrier. You can lock at the UK were 3 surface ships today is considered suitable escort, whereas 30 was considered minimum in the late 90s.

      “PS - A carrier strike group is not all that versatile. At least not it's airwing - which is optimized for land strike and not much else”

      The Carrier I believe, was originally designed as a sea control platform. It was not intended merely for “gun boat” diplomacy, although it can do that to. The Carrier air wing can be tailored for intended task (which is the definition of flexibility)

    8. The carrier air wing certainly WAS versatile during the Cold War.

      Look at composition of air wing of 1986. It had a mix of everything: heavy strike (A-6), light strike (A-7), anti-submarine (S-3), fleet intercept (F-14), reconnaissance (RA-5), etc.

      The current air wing (2016) is almost exclusively light, multi-role strike fighters (F-18s). A good plane to be sure, but cannot do heavy strike as well as A-6. Or intercept as well as F-14/Phoenix. Or ASW at all!

      So how exactly do you "tailor to the intended task" when all you have are F-18s? As long as task is short-range strike, then I guess you are okay!

    9. My point was that the Carrier is still a versatile and flexible instrument. Provided it’s properly escorted by Frigates and Destroyers.
      I agree that the Air Wing haven’t been fit for purpose since the end of the cold war. I guess after fighting Arab armies for a couple of decades, complacency is hard to avoid. But this does not invalidate the concept of the Carrier. It does however invalidate the Carrier doctrines of US/UK (and possibly France)

    10. "The current air wing (2016) is almost exclusively light, multi-role strike fighters (F-18s). A good plane to be sure, but cannot do heavy strike as well as A-6. Or intercept as well as F-14/Phoenix. Or ASW at all!"

      Did you read the comment listing all the functions a carrier group can do? To say that a carrier group can't perform ASW is just factually incorrect. The group has Burke ASW capability, both ship and helo based, as well as carrier helos. The air wing includes every aircraft in the wing whether fixed wing or rotary.

      I will not allow continued factually incorrect statements.

    11. The British Invincible Carrier class was designed primarily for ASW and ASuW in the North Atlantic. The Norwegian ASW Frigate Fridtjof Nansen operate with six NH90 Helicopters, whereas the Invincible operated with nine Sea Kings and twelve Harriers. Carriers have a long tradition of performing ASW tasks.

      The US should go back to designing aircrafts for specific tasks like they used to. Then the Navy could get the specialised airplanes it need.

    12. "Did you read the comments on all the functions a carrier can do."

      Simply saying something doesn't make it true.

      A carrier cannot do wide-area ASW. To say it can betrays a profound lack of understanding of both carrier operations and ASW.

    13. Your comment was,

      "Or ASW at all!"

      That is factually incorrect. Simply own the mistake and move on.

      And yes, a carrier group can still perform wide area ASW. You can quibble about the definition of wide but that doesn't change any conclusion. A carrier group has ASW escorts ranging many miles out from the carrier. Surface ship sonars can detect convergence zone contacts which can be many dozens of miles further. Helos range further out than the ships. In short, the ASW coverage is measured in many hundreds of square miles. That certainly constitutes wide coverage. It could be even more with Vikings but it's still quite extensive. The quality and effectiveness of that coverage is a separate issue.

      Keep your comments respectful.

    14. You claim a carrier can "provide ballistic missile defense".

      True - but do we really need an entire carrier strike group for that mission?

      Its AEGIS destroyers and cruisers tgat provide BMD. And they can do so with or without the carrier and it's carrier air wing.

      As for "wide area surface tactical awareness" and "visually identifying targets", both tasks can argiably be done a lot cheaper with a P-3/P-8 or Triton.

    15. You'll note that the post was about carrier task forces not just carriers. The task force includes all its individual components. So, you're simply agreeing with my comment about versatility.

      See, that wasn't so hard, was it?

    16. Not agreeing at all...

      Your claim that a CSG can conduct BMD is akin to saying a Lamborghini is a really great CD player!

  16. What is the necessary escort for a carrier group?
    The UK Royal Navy seems to operate with:
    1 type 45 destroyer
    2 type 26 frigates
    1 Astute SSN
    1 Tide class supply ship

    This seems awfully smal. After all the British admirality claimed 30 frigates and destroyers were the bare minimum carrier escort in the late 90s.

    1. You seem to already have a pretty good idea about this. Think about the threats.

      ASW would require a dozen or so destroyer/frigate type ships.

      AAW would require a half dozen or so Aegis (Burke, Ticonderoga) type ships - more if the ships are not Aegis.

      So, we're looking at 18 or so escorts, not counting supply ships or submarines. Yes, the UK escort is woefully inadequate for combat which raises the question, why are they not training for the way they would fight (the USN is guilty of the same, by the way)?

    2. Assigning submarines to "escort" surface combatants is a waste of assets in the same way that tying fighters to "escort" bombers is a bad idea.

      A better employment of SSNs is to let them to operate loosely ahead of the carrier task force so as to better employ their weapons and sensors.

      The optimal employment is to allow submarines to perform their ASW mission independently.

      The "SSN escort" is a knee jerk response to embarrassing episodes where carrier forces were embarrassed by submarines penetrating the escort screen. Instead of addressing the issue with escorts, the Navy started assigning SSNs to CSGs.

      Submarines are indeed the best ASW asset, but tying them to surface ships immediately hinders their functionality as ASW assets.


    3. Submarines are definitely best assets for tracking and trailing enemy subs. Not so good for wide are search or quick reaction.

      Agree 100% that tethering them to strike groups is misuse.

    4. I am wondering where you came up with 12 ships for ASW escort and 6 for AAW defense.

      Not disagreeing with the numbers, although the do seem somewhat arbitrary and backwards.

      The number should be based on a realistic appraisal of threat. US Task Force composition during WW2 was highly fluid and flexible. There was no single number.

      There is also something to be said for keeping CSGs reasonably small. More escorts require more logistics ships... which in turn require more escorts, etc.

    5. I suppose the escort should be tailored after the expected threat level, but aren’t there also a minimum level?
      The Norwegian Army operate on the a principal that a manoeuvre element need a minimum of three manoeuvre sub-units. Three manoeuvre companies in a battalion, three manoeuvre battalions in a brigade, etc. The British believe three manoeuvre units is acceptable for peacetime operations, four is necessary for low/medium level conflicts and five is necessary for high intensity conflict.

      Does there exist a similar assumption on escort’s in the navy? A fixed number you should never dip below.

    6. The escort numbers are just my opinion based on experiences of WWII and Cold War as well as an assessment of current threats. The numbers represent a minimum. Exact composition can certainly vary according to need.

      There is nothing to be said for small carrier groups. Small groups will become sunk groups. There is not a shred of historical precedent for small carrier groups. This post contains the historical data. If you'd like to disagree, provide some data, history, or analysis beyond a vague statement that you think a group should be small.

    7. Makin-Gilberts raids of March '42.

      Lexington and Enterprise each had only 2 cruisers and 6 destroyers for escorts.

      If I recall, these Task Forces were kept deliberately small to support the intended mission (raiding).

      The mission dictates what is needed. And bigger isn't always better.

    8. Correction: Feb '42.

    9. "If I recall, these Task Forces were kept deliberately small to support the intended mission (raiding)."

      You recall incorrectly. They forces were small because we didn't have enough ships. Read the post and Adm. Mitscher's comments.

    10. You overlook the operational context of Mitscher's comments.

      Mitscher's tactics made plenty of sense given rhe capabilities and limitations of carriers in 1944-45 and their escorts.

      Back then: the only way to interdict incoming raids at long range was with a lot of fighters. So you needed lots of carriers.

      Shipboard AA could only reach out a few miles - so you had to surround the carriers on all sides with layers of cruisers and destroyers.

      Today we have AEGIS, SM-2, etc. The range at which our defenses can interdict incoming aur raids is much, much longer.

      Similar arguments for ASW. We have much greater detection and engagement capability.

      My point being: it is no longer 1944-45. Don't get trapped in the (overly simplistic) argument that we need more just because that's what we did in WW2.

    11. Your comment and premise is, on the face of it, interesting and appealing. However, upon closer examination is flawed.

      You suggest that today we can detect and engage at much greater distances. Appealing and seemingly true. However, the actual detection distance is not really increased other than for ballistic missiles. Cruise missiles will, in their final approach, likely be very low and we'll be lucky to detect them much beyond the horizon. Airborne radar (Hawkeyes) may extend this detection range but will still have trouble picking low flying missiles out of surface wave clutter.

      As far as greater engagement ranges, our engagement range is limited by our detection limits, as I just described. Further, the high speed of modern missiles (high subsonic to mach+) limits our engagement time to seconds or minutes depending on the actual detection distance. Thus, for all our vaunted Aegis/Standard capabilities, we're still in a situation of fairly close in detection and very short engagement times - just like WWII!

      So, we still need to surround the carrier with layers of defenses and, importantly, layers that can extend the detection and engagement ranges and only airborne fighter radars can do that (more Hawkeyes would just get shot down and no one is going to risk that).

      We're going to need a lot of fighters to deal with the expected saturation attacks in the very few minutes that we'll have a valid engagement window for.

      Mitscher's tactics make as much sense, or more, now as they did in WWII.

      My point being: it is no longer 1944-45. Don't get trapped in the (over optimistic) argument that we less just because our missiles and radar are longer ranged than in WWII.

    12. If you want a comment to appear, be respectful and polite. Argue the ideas not the person.

  17. The conditions in which Mitscher envisioned an optimal carrier task force simply do not exist today.

    In short: we now must operate in an environment in which a large task force will assuredly be detected well before it gets into range to use its short-range strike-fighters (F-18/F-35).

    The long-term fix is to substantially increase the range of the carrier's air wing (i.e. UCLASS, F/A-XX). That will take quite some time.

    Until then: concentrating multiple carriers into very large task forces is inviting disaster. It is a salvo competition that we cannot win - no many how many escorts we have.

    My thought is to focus instead on several small, mobile task forces. Hit and run attacks on the enemy's peripheral. Cover and concealment vice brute defensive firepower.

    Think 1942. Not 1945.


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