Analyst: Navy Needs to Re-Configure Carrier Air Wings for Future Fight

WASHINGTON — The Navy needs to change the structure of its future carrier air wings (CVWs) in the future to meet future threats, particularly in high-end combat against potential adversaries such as China and Russia, a team of defense analysts said in a published report.

“If the U.S. Navy is going to continue to invest in aircraft carriers, it need to re-consider how it’s going to configure its [carrier] air wings,” said Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington think tank, speaking Feb. 7 at the center about the new report, Regaining the High Ground at Sea: Transforming the U.S. Navy’s Carrier Air Wing for Great Power Competition.

The Navy’s current CVW “is not designed for the way we’re going to operate in the future,” Clark said. “I would even go further to say, unless the Navy is going to re-configure its air wings, it should reconsider its continued investment in aircraft carriers.”

Clark briefed the audience on worst-case scenario where an adversary such as China could launch a salvo of 600 1,000-pound-class weapons at a carrier strike group and recommended the type of defenses, including a CVW, that would be needed for a carrier to operate in the ocean in a high-end fight.

The report said that today’s CVWs “lack the reach to operate at sufficient ranges from operational areas; the stealth to fight in contested environments; and the specialized capabilities in IRS&T [infrared search and track], EMW [electromagnetic warfare], and ASW [anti-submarine warfare] needed to defeat adversary platforms and systems.”

Clark sees the need for a CVW to move toward including more unmanned aircraft. He recommended development of three new aircraft types: an unmanned air combat vehicle (UCAV); an unmanned refueling aircraft, initially the MQ-25; and FA-XX, a new fighter with a longer strike range.

The report’s recommendations for re-configuring the carrier air wing by 2040 include:

* Sustaining planned procurement of the F/A-18E/F strike fighter through fiscal 2023.

* Sustaining procurement of the F-35C strike fighter through the first half of its planned production, ending in fiscal 2024.

* Develop an FA-XX fighter, a derivative of an existing fighter, by 2024.

* Develop a low-observable UCAV attack aircraft for production by 2025.

* Continue development of the MQ-25 aerial refueling UAV and increase overall number of tanker aircraft to 12 per air wing. Also, develop the UCAV as a tanker for the mid-to-late 2030s.

* Retire the EA-18G electronic attack aircraft as they reach the end of their service lives during the 2030s and replace them with UCAVs equipped with the Next-Generation Jammer and also with expendable UAVs and missiles.

* Field a rotary wing MALE [medium-altitude, long-endurance] UAV (in concert with the Marine Corps) to augment the carrier-based helicopter squadrons and assume some of the ASW missions.

Clark’s team for the report included Adam Lemon, Peter Haynes, Kyle Libby and Gillian Evans.