According to a senior official, a “super squadron” of around 20 F-35C stealth aircraft could be added to the US Navy’s carrier air wing in the future. His comments came only days after F-35C fighter fighters returned from their maiden operational deployment aboard the Nimitz-class carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70).
After a six-and-a-half-month deployment to the Indo-Pacific, the aircraft carrier returned home on February 14, marking the first deployment of the US Navy’s “future air wing,” which includes the F-35C Joint Strike Fighter, EA-18G Growlers, and E-2D Advanced Hawkeyes.
A landing disaster involving an F-35C occurred during the first deployment. Despite this, the Navy appears to be optimistic about its F-35C aircraft.
At a press conference, Rear Adm. Dan Martin, commander of the Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group, said, “Right now, we’re probably going for a 14-aircraft squadron.” “I’ve heard whispers that we’re considering converting to a 20-aircraft squadron.”
According to Martin, the ten F-35Cs from Strike Fighter Squadron 147 (VFA-147), known as the “Argonauts,” were “seamlessly integrated” into the air wing. For this cruise, a pair of new EA-18G Growler electronic attack planes and one more E-2D Advanced Hawkeye radar plane were added to the air wing.
According to Martin, this deployment represented a paradigm shift in how the aircraft carrier and strike group deploy. Martin believes that the new carrier air wing vision is presently being examined, and it might be the latest in a series of upgrades to the F-35C force structure.
The Navy originally planned to deploy two F-35C squadrons per air wing, each with ten planes. Rear Adm. Gregory N. Harris, director of the Air Warfare Division, drew up plans for an air wing with 16 F-35Cs in one squadron in September 2020. However, by the middle of 2021, that single squadron had dwindled to to 14 jets.
A Lack of Space
For the entire period, the carrier air wing has had 44 strike aircraft, and the service is now weighing the optimal combination of F-35Cs and F/A-18E/F Super Hornets to address its tactical fighter deficiency.
It’s unclear how adding a “super squadron” of F-35Cs will influence the number of F/A-18E/Fs, but one option is to go back to the original plans, which called for 20 F-35Cs and two 12-aircraft Super Hornet squadrons.
Regardless of the Navy’s plans to increase the number of EA-18Gs and E-2s, the issue of space above and below decks becomes especially critical. Some crew members on the carrier told Defense News that they were frustrated by the carrier’s high “deck density,” or the number of aircraft compared to the amount of space on the flight deck and in the hangar bay.
Although the F-35C is smaller than the Super Hornet, it requires more and larger ground support equipment. Adding more F-35Cs without making room on the flight deck will not help, but Martin insists the new fighters will add significant capabilities to the strike group.
It appears that efforts were made to make more space on deck and in the hangar prior to the carrier’s deployment. The commanding officer of the Vinson, Capt. P. Scott Miller, previously acknowledged that a number of treadmills and workout equipment lying on the hangar deck had also been removed.
According to Martin, the Navy has begun to reduce the number of helicopters sent to an air wing, which may allow for more aircraft — but he had 19 helos and “needed all of them.” The MH-60R/S Seahawks perform anti-submarine warfare, surface strikes, search and rescue, logistics, and other duties.
The F-35C units of the US Marine Corps are also based on aircraft carriers. Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 314 is currently aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, marking the second carrier deployment for the F-35C, as part of a plan to have four F-35C squadrons ready for carrier deployment.
The Marines are developing F-35C deployment strategies, which include a concentration on using few land facilities at first, but it’s unclear whether the service’s squadrons will be extended.
The Origins of the Term “Future Air Wing”
The new air wing concept arose from the assumption that in the not-too-distant future, carriers and their accompanying aviation capabilities will play a significant role.
“This is a complete change,” Martin explained, “with a near-peer rival, with activity in the air, on the surface of the sea, and underneath the surface of the sea.” “You have to shape the air wing to handle that action to the best of your ability.”
It’s no surprise that China and the Indo-Pacific are on the Pentagon’s radar, as evidenced by the US’ recent issuance of an Indo-Pacific policy white paper and the deployment of the 7th Fleet in the Indo-Pacific region by the USS Vinson.
The “Navy Aviation Vision 2030-2035” emphasised the importance of winning in the great power confrontation with both Russia and China. The Future Air Wing will be “increasingly lethal, survivable, networked, sustainable, and unmanned with autonomous capabilities,” according to the Navy. The CSG and Fleet Commander will have battlespace awareness thanks to integrated passive and active sensors.”
Because of its combination of low observability, battle radius, improved sensors, and networking capabilities, the F-35C shines in this area.
This goal is also aided by increasing the number of EA-18Gs and E-2s in the air wing. While the Growler assists in combating the proliferation of multi-layered air defence systems that are projected to be deployed in a Pacific confrontation, having additional Hawkeyes allows the air wing to maintain situational awareness.
Martin stated that he wants to add more EA-18Gs to the Vinson’s existing seven-plane fleet, which was two more than the standard.