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Aircraft Carriers - Introduction

Due to the proximity of population centers near the sea, naval forces and forward presence can influence world events. Power projection and naval strike assets are integral to US national military strategy. The Navy's vision of the future is captured in the white paper "Forward...From the Sea." This document outlines the Navy's shift from preparing for an open-ocean war at sea with the Soviet Navy to focusing on regional threats to US national interests. "Forward...From the Sea" recognizes the ability of the US Navy to control the sea lanes as well as controlling the "littoral zone," the areas from off the coast to as far inland as necessary to establish a safe zone for entry of additional US forces. ln this way, the Navy and Marine Corps can serve as an "enabling" force, establishing safe beachheads, ports and airfields, and paving the way for follow-on action by Army, Air Force and allied forces.

Aircraft carriers are routinely forward deployed around the world, engaging in joint (U.S. Navy, Marines, Army and Air Force) and combined (with other allied nations) exercises. These exercises hone combat skills as well as providing valuable experience in operating with other forces. While deployed, aircraft carriers operate in international waters providing a presence which can be increased or withdrawn as the situation dictates. Should the situation require it, the aircraft carrier and air wing team are ready on arrival to accomplish whatever mission is given, from unobtrusive surveillance to strikes and anything in between. Although aircraft carriers are routinely deployed near traditional areas of potential conflict, the aircraft carrier can move to another area of the world should a crisis erupt, and be ready to operate upon arrival.

An airwing consisting of more than 80 combat aircraft and 2,000 Sailors is assigned to each carrier. Squadrons assigned to airwings -- and airwings assigned to carriers -- change periodically based on the mission of the carrier battle group. Carrier-based squadrons fly six different types of aircraft: F/A-18 Hornets, F-14 Tomcats, SH-60 Seahawks, S-3B Vikings, E-2C Hawkeyes and EA-6B Prowlers. Missions range from reconnaissance and search and rescue to logistics and interdiction.

A carrier with its complement of 50 strike aircraft can deliver more than 150 strikes a day against littoral targets, the prime responsibility of the US Navy. However, should the need arise, relatively long range targets can be attacked. During the Persian Gulf War in 1991, planes launched from a carrier could destroy an average of about 160 targets per day. Using precision guided munitions, that total grew to 700 targets per day during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan in late 2001. A carrier normally stocks over 4,000 bombs. The Navy upgraded the tactical airwing from F/A-18Cs and F-14s to a combination of F/A-18C/E/Fs to an all F/A-18E/F airwing and, ultimately, an airwing composed of both F/A-18E/F and a Navy version of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF).


At the end of World War II the need for Naval Aviators decreased but the basic structure of the training program remained quite similar. Navy flight training begins at NAS Pensacola. Candidates may enter from civilian life through the aviation officer candidate (AOC) program or as an officer already commissioned through another program such as the Naval Academy or NROTC or as an active duty enlisted member (earning a commission through the flying limited duty officer (FLDO) program). The AOC program lasts fifteen weeks and includes an introduction to military life and coursework in seamanship, organization and administration, military law, and the principles of sea power as well as aerodynamics, navigation and power plant academics. After completion candidates become commissioned ensigns in the U.S. Naval Reserve. Officers with commissions forego the military training received by AOCs but receive similar coursework through a six-week indoctrination to aviation. Both groups are instructed in flight physiology and water and land survival.

Upon successful completion of this phase, candidates begin an approximately eighteen month training program to become a pilot or twelve month program to become a naval flight officer (formerly naval observer). Primary flight training for pilots is a twenty week course in which students must master all aspects of flight, instrumentation, navigation, and communication. Upon successful completion, they enter into Intermediate training and specialize in jet, maritime patrol (multi-engine/propeller) or rotary wing aircraft. Student jet pilots receive about 100 hours of flight instruction and other technical coursework.

Intermediate training is completed with carrier qualifications that include field carrier practice landings as well as shipboard touch-and-goes, arresting landings, and catapult launches. The successful student then moves on to advanced training that includes instruments, night flying, formation, air combat maneuver, weapons training, field carrier-landing practice, and another round of carrier qualifications in a new aircraft. Students specializing on rotary wing aircraft or those in maritime patrol specializing in the carrier-based airborne-early-warning aircraft or carrier-on-board-delivery (COD) aircraft must also complete carrier qualifications.

Harry J. Kazianis, a military analyst and senior contributor for the Washington-based foreign affairs magazine The National Interest, wrote in January 2016: "Countries with the technological means, specifically great powers like China and Russia –nations the Pentagon considers as the main big challenge for the US military – are developing cruise missile platforms that can strike from long-range and en masse from multiple domains ... "Such weapons … if accurate, using highly trained crews combined with the means to find their target on the vast open oceans – could turn America's supercarriers into multi-billion dollar graveyards for thousands of US sailors."

In case of war, the capabilities of Russian and Chinese anti-ship cruise, ballistic missile and air defense forces could force US Navy carrier strike groups (CSGs) to stay hundreds or even thousands of kilometers from the enemy's coast, which would make strikes from their carrier-based aircraft against ground targets ineffective. Additionally, any CSG movement is easily observable from space, enabling the US's opponents to position their countermeasures ahead of time.

The arithmetic is simple: the main strike capability of the contemporary US Navy consists of its air wing, consisting of 30-40 F/A-18E/F Super Hornets. The combat radius of these aircraft is about 800 km. For the Super Hornets to able to even threaten to conduct air strikes against targets on the shores of enemy territory, they would have to take off 400 nautical miles from their targets.

However, if the US Navy CSG were to attempt to make it to say, the Russian shore, they might not reach its destination, because, far from its target, it would be attacked by the Tu-22M3, a supersonic long-range bomber equipped with the Kh-22 anti-ship missile.

If the US CSG were to evade the air-based missile strike, closer to our shore the ships would come up on the firing range of the K-300P Bastion-P mobile coastal defense missile system, equipped with the P-800 Oniks supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles [known in export markets as the Yakhont, with an operational range of 600 km [the export variant's range is 120-300 km, depending on altitude].



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