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Tactical Aviation Integration

The term Air Group, modified by the name of a carrier, as Saratoga Air Group, came into use during the early days of carrier aviation as a collective title for the squadrons operating on board a particular carrier. It remained a mere title until 1 July 1938, when authorization for Air Group Commander billets became effective. With this action, the squadrons on board acquired the unity of a formal command and the carrier air group as such first took form. Numerical designation of air groups began in 1942, the first being Carrier Air Group NINE (CVG-9), established 1 March 1942. Carrier Air Groups (CVG) were redesignated Carrier Air Wings (CVW) on 20 December 1963.

Naval aviation was restructured in the mid-1990s consistent with the force goals developed during the 1993 Bottom-Up Review. The Navy retired two active and one reserve carrier air wing (CVW), leaving 10 active wings and one reserve wing. A-6 attack aircraft continue to be retired, with the last of these planes scheduled to leave the force in FY 1997. With the A-6's retirement, the Navy deploys two types of fighter/attack aircraft aboard its carriers: F/A-18s and F-14s. An air-to-ground upgrade is being provided for most F-14s to give them the capability to employ laser-guided bombs (LGBs) from medium to high altitudes; this modification entails equipping the aircraft with LANTIRN forward-looking infrared pods. F-14s incorporating this feature became available beginning in 1996.

The structure of the basic carrier air wing evolved throughout the 1990s as A-6s were phased out of the force in favor of a mix of F/A-18 C/Ds and modified versions of F-14 fighters. Although it was initially planned that all wings would consist of one F-14 squadron and three F/A-18 squadrons, two wings retained the pair of F-14 wings deployed in the old Power Projection carrier air wing. The number of fighter/attack aircraft in each wing declined to about 50 from the previous level of about 56. The smaller wings are more flexible because they will operate a greater percentage of multirole aircraft, thus increasing the average number of precision strike-capable aircraft from 36 to about 50. The multirole Joint Strike Fighter is projected to enter the force beginning around 2010, replacing the F-14 in the Navy and both the AV-8B and F/A-18 in the Marine Corps.

The Marine Corps maintained four air wings -- three active and one reserve. In addition to the single-seat F/A-18 (which is identical to Navy models), the Marine Corps employs the two-seat F/A-18D as a multirole fighter, and also as a reconnaissance, forward air control, and tactical air control system for operations at night and in adverse weather. The AV-8B, while capable of multiple missions, was used primarily in the close air support role.

Emerging needs and efficiency considerations led to a new approach to managing Navy and Marine Corps F/A-18, F-14, AV-8B, and EA-6B peacetime deployments. In effect, these aircraft formed a common pool for satisfying requirements of specific deployments. This approach increases flexibility for assigning either Navy or Marine squadrons to any naval mission and will help ensure that neither Service experiences excessive personnel deployments. The pool of available Marine aircraft decreased with the retirement of two F/A-18 squadrons by the end of FY 1997, though Marine F/A-18 squadrons deployed aboard aircraft carriers. Navy F/A-18 or F-14 squadrons also deployed as necessary to support Marine operations.

Tactical Aviation Integration Plan

In fiscal year 2002 the Department of the Navy announced a new Tactical Aviation Integration Plan, whereby the Navy and Marine Corps concluded that they would be able to achieve their missions with fewer aircraft and units by operating as a combined force. Concerns about the affordability of their prior tactical aviation procurement plan prompted the Navy and Marine Corps to agree to a new Tactical Aviation Integration Plan.

Operationally, the Navy and Marine Corps will increase the extent to which their tactical aviation units are used as a combined force to accomplish both services' missions. The Plan also reduces the services' tactical aviation force structure by decommissioning five squadrons, thus decreasing the number of Navy and Marine Corps squadrons to 59, and reduces the total number of aircraft they plan to buy from 1,637 to 1,140. The Department of the Navy based its conclusion that it could meet the Navy and Marine Corps' operational requirements with a smaller force primarily on the findings of a contractor study that evaluated the relative capability of different tactical aviation force structures.

Under the Plan, the Marine Corps would increase the number of squadrons dedicated to carrier air wings, and the Navy would begin to dedicate squadrons to Marine Aircraft Wings. In 2003 the Marine Corps began to provide the Navy with the first of six additional dedicated squadrons to augment four squadrons already integrated into carrier air wings during the 1990s. As a result, each of the Navy's 10 active carrier air wings would ultimately include one Marine Corps squadron by 2012.

Concurrently, the Navy would integrate three dedicated squadrons into Marine Aircraft Wings by 2008, primarily to support the Marine Corps Unit Deployment Program rotations to Japan. Marine Corps Unit Deployment program maintains three tactical aviation squadrons at Iwakuni Marine Corps Air Station, Japan, to meet contingency operations throughout the Western Pacific Theater. The first Navy squadron to deploy in support of Marine Corps operations occured in late fiscal year 2004, with other squadrons to follow in fiscal years 2007 and 2008.

As part of the new operating concept, the Department of the Navy would satisfy both Navy and Marine Corps missions using either Navy or Marine Corps squadrons. Traditionally, the primary mission of Navy tactical aviation has been to provide long-range striking power from a carrier, while Marine Corps tactical aviation provided air support for ground forces. Navy and Marine Corps tactical aviation squadrons will retain their primary mission responsibilities, but units that integrate would additionally be responsible to train as well as perform required mission responsibilities of the other service. For example, if a Navy squadron were assigned to the Marine Corps Unit Deployment Program, its pilots would receive more emphasis on training for close air support missions, and, similarly, Marine Corps pilots would place more emphasis on long-range strike missions before deploying with a carrier air wing. Moreover, Navy and Marine Corps officers would exchange Command positions to further develop a more unified culture. For instance, a Marine Corps colonel would command a carrier air wing, while a Navy captain would command a Marine Corps Aircraft Group.

The Department of the Navy would create a smaller tactical aviation force structure consisting of fewer squadrons, reduced numbers of aircraft per squadron, and fewer backup aircraft. The number of tactical aviation squadrons would decrease from 68 under the previous plan to 59 by 2012. To achieve this reduction of nine squadrons, the department would

  • cancel plans to reestablish four active Navy squadrons as anticipated under its prior procurement plan,
  • decommission one Marine Corps Reserve squadron as well as one Navy Reserve squadron in 2004, and
  • decommission three active Navy squadrons. The first active squadron is scheduled to be decommissioned in fiscal year 2006; two other squadrons are to be decommissioned from fiscal year 2010 through fiscal year 2012.

Under the Plan, the number of aircraft assigned to some tactical aviation squadrons would be reduced. All Navy and Marine Corps F/A-18C squadrons that transition to the future Joint Strike Fighter aircraft would be reduced from 12 to 10 aircraft. In addition, Navy F/A-18F squadrons will be reduced from 14 to 12 aircraft. Furthermore, by 2006, aircraft assigned to the remaining two Navy and three Marine Corps Reserve squadrons would be reduced from 12 to 10. By reducing the aircraft assigned to squadrons, the size of Navy air wings will transition from 46 to 44 aircraft in 2004, as the Navy procures new aircraft. A notional air wing in the Navy's current force is made up of 46 aircraft comprising a combination of F/A-18C and F-14 squadrons. However, by 2016, carrier air wings would contain 44 aircraft made up of two squadrons of 10 Joint Strike Fighters, one squadron of 12 F/A-18E fighters, and one squadron of 12 F/A-18F fighters.




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