The US Navy may retire ageing carrier air groups because of their accelerating maintenance costs

US Navy aviation is heading towards what one admiral has described as the "perfect storm". The navy's carrier air groups (CAGs) are advancing in age, and the cost of sustaining this fleet is mounting, exacerbated by a succession of conflicts in the Balkans, the Gulf and now Afghanistan. The navy has had to add around $3.4 billion to its readiness budget to pay for extra maintenance and, as things stand, will run short of funds for replacement aircraft.

The average aircraft age is 18 years and, based on the current force structure, this will only increase. The navy estimates that to reverse this trend it needs to add at least 175 aircraft a year to the fleet compared with the 80 it is actually acquiring. Furthermore, new aircraft are only being produced at a minimum sustainment rate, rather than an economic one, which costs the navy 30-40¢ for every dollar spent.

With new aircraft, such as the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and SikorskyMH-60S, entering service, the navy has hard choices to make. One has been to accelerate the disposal of the USN's expensive-to-maintain legacy systems, starting with the Grumman F-14 Tomcat.

"We're looking at some plans to have the retirement accelerated to the late 2006 timeframe. We had been looking at 2009-10, but we would like to move that up if we can. One of the drivers to retire these old but capable aircraft are the savings in operation-and-support [O&S] costs we achieve by flying new aircraft," says Capt Jim Hart, head of strike warfare, air warfare/aircraft requirements.

The F-14 has proven adept at keeping pace with the USN's shift from mission-specific to multirole platforms and few could have imagined when it debuted 30 years ago that the fighter would be dropping laser-guided bombs in Afghanistan, 1,200km (650nm) inland. Its successor, the F/A-18E/F, is designed for multirole flexibility and, although still short on the F-14's range, can carry a wider variety of modern ordnance. Perhaps more importantly, its O&S costs are half that of the F-14.

Tomcat cuts

First to go next year will be the 63 remaining F-14As, followed by the 49 General Electric F110-powered Ds and finally the 71 F110-re-engined Bs. The Tomcat equips 12 fleet squadrons, of which two have begun the transition to the Super Hornet. The plan is to acquire 548 Super Hornets, enough to equip each CAG with two squadrons, one of 12 single-seat F/A-18Es and one with 14 two-seat Fs. VFA-115 in June will be the first F/A-18E squadron to deploy at sea aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln.

The fighter offers advances over the smaller F/A-18C/D Hornet, such as increased munitions bring-back capability. This is particularly valuable given the premium attached to precision guided weapons and the fact that 80% of Afghan strike missions were launched without a predetermined target. New sensors available from 2003 will include the Raytheon ASQ-228(V) ATFLIR targeting pod and SHARP reconnaissance pod, allowing the F/A-18F to take over the Tomcat's forward air control mission. Raytheon's APG-79 active electronically scanned array radar is to follow in 2007.

Super Hornets will initially supplement the Hornet, of which the USN and US Marine Corps have more than 770 on strength, with each CAG equipped with two F/A-18C Hornet squadrons. The navy plans to fly the aircraft until 2019, progressively upgrading the fighter, with the ATFLIR replacing Lockheed Martin AAS-38 NiteHawk and new centre fuselage barrels to increase fatigue life and the number of carrier cycles.

Some of the 188 older F/A-18As still in USMC and USN Reserve service will be upgraded to an equivalent F/A-18C Lot 17 standard under engineering changeproposals (ECP) 583 and 560, respectively. This improved F-18A+ will include an Raytheon AIM-120 AMRAAM capability, Improved mission computers, mission data loaders, provision for the AAS-38B targeting FLIR, ARC-210(V) communications and night vision goggles. ECP583 in addition includes the Raytheon APG-73 radar and new Hazeltine APX-111 combined interrogator/transponder.

The carrier variant (CV) of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) is due to enter service in 2012 and will supplant the Hornet. Based on the size of the planned Super Hornet purchase, and maintaining a fleet of 12 carriers, the navy expects to buy around 480 JSFs. "This provides a good bridge to the JSF and allows us to buy the last Super Hornet in 2010/11. We're also interested in the more capable Block 3 version of JSF, which will be ready by then," says Hart.

The number of strike aircraft the USN procures will be affected by the advent of unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAVs). The joint navy and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency UCAV-N programme is aimed at demonstrating the viability of operating such a vehicle from an aircraft carrier. The Boeing X-46 and Northrop Grumman X-47 are competing for the next demonstration phase. A UCAV-N analysis of alternatives will examine the mission trade-offs and mix of manned and unmanned vehicles in a future CAG.

It is clear from comments by senior naval officers that not everyone is in accord with secretary of the navy Gordon England's conviction that the JSF will be the service's last manned fighter. The USN believes that there is a more immediate need for an unmanned air vehicle for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions. "In the Gulf War a CAG could attack 100 aimpoints day. We can do five times that number now. The challenge is to find those aimpoints to target," says one official.

The navy's UCAV roadmap sets the goal of fielding an ISR platform by 2015, followed around 2020 by a strike and suppression of enemy air defences capability. Naval planners, having used a recent multirole endurance UAV study to help shape its UCAV-N requirements, are looking at a vehicle capable of staying on station for more than 12h, "staring" at the battlefield and passing targeting data to a networked fighter force. This points to a vehicle in the 11,800kg (26,000lb) class, occupying a carrier deck spot almost equivalent to the McDonnell Douglas A-4 Skyhawk.

Limited space

Unlike the US Air Force's planned UCAV concept of operations, the navy's limited amount of carrier space precludes storing UCAV-Ns. They instead will be fully integrated into aircraft carrier operations, which has some naval aviators asking whether one day they will be displaced on the flight deck by unmanned vehicles. "Initially the answer will probably be no," says Hart. "We envision a small number of between four and five [UCAVs] complementing the assets we have on the ship today."

One role that may one day be assumed by unmanned vehicles is that of electronic attack (EA). While the jamming suite of the Northrop Grumman EA-6B Prowler is being progressively modernised under the Improved Capability Upgrade III (ICAP III) programme, and rewinging is helping to keep fatigue at bay, attrition is eating away at the 123 remaining aircraft and O&S costs recently overtook the F-14. A recent joint analysis of alternatives to identify a potential replacement only underscored the differences between the navy, which wants to retain an organic EA platform, and the USAF wanting a distributed network.

As far as the navy is concerned the choice is between an ICAP III-equippedEA-18 Growler (modified F/A-18F), restarting production of the Prowler as an EA-6C, or waiting for an EF-35.

Boeing is lobbying hard for the EA-18, contending this would keep its line open and ensure commonality with theF/A-18E/F and a planned tanker version that will replace the Lockheed S-3B Viking. Despite recent upgrades to the S-3's weapons capability with the addition of the AGM-65F Maverick, and a service life assessment programme to identify ways to keep the Viking in service for another 13 years, the navy wants to retire the jet by 2009/10.

The S-3 has been without its anti-submarine warfare (ASW) suite since 1999, and its only other role other than in-flight refuelling is surface strike. Even that will disappear, with the first of 237 MH-60S armed utility helicopters entering service this year, followed by 243 new-build MH-60R ASW machines in 2004. There will be a new concept of operations under which battle groups will be equipped with two squadrons of MH-60R/S, with half the fleet and both commanding officers based aboard the carrier and the remaining machines distributed among escort and replenishment ships. All helicopters will be "owned" and operated by the CAG rather than, as in the past, each ship's commander.

Source: Flight International