American aircraft carriers could set sail with enormous 20-strong F-35C squadrons in the future, a senior Navy official revealed, marking an about-face of the Navy’s current trend toward smaller air wings.
This information comes on the heels of the USS Carl Vinson’s deployment that saw the carrier showcase the “air wing of the future.” The Vinson operated with a combination of fourth- and fifth-generation aircraft to leverage both generation’s unique attributes in the air.
“This deployment, I think, showcased what would be a paradigm shift in the way that the aircraft carrier and the strike group deployed,” Rear Adm. Dan Martin said, according to USNI News. “Since I was a young lieutenant, we’ve been going to 5th Fleet and flying close air support missions for the Marines and the SEALs and Army on the ground, with air supremacy.
“This is just a complete change, with a near-peer competitor, with activity that is in the air, on the surface of the sea and below the surface of the sea. You have to shape the air wing to best handle that activity.”
Martin said he expects further deployments to include fourteen F-35Cs, but that could later increase to twenty per squadron.
The Vinson’s air wing included a mix of F-35Cs flying with additional EA-18G Growlers electronic warfare aircraft and an extra E-2D Advanced Hawkeye tactical airborne early warning aircraft.
The unique paring gave the Carrier Strike Group better coverage of the battlespace, allowing commanders a fuller picture of the area they were sailing.
Larger air wings require sufficient space aboard an aircraft carrier from which to operate. That space can be a scarce resource, even on the United States Navy’s enormous aircraft carriers. One option could be to reduce the number of helicopters an aircraft carrier sails with.
While trading helicopters for more stealth fighters could expand the radius of battlespace awareness and strike ability, the tradeoff may hamper search and rescue, anti-submarine warfare, and surface warfare abilities.
Still, when sailing in the South China Sea, Martin said, “you can bank on Chinese ships coming out to meet you,” highlighting the importance of a more robust and networked battlespace awareness and strike capability in the future.
Caleb Larson is a multimedia journalist and defense writer with the National Interest. A graduate of UCLA, he also holds a Master of Public Policy and lives in Berlin. He covers the intersection of conflict, security, and technology, focusing on American foreign policy, European security, and German society for both print and radio. Follow him on Twitter @calebmlarson.