Naval Carrier Air Wings:
Consolidation Equals Combat Readiness

Author: Lieutenant Commander M.R. Hunter, United States Navy

United States Marine Corps
Command and Staff College
Marine Corps University
2076 South Street
Marine Corps Combat Development Command
Quantico, Virginia 22134-5068
AY: 1996-97




Thesis: Naval Carrier Air Wing squadrons are spread out over numerous air stations which adversely affects their combat readiness.

Background: All but one of the Naval Carrier Air Wings in existence today have assigned squadrons spread over three or more Naval Air Stations. This situation adversely affects an air wing's ability to train and develop a cohesive combat ready team. This is primarily due to the fact that air wing squadrons rarely train together until just prior to a six month deployment. Geographic dislocation has made inter-squadron training too costly in this era of defense budget reductions. Most air wings do not develop a cohesive combat team until the end of their deployment which is undesirable. The Base Realignment and Closure Process (BRAC) will affect the stationing of air wings and their assigned squadrons. Additionally, the introduction of the FA-18E/F "Super Hornet" will affect the locating of naval strike aircraft.

Recommendation: Naval Carrier Air Wing squadrons should be co-located with their Carrier Air Wing staffs to increase combat readiness through inter-squadron training and daily interaction.


Naval Aviation, the Navy's Air Force, was established in 1914 after a civilian pilot named Eugene Ely landed an aircraft aboard the armored cruiser Pennsylvania. (1) Over a period of more than eighty years, Naval Aviation units have participated in combat operations all over the world. The faces of Naval Aviation have changed drastically but the premise remains the same...projection of air power from the sea..anytime, anywhere. Today there are currently three carrier battle groups deployed around the world. Over 150 tactical strike aircraft operate from these carrier decks training for potential combat or supporting U.S. policy in areas like the former Yugoslavia and Iraq. This forward presence of a lethal carrier battle group serves as a deterrent to any would be assailants.

Each deploying aircraft carrier departs its home port with a carrier air wing comprised of some 65 aircraft. Fifty of those aircraft are tactical strike aircraft which include the FA-18A/C; F-14A/B/D; EA-6B; and S-3B. The FA-18 Hornet is a multi-role strike fighter utilized for sea,

land and air interdiction. It can also be used in the suppression of enemy air defense (SEAD) role with capability to launch high speed antiradiation missiles (HARM) against enemy radar sites. The F-14 Tomcat's primary mission is in the air-to-air arena. However, recent upgrades have given the Tomcat a limited air-to-ground interdiction capability. The EA-6B Prowler is the air wing's primary SEAD aircraft. A squadron of six Prowlers utilize onboard jammers and HARM missiles to provide protection to carrier air wing strike aircraft. Also supporting the strike aircraft are the E-2C Hawkeye airborne early warning aircraft which monitor and coordinate the strike aircraft on their missions. Additionally, the Hawkeye provides a long range detection capability for air and sea platforms to the carrier battle group. The S-3B Viking aircraft are primarily responsible for providing both surface and subsurface detection of enemy ships and submarines. Additionally, the Vikings provide in- flight refueling to the FA-18, F-14, EA-6 and S-3 aircraft. Finally, each carrier air wing deploys with a squadron of SH-60 Seahawk aircraft whose primary missions are anti-submarine warfare and search and rescue. Thus, the aircraft carrier and its embarked air wing is a self contained fighting force with its own runway. This is the primary reason why the National Command Authority asks "where are the carriers?" whenever a world crisis erupts.

There are many advantages to keeping the carrier air wing staff and its assigned squadrons stationed at the same naval air station. In this paper I will present the advantages and disadvantages of consolidating air wings by comparing Carrier Air Wing (CVW) Five, homeported at Naval Air Facility Atsugi, Japan, to a stateside based air wing. Additionally, I will discuss what the future holds for the basing of carrier air wings based on the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process and the introduction of the Navy's future strike fighter, the FA-18E/F Super Hornet.

In the 1950's, carrier air wings were actually designated as carrier air groups. Each air group staff and its assigned squadrons were located at one of the major naval air stations on the east or west coast. This collocating of squadrons created an environment where squadrons interacted on a daily basis and operated together frequently. Such an environment, in my opinion, is very beneficial to the building of a combat efficient air wing team. However, in July of 1961 the "base loading" plan was executed wherein some squadrons were relocated to major naval air stations based on aircraft type vice air wing assignment. The air wing staffs were located at one of these air stations. This realignment of air wing squadrons was effected to consolidate maintenance support facilities for individual aircraft as a cost saving measure.(2) This practice is still in effect today with the exception of CVW-5 whose squadrons are collocated at the same air station. I believe part of the reason this multi-basing of squadrons still exists today is due to political pressure to keep the various bases open and the jobs that go along with them for the civilian sector.

For the purpose of this paper I will examine CVW-11, a west coast based carrier air wing and CVW-5. CVW-11 currently is comprised of the following squadrons: one F-14A, three FA-18C, one EA-6B, one E-2C, one S-3B, and one SH-60F. The air wing staff, the F-14, and E-2 squadrons are located at NAS Miramar, San Diego, CA. The S-3 and SH-60 squadrons are located at NAS North Island, San Diego, CA. The three FA-18 squadrons are located at NAS Lemoore, CA. Finally, the EA-6 squadron is located at NAS Whidbey Island, WA. This spread over four air stations and two states isolates various squadrons from their assigned air wing and unquestionably impacts adversely on training and combat readiness.

CVW-5 currently is comprised of the following squadrons: one F-14A, three FA-18C, one EA-6B, one E-2C, one S-3B, and one SH-60F. This air wing is unique in the navy as it has been forward deployed in Japan since 1973.(3) CVW-5 squadrons share the NAF Atsugi airfield with the Japanese Air Self Defense Force (JASDF), as it is a joint use airfield. This setting provides CVW-5 squadrons an opportunity to interact daily with air wing squadrons as well as host nation personnel.

Training is a critical factor in combat performance. I strongly believe that you should "train how you fight" and "fight how you train." In the case of CVW-11, squadrons conduct unit level training at their home station on a daily basis. This training is normally aircraft specific, mission- type training. In other words, squadron pilots fly missions to maintain proficiency in the mission areas specific to their type of aircraft. This training increases both the pilot's and the squadron's combat readiness as a whole but does not significantly improve the combat readiness of CVW-11. From a statistical perspective, squadrons are required to submit monthly training and readiness reports. One could surmise that if all squadrons from CVW-11 report full combat readiness, then the air wing is combat ready; however, I contend this is not always the case. CVW-11's combat capability is best evaluated while on detachment to Fallon, NV, and during at-sea graded exercises at the end of their pre-deployment workup cycle. CVW-11 begins its pre-deployment training approximately one year before its deployment date. This workup cycle normally begins with basic unit training involving carrier landing refresher sorties. All squadrons assigned to the air wing practice carrier landings at their respective home fields. Once all pilots are prepared, they deploy to the carrier to obtain re-qualification. During this period of the workup cycle, little inter-squadron coordination takes place.

As the year progresses, CVW-11 squadrons will train together more often and eventually participate in a month long air wing training evolution at NAS Fallon, NV. This is the first and only time the entire air wing will train together on shore before a six month deployment. The month long detachment begins with unit level training and culminates with large coordinated air wing simulated strikes on Fallon range targets. CVW-11 squadrons work closely together to formulate the best strike plan to present to the carrier air wing commander (CAG). The planning, brief and the ensuing strike are monitored by the staff of the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center (NSAWC). The Tactical Aircraft Combat Training System (TACTS) is a system which monitors, displays and records the tracks and UHF transmissions of all participating strike aircraft. Upon completion, the recorded strike is replayed on the TACTS system in an auditorium attended by those aviators who participated in the event. A NSAWC evaluator debriefs the strike leader and other participants on all aspects of the strike, to include the plan, brief, and actual execution. At the end of this month long training evolution, the CAG is debriefed by the Commander, NSAWC on his air wing's performance at Fallon. This Fallon detachment enhances air wing cohesiveness but I believe this bonding of the air wing team comes much too late in the training cycle.

At-sea training is spread throughout the year long workup cycle to fully integrate the air wing with the aircraft carrier. This integration is critical to building a combat ready team since the air wing cannot function at sea without the support of the aircraft carrier and crew. The at-sea training culminates with a training intensive two month at-sea period. During this final at-sea period, the ship and air wing are individually and collectively evaluated during exercises by an observation team to determine whether or not they are ready to deploy for possible combat. These evaluations include ship casualty drills, coordinated air wing strikes, and surge operations. It is not uncommon for ships and/or air wings to fail this final evaluation. If this occurs, the ship and air wing are re-evaluated a short time later so they can still meet their impending deployment date.

Thus, a stateside based air wing only spends about three months training together as a team during the twelve-to-eighteen months preceding a deployment. During that time, the CAG is expected to form a cohesive combat team ready to engage the enemy anytime, anywhere. The fact that the entire air wing only trains together for a short time is primarily due to the geographic dislocation among squadrons. This is not enough time for the CAG to get to know his air wing. Nor is it enough time to develop the inter-squadron relationships needed to form a combat ready air wing team. I believe that most state-side air wings develop that team relationship about the time they are returning from their six month deployment. The close living conditions and daily interaction of the squadrons while on cruise instills team building. This combat ready team is then torn apart as the squadrons return to their various bases for some well-deserved stand down time. In the future we may see the turnaround training reduced from 12-18 months to 10-12 months as a cost saving measure. In my opinion, this would force air wings to train more during at-sea workups and while deployed, thus enhancing air wing cohesiveness.

CVW-5, on the other hand, has the distinct advantage of being consolidated at one air station. This consolidation facilitates the building of those inter-squadron working relationships that other air wings only enjoy when at sea. CVW-5 squadrons train together nearly 365 days a year. This capability helps each squadron develop an appreciation for the other squadron capabilities and limitations. It also allows them to rehearse multi-squadron missions anytime they want and allows the air wing staff to observe these missions at random to get an appreciation of how the air wing is operating as a team. Most importantly, the CAG gets to know his air wing well before deployment time because he sees them in action on a daily basis.

Because CVW-5 is permanently deployed overseas, its squadrons do not go through the same pre-deployment training as CONUS based air wing squadrons. There are two reasons for this: first, as a function of being permanently forward deployed, CVW-5 squadrons remain combat ready throughout the year in case of emergent requirements; second, there are no facilities like the NAS Fallon ranges and associated support in theater. However, before any major deployment, CVW-5 and the USS Independence (CV-62) go through the same final evaluations as discussed earlier in reference to CVW-11.

Stateside air wings enjoy a distinct advantage in training ranges and facilities available to them as compared to CVW-5. However, CVW-5 squadrons make up for this deficiency by capitalizing on out-of-area training opportunities (i.e. Okinawa ranges, South Korean ranges, etc.) with USAF and JASDF units. While these training opportunities are a poor substitute for stateside training, CVW-5 squadrons exhibit a "can-do" attitude and maximize their training opportunities. Additionally, much of CVW-5's training is done at sea which also helps build a combat ready team.

Another aspect to examine when it comes to building a combat ready team is culture. By culture, in this text, I mean the cultural differences between Naval Aviation communities (F-14, FA-18, EA-6, etc.). While all Naval Aviators share the common bond of earning the wings of gold, there is still an element of rivalry between the various communities. Unfortunately, these rivalries can sometimes impede the process of building a winning combat team. For example, consider two squadrons that both think their particular community is the best in Naval Aviation. These squadrons are stationed at different naval air stations and fly different types of aircraft. The fact that these two squadrons will not operate together until six months prior to deployment keeps this rivalry alive. Had they been working and operating together on a daily basis where they could assess each other's capabilities and the quality of the assigned personnel, the perspective would surely change. Chances are they would begin to feel like equal partners on an effective team working toward similar goals. A former air wing commander who served in both a stateside air wing and CVW-5 revealed that one advantage of CVW-5 was that cultural differences were left behind when personnel checked into the Japan based air wing. He believes this was due to the fact that the barriers which normally exist between squadrons had been eroded away due to the close working relationships the squadrons enjoyed from being collocated as well as being stationed overseas. He also believes it is time to do away with competition between warfare specialties as we step into the twenty-first century.(4) This could also apply to joint operations wherein we must guard against barriers built up by inter-service rivalries.

Personalities can also play a role greater than tactics and individual expertise in the development of a combat ready air wing team. Air wings that are spread out over five air stations may have a difficult time establishing the right chemistry between the leaders of the squadrons and the CAG. It is quite possible that perceived favoritism toward one particular squadron could result when that squadron is collocated with the CAG and his staff. This squadron would more than likely fly the CAG more than other squadrons as well as interact more with his staff. Once the air wing does come together, the other squadron commanders (CO's) are often more interested in impressing the CAG than in meeting and cooperating with the other squadron CO's. I believe this to be another perspective which inhibits the forming of a cohesive combat ready air wing.

A consolidated air wing does not encounter this potential inhibitor. With the squadrons located at the same air station they would get equal visibility with CAG and his staff and would be afforded the opportunity to work together to build that cohesive combat ready air wing team. It also allows them to focus on training opportunities to improve their unit and the air wing's readiness.

So far I have mostly discussed the operational aspects of a consolidated air wing. Another important aspect to consider is the administrative functioning of an air wing. The carrier air wing staff has its own administrative department. When the air wing staff is not located at the same air station as the assigned squadrons, many administrative difficulties are encountered -- timeliness of turnaround on paperwork and, often-times, lost documents encumber the process. Collocating the air wing staff with the squadrons alleviates most of these potential problems. Additionally, CAG can meet face-to-face with any of the squadron CO's when he needs to. This would eliminate numerous phone calls and any costs involved in flying sorties to and from CAG meetings. Additionally, temporary duty costs could be drastically reduced by consolidating the air wings.

From a maintenance perspective, the carrier air wing staff maintenance personnel assist the squadron maintenance personnel in getting the parts and people they need to keep their aircraft in a full mission capable status. Again, collocating the air wing staff with the squadrons would make this support more accessible and efficient.

Looking at it from a supporting base perspective, there are many issues to consider. Such a base would have to be specifically tailored to handle the maintenance support of all the types of aircraft assigned to the air wing. A centralized intermediate maintenance facility would need to be established to conserve space. At the same time, the existing functional wings could be disestablished and their spaces made available. Such a base would indeed be a "master jet base" whose infrastructure would have to be built up to support a large influx of personnel and their families. This concept sounds similar to the objectives of the BRAC process. I will later discuss BRAC and how it relates to my subject.

I will now look briefly at where the "rubber meets the road": combat performance. For the purposes of this paper, I will use unclassified statistics from Operation Desert Storm. The below table depicts the carrier, carrier air wing and type of strike aircraft which participated in the Persian Gulf War (16 January - 27 February 1991).(5)
SARATOGA (CV-60) CVW-17/EAST F-14B, FA-18C, A-6E
KENNEDY (CV-67) CVW-3/EAST F-14A, A-7E, A-6E
AMERICA (CV-66) CVW-1 F-14A, FA-18C, A-6E
ROOSEVELT (CVN-71) CVW-8 F-14A, FA-18A, A-6E

Unfortunately, the majority of the statistics from the Persian Gulf War remain classified. What is not classified is the fact that CVW-5, embarked in the USS Midway, participated in the entire war and did not suffer a single casualty or loss of aircraft. The only other west coast air wing to participate was CVW-2, who lost one A-6E during the War. Of the four east coast air wings to participate, CVW's 8 and 17 lost a total of four aircraft during the War.(6) While this is only one measure of success in a combat operation, it is clear that CVW-5's combat team was among the best in theater. I believe that this was due to its unique consolidation and training environment.

Looking forward to the twenty-first century, I would suggest that the consolidation of all carrier air wings should be a priority. Each year the United States Navy spends millions of dollars in temporary duty funding to bring state-side air wings together for training and other administrative events. Additionally, millions of dollars are also spent on the upkeep and improvement of the numerous naval air stations which exist today to host the various types of aircraft and air wing staffs. The time is right to take advantage of the BRAC process and identify two major naval air stations as candidates for hosting the air wings and assigned squadrons. On the east coast, for example, BRAC has NAS Cecil Field, FL (the east coast home of all FA-18's) scheduled to close in 1998. At that time all the FA-18 squadrons based there would relocate to NAS Oceana, VA (the east coast home of all F-14's). This process would base the majority of the east coast Naval Aviation strike aircraft at one major base. Additionally, all the air wing staffs will move to NAS Oceana at that time. This measure would instantly reduce the operations and personnel tempo of the EA-6 squadrons commuting from NAS Whidbey Island. Another added advantage is the increased opportunity for personnel to homestead at one of these major bases, thus increasing quality of life and reducing permanent change of station (PCS) move costs. My proposal is to use the cost savings from closure or reduction in usage of the previous aircraft specific naval air stations to fund the consolidation of the air wings concurrently with the BRAC process.

The advantages of this proposal are numerous. The most visible are: cost savings generated by reducing the number of naval air stations; cost savings generated by reduction in temporary duty funding required for training detachments; and the increase in combat readiness due to team building 365 days a year. Such an arrangement would allow the CAG to truly develop his air wing into a cohesive, versatile, and flexible fighting unit well prior to their deployment date. It would also help develop the technical capabilities of the entire air wing which they will need as we look toward the future. With this in mind, carrier air wings would deploy with their aircraft carrier as a combat ready team from the day they leave home port. Upon completion of the deployment, the air wing would fly home to the same naval air station and continue to maintain that cohesiveness throughout the stand down period.

The major disadvantage to this proposal is the large amount of infrastructure build-up that would be required. While it has been cited that cost savings would come with the closure of some naval air stations, the actual savings wouldn't be realized for years to come. Therefore, the large amount of up-front money needed to build the required infrastructure to support this concept would be a drawback.

Looking again to the future, the United States Navy has selected the FA-18E/F Super Hornet as the aircraft to bridge the gap between the F-14 and the Joint Strike Fighter. If the Super Hornet program continues as planned, it will enter the fleet just prior to the turn of the century. Currently, the plan is for these new aircraft to be located at the same naval air station as all the west coast FA-18C's. This plan would implement a portion of my proposed concept by locating the majority of an air wing's strike aircraft at one naval air station. The best of all worlds would be to have the other air wing aircraft types already in place at that naval air station prior to the introduction of the Super Hornet to the fleet.

In summary, I believe my proposal of consolidating carrier air wings has many benefits, the most important of which is the building of a more cohesive, flexible combat ready team for the twenty-first century. The decisions of the Naval Aviation leadership have in fact made my concept more practical with the planned introduction of the Super Hornet to the fleet. This is a golden opportunity to collocate the air wings while we reduce infrastructure with BRAC and modernize the fleet with the Super Hornet. The bottom line is that when Naval Aviation is called upon to go into harms way, the parents and spouses of those aviators flying from the decks of our aircraft carriers want to know that their loved ones are part of a cohesive team that will prevail in combat.


DON Naval Historical Center. Gulf War order of battle. Naval Historical Center WEB site, January 13 1997.

DON Naval Historical Center. The first half of the nineties 1991-1995. Naval Aviation Historical Center draft copy, 5-8.

Langston, A. Former CVW-5 Commander. Interview by author, 13 February 1997.

Pirie, R. Base loading concept. OPNAV letter, 23 May 1961.

Rush, D. The Cradle of Naval Aviation. Naval Aviation News, November 1996, 28.

United States Government. Naval Aeronautical Organization. OPNAV Notice PO5400, 1 January 1973.

1. David Rush, "The Cradle of Naval Aviation," Naval Aviation News Nov-Dec 1996, 28.

2. R.B. Pirie, Base Loading Concept, Letter, OPNAV, 23 May, 1961.

3. United States, OPNAV Notice PO5400, Naval Aeronautical Organization, 1 January 1973.

4. Rear Admiral Arturo N. Langston, former CVW-5 Commander, interview by author, 13 February 1997.

5. DON Naval Historical Center, Gulf War order of battle, 13 January 1997.

6. "The first half of the nineties 1991-1995", Naval Aviaion Historical Center, 5-8.