Most discussions of the role of the U.S. Navy in the new defense strategy have focused either on combatants such as nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, Aegis air and missile defense capable destroyers, cruisers and nuclear attack submarines or on airborne systems such as the F-35, P-8, or Global Hawk high-altitude, long endurance unmanned aerial system. Often overlooked, but of increasing importance, are the ships and aircraft that provide at-sea logistics support to the Navy. It is the ability to conduct underway replenishment, to resupply ships at sea, that enables the U.S. Navy to maintain a continuous forward presence. Free of the need to return to port for fuel, food, spare parts and ammunition, U.S. naval forces can operate in truly unique ways, using the broad ocean areas to avoid detection until they choose to appear on the horizon or launch operations against hostile territory and forces from far offshore. Once engaged in combat operations, the ability to resupply the aircraft carriers and surface combatants allows them to prosecute engagements for protracted periods of time. The ability to provide logistics support to ships at sea is an important asymmetric advantage for the U.S. Navy.
Today, the U.S. Navy maintains a very sophisticated fleet of logistics support ships and aircraft. The Combat Logistics Force consists of some 32 ships, fleet oilers, ammunition and dry goods ships and fast combat support ships, which provide the rest of the Navy with all the supplies, spare parts and ammunition necessary to remain underway and combat ready.
In addition, the Navy operates a fleet of 35 C-2A Greyhound, carrier onboard delivery (COD) aircraft that can fly personnel, parts and other vital equipment directly to the aircraft carriers. The Greyhounds get a lot of use. During a typical six-month peacetime deployment, the aircraft carrier’s two-aircraft C-2A detachment will accumulate approximately 1,000 flight hours, deliver around 1 million pounds of supplies and transport some 5,000 passengers to and from the battle group.
The viability of the carrier battle group has always been dependent on its ability to receive continuous resupply while remaining protectively cloaked in the deep oceans. This supply chain will become even more important in the future as U.S. naval forces are forced to contend with anti-access challenges including the proliferation of sensors and anti-ship platforms and weapons. It is only by being able to exploit its inherent mobility that the carrier battle group will be able both to conduct combat operations and defeat anti-access threats.
That mobility is dependent on the security and robustness of sea and air lines of supply. It is also dependent on the reach of the logistics support ships and aircraft and the speed of response. This is particularly the role for the fast combat support ships and the C-2s. The fast combat support ships are able to rapidly rendezvous with the battle group, quickly offload supplies and swiftly retreat, thereby allowing the carrier battle group to undertake rapid maneuvers. Equally important, the C-2s, with their long range, large payload and ability both to fly high and through inclement weather, permit the carrier battle group to maximize its deployment area without risk to its logistics support. Together, the Combat Logistics Force and the fleet of C-2 COD aircraft will continue to be critical to the ability of the U.S. Navy to operate forward while countering the growing anti-access threat.
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