It should come as no surprise to anyone that despite their nuclear power plants, the fleet of U.S. aircraft carriers (CVNs) require a lot of logistics support. Some of this comes from underway replenishment ships that provide items such as jet fuel and munitions. But a lot is provided by the Navy’s version of UPS, its fleet of 35 C-2 Greyhound Carrier Onboard Delivery (COD) aircraft. A single CVN’s detachment of two C-2s will transport thousands of people and a million pounds of freight, including critical spare parts and mail, during a typical six-month deployment.
The youngest C-2 is at least 24 years old and the current fleet will have to be replaced beginning in about 2020. So the Navy is beginning the process of assessing its options. In reality, there are only two. One is to upgrade the existing C-2s that have operated successfully in the COD role for decades. Fortunately, this is a fairly easy option. The Navy is halfway through a program to upgrade the C-2’s twin sister, the E-2 Hawkeye, from a C to a D configuration. Northrop Grumman, the company that built both the Greyhound and Hawkeye, is proposing to modernize the C-2 with the same new engines, digital avionics and empennages it is using for the E-2D. This would increase commonality across the two fleets and lower operating and sustainment costs for both.
The other option is to replace the C-2s with a somewhat larger number of tilt rotor V-22 Ospreys. The arguments in favor of the Bell/Boeing V-22 are: it is currently in production, the Navy’s version would be part of a larger fleet operated by the Marine Corps and Air Force and the Osprey can land not only on the carrier but on large deck amphibious ships, thereby reducing the need to retransport some personnel and stores from the CVN to other ships.
Proponents of both options argue that theirs will be more flexible and do the job at the lowest cost. The Navy has announced that it will test the V-22’s ability to transport personnel and cargo to and from an aircraft carrier as well as its ability to be integrated into the cyclic operations on the CVN’s flight deck. If the V-22 makes the cut then the Navy will issue a competitive RFP.
The choice between the Greyhound and the Osprey is about more than the price of the two platforms or their respective flying hour costs. It also will be about how the Navy plans to operate its major fleet units in the 21st century. On the one hand, the Navy will continue to rely on its CVN battle groups to provide its primary striking power against the land. However, because of the proliferation of anti-access systems such as the Chinese DF-21 anti-ship ballistic missiles, the CVNs will have to stand farther off from hostile shores and employ maneuver to avoid being targeted. The need to create this large maneuvering space for the CVNs will require a COD system with range, payload and the ability to operate in bad weather. This scenario would seem to favor the C-2 Greyhound.
On the other hand, many of the low-intensity challenges the U.S is likely to face create an increased demand for the combined air-sea-land power provided by the Navy’s Amphibious Ready Groups built around large deck amphibious warfare ships and their accompanying Marine Expeditionary Units. The Marine Corps plans to deploy both the MV-22 and the STOVL F-35B on its amphibs. In addition, the V-22 can operate from short, expedient airfields that adversaries may find difficult to target.
Which strategy will the Navy pursue: one that continues to emphasize the centrality of the CVN or one that shifts, albeit subtly, in favor of the smaller more flexible big deck amphibs? There is a case for both approaches. Unfortunately, the Navy can only acquire one fleet of COD aircraft.
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