The U.S. Navy’s twelve aircraft carriers and ten carrier air wings are the most powerful expression of American military might in the post-communist era. Combined with other sea-based forces, they have the capacity to sustain prolonged and lethal strike operations against distant adversaries even in the absence of foreign bases or allies. The versatility of carrier-based air power is reflected in its heavy use over recent years to enforce global peace.
Naval aviation is currently in the midst of a revolutionary transformation aimed at realizing the full warfighting potential of the information age. By the end of the present decade, a single carrier air wing will be able to launch over 200 strike sorties per day, around the clock and in any weather, precisely targeting over a thousand separate aimpoints deep in an enemy’s interior. Moreover, the networking of all the components of a carrier battle group within a single, shared operating environment will enable each ship and plane to achieve unprecedented mission effectiveness. Few countries could withstand the consequences of attacks by such a force for long.
However, the peacekeeping and warfighting benefits of networked naval air power depend on a flow of budgetary resources that lately has been inadequate. Rather than progressing smoothly into the information age, naval aviation is over-committed and under-funded. The shortfall in funding is particularly pronounced in the area of modernization, where the ambitious vision of a digitized fighting force has been repeatedly undermined by the demands of near-term readiness.
The F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet is likely to be the Navy’s – and perhaps the nation’s – premier strike aircraft for decades to come, so its production and further enhancement must be kept on track. At the same time, the service must give focused attention to modernizing the electronic-warfare capabilities of the carrier-based EA-6B Prowler and upgrading the sensors of the E-2C Hawkeye airborne warning and control aircraft. Failure to modernize all three of these pivotal aircraft would undercut the future effectiveness of naval air power and potentially compromise national security.
The initial draft of this report was prepared by Dr. Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute staff. All members of the Naval Strike Forum had an opportunity to review and modify the final report.
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