There is no more potent symbol of American military might and presence than a US Navy aircraft carrier – the USS Ronald Reagan is the tip of the spear in the Pacific, being forward-deployed to Yokosuka, Japan, and is a key catalyst for promoting interoperability for key allies, including Australia.
Today, strategic sea lines of communication support over 90 per cent of global trade, a result of the cost-effective and reliable nature of sea transport. Indo-Pacific Asia is at the epicentre of the global maritime trade, with about US$5 trillion worth of trade flowing through the South China Sea and the strategic waterways and choke points of south-east Asia annually.
The Indian Ocean and its critical global sea lines of communication are responsible for more than 80 per cent of the world’s seaborne trade in critical energy supplies, namely oil and natural gas, which serve as the lifeblood of any advanced economy.
Aircraft carriers emerged from the Second World War as the pinnacle of maritime prestige and power projection. However, unlike their predecessor, the battleship, aircraft carriers are in themselves relatively benign actors, relying heavily on their attached carrier air-wings and supporting escort fleets of cruisers, destroyers and submarines to screen them from hostile action and project power throughout their area of operations.
Carrier air wings and long-range strike
As the second-largest air force in the world, the US Navy sets the standard for the carrier air wing, a concept that has been perfected throughout the Cold War and into the new millennium to maximise the long-range strike, high-speed, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and integrated multi-domain command and control systems that have guaranteed US and allied maritime dominance since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
While early concepts of the carrier air wing evolved throughout the pitched carrier battles that raged through the Pacific, the advent of Soviet nuclear-powered hunter-killer submarines and advanced long-range, supersonic bombers armed with advanced, sea-skimming anti-ship cruise missiles resulted in a shake-up in the structure of the carrier air wing.
Meanwhile, the shift towards asymmetric, counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria gave rise to long-range, strike and interdiction focused carrier air wings. As the world’s pre-eminent carrier power, the US sets the standard for current carrier air wings, which are made up of a a range of potent naval aviation assets, including:
- Strike Fighter (VFA) Squadrons: Four squadrons with 12 F-18E/F Super Hornets each, or 10 F-18C Hornets (over 40 strike fighters in total). In two air wings one of the F-18C Hornet squadrons is an embarked US Marine Corps Fighter Attack (VMFA) Squadron – as the production of the C variant of the fifth-generation F-35 gathers pace the older F-18C squadrons will be replaced by the F-35C.
- Electronic Attack Squadron (VAQ): A single squadron made up of five EA-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft – an advanced variant of the F-18E/F Super Hornet airframe.
- Carrier Airborne Early Warning (VAW) Squadron: A single squadron made up of four E-2C Hawkeye or five E-2D Advanced Hawkeye airborne early warning, command and control aircraft to provide an integrated, carrier-borne AWACS capability to co-ordinate the air interdiction, strike and power projection capability of the carrier air wing.
- Helicopter Sea Combat (HSC) Squadron: A single squadron of eight MH-60S Seahawk helicopters providing a range of inter-fleet logistics support, anti-submarine and personnel transfer capabilities.
- Helicopter Maritime Strike (HSM) Squadron: A single squadron of 11 MH-60R Romeo Seahawk helicopters, three to five of which are typically based in detachments onboard the supporting screen ships in the carrier strike group to provide over-the-horizon maritime strike, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and anti-submarine capabilities.
- Fleet Logistics Support (VRC) Squadron Detachment: A specialised detachment of two C-2A Greyhounds providing long-range fleet logistics support – set to be replaced by a specialised variant of the Boeing V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft to fulfill the long-range vertical replenishment role.
The USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-79) is named after the 40th president of the United States, Ronald W Reagan (term 1981-1989), and is the flagship of not only the US Navy, but is also the flagship of the only forward-deployed carrier strike group, Carrier Strike Group 5 based out of Yokosuka, Japan – the Reagan's motto is “Peace through strength” echoing President Reagan’s focus on military strength to overcome the threat of the Soviet Union.