For many around the world, the sight of a supercarrier is a potent symbol of American power, presence and prestige. Equally important are the growing number of large deck, amphibious warfare ships, typically landing helicopter docks (LHDs) like the Australian Canberra Class LHDs, which provide unique power projection capabilities in smaller, arguably more cost-effective packages.
The rise of the US and the introduction of power projection platforms like aircraft carriers, while eclipsing platforms like the battleship, served to establish an unrivalled global economic, political and strategic order – one Australian, and indeed global, prosperity became increasingly dependent upon.
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 (SCS) and the strategic waterways and choke points of south-east Asia annually.
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 a 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 have evolved as technology and operational requirements have evolved – the advent of increasingly long-range Soviet air-launched anti-ship cruise missiles and air combat lessons learned by US Navy pilots during the air war against Soviet supplied Vietnamese MiG fighter aircraft prompted the US to initiate the development of what would become known as the 'Teen' series fighter jets, which would deliver the F-15 Eagle, F-16 Falcon, F-18 Hornet and the venerable F-14 Tomcat series of fighter aircraft.
Replacing Phantom and the new guardian of the fleet
While the US Navy recognised the growing need for a new fleet air defence, air superiority and long-range strike aircraft for the US Navy's carrier fleet in the late 1950s – it wasn't until the abject failure of the proposed naval variant of the F-111 as part of the TFX program, combined with the significant casualties incurred by the Navy's F-4 Phantom II series fighter aircraft during Vietnam that the Navy redoubled efforts to developed a credible response.
By 1968, the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) issued a request for proposals for the Naval Fighter Experimental (VFX) program, calling for a tandem, two-seat, twin-engine air-to-air fighter aircraft with a maximum speed of Mach 2.2 – additionally, building on lessons learned during Vietnam, the aircraft would incorporate a built-in M61 Vulcan cannon and a secondary close-air-support role.
It was expected that the successful VFX fighter would be equipped with either six AIM-54 Phoenix or a combination of six AIM-7 Sparrow and four AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles with bids received from General Dynamics, Grumman, Ling-Temco-Vought, McDonnell Douglass and North American Rockwell.
Grumman and McDonnell Douglas were selected as finalists in late 1968, with Grumman's F-14 Tomcat selected as the successful design in January 1969 and would incorporate a range of technologies developed for the F-111B – the proposed carrier variant of the F-111 operated by the US Air Force and Royal Australian Air Force.
First flying on 21 December 1973 – Grumman's Tomcat was pushed through to full-rate production, avoiding the protoyping phase and interference from defense secretary Robert McNamara – a model followed by the US Air Force in the development and production of the F-15 Eagle. It would take Grumman just 22 months following the award of the contract to deliver initial operating capability (IOC) of the F-14 Tomcat in 1973.
Evolving with the times
As technology evolved and the tactical and strategic operating environment evolved, the Tomcat evolved to incorporate a range of new technologies, including upgraded air-to-air missile systems, but didn't incorporate an air-to-ground strike capability until the early 1990s, which meant that the majority of US Navy air-to-ground strike operations against Iraq during the first Gulf War conducted by A-6 Intruder, A-7 Corsair and the newly developed F/A-18 Hornet squadrons.
The suite of upgrades also incorporated much needed avionics upgrades to the Tomcat airframe resulting in the addition of FLIR pods and advanced radars supporting the air superiority, interdiction, fleet air defence and close air support capabilities of the platform – while also incorporating a range of weapons systems modifications and additions.
Tomcat would also be used by the Iranian Air Force both pre-and-post revolution in 1979 and would play a pivotal part in the Iranians securing air superiority over Iraq during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War – with Iran using the Phoenix system, claiming dozens of kills against Iraqi fighter aircraft.
However, time stops for no machine and the declining number of potential threats for the Tomcat to counter, combined with a rise in counter-insurgency and close-air support operations during the early-to-mid-2000s, in conjunction with rising maintenance costs saw the Tomcat replaced, like the A-6 Intruder and A-7 Corsair by the upgraded F/A-18E/F series Super Hornets.
The Super Hornets would come to serve as the basis of the US Navy's carrier air wings, with classic Hornets replaced by the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters – however, the advent of an increasingly assertive China and its domestic development of a potent carrier fleet, combined with complex anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) systems, has prompted the US Navy to kick off the development of the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighter program.
This sixth-generation fighter aircraft is expected to fulfil the same role as the venerable Tomcat, incorporating a range of advanced technologies, including advanced sensor suites and data fusion, low observable aerodynamics, shaping and coatings, supercruise capabilities and super manoeuvrability harking back to an era of air-to-air superiority dog fights and the golden age of fighter aircraft.
It is expected that these new carrier borne fighter aircraft will be supported by the advent of increasingly reliable autonomous systems has also given rise to the MQ-25 Stingray, an advanced, carrier-launched autonomous refuelling tanker system used to extend the range of carrier air wing aircraft to increase the stand-off and long-range strike capabilities of the carrier borne aircraft in response to the advanced Chinese A2/AD networks in the SCS.