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Naval aviation

Today’s naval aircraft have come a long way from the Wright Brothers’ flying machine. These modern and complex aircraft require a maintenance team that is far superior to those of the past.

Other countries look upon the United States as the leader of the free world. This accomplishment comes partly through its military strength achieved through sea power. The ability to fight in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War came directly from the Navy’s sea power.

Taken as a whole, most naval aviation in the world is land based-aircraft functioning either as scouts or as virtual extensions of coastal artillery. Their purpose is to exert control over the seas over which they can fly. This was their key mission in the Battle of the Atlantic in World War II. In the Pacific, the United States used long-range aircraft to scout the seas looking for Japanese naval forces, supplementing or replacing carrier-based scouts, depending on the situation. Both the Japanese and Americans also used land-based medium bombers and tactical fighters to find and destroy enemy ships.

The mission of naval aviation is to support naval forces. This support helps keep vital sea lanes open and denies their use to enemy forces in time of war. To accomplish this task, naval aviation has a primary function- to closely coordinate with other naval forces in maintaining command of the seas.

Naval aircraft require different capabilities to perform various types of missions. Naval aircraft missions can be categorized under eight job types: fleet air defense, strike warfare, antisubmarine warfare (ASW), electronic warfare, early warning, amphibious assault, training, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). Each mission requires different capabilities in the craft that perform them. Most aircraft are able to perform more than one type of mission and may perform support functions as well.

Combat power

In the longer term, naval aviation is also adapting to a series of geopolitical revolutions which will dramatically increase the future demand for a secure sea base capable of projecting dominant power ashore in wartime against the full spectrum of possible opponents. It is adapting to these demands by exploiting technologies and operational practices developed in the last decade that will greatly increase its ability to surge and concentrate forces rapidly; protect the sea base from new air, surface, and undersea threats; and find, identify, locate, track, and strike mobile as well as fixed targets ashore, under all weather conditions, and in timely enough fashion to produce the desired effects.

Today’s ground forces, operating in dispersed fashion, far from sustaining bases, in extremely austere environments, and in units ranging from section to brigade-rely on air forces for combat power more than they did during the Cold War. In particular, they depend on air forces for timely attacks against targets that emerge quickly and unpredictably in meeting engagements, and which must also be destroyed quickly. They also depend on air forces to detect, identify, and destroy larger concentrations of enemy forces moving to contact with elements of the distributed ground force. A sea base allows a supporting air force to operate in distributed and persistent fashion, while retaining the ability to concentrate quickly and bring dominant power to bear.

Naval aviation is adapting to the demands of the new security environment across all its mission areas and against the full spectrum of threats. At the most aggregate level, naval aviation is developing a force structure and operating tempo which maximizes its contribution across the spectrum of conflict, whether measured in terms of time or threat level. In terms of time, this involves presence and shaping operations in peacetime, crisis response operations designed either to deter conflict or to maximize early arriving combat power should deterrence fail, and large scale surge operations whose purpose is the dominant application of sea-based power projection with an eye to the rapid and decisive defeat of the opponent. In terms of threat level, this involves the development and insertion of rapidly evolving technologies into sensors, weapons, and networks. The platforms which deploy these technologies will be capable of concentrating to dominate and defeat the high end threats.

Naval Aviation must also ensure that its forces have the capabilities needed against the full spectrum of threats. Advanced airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft; increased persistence and range for strike fighters; modernized airborne electronic attack (AEA) platforms; advanced surface, undersea, and mine warfare helicopters; and long range, persistent, land-based maritime patrol reconnaissance aircraft (MPRA) have been the major platform-related aspects of the carrier aviation modernization strategy.

Further, the new unmanned systems are also entering into the naval aviation fleet in all size, shape and form. They are taking over the role of broad area maritime surveillance.

The long range, sea-based strike fighter, with its ability to engage in multiple, simultaneous, and dispersed engagements 24 hours a day, is a key enabler of power projection ashore. Strike aircraft attack enemy surface targets such as ships and ground forces. Strike aircraft are classified into two types, medium and light, depending on the weight of the payload they carry. There are several major design factors involved in attack aircraft design. Range, payload, and weapon delivery precision determine how far away a target can be attacked and the amount of damage that can be inflicted. Maneuverability and stealth will allow the aircraft to evade surface to air missiles and enemy fighters as well as making them less visible to enemy sensors.

Maritime patrol

Long range, persistent, land-based maritime patrol aircraft provide the only way for a dominant naval power to maintain a continuous presence and surveillance throughout the vast ocean and littoral spaces over which it must exercise control. They often provide the timely means of response, whether to a fleeting undersea acoustic contact a report of a suspicious merchant ship, or an important signals intelligence collection opportunity.

Maritime patrol assets need to be complemented by a more distributed force capable of quickly responding to its cues; identifying potential contacts as friend, foe, or neutral; and either tracking the contacts or destroying them, depending on the circumstances. The specific sensors, and weapons used to acquire and prosecute contacts in surface warfare, undersea warfare, and organic mine warfare missions will vary, but because they will often be deployed and operated from the same platforms and in the same littoral battle space, there is a tremendous premium on combining them on the same multi-mission helicopter when possible.

Most modern combatants feature decks aft from which they can operate an embarked helicopter. This aviation capability greatly increases the ship’s reach, security, and ability to stay at sea. The advent of unmanned aircraft further extends the aviation potential of surface combatants, in a sense reprising the catapult launched floatplanes that were found on battleships and cruisers in World War.

New sensors, networks, and weapons, along with new platforms, will introduce some radically new capabilities for naval aviation. For example, there are already emerging technologies that will enable through the weather attacks against mobile ground targets. There are also areas where the technology is less mature and where naval aviation faces significant challenges, such as in undersea warfare.

In the undersea environment the challenges are different. There, sensor performance is limited, reducing detection ranges, and making wide area surveillance a more asset intensive endeavor. Furthermore, unlike nuclear submarines, which usually produce a continuous acoustic signature, the best detection opportunities against non-nuclear submarines are both episodic and difficult to classify. This puts a premium on ASW platforms that can be deployed in numbers and distributed throughout the sea base, close a potential contact quickly, and deploy a menu of high quality acoustic and non acoustic sensors to reacquire and identify the contact, classifying it as a false alarm, or trailing or attacking it.

Naval aviation has over-the-horizon surveillance equipment that provides vital information to task force operation.

From the beginning to the end of the amphibious operations, support occurs with a variety of firepower. Providing air cover and support is an important function of naval aviation in modern, technical warfare.

Logistic support aircraft strongly support the mobility of the ground forces. Providing logistic support aircraft is another required function of naval aviation. During sea missions, the possibility of a downed aircraft or man overboard always exists. Search and rescue helps reduce the number of lives lost. Naval aviation plays many critical roles in the support of the Navy’s mission.

Naval aviation can be divided into few main categories:
•    Carrier air wings: the airframes, fixed- and rotary-wing, manned and unmanned, that operate from the deck of an aircraft carrier
•    Land-based naval aviation: maritime patrol planes and electronic-warfare aircraft
•    Organic surface-combatant aircraft: manned and unmanned helicopters and small, fixed-wing unmanned aircraft
•    Organic Marine aviation: fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft attached to embarked Marine units.

These categories do not include aircraft for training, logistics, test and evaluation, etc. Such aviation elements are mainly part of infrastructural support for naval aviation.

Air fleet

At a certain level of aggregation, naval airpower becomes an air fleet. In World War II this meant at least six aircraft carriers operating together, such that there were over four hundred aircraft available.

When the North Korean army invaded South Korea in 1950, the only weapons at the immediate disposal of General Douglas MacArthur were several aircraft carriers, which saved the day by launching interdiction sorties until the Army and Air Force could show up in strength. Carriers served in the same way-first on station, ready on arrival-in Desert Shield and the first Afghanistan campaign. Essentially those carriers functioned as airfields at sea. Thus if a carrier is to function as an airfield at sea, no threat can be tolerated. US carriers have functioned in this role frequently and with impunity since World War II.

From the Pacific campaigns of World War II through the complete battle space dominance demonstrated during Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, naval aviation continues to evolve as a decisive force through ongoing incorporation of advanced technology. The necessary investments must be made to sustain this preeminent force to ensure the United States’ continued access and ability to shape world events.

The dangers of trying to employ carriers as airfields at sea when there is an appreciable threat must be understood and taken into account. Whatever roles they are performing, carriers are inherently capital ships and should not be risked unless command of the sea is at stake, which is almost never the case when support for land operations is the mission.

When it comes to navies and ships, size matters. Because of its ability to project daunting lethal power at great distances the aircraft carrier has been the dominant symbol of naval power for seven decades.

Regional competition

After decades of unchallenged naval supremacy in the Pacific and Indian Ocean, new naval powers are looming in the area, and new alliances are formed. The ceremonial commissioning of the first aircraft carrier by China, and the planned commissioning of the ex-Russian aircraft carrier Vikramaditya by India are two points indicating this new vector of growing importance of regional naval air power in Asia Pacific and the Indian Ocean.

In recent years, there has been a sharp increase in the flow of news about new aircraft carriers in Asia-Pacific.  Signs of a bigger US military presence in the Asia-Pacific region have been increasingly evident in 2014, suggesting the Barack Obama administration “pivot to Asia” policy is gaining momentum. Of eleven total aircraft carriers, and ten that are currently available for use, six of them are now deployed in the Asia-Pacific region. Six were originally stationed as part of the Navy’s 3rd and 7th Fleets under the Pacific Command, but that number dropped to five after decommissioning of the USS Enterprise and defense budget cuts.

China is building the capability to project power from the sea in order to build its strength relative to its neighbors, primarily those with whom it has ongoing territorial seas claims (including Vietnam, the Philippines, and Japan).  China does not need to build a navy as large or as powerful as the U.S. Navy in order to create fear and uncertainty among its neighbors.  It only needs to build a navy with the credible means to project power over those neighbors’ shores.

Therefore the strategic target of the PLAN in building a carrier force is not the U.S. Navy, but the network of alliances that longstanding U.S. economic and security interests in the region aim to preserve.

Russia is planning to build six new aircraft carriers after 2020. Russian naval planners foresee at least one Russian Carrier Battle Group (CVBG), comprising 15 vessels supporting the aircraft carrier will be deployed in the Pacific Ocean by 2017.

China has already indicated that the new ‘Liaoning’ is only a training platform, for its navy to practice the operational and technical aspects of naval aviation operations. These lessons will be implemented in the design, construction and fielding of future Chinese built carriers. India is also planning to build two Majestic class aircraft in the next 10 years.

Through the years India has built a sizable naval aviation force, extending its reach into the Indian Ocean. As part of this plan, India prepared to deploy three carrier battle groups in the Indian Ocean by the year 2015, reflecting its growing Indian interests as a regional power.

Various aircraft covering all dimensions of Naval Warfare have since been added including the advanced multi role Seaking and Kamov helicopters including ‘The Eye in the Sky’ Kamov 31, as well as the Islander, Dornier, IL 38 and Tu 142M anti submarine and maritime patrol aircraft besides the Vertical/Short take off and landing capable Sea Harrier jets. The recent additions to Naval Air Arm include the indigenous ALH, Boeing P-8I, Hawk AJT, Heron and Searcher UAVs and the proverbial game changers, the MiG 29K.

With the induction of the second aircraft carrier, INS Viraat, Indian Navy came of age, adding more punch to the power of the Indian Navy.

The Thai Navy also operates one aircraft carrier but does not have strike aircraft to support combat operations. Other navies in the pacific are operating ‘helicopter carriers’ landing assault ships include Japan, South Korea and, in the near future-Australia.

With recent developments it has appeared that seaborne assets like carriers are critical as a guarantor of national security.

Naval Aviation is poised to grow in tandem with the overall growth of the navies around the world. This growth is envisaged to be in terms of platforms as well as technologies. The induction of UAV and AEW helicopters has introduced a new dimension to maritime air warfare. Advanced development programs involving fixed wing aircraft, helicopters, air borne sensors and weapons are expected to ensure self-reliance in the future.