Navy prepares its new Ford-class carriers for F-35C stealth attack

The Navy is preparing its first two new Ford-class aircraft carriers to launch air attacks with the first-of-its-kind carrier-launched F-35C stealth fighter, a move expected to further transform maritime air attack and bring new mission options to commanders.

The F-35C Joint Strike Fighter, which reached its initial operational capability earlier this year, not only brings stealth to the Carrier Air Wing but also a drone-like surveillance ability, improved air-to-air combat possibility, long-range targeting sensors and a new generation of computer networking technology, technical developments which are already beginning to shape new Navy mission strategy.

The F-35C is now being prepared for operational deployment onboard existing Nimitz-class carriers as well as the first two next-generation Ford Class ships - the USS Ford (CVN 78) and recently commissioned USS Kennedy (CVN 79).  The two new Ford-class carriers, Navy developers explain, are now being specially modified to integrate with the emerging F-35C stealth fighter.

“The necessary modifications to CVN 78 and 79 to fully employ the capabilities of the F-35s and enable them to be more effective will occur prior to the first planned F-35C operations aboard those carriers,” Capt. Danny Hernandez, public affairs officer for the Navy Acquisition Executive, told Warrior in a statement.

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The carrier modifications, Hernandez explained, are being directly built into the third and fourth Ford-class carriers, CVN 80 and CVN 81; the adjustments optimize carrier takeoff and landing for the F-35C and seek to ensure the new stealth fighter is sufficiently networked to the ship and remaining Carrier Air Wing in support of combat command and control.

While of course many yet-to-exist future threats and developments are likely to shape missions years from now, there are a variety of key anticipated areas in which the existence of Ford-carriers is already changing concepts of operation, CONOPs. One particular focus, among many, includes the expansion of the Carrier Air Wing. The Ford class is built with a larger flight deck than existing Nimitz-class carriers, bringing a new configuration able to expand the sortie rate by as much as 33-percent. This mission scope is of course further enhanced by the F-35C.  The F-35C will not only enable longer-range, more lethal air-to-air attack by using its Electro-Optical Targeting System to firing weapons such as the AIM-9X, but also better enable precise air-to-ground attack and surveillance operations. The F-35C is, by designed, engineered to bring a drone-like surveillance ability to air combat.

Interestingly, a December essay from the Center for International Maritime Security specifically cites emerging tactical approaches likely to be implemented using the Carrier Air Wing as technology and threats evolve -- such as networking with surveillance planes and drones. This aligns closely with the mission scope of the F-35.

The essay, written by a Naval War College professor, is called “The Future of Aircraft Carriers: Consider the Air Wing, Not the Platform.”  It states that the Carrier Air Wing can support can “support surface forces in various ways to include defeating enemy air ASW (Anti-Submarine Warfare) efforts (a key initial mission of the old Soviet Su-27), protection of our high-demand, low-availability assets like P-8s and Triton UAVs, and air superiority over distributed surface forces,” the essay states (Robert Rubel).

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In addition, the carrier-launched missions are also expecting to further evolve given the upcoming arrival of a now-in-development MQ-25 Stingray aerial refueler. If the MQ-25 Stingray aerial refueler will enable an F-35 to nearly double its range, allowing for the possibility of longer missions, more dwell time and an opportunity to pursue a broader range of targets should new intelligence information emerge. New targets, particularly in a combat scenario wherein an F-35 may face multiple opponents in one engagement, will emerge quickly. More time on station, coupled with more weapons, can simply mean more mission kills for an F-35 being attacked by multiple enemy aircraft; the fighter could use long-range sensors to detect enemies and remain engaged in an attack for a longer period of time in combat without having to return for new ammunition. Not only does this multiply attack ranges, but longer fighter jet attack ranges enable a carrier to operate further off-shore and therefore be less vulnerable to enemy threats.

An increased Carrier Air Wing availability, such as that enabled by the Ford Class, massively increases deployability and mission attack response time, according to Rubel’s essay. He cites the Gulf War as an example of how carrier presence increased attack options to supplement or further-fortify land-based fighter jet attack.

“If Saddam had decided to keep going south, would six aircraft have had any effect against his large army and hundreds of aircraft? What if we had started to lose aircraft, as we indeed at that time thought we would?  The loss of one or two planes per wave would have quickly reduced the air wing to impotence,” Rubel writes, referring to the Gulf War in the early 1990s.

With a broad wingspan, reinforced landing gear, ruggedized structures and durable coatings, the Navy's F-35C is engineered for harsh shipboard conditions. Its avionics equip the pilot with real-time, spherical access to battlespace information. Being engineered for a carrier, the F-35C's 51-foot wingspan is larger than the Air Force's F-35A and Marine Corps' F-35B short take-off-and-landing variants. It can fire two AIM-120 air-to-air missiles and two 2,000-pound Joint Direct Attack Munitions. The F-35C can reach speeds up to Mach 1.6 and travel more than 1,200 nautical miles, according to Navy information. Several tests and assessments have also ensured pilots could properly use night-combat enabled Helmet Mounted Displays designed to provide more fidelity in “low-light” conditions such as those with little or no moonlight, Pentagon officials tell Warrior.

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By 2025, the Navy's aircraft carrier-based air wings will consist of a mix of F-35C, F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, EA-18G Growlers electronic attack aircraft, E-2D Hawkeye battle management and control aircraft, MH-60R/S helicopters and Carrier Onboard Delivery logistics aircraft such as the Navy Osprey tiltrotor aircraft variant.

Simply put, the CIMSEC essay explains that carriers able to forward project power can bring both a psychological and tactical advantage.

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“They can be moved around the globe like queens on a chessboard, responding to disasters, minor aggressions, and showing the flag either in threat or in support,” Rubel writes.