Defense Media Network

U.S. Navy Aviation Today

Forward presence, deterrence, sea control, power projection, maritime security, and humanitarian assistance/disaster response are the six missions articulated in the nation’s maritime strategy, “A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower” (CS-21). Each of these missions is strongly supported by naval aviation. As the nation celebrates the 100th anniversary of naval aviation this year, it is worth considering how well the Navy’s Naval Aviation Enterprise (NAE) supports the nation’s highest-level strategies today and how well naval aviation will support these strategies in the future.

“Naval forces are able, without resorting to diplomatic channels, to establish offshore anywhere in the world … Such task forces are virtually as complete as any air base ever established. They constitute the only air bases that can be made available near enemy territory without assault and conquest …” Fleet Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, former commander of U.S. Pacific Forces and chief of Naval Operations, wrote in 1948.


The Nation’s and the Navy’s Missions


Naval aviation commemorates its 100th anniversary this year, celebrating a century of accomplishments that include Eugene Ely’s first flights from and to a ship, in November 1910 and January 1911, respectively, and the May 8, 1911, requisitioning of the Navy’s first aircraft – the A-1 Triad – from aviator and inventor Glenn Curtiss by Capt. Washington Irving Chambers, the officer in charge of aviation. In these 100 years, naval aviation has grown from a marginal force fulfilling a niche role in the nation’s military strategy, to the centerpiece combat force that is powerfully and uniquely well suited to conduct expeditionary operations and lethal sea-based power projection.

aircraft carrier USS George Washington CVN 73

Aircraft are secured to the bow of the aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN 73) during a vertical replenishment. George Washington had recently completed a training exercise with the Republic of Korea Navy. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class David A. Cox

Naval aviation today is comprised of more than 100,000 officers and sailors assigned to 11 aircraft carriers, 10 carrier air wings, 25 naval air stations, and 168 fleet, Reserve, and training squadrons. As detailed in other chapters of this publication, naval aviators, aircrewmen, maintainers, and others in support stand on the shoulders of giants who have made naval aviation what it is today. As we honor those pioneers, recognize naval aviation’s unique contributions today, and look toward a future filled with promise, it is important to pause to review naval aviation’s roles, missions, and assets today and tomorrow.

While naval aviation encompasses all three sea-service branches – Coast Guard, Marine Corps, and Navy – the first two are addressed in related chapters. Therefore, this chapter will focus on U.S. Navy aviation roles, missions, and assets. Importantly, in a tight national fiscal environment, with the Department of Defense (DoD) undergoing extreme cutbacks, and with the likelihood of flat or declining defense budgets as far as the eye can see, it is reasonable to ask: Just what does U.S. Navy aviation contribute to the nation’s and the Navy’s strategy and how do naval aviation professionals support these strategies?

“The National Military Strategy of the United States of America” is the highest-level document articulating what the U.S. military must do to ensure national prosperity and security. It articulates the ways and means by which the U.S. military will advance, enduring national interests that stem from the National Security Strategy and the Quadrennial Defense Review. Not surprisingly this publication’s review of the strategic environment highlights “Ensuring Access to the Global Commons and Globally Connected Domains” as a key mission for the U.S. military, noting, “Assured access to and freedom of maneuver within the global commons – shared areas of sea, air, and space – and globally connected domains such as cyberspace are being increasingly challenged by both state and non-state actors. …”

E-2D Advanced Hawkeye

E-2D Advanced Hawkeye aircraft conduct a test flight near St. Augustine, Fla. Photo courtesy Northrop Grumman

For those with even a passing knowledge of the U.S. military, it should come as no surprise that the image accompanying this key paragraph in “The National Military Strategy of the United States of America” is that of a U.S. Navy carrier strike group (CSG). As the sine qua non of U.S. naval power, the CSG – the aircraft carrier and carrier air wing – and most importantly the 5,000 plus Navy professionals who operate and maintain the ship and aircraft – along with its accompanying ships, are at sea every day in peace and war doing the work of the republic. It is no wonder that today – as it has been for a half-century or more – when a crisis erupts the first question U.S. presidents ask is: “Where are the aircraft carriers?”

The U.S. Navy’s strategy, clearly articulated in CS-21, involves pursuing six missions: forward presence, deterrence, sea control, power projection, maritime security, and humanitarian assistance/disaster response. A brief description of each mission as written in CS-21 is important in understanding just how U.S. Navy aviation contributes to each of these missions:

  • Forward Presence: Maritime forces will be forward deployed, especially in an era of diverse threats to the homeland. Operating forward enables familiarity with the environment.
  • Deterrence: Preventing war is preferable to fighting wars. Deterring aggression must be viewed in global, regional, and transnational terms via conventional, unconventional, and nuclear means.
  • Sea Control: The ability to operate freely at sea is one of the most important enablers of joint and interagency operations and sea control requires capabilities in all aspects of the maritime domain.
  • Power Projection: Our ability to overcome challenges to access and to project and sustain power ashore is the basis of our combat credibility.
  • Maritime Security: The creation and maintenance of security at sea is essential to mitigating threats short of war, including piracy, terrorism, weapons proliferation, drug trafficking, and other illicit activities.
  • Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Response: Building our relationships forged in times of calm, we will continue to mitigate human suffering as the vanguard of interagency and multinational efforts, both in a deliberate, proactive fashion and in response to crises.

In understanding Navy aviation’s roles and missions, how well U.S. Navy aviation contributes to the U.S. Navy’s six core missions is a necessary starting point for defining the contribution Navy aviation makes to naval, joint, and coalition warfare. It is also important to use these missions as a starting point for shaping and building Navy aviation to address tomorrow’s threats to the nation.



Naval Aviation’s Roles and Missions


F-35C Joint Strike Fighter test aircraft

An F-35C Joint Strike Fighter test aircraft returns from a flutter envelope expansion flight. Marine Corps test pilot Lt. Col. Matt Kelly flew the aircraft faster than the speed of sound for the first time, reaching Mach 1.02 at 30,000 feet. The F-35B short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) variant and F-35C carrier variant are undergoing flight test and evaluation at the integrated test facility at Naval Air Station Patuxent River. U.S. Navy photo courtesy of Lockheed Martin by Phaedra Loftis

The “2011 Navy Program Guide” is the highest-level requirements document listing all Navy programs. It provides a de facto articulation of those capabilities – platforms, systems, sensors, and weapons the U.S. Navy is buying to ensure it can carry out the missions articulated in CS-21. Appropriately, during this centennial of naval aviation, the pages of this document devoted to naval aviation lead the publication’s five major sections.

The preamble to the “2011 Navy Program Guide” naval aviation section provides perhaps the best one-paragraph description of what naval aviation contributes to the nation and the Navy:

Naval aviation is a critical component of the Nation’s ability to carry out full-spectrum operations in the 21st century – from delivering humanitarian assistance and disaster relief at home and overseas … to maritime security operations to ensure safe passage of commercial vessels … to high-intensity sea control and power projection in a major contingency. Helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft operating from nuclear aircraft carriers, large deck amphibious ships and shore stations, and helicopters operating from cruisers and destroyers – complemented by advanced unmanned aerial vehicles – are key contributors to the capabilities of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps.

While the “2011 Navy Program Guide” focuses on capabilities Navy aviation creates by buying equipment the “Naval Aviation Vision” focuses on what Navy and Marine Corps units do to support the nation and the naval service’s missions. While no one publication, no matter how comprehensive, can describe the depth of breath of how Navy aviation does this, the “Naval Aviation Vision” does describe how U.S. seapower is inextricably linked to, and dependent on, naval aviation. Briefly:

  • Forward Presence establishes maritime forces in regions throughout the world. The deployability and expeditionary character of naval aviation distinguishes it as the centerpiece of this core capability. The fact that Middle East tensions early in 2011 caused the commander of U.S. Central Command to require the presence of two CSGs in the Arabian Gulf area of responsibility is mute testimony to how Navy aviation is the lynchpin of forward presence for the nation and the Navy.
  • Deterrence is aligned to the national belief that preventing wars is as important as winning wars. Naval aviation forces alone can serve effectively as goodwill ambassadors and simultaneously anchor an aircraft carrier or amphibious shipjust offshore to serve as a grim display of national determination and unquestioned lethal potential. The two-CSG presence in the Arabian Gulf in 2011 also provides a strong deterrent to others in the region who would cause mischief in much the same fashion as the permanently forward-deployed USS George Washington (CVN 73) CSG provides a deterrent against aggressive moves by countries in Northeast Asia, such as North Korea.
  • Sea Control protects the ability to operate freely at sea and is an important enabler of joint and interagency operations. Establishing and maintaining sea control relies on numerous maritime capabilities, and naval aviation is a vital military arm critical to that effort. Surveillance, detection, and attack of coastal, surface, and subsurface platforms are missions readily executed by naval aviation assets. The “long arm” of Navy aviation provides both operational presence around a CSG and also persistent presence over millions of square miles of ocean expanse. As one example of this capability, in July 2009, a U.S. Navy P-3C Orion aircraft and a British warship located, tracked, and seized approximately 10 tons of narcotics from a smuggler vessel operating 150 miles off the coast of Oman.
  • Power Projection from the seas is the essential combat element of CS-21. This core capability is uniquely suited to the strengths of naval aviation. Operating from aircraft carriers, amphibious ships, or forward operating bases, Navy and Marine Corps aviation forces can defeat those who mean the United States and its allies harm. Navy aviation assets are providing a large percentage of the combat sorties supporting U.S. and coalition troops on the ground in Afghanistan. A typical CSG operating in support of Operation Enduring Freedom will fly thousands of combat sorties in just one deployment. Navy and Marine Corps Hornets and Super Hornets, Growlers, Prowlers, Hawkeyes, and AV-8B Harriers fly sorties every day in direct support of troops on the ground.
  • Maritime Security is the maintenance of security at sea and the mitigation of threats short of war. Naval aviation assets cooperate with other services to keep watch, to disrupt, and, when necessary, to destroy those aggressors who seek to limit the sanctuary of the seas for others. Navy aviation assets are providing maritime security on a daily basis via anti-piracy patrols, interdiction of illegal trafficking in drugs and humans, and a host of other missions. Often lost in the fanfare of Navy SEALs rescuing the captain of the M/V Maersk Alabama was the fact that U.S. Navy P-3C Orion aircraft forward based in Qatar and Djibouti were the first DoD assets on scene to find the ship, and that U.S. Navy SH-60B Seahawks used the hurricane force winds generated by their rotors to disorient and demoralize the pirates and keep them from reaching Somali waters.
  • Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Response is a human obligation and a foundation of the American character. Bringing aid, offering relief and escape from disaster sites, or conducting non-combatant evacuations from unsafe situations are results accomplished most effectively through the use of naval aviation assets. One of the most iconic pictures of the 2005 relief response to the devastating Asian tsunami were the pictures of Navy and Marine Corps helicopters delivering relief supplies to survivors who were in areas completely inaccessible to any other form of relief. More recently, Navy and Marine Corps helicopters have responded to natural catastrophes as diverse as Typhoon Morakot in Taiwan, flooding in Pakistan, and devastating earthquakes in Haiti and Japan.

As we begin the second century of naval aviation, U.S. Navy aviation assets are seeing broadly based increased demand: from forward-deployed carrier strike groups providing forward presence, deterrence, and power projection, to land-based fixed-wing aircraft and unmanned aircraft providing unrivaled maritime surveillance, to helicopters based on cruisers and destroyers delivering vital humanitarian relief. U.S. naval aviation is an unrivaled maritime force. No other nation has comparable aircraft, weapons, systems, or personnel to conduct operations as successfully using such a wide variety of capabilities.


Naval Aviation’s Assets – Today and Tomorrow

Dawn Blitz 10 F/A-18 Hornet amphibious



Future capabilities and readiness represent the roadmap that naval aviation will follow to remain capable of executing traditional naval missions while also improving the ability to conduct non-traditional missions in any post-9/11 operating environment. A full description of naval aviation aircraft carriers, aircraft, aviation weapons, aviation sensors, and aviation equipment and systems is provided in the “2011 Navy Program Guide” found on the Navy’s official website:

However, a general understanding of those aircraft programs of most importance to the Navy can be found in the descriptions of major aircraft acquisitions in congressional testimonies of senior Navy officials and include:

  • Aircraft Carrier Force Structure: The U.S. Navy is now an all nuclear-powered aircraft carrier fleet, giving this national asset the capability to range across the globe. Future carriers will be of the USS Gerald R. Ford-class (CVN 78) variety, featuring greater operational flexibility and substantially reduced manning, dramatically lowering total operating costs. New technologies such as a Dual Band Radar, the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS), and the Advanced Arresting Gear (AAG) will enable the CVN 78 class to increase its sortie generation rate by 25 percent over the current Nimitz class.
  • Strike Fighter Capacity: This includes the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program as well as the F/A-18A-D “Legacy” Hornet and F/A-18E/F Super Hornet programs. Through innovative maintenance programs the Navy has extended the service life of the Legacy Hornet from its original 6,000 hours to 8,600 hours, and plans are in place to extend service life further to 10,000 hours. Concurrently, the Super Hornet program is being accelerated to take the stress off the legacy Hornet fleet. The Lightning II JSF program will deliver a transformational family of next-generation strike aircraft combining stealth and enhanced sensors to provide lethal and survivable jet aviation strike fighters, and is on track for a near-term operational capability.
  • Airborne Electronic Attack: The EA-18G Growler is built around the F/A-18F Super Hornet airframe to recapitalize the Navy’s airborne electronic attack capability. The current jammer for the Growler, the ALQ-99, is the same jammer the Navy used for the EA-6B Prowler; however, the Navy is developing a next-generation jammer, incorporating a modular open-system architecture, to address emerging threats. The EA-18G Growler is in full-rate production and the first Growler squadron deployed to Iraq in late 2010.
  • Multi-mission Maritime Aircraft: The Navy continues to deploy the P-3C Orion aircraft, which remains in high demand across a range of missions including anti-submarine warfare, anti-surface warfare, and time-critical intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. A P-3C sustainment program will keep these venerable aircraft flying as the Navy introduces the Orion replacement, the P-8A Poseidon Multi-mission Maritime Aircraft, into the fleet beginning in 2013. The Poseidon will provide next-generation capability in all mission areas currently undertaken by the P-3C Orion.
  • Airborne Radar Surveillance: The E-2D Advanced Hawkeye will replace the current E-2C, and represents a two-generation leap in airborne radar surveillance capability. The E-2D will improve nearly every facet of tactical air operations and add overland and littoral surveillance to support theater integrated air and missile defense against air threats in high clutter, complex electromagnetic and jamming environments. The E-2D Advanced Hawkeye will reach initial operating capability in 2014.
C-2A Carl Vinson U.S. 5th Fleet AOR

Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Handling) 2nd Class Mario Billote guides a C-2A Greyhound assigned to Fleet Logistics Support Squadron (VRC) 40 aboard the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70). The Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group is deployed supporting maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Nicolas C. Lopez

  • Multi-mission Helicopter Capability: The Navy continues to neck down the type/model/series of helicopters in its helicopter inventory as it concurrently executes its new “Helo CONOPS [concept of operations]” and deploys full squadrons of the multi-mission MH-60R and MH-60S aircraft in Navy carrier strikes groups as well as MH-60R and MH-60S helicopters on board cruisers, destroyers, frigates, and the littoral combat ship. More than 250 MH-60R/S helicopters are in the fleet today, with another 250+ aircraft planned.

Clearly, with such a robust profile of modern aircraft entering the fleet, the future is bright for naval aviation to continue to serve as an integral – and indeed indispensable – part of U.S. seapower in the 21st century. As the threats to this nation and our allies morph and change in the ensuing decades in complex and often unpredictable ways, U.S. Navy aviation will remain ready.



Into the Future


The U.S. Navy strategy will continue to adapt to the challenges of a changing world environment to operate jointly and with partners at sea, on land, and in the air, space, and cyberspace. As an indispensable extension of naval power, naval aviation will develop new platforms, sensors, and weapons to meet future threats in peace and in war. Emphasis will be placed on reducing costs, manpower, and development time, while leveraging technological advances to increase automation and decrease manpower requirements in areas such as maintenance, fueling, arming, and logistics.

F/A-18E Super Hornet Gunslingers USS Harry S. Truman

An F/A-18E Super Hornet assigned to the Gunslingers of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 105 launches from the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75). U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kilho Park

Naval aviation looks to a future “Navy-after-Next” where aircraft carriers and air wings are well equipped to deter and defeat future threats to our national security. Over the next 20 years, new aircraft in many Navy mission areas will commence development to replace their aging counterparts and provide the bridge to the future. But the future will build on the past and the present, where Navy aviation, above all else, will continue to fly, fight, and win.

The camaraderie born of a passion for flying and dangers shared binds together the generation of Lt. T. Gordon “Spuds” Ellyson, Lt. j.g. John Henry Towers, and Adm. Marc A. Mitscher to the young men and women airborne today in Navy aircraft around the globe. It is in their hands, minds, and hearts, even more than in the technological innovation of the machines they fly, that America’s security and the future of naval aviation lie. And nowhere is this spirit to fly, fight, and win more evident than in the Navy Flyer’s Creed:

I am a United States Navy flyer. My countrymen built the best airplane in the world and entrusted it to me. They trained me to fly it. I will use it to the absolute limit of my power. With my fellow pilots, air crews, and deck crews, my plane and I will do anything necessary to carry out our tremendous responsibilities. I will always remember that we are part of an unbeatable combat team – the United States Navy. When the going is fast and rough, I will not falter. I will be uncompromising in every blow I strike. I will be humble in victory. I am a United States Navy flyer. I have dedicated myself to my country with its many millions of all races, colors, and creeds. They and their way of life are worthy of my greatest protective effort. I ask the help of God in making that effort great enough.

It is important in this transition from the first 100 years of naval aviation to the next 100 years – and beyond – to remember that if one aspect of the U.S. Navy stands out in its molding of American history, it is naval aviation. The centrality of naval aviation in the history of the nation and the Navy for the past 100 years argues strongly for the nation to ensure that naval aviation retains this central role. To do anything less would be to gamble with our nation’s future.

This article first appeared in Air Power at Sea: A Century of U.S. Naval Aviation.


Captain George Galdorisi is a career naval aviator. He began his writing career in 1978...