CVN-77 in the Mediterranean by Matthew Clements
The US Navy’s newest aircraft carrier, USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77) is currently on its first overseas deployment. Assigned to the 5th Fleet, the Bush is supporting maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in an area of responsibility that includes the Persian Gulf, Red Sea, Arabian Sea, and the East African coast as far south as Kenya.
"CVN-77 has a redesigned flight deck that allows us to use all four catapults simultaneously," said Captain Jeff Davis, the Commander, or "CAG," of the Bush’s embarked air wing, Carrier Air Wing Eight (CVW-8). "Developments and features which are being tested on CVN-77 will be part of the standard design on all of the upcoming ‘Ford‘-class Carriers."
It’s not just the ship that is new on this cruise, though. CVW-8 has brought two new airframes on board. "The Air Wing consists of 2,200 people, around 74 aircraft, eight squadrons -- nine if you include VRC-40 Det.2’s C-2 CODs, which operate from a land based location -- and helicopters deployed on four supporting ships that provide Logistic and Security support for the carrier." The Air Wing has four Strike Fighter (VFA) squadrons with "Legacy" and Super Hornets, one Tactical Electronic Warfare(VAQ) squadron, one carrier Airborne Early Warning (VAW) squadron with E-2C Hawkeyes, and two rotary-wing units flying Sikorsky H-60 variants
A New Jammer
The Tactical Electronic Warfare squadron, VAQ-141 Shadowhawks, operates a platform new to carrier aviation as whole, not just to CVW-8, in the form of the EA-18G Growler. VAQ-141 is making history as the first Growler squadron to deploy on an operational cruise.
Replacing the EA-6B Prowler, the EA-18G is an electronic attack derivative of the F/A-18F. The Growler's flight performance is similar to that of the Super Hornet, an attribute that allows the Growler to accompany F/A-18s during all phases of an attack mission, performing escort jamming as well as traditional standoff jamming.
The Growler has more than 90% commonality with the standard Super Hornet, sharing an airframe, the Raytheon AN/APG-79 AESA radar, and weapon systems such as the AN/AYK-22 Stores Management System. Most of the dedicated airborne electronic attack equipment is mounted in the space that housed the F/A-18F’s internal 20 mm cannon, or on the wingtips in place of missile rails. Nine weapons stations remain available for weapons or jamming pods. Added electronics include AN/ALQ-218 wideband receivers on the wingtips and ALQ-99 high- and low-band tactical jamming pods. The ALQ-218 combined with the ALQ-99 form a full spectrum electronic warfare suite able to provide detection and jamming against all known surface-to-air threats.
"Even though the EA-6B had four aircrew in the cockpit where the EA-18G has just the two," said CDR Karl J. Pugh, the former CO of VAQ-141, "The massive leap in technology makes the changeover very smooth. You are going from a 1960s platform to a 1990s platform. The amount of data that is received into the cockpit is overwhelming.
"When it comes to electronic warfare, in general it’s all about information and how you absorb and understand it in context and then react to it. We have young guys and we have olds guys in the squadron, who each bring their own way of integrating to the platform. The young guys are native to digital. They see the aircraft and the mission from a different vantage point. The combination in the cockpit of experience plus youth allow us to use the technology to its full advantage."
CVN-77’s area of operations being as busy as it is, VAQ-141 is, to an extent, learning about its new aircraft on the job. "We are in constant contact with the VAQ community back home," said CDR Pugh. "Findings and developments will be sent back so the aircraft can be adapted for future deployments. Any experience of particular interest is passed through our Wing, the CAG, and our training command into our training schools. The data and information is there for the guys back home to develop their understanding and effectiveness at flying the EA-18G Growler, so the community can acquire the maximum performance from the platform."
VAQ-141’s involvement with the Air Wing has already exceeded all expectations, according to Capt. Davis. "Every day we can do something different from the old Prowler. We find ourselves having epiphanies: ‘Holy cow look what this thing can do!’ "
…And New Helos
One of CVW-8’s two helicopter squadrons, HSM-70 "The Spartans," has also brought a new platform on the cruise, in the shape of the MH-60R "Romeo." The MH-60R multi-mission helicopter combines the capabilities of the Navy’s legacy SH-60B and SH-60F helicopters into a single, sensor-rich platform operated by a three-person crew. "Anti Submarine warfare is our primary mission," explains CDR Amy Bauernschmidt, the Commanding Officer of HSM-70. The Romeo’s secondary missions include search and rescue, vertical replenishment, naval surface fire support, medical evacuation, and communications and data relay.
The MH-60R became operational in late 2005, after 1900 hours of rigorous flight and mission systems evaluation by US Navy test squadrons. "This is the first time an East-coast carrier has deployed with the Romeo," said CDR Bauernschmidt. "It has happened twice on the West Coast; the Romeo was extremely successful on those deployments and we expect it will be on this one.
"We spent a lot of time in our early work-ups at Fallon exploring all the different mission sets this airframe brings to the Air Wing. We looked at our capabilities and worked with the Air Wing to determine how we fit into the ‘big picture:’ what we bring to the fight in surface, sub-surface and electronic warfare, and how best to integrate that into the operating environment we are subject to."
All Helicopter Anti-Submarine (HS) and Helicopter Anti-Submarine Light (HSL) squadrons that receive the Romeo will be re-designated Helicopter Maritime Strike (HSM) squadrons. The Navy will eventually have 20 operational MH-60R squadrons, and the aircraft will operate aboard all aviation-capable ships, including carriers, cruisers, amphibious ships, destroyers and frigates.
CVW-8’s two Super Hornet Squadrons, VFA-31 Tomcatters (F/A-18E) and VFA-213 Black Lions (F/A-18F), are former F-14 Tomcat operators. "Anybody who likes flying airplanes would like to fly with the latest the best and the fastest technology," said Capt Davis, "Which is what the Super Hornet brings to the fight."
The Super Hornet, unlike the Legacy Hornet, can be equipped with an Aerial Refueling System (ARS) "Buddy Store" for the refueling of other aircraft, filling the tactical airborne tanker role the Navy had lost with the retirement of the KA-6B Intruder and S-3B Viking. The ARS includes an external 330 US Gallon tank with hose reel on the centerline along with four external 480 US Gallon tanks, for a total loadout (including internal tanks) of 29,000 pounds of fuel on the aircraft. By transferring fuel to other fixed wing assets, Super Hornets in this "5 Wet" configuration allow longer missions to be flown and cycle times between launch and recovery to be increased if necessary.
CDR Jeremy Gunter, VFA-31’s CO, elaborated on this mission. "For a refueler, the F/A-18 is noisier than the S-3 was in this role, due to the position of the engines compared to the S-3. Once you turn your radio up, it is an excellent tanking platform.
"Whenever the fully laden 5 Wet configuration is flown from the carrier, a ‘combat cat shot’ is required, with our afterburner engaged during the catapult launch. This configuration makes the Super Hornet the heaviest aircraft on the boat, weighing even more than the E-2 Hawkeye, but it makes us the versatile platform as well." The air-refueling mission is not specific to VFA-31; VFA-213’s F/A-18Fs will also act as tankers when required to do so.
VFA-213 had one role VFA-31 and the other CVW-8 squadrons do not: it is the only squadron trained and capable of conducting the Forward Air Control (Airborne), or FAC(A), mission. A specially-trained aviation officer who exercises control from the air of aircraft engaged in close air support, the FAC(A) is an airborne extension of a ground unit’s tactical air control party.
All eleven of VFA-213’s embarked aircraft sport "MUTHA" markings on the tail. The "MUTHA" award is presented each year to the most outstanding and spirited fighter squadron in Naval Aviation.
Legacy, and Future
CVW-8’s two Legacy Hornet squadrons are VFA-87 Golden Warriors, operating the F/A-18A+, and VFA-15 Valions, operating the F/A-18C. Both aircraft types have been received a new modification allowing them to fly with the Joint Helmet-Mounted Cueing System (JHMCS), a technology previously available only to F/A-18E/F pilots.
With CVW-8 as the first air wing to deploy with five F/A-18 squadrons, and with only three basic aircraft types (F/A-18, E-2, and H-60), Capt Davis was asked how the reduction in airframes from the diversity of the past has benefited the Navy and CVW-8. "A common airframe creates efficiencies in terms of parts supply, maintenance, and deck loading and launching of multiple aircraft. We also have fewer aircraft on-board the carrier as we’ve gone away from specialized platforms like the F-14 and the A-6. We have fewer strike-fighter aircraft, but we have more effective aircraft, with the weapons systems and the ability to carry precision weapons. As a result of this, we don’t have to carry as many weapons or crews."
Fence Check wishes to thank Capt Davis, CDR Bauernschmidt, CDR Gunter, and former CDR Pugh for their insights. Additional thanks are due to CDR Monica Rousselow of Commander 6th Fleet Public Affairs; LCDR Linda K. Sweeney, CVN-77 PAO; ENS Matthew Stroup, CVN 77 DPAO; the CVN-77 PAO/MEDIA Team, and our escort from the medical department, LT Ken Radford.