The US Navy has a new vision for its Aircraft Carrier Air Wing. Here’s how SEALs will help put these planes on target.

The US Navy aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson leads other US Navy ships during an exercise with the Indian Navy in 2012.

US Navy Photo

  • The US Navy is making plans to keep its carrier aircraft relevant in a conflict with a more capable opponent.
  • China and Russia are developing capabilities that could restrict what these planes could do in a conflict.
  • US special operators could help these planes see – and strike – where adversaries want to prevent them from entering.
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Recently, the Navy published a new vision for its aircraft carrier air wing that describes how it plans to keep its fighter jets relevant in the future.

In a potential conflict with a close adversary, such as Russia or China, the Navy’s aircraft carriers could make the difference, especially against China, due to its proximity to the sea.

But advances in Chinese and Russian military capabilities could severely restrict aircraft carriers and downplay their effectiveness.

Special operations units, particularly US Navy SEAL teams, could alleviate some of these concerns.

Fly into the future

American torpedo bombers spread their wings for take off aboard the USS Enterprise at the Battle of Midway, June 4, 1942.

Bettmann / Getty Images

U.S. aircraft carriers showed their promise for the first time during the Battle of Midway in 1942, when planes from three American flattops sank four Japanese aircraft carriers, creating the conditions for Allied victory in the Pacific.

Over the next 70 years, naval aviation became the preferred option for projecting forces around the world. When an aircraft carrier shows up in a hotspot, countries take note.

But for this capability to remain effective, the Navy must evolve and integrate new technologies and concepts. It will also have to take into account the Chinese and Russian military advances.

One of the major limiting factors for US or allied aircraft carriers is China’s anti-access / denial of area (AD / A2) umbrella.

Comprised of complementary weapon arrays, including anti-ship and anti-aircraft cruise missiles, this umbrella could prevent aircraft carriers from sailing close enough to Chinese forces for the carrier’s jets to strike.

By keeping aircraft carriers at bay, AD / A2 systems in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait could prevent America’s primary force projection tool from projecting force.

Naval special war

A member of the Naval Special Warfare conducts a visit, advice, search and seizure operation during an exercise aboard the USS Carter Hall, Jan. 24, 2020.

US Navy / MCS2 Russell Rhodes Jr.

Although the The Navy’s New Vision because its air squadrons do not explicitly mention SEALs or any other special operations unit, these units are integrated into the formation of the American naval air force.

In March, the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group included naval special warfare personnel in a composite unit exercise, a training event designed to “certify” a warship or naval task force for joint and / or combined operations.

Operators from Navy SEALs and Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewmen (SWCC) worked with the aircraft carrier and acted as its eyes and ears, directing airstrikes and close air support and enabling the Air Wing flattop to perform horizon targeting – striking targets that are beyond visual range and sometimes the sensor.

SEAL teams “are very versatile and can accomplish a wide range of missions,” one of which is strategic reconnaissance, a former Navy SEAL officer told Insider.

“It’s not as sexy as it sounds and doesn’t boost recruiting, but it’s a very useful ability to have and master. If you can get a few guys close to the enemy without even having you ‘he knows they’re there, so you have an advantage over him and you can use that to win, “the former SEAL said.

Naval Special Warfare is an ideal partner for aircraft carrier strike groups as it can use a variety of special operations craft, including stealth boats and mini-submarines, to infiltrate or stealthily approach a target, clearing the way for Big Navy ships and planes.

Any sensor, any shooter

US Navy SEALs navigate during a combat swimmer training dive, May 18, 2006.

US Navy / CPO Andrew McKaskle

Part of the Navy’s plan for distributed maritime operations – simultaneous maritime operations at multiple locations – is an integrated communications network that will support an “all sensor / all shooter” destruction chain, a concept that aims to integrate the force. joint forces.

For example, during a conflict, an F-35C over the South China Sea could use its advanced sensors to detect a Chinese destroyer, then relay the ship’s position to other air, land or naval forces in the region. . These forces could then fire at Chinese ships.

The idea is to have intelligence sharing so robust that any target spotted by one unit is immediately visible and attackable by any other unit. Resilient communication networks are essential to this end, and this is where special operations units could play a role.

The Navy SEALs launch SEAL delivery vehicles from a U.S. submarine during an exercise, May 5, 2005.

US Navy / Companion of Chief Photographer Andrew McKaskle

The former SEAL officer was not sure how SEALs or other special operators would factor into the plan the Navy is currently working on, but said strategic reconnaissance would likely be part of it.

“This will put a few highly trained guys close to the enemy so they can provide timely intelligence to an incoming strike set that was launched, say, from an aircraft carrier a few hundred miles away and point it towards. the target, the former SEAL said.

“These guys on the ground would also be able to paint the target with infrared lasers to guide in any aircraft and ensure the intended target is hit and destroyed,” then provide a combat damage assessment after the strikes. , added the former SEAL.

Naval Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewman in a Special Operations Craft-Riverine during training in Kentucky, August 24, 2007.

US Navy / Seaman Robyn B. Gerstenslager

Navy SEAL and SWCC operators on small islands or at sea could operate with a small footprint and high mobility, making it very difficult for an enemy to spot them. They could use their presence and sensors to provide early warning capability to other naval and allied forces.

China and Russia have deployed A2 / AD capabilities, but Beijing is a bigger long-term challenge for US interests, experts said.

This makes it more urgent to develop means to counter China in many areas, especially military might, the former SEAL said.

“China is definitely something to worry about. I don’t want to sound like I’m beating the war drum, but as the old saying goes, to avoid war you have to prepare for war.” , added the former frogman.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a Special Operations Defense Journalist, Hellenic Army Veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and graduate of Johns Hopkins University.

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