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A carrier air wing (abbreviated CVW) is an operational naval aviation organization composed of several aircraft squadrons and detachments of various types of fixed wing and rotary wing aircraft. Organized, equipped and trained to conduct modern US Navy carrier air operations while embarked aboard aircraft carriers, the various squadrons in an air wing have different, complementary (and sometimes overlapping) missions, and provide most of the striking power and electronic warfare capabilities of a carrier battle group (CVBG). While the CVBG term is still used by other nations, the CVBG in US parlance in now known as a carrier strike group (CSG).
Until 1963, Carrier Air Wings were known as Carrier Air Groups (CAGs). Carrier Air Wings are what the United States Air Force would call “composite” wings, and should not be confused with U.S. Navy Type Wings (such as Strike Fighter Wing Atlantic), which are primarily administrative and training commands composed of squadrons of the same type of carrier-based aircraft when not deployed. Carrier Air Wings integrate closely with their assigned aircraft carriers, forming a "carrier/air wing team" that trains and deploys together. There are currently ten U.S. Navy Carrier Air Wings, four based at NAS Oceana, Virginia, five based at NAS Lemoore, California, and one forward deployed to NAF Atsugi, Japan.
In addition to aviation squadrons collocated at NAS Oceana and NAS Lemoore, the CONUS-based air wings will also draw additional squadrons from NAS Whidbey Island, Washington; NAS Point Mugu, NAS North Island, and MCAS Miramar in California; NAS Jacksonville, Florida; MCAS Beaufort, South Carolina; MCAS Cherry Point, North Carolina; and NS Norfolk/Chambers Field, Virginia. These air wings are occasionally reassigned to different aircraft carriers based on carrier maintenance schedules. A modern air wing consists of roughly 2,500 personnel and 60–65 aircraft.
The first Carrier Air Groups (as they were then called) were activated in 1937. Initially, the commander of the air group (known as the "CAG") was the most senior commanding officer of the embarked squadrons and was expected to personally lead all major strike operations, co-ordinating the attacks of the carrier's fighter, bomber, and torpedo planes in combat. The CAG was a department head of the ship reporting to the carrier's commanding officer.
From July 1937 to mid-1942 Carrier Air Groups were permanently assigned to and identified by their parent aircraft carrier, and group squadrons were numbered according to the carrier's hull number. For example, the Enterprise Air Group, assigned to USS Enterprise (CV-6), were all numbered "6": Fighting Squadron (VF) 6, Bombing Squadron (VB) 6, etc. From 1942, numerical designation of air groups began, the first being Carrier Air Group 9 (CVG-9), established on 1 March 1942. For a while, they were given unique numbers according to their assigned carriers' hull number (i.e., the Enterprise Air Group became CAG-6). This numbering scheme was also soon scrapped as carrier groups (now abbreviated CVGs) frequently moved from carrier to carrier. At this point, the carrier groups simply retained their number designation regardless of the carrier assigned.
The first formal system for air group identification (Visual Identification System for Naval Aircraft) was established in January 1945. This consisted of geometric symbols that identified the parent carrier, not the air group. As there were just too many carriers and the symbols were hard to remember or to describe over the radio, a single or double letter system was introduced in July 1945. The letters, however, still identified the carrier, not the air group. The following identifications are known:
Shangri-La is known to have had her hull number "38" on the flight deck forward replaced by her air group identification letter "Z". Due to the ongoing combat and the end of the war, a mix of identification codes was used in late 1945. Starting in late 1946, the letters identified the carrier air group, and not the carrier. The use of single letters was discontinued in 1957.
On 15 November 1946, to correct the results of demobilization which had left squadron numbers all out of sequence, sweeping changes were made in air unit designations. Carrier Air Groups of four types were designated according to their assigned ship, as CVBG for Battle Carrier, CVG for Attack Carrier, CVLG for Light Carrier and CVEG for Escort Carrier. Two years later, on 1 September 1948, all carrier air groups became CVG regardless of their carrier affiliation.
On 20 December 1963, Carrier Air Groups were retitled Wings, and the acronym CVG became CVW. Replacement Air Groups, which were set up in 1958, became Combat Readiness Air Groups on 1 April 1963. Often known by the short titles RAG and CRAG in the respective periods, their designation throughout was RCVG. When Groups became Wings, CRAG became CRAW and RCVG became RCVW.
From 1960 to 1974 the U.S. Navy also operated Carrier Anti-Submarine Air Groups (CVSG). These typically consisted of two fixed-wing anti-submarine squadrons (VS), a helicopter squadron anti-submarine (HS), and two smaller squadrons or squadron detachments of 3-4 aircraft for airborne early warning (VAW) and self-defense (VA, VMA, VSF, VF).
Prior to 1983, CAGs were typically post-squadron command aviators in the rank of Commander who would typically promote to Captain while in command and would subsequently track to command of a deep draft support vessel followed by command of an aircraft carrier once they achieved greater seniority in the rank of Captain. In 1983, Secretary of the Navy John Lehman elevated the CAG to be coequal with the Captain of the aircraft carrier to which the air wing embarked, with both officers reporting directly to the embarked Flag Officer who was Commander of the Carrier Battle Group. The CAG was then referred to as a "Super CAG." Later a slightly junior Captain was added as the Deputy CAG (DCAG), with the DCAG assisting the CAG until he'she eventually "fleets up" to the CAG position. This system is still in place, although the term "Super CAG" soon reverted to the traditional "CAG."
During the course of the war in the Pacific the compositions of the air groups changed drastically. The scouting squadrons were disestablished by early 1943 and the number of fighter planes was increased continuously. Typically in 1943 an Essex class carrier carried 36 fighter planes, 36 bombers and 18 torpedo planes.
By the end of WWII, a typical Essex air group was over 100 aircraft, consisting of :
Carrier Air Groups typically had four fighter squadrons with 58 planes and an attack squadron of 14 planes.
New to the air wings in the Cold War period after Korea and just prior to Vietnam were specialized squadrons of aircraft for heavy attack/nuclear strike (VAH), photographic reconnaissance (VAP/VFP, RVAH), airborne early warning (VAW), all-weather medium attack (VA), advanced twin-seat fighters (VF), electronic countermeasures (VAQ), and helicopters (HC, HS).
During the Vietnam War Attack Carrier Air Wings typically consisted of approximately 70 aircraft, including two fighter squadrons and three attack squadrons, plus the special squadrons and detachments (VAW, VAQ, RVAH or VFP, VQ, HC or HS).
In 1965, a typical Carrier Air Wing consisted of:
By the end of the Vietnam War in 1973, a typical air wing consisted of ~90 aircraft:
An anti-submarine air group (CVSG) aboard the Essex-class anti-submarine carriers (CVS) operated five squadrons:
From 1969 to 1977, a number of carrier air wings were disestablished in the post-Vietnam drawdown: Carrier Air Wing 10 on 20 November 1969, Readiness Carrier Air Wing 12 on 1 June 1970, Readiness Carrier Air Wing 4 on 1 July 1970, Carrier Air Wing 16 on 30 June 1971, Carrier Air Wing 21 on 12 December 1975, and Carrier Air Wing 19 on 30 June 1977.
By the early 1980s, typical air wings were replacing F-4s with F-14 Tomcat on Forrestal, Kitty Hawk, Enterprise and Nimitz class carriers and/or F/A-18 Hornets onboard Midway class carriers. A-7s were also being replaced with F/A-18s, while KA-6D tankers and A-6E bombers with aerial refueling pods had replaced A-3 as tankers, and EA-6B Prowlers had largely replaced EA-3s in the VAQ mission, although detachments of EA-3s from fleet air reconnaissance squadrons (VQ) soldiered on through the late 1980s as ELINT aircraft until replaced by the ES-3A Shadow in the carrier-based VQ mission.
On 1 March 1 1984, Carrier Air Wing 13 was established. Between 1 October 1985 and 30 September 1989 the wing made three deployments aboard Coral Sea. Carrier Air Wing 10 was re-established on 1 November 1986 for eighteen months, but then disestablished again in March 1988.
The Gulf War marked the largest concentrated use of carrier air wings since World War II. All F-4s had been retired and A-7Es had largely been replaced with F/A-18 Hornets.
From 1991 to 1995, several Type/Model/Series (T/M/S) aircraft were phased out of the active inventory (e.g., Regular Navy and Naval Air Reserve), to include the RF-8G Crusader, the A-7E Corsair II, ES-3A Shadow and the A-6E and KA-6D Intruder. While some of these retirements were due to obsolescence (RF-8G) or succession by newer aircraft (A-7Es replaced by F/A-18s), others were due strictly to post-Cold War perceived "Peace Dividend" budget measures on the part of certain Secretaries of Defense and the U.S. Congress (e.g., A-6 Intruder), with aircraft that still had useful remaining life being prematurely relegated to retirement. Other T/M/S aircraft saw the number of operational squadrons significantly reduced (e.g., F-14 Tomcat, E-2 Hawkeye) for similar budgetary reasons. During the same period, three more carrier air wings were disestablished: the Atlantic Fleet's Carrier Air Wing 13 on 1 January 1991, followed by Carrier Air Wing 6 on 1 April 1992, and the Pacific Fleet's Carrier Air Wing 15 on 31 March 1995. In addition, the U.S. Naval Reserve's Carrier Air Wing Reserve 30 (CVWR-30) was disestablished on 31 December 1994.
By 2003, A-6s had been retired with their tanking duties being assumed by S-3s, ES-3s had been retired, and older F-14s were being phased out with the FA-18 E/F Super Hornets which was also replacing 1 squadron of F/A-18C Hornets.
The deactivation of Carrier Air Wing 14 was planned for 2012. However, the U.S. Navy directed Pacific Fleet and Naval Air Forces to stop, and reverse the deactivation process for Carrier Air Wing 14 in a memo dated 20 March 2012. Due to budget restrictions, CVW-14 was deactivated in 2013.
A carrier air wing has a small command staff consisting of 16-20 officers and approximately 20 enlisted personnel. It is headed by the "CAG" (Commander, Air Group—a legacy term from the earlier term for the Air Wing) who is a Navy Captain or a Marine Corps Colonel with an aeronautical designation as a Naval Aviator or Naval Flight Officer. Although eligible, Marine assignments to "CAG" or "DCAG" (Deputy Commander) positions are typically limited to one Carrier Air Wing.
Second in command is the Deputy Commander (DCAG), also a Navy Captain or Marine Colonel aviator or NFO, who "fleets up" to the CAG position after about 18 months. Also on the staff are an Operations Officer (typically a Commander or Lieutenant Commander), a number of warfare specialists (typically Lieutenant Commanders or Lieutenants), two Wing Landing Signal Officers, an Intelligence Officer, and a Maintenance Officer. The air wing staff is often supplemented with squadron personnel, such as the squadron intelligence officers. The CAG reports to a Rear Admiral in the position of Commander, Carrier Strike Group and is coequal in stature with the Commanding Officer of the aircraft carrier as well as the embarked Destroyer Squadron (DESRON) Commander and the attached guided missile cruiser commanding officer. The CAG serves as the Strike Group's Strike Warfare Commander, responsible for all offensive strike operations (including Tomahawk Missiles). CAGs are typically qualified to fly at least two types of aircraft in the Carrier Air Wing inventory.
The air wing composition is designed to allow for broad striking power hundreds of miles from the carrier's position, while providing defense in depth of the battle group through early warning and detection of airborne, surface and subsurface targets. The modern U.S. Navy carrier air wing consists of:
Atlantic Fleet air wings have an "A" as the first letter of their tailcode identification, while those of the Pacific Fleet have an "N". The "A" or "N" is followed by a letter that uniquely identifies the air wing (e.g., CVW-1 aircraft, part of the Atlantic Fleet, have a tail code of "AB").
|Air wing||Insignia||Tail code||Assigned aircraft carrier||Home port|
|CVW-1*||AB||USS Theodore Roosevelt||NAS Oceana|
|CVW-2||NE||USS Ronald Reagan||NAS Lemoore|
|CVW-3||AC||USS Harry S. Truman||NAS Oceana|
|CVW-5||NF||USS George Washington||NAF Atsugi|
|CVW-7||AG||USS Dwight D. Eisenhower||NAS Oceana|
|CVW-8||AJ||USS George H.W. Bush||NAS Oceana|
|CVW-9||NG||USS John C. Stennis||NAS Lemoore|
|CVW-11||NH||USS Nimitz||NAS Lemoore|
|CVW-17||NA||USS Carl Vinson||NAS Lemoore|
* CVW-17 transferred from Atlantic Fleet (with tail code AA) to Pacific Fleet (with tail code NA) in 2012 and was reassigned to USS Carl Vinson. USS Enterprise decommissioned in December 2012; CVW-1 to be reassigned to USS Theodore Roosevelt in 2013.
1 Current law provides for 10 CVWs; of the nominally eleven active carriers (ten active carriers following decommissioning of USS Enterprise in December 2012 and until USS Gerald R. Ford is completed and commissioned), one is nearly always undergoing Refueling and Complex Overhaul and has no air wing assigned.
With the inactivation of CVWR-30 in 1994, the single remaining U.S. Navy Reserve Carrier Air Wing was Carrier Air Wing Reserve Twenty (CVWR-20). On 1 April 2007, CVWR-20 was redesignated as Tactical Support Wing (TSW):
|Official name||Insignia||Headquarters||Tail code|
|Tactical Support Wing||Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth||AF|
OPNAVNOTE 5400 Ser DNS-33/12U102092 dated 19 June 2012.