US Navy's 'future air wing' trains with USMC in the South China Sea

The Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group (VINCSG) and Essex Amphibious Ready Group (ESX ARG) concluded joint expeditionary strike force training operations in the South China Sea on January 16, marking the first time an amphibious group had worked alongside the US Navy’s next-generation Carrier Air Wing (CVW).

The recent operation saw combat aircraft assigned to the US Marine Corps’ (USMC’s) 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW) aboard the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship, USS Essex (LHD-2), conduct integrated training with the US Navy’s CVW-2, which has embarked – in its new, enhanced format – on its first deployment with the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70).

USS Carl Vinson and USS Essex in South China Sea [US Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Haydn N Smith]
The US Navy's nuclear-powered Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70), transits through the South China Sea alongside the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship, USS Essex (LHD-2) on January 13, 2022. Over the course of a week, personnel and aircraft from the two vessels conducted joint expeditionary strike force operations in the region. US Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Haydn N Smith

During this joint exercise in the South China Sea, US Navy and USMC personnel conducted a series of integrated maritime strike; interdiction and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) missions, along with replenishment-at-sea and formation manoeuvring/navigation operations. In a press release (issued on January 16), the US Navy said that "these operations are the latest events in strengthening naval readiness and interoperability in the Indo-Pacific region.”

Commenting on the recent operation, Rear Adm Dan Martin – commander of the US Navy’s Carrier Strike Group 1 – said: “Our ability to quickly and effectively integrate with an amphibious ready group, such as ESX ARG, demonstrates a diverse level of naval lethality that is unlike any other naval force. The long-range strike capability of the VINCSG combined with the ESX ARG’s potential to deliver a payload of Marines to any maritime region greatly contributes to the US strategic ability to continue defending a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

AV-8B Harrier on USS Essex 14-01-22 [US Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Wesley Richardson]
Aviation Boatswain's Mate (Handling) 3rd Class Alysa Sanchez signals to a McDonnell Douglas AV-8B Harrier II pilot from VMA-214 'Black Sheep' during routine flight deck operations aboard the USS Essex in the South China Sea on January 14, 2022. The USMC's AV-8B fleet will soon be replaced by the short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL)-configured F-35B Lightning II. US Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Wesley Richardson

Before rendezvousing with the VINCSG in the South China Sea, the ESX ARG was operating in the Gulf of Aden with a host of USMC aircraft to support ongoing operations in the Indo-Pacific region. This includes MV-22B Ospreys from Marine Medium Tilt Rotor Squadron 165 (VMM-165) ‘White Knights’ and AV-8B Harrier IIs assigned to Marine Attack Squadron 214 (VMA-214) ‘Black Sheep’. AH-1Z Viper attack and UH-1Y Venom utility helicopters, along with CH-53E Super Stallion rotorcraft, are also embarked on the USS Essex.

The USS Carl Vinson’s current deployment to the Indo-Pacific region is an important one as its seeks to demonstrate the capabilities of the US Navy’s next-generation CVW to both allies and near-peer adversaries in the region, such as China. The carrier is equipped with US Navy-operated F-35C Lightning II fifth-generation multi-role stealth fighters and CMV-22B Osprey carrier-onboard-delivery (COD) tiltrotors, with both types marking their first operational deployment on this voyage under Strike Fighter Squadron 147 (VFA-147) ‘Argonauts’ and Fleet Logistics Multi-Mission Support Squadron 30 (VRM-30) ‘Titans’, respectively.

VFA-147 'Argonauts' F-35C lands on Carl Vinson 14-01-22 [US Navy/Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Elizabeth Grubbs]
A US Navy-operated Lockheed Martin F-35C Lightning II assigned to VFA-147 'Argonauts' is launched from the flight deck of the USS Carl Vinson for a mission over the South China Sea on January 14, 2022. The fifth-generation multi-role stealth fighter (along with the CMV-22B COD tiltrotor and MQ-25A unmanned air-to-air refuelling aircraft) will form a key part of the US Navy's future CVW structure. US Navy/Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Elizabeth Grubbs

This deployment is also important for the US Navy, as it seeks to prove the new capabilities afforded it by the new, advanced aircraft that will comprise the structure of its future CVWs. The fixed-wing combat aircraft of these air wings will comprise enhanced F/A-18E/F Block III Super Hornets, which will be complimented by F-35Cs – providing carrier strike groups with stealth/advanced networking capabilities. The Navy will continue to employ the EA-18G Growler to deter and combat adversaries across the electronic warfare spectrum.

Helicopter forces within CVWs will remain largely unchanged, with the MH-60S Knighthawk and MH-60R Seahawk being retained for maritime utility and combat operations in support of carrier strike group operations. The CMV-22B will ultimately replace the US Navy’s ageing C-2A Greyhound fleet in the COD role and the service will add a new unmanned air-to-air refuelling capability to its CVWs, following the introduction of the MQ-25A Stingray.

F/A-18F and EA-18G on USS Carl Vinson 15-01-22 [US Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Megan Alexander]
A two-seat Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet (background) and EA-18G Growler electronic attack (EA) aircraft (foreground) - assigned to VFA-2 'Bounty Hunters' and Electronic Attack Squadron 136 (VAQ-136) 'Bounty Hunters', respectively - prepare to launch from the USS Carl Vinson for a mission over the South China Sea on January 15, 2022. US Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Megan Alexander