Thursday, November 02, 2006

Wither Naval Aviation?

Catching late night repeat on HIstory Channel of the last flights of the F-14 Tomcat by VF-31 and VF-213 off USS Theodore Roosevelt.

This will not be about the Tomcats since already talked about their stand down, instead will talk about another fine Grumman airframe. The A-6 Intruder. The A-6 was developed to carry out all weather attack. It first saw combat in VietNam like many other aircraft and in VietNam it earned an enviable reputation of precisely striking valuable targets in places like Haiphong, even when the crew would have to kick the 1950's technology bombing computer to get it to work in flight. The A-6 evolved as the years progressed and even branched out to cover other missions. A-6As gave way to A-6Es. The A-6B Prowler of VietNam evolved to the EA-6B Prowler to jam the enemy. And then there were the KA-6D tankers that provided fuel to the rest of the air group.

In 1996, in spite of Grumman producing the A-6F which used the F/A-18's F-404 engines and AYK-14 data computers from the F-14D as a succesor to the A-6E, the last A-6 Intruder stood down from active duty. This was not the end however of the A-6 family.

Because the F/A-18 Hornet is a short legged beast, it could not be turned into a dedicated tanker. So S-3 Hoovers got impressed to supplement the KA-6Ds. Now with the F-18 Super Hornets in service and able to buddy refuel, the KA-6Ds are finally standing down with their antique J-65 engines.

While the rest of the A-6 family has encountered extinction, the EA-6B continues to soldier on. In the 1990s the USAF retired all of its EF-111A Ravens and started to train crews to co-man the Navy's Prowlers. In fact in 2006, a full ten years after the A-6E caught its last active trap, the Prowler still occupies deck space on the US Navy's carriers as the only dedicated electronic warfare platform. All is not sweetness&light in the ECM community. Northrup-Grumman is still producing EA-6Bs and upgrading existing ones, but the GAO is still worried about an ECM shortfall because the USAF still has call on any Prowlers along with the Navy. While the latest spawn of the F-18 Mafia which is designed to replace the EA-6B, the EF-18 Growler, is encountering its own problems like Boeing putting delicate ECM antenna fairings in places where deck crews would be pushing the airframe.

I just hope the F-18 Super Hornet can really live up to its billing to cover all these various missions. To call it an F-18 is to mislead though. The F-18 Mafia and McDonnel-Douglas call it an F-18 as a bit of sleight of hand aimed at Congress to prove all that Congress is buying is a 'slightly' improved F/A-18C Hornet. You can believe this if you ignore the bigger engines, the longer fuselage, the bigger wing, heavier weight, and beefier landing gear. The Super Hornet is as much a totally new airframe as the original F/A-18 was when compared against the YF-17 that birthed it.

If the F-18, in any of its current versions, does an A-12 when push comes to shove, after killing off the infant A-6F/A-6G programs and more F-14Ds in the 1990s to provide money for the F-18 program, Naval aviation will be in a jam until the F-35 JSF shows up.


Mike's America said...

I get a bit confused with all these variations. I cannot even distinguish an F-14 from an F-18.

Anna said...

F-14 was called the Turkey because the way its wings would swing out with flaps lowered as it approached the carrier. Think two of everything: two tails, two wide set engines, and two crew. And of course variable geometry wings, aka swing-wings. The F-14's mission was to kill sea-skimming cruise missiles and enemy fighters with equal ease 100 miles from the battle group.

F-18, aka Plastic Bug, is smaller than an F-14. Has two tails, two close set engines, and usually only one crew. And no swing-wings. It was deployed first to replace the A-7 Corsair II for light attack and self-defense capability.

The F-18 geneology starts with Northrup's Cobra project that lead to the YF-17. The YF-17 competed against the YF-16 for the USAF LWF competition. The F-16 won. So Northrup started to shop their plane around. They teamed with McDonell-Douglas to make a naval version. Thus the F-18 was born, it shares the same general shape as the YF-17 but nothing is the same. Now the F-18 Hornet has birthed the F-18 Super Hornet, which again looks like a Hornet but shares almost nothing in common.

Now the F-18 Super Hornet is being deployed as not only a bomb truck but a fleet defender, only without the F-14's ability to kill cruise missiles or kill a fighter 100 miles away.