American aircraft carriers are kings of the ocean. They come loaded with dozens of lethal warplanes, ready to take off from “4.5 acres of sovereign soil” and send missiles into enemy jets while dropping bombs on enemy troops and infrastructure.
U.S. carriers often operate independently of one another, typically sailing within their own strike groups even when operating against the same targets. But the Navy does have another option: combining the carrier strike groups into a single entity with 9 acres of sovereign soil bearing down on hostile forces.
Here’s what that looks like:
An F/A-18E Super Hornet, from the “Eagles” of Strike Fighter Squadron 115, launches from the flight deck of the USS Ronald Reagan during dual-carrier operations in 2017.
(U.S. Navy Mass Communications Specialist 2nd Class Kenneth Abbate)
Carrier air wings have 60 or more aircraft, and, when two carriers show up, they bring both of their wings for a combined total of between 100 and 150 aircraft. For Carrier Air Wings 1 and 7, the air wings assigned to the USS Harry S. Truman and the USS Abraham Lincoln, which took part in an exercise in August, this includes nine squadrons of F/A-18 Super Hornets. These fighters can kill most anything on the ground or in the sky, though they aren’t stealthy like the coming F-35C Thunder II.
Each squadron has 10-12 of the Super Hornets, equipped with 20mm cannons, AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles, AIM-7 Sparrows, AIM-120 AMRAAMs, Harpoons, HARM, SLAMs, Maverick missiles, Joint Stand-Off Weapons, Joint Direct Attack Munitions, and Paveway Laser-Guided bombs.
If you got lost in that extended list of deadly weapons, just know that the Super Hornets can carry a large variety of missiles and bombs with warheads or payloads ranging from a couple pounds of high explosives to a few thousands pounds (one of those bombs even made our list of weapons that could bring down a Star Wars AT-AT Walker).
A combined formation with planes from six squadrons and two carriers flies past the USS Ronald Reagan during a dual-carrier operation in 2016.
(U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jacob Lerner)
So, if two carriers with nine squadrons of Super Hornets, each with 10-12 aircraft show up, the enemy is facing about 100 highly armed aircraft—but those aircraft and pilots are highly vulnerable to enemy air defenses since they lack real stealth capability.
So, how is the Navy going to kick in your door? By crippling your air defenses and shooting down your fighters, of course.
Those HARM missiles mentioned above? Those are high-speed, anti-radiation missiles. When the Super Hornet finds an enemy air defense site, they can fire the missile towards the enemy radar, and the missile actually follows the radar back to the source, eliminating the enemy radar dish.
An E-2C Hawkeye from the “Liberty Bells” of Airborne Early Warning Squadron 115 transits the flight deck of the USS Ronald Reagan. The Nimitz-class Aircraft carriers USS John C. Stennis and USS Ronald Reagan conducted dual aircraft carrier strike group operations in the U.S. 7th Fleet area of operations.
(U.S. Navy Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Matthew Riggs)
That knocks out the “eyes” of the enemy, but it’s not like enemy fighter pilots are gonna sit around drinking tea and discussing how rude the Americans are for destroying their radar dishes — they’re gonna go try to kill ’em.
And that’s why the Navy doesn’t send only fighters up during a big fight. They’re accompanied by E-2D Hawkeyes, airborne early warning aircraft that are basically flying radar dishes, feeding target and threat information to all the fighters it’s linked to.
This gives a huge advantage to the American fighters it supports in the form of a greater view of the battlefield, allowing the airborne commander to better direct the fighters’ efforts. It helps guarantee that the American jets are always at the decisive engagement, tipping the scales in their own favor. With two carriers and two air wings, this will be especially important as literally hundreds of fighters could be fighting at once.
The Nimitz-class Aircraft carriers USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) and USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) conduct dual aircraft carrier strike group operations in the U.S. 7th Fleet area of operations.
(Photo: U.S. Navy Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Nathan Burke)
Door, meet kick.
So, if the Navy is called upon to break into enemy airspace, and they successfully do it with the dual-carrier setup they practiced this summer, what happens next? With the enemy air defenses weakened, any number of follow-on operations are easier.
For instance, a Marine Expeditionary Force can much more easily take the beaches when friendly Harriers and Super Hornets are the only jets in the sky. Friendly jets and helicopters can take out beach defenses and ferry troops from ship to shore with minimal to no losses.
Chief Naval Aircrewman Joel James, assigned to the “Dragon Slayers” of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 11, observes from an MH-60S Seahawk helicopter as ships assigned to the Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group and the Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group transit the sea in formation while conducting dual-carrier sustainment operations.
(U.S. Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Thomas Gooley)
Marines under fire can call for help and, with two carriers in the area and minimal air defenses left, be basically guaranteed to receive it.
Meanwhile, if American pilots or aircrews had been shot down during the doorkick, MH-60 helicopters can swoop in to recover them quickly because it would have two carriers worth of jets to protect them.
If the enemy tries to use submarines to sink the carriers, there are two sea combat squadrons and two maritime strike squadrons as well as multiple American attack submarines available to hunt down the undersea threat. Anti-ship ballistic missiles face additional Aegis destroyers to get to the U.S. assets.
So, yeah, a dual-carrier strike group brings a lot of firepower and capability, so why doesn’t the Navy do it more often, in exercises and in combat?
Well, it’s crazy overkill for a lot of operations. The Navy only has 11 carriers, and some of those are in drydock or other service at any time. So, giving up over 20 percent of the deployed carrier fleet for a single operation would only happen in the case of a large, decisive operation. The Navy likely sent the Lincoln and Truman to practice, just in case.
If there were a war with China or Russia, there would be a good reason to combine two carrier strike groups. With hundreds of enemy jets likely to take to the air against the U.S., the Super Hornets would need at least a few squadrons in the air to have a chance. That would take multiple carriers to maintain, and it’s more easier to defend one pair of carriers than two separate ones.
At the end of the day, for freedom of navigation missions, humanitarian relief, and reassuring allies, one carrier easily gets the job done. But, if there is a two-carrier, three-carrier, or even larger fight, the Navy is prepared.