You can learn more about the fighters by checking out America's Current Fighter Planes, but these support planes don’t get much attention, and there are some interesting policy angles if we dig into the details.
The carrier air wing has aircraft that make deliveries, provide airborne early warning, perform electronic surveillance and electronic warfare tasks, hunt submarines, and refuel other aircraft.
The E-2 Hawkeye is a twin engine turboprop that provides airborne early warning (AEW). This plane first flew in 1960, but its role is such that the air frame and engines don’t get a lot of modification - all the action is in the onboard electronics. The current production model is the E-2C and each carrier has four or five of them, permitting 24 hour a day operation of this flying radar station. There are two E-2D aircraft currently in testing and they’ll have dramatic upgrades to their electronics, but the same airframe from fifty years ago will carry these new tools.
The C-2 Greyhound shares the wings, engines, and many other parts with the E-2 Hawkeye, but it has a widened fuselage and a rear door for cargo. Its job is called COD - carrier onboard delivery.
The primary strike aircraft for the Navy for many years was the A-6 Intruder. We bought 693 of these aircraft starting from the first flight in 1963 and they weren’t retired until 1997. Some 170 EA-6 airframes based on this design were also built and of those about 120 EA-6B Prowlers are still in operation providing electronic warfare services.
There were other support aircraft but they’ve been retired. The S-3 Viking was used for anti-submarine duty and the ES-3 Shadow was an electronic recon aircraft based on the S-3 airframe. The S-3 also did tanker duty.
The anti-submarine work has gone to the SH-60 Seahawk helicopter. What is very interesting to see is how tanker duties are being handled and what will become of the EA-6B Prowler.
Although less than ideal for layout the F/A-18 Super Hornet can carry 2,250 gallons of jet fuel in five external tanks, permitting it to serve as a tanker, and a very fast one at that.
The EA-6B’s doom is clear for all to see - the EA-18G Growler, based on the F/A-18 Super Hornet, will assume its role. The faster, lighter, newer two seat Growler will replace the slower, heavier, older four seat Prowler.
This thread of ‘commonality’ is often seen in military acquisition, and in particular with carrier aircraft, where space for spare parts and room for sailors who specialize in each system is at a premium. Many of these platforms were built for one job, then adapted to new uses.
There was a a desire to build a Common Support Aircraft during the early 1990s, but this plan fell through. The economy of scale and simplification of having one single platform ran afoul of real world concerns, such as carrying capacity versus speed, and the political concerns associated with which aerospace company would build the plane and in which Congressional district this would happen.
The Lockheed Martin F-35 triumphed over the Boeing X-32 in the Joint Strike Fighter competition, the beginnings of a rare consensus. We set out to replace all of our attack plane and fighter fleet except for the air superiority machines, nearly 3,000 aircraft total, with 2,443 F-35.
F-35 Lightning II
The F-35 is actually three aircraft that share many common parts. The F-35A is meant for land operations, the F-35B is capable of vertical takeover and landing like the AV-8B Harrier and is meant for the Navy’s Expeditionary Strike Group, while the F-35C has the heavier construction needed for carrier landings.
But today the F-35 is four years behind schedule and 50% over budget. And the admittedly flawed F-18 is still in production. If we're going to have a dramatic defense budget cut we should do it now, rather than after we start taking delivery of the F-35 Lightning II.