COD OF WAR: FLYING ABOARD THE US NAVY NUCLEAR AIRCRAFT CARRIER USS RONALD REAGAN
I’m surrounded by twenty-somethings, in a war zone and this is no drill!
Aviation Report and PhotoRecon were recently invited aboard the 97,000 ton, twenty-story-high, Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76). Forward-deployed to the U.S. 7th Fleet area of operations, she is the flagship of the Ronald Reagan Strike Group, which operates as part of Commander, Task Force 70 (CTF-70), “Battle Force – Seventh Fleet”. Whilst taking part in exercise Talisman Sabre 2019, the USS Ronald Reagan cruises due east of Brisbane, off the Queensland coast, Australia.
The large training area hosts naval, air and amphibious assets from various participating countries, Australia, the United States of America, New Zealand, amongst others. Also participating for the first time, is Japan.
It is a fact of life that the average age of a crewman in the team of 5,000 aboard the USS Ronald Reagan is 22 years old, predominantly high school leavers. Some would work with the approximately 600 personnel in the reactor department, providing the steam required to power this immense vessel.
Which is exactly why the U.S. Navy invited us aboard, a compliment of (mostly) ageing media types, to demonstrate what has taken the Navy a century to master – how to deploy an increasingly youthful crew to project air power, resolve and sustain a formidable pace of operations to produce clear, positive outcomes in an increasingly dangerous world.
Our flight to meet the carrier was conducted from RAAF Amberley by the professional crew of US Navy Fleet Logistics Support Squadron VRC-30 “the Providers”, detachment 5 from MCAS Iwakuni, Japan.
To arrive aboard a carrier at sea at any time over the last half-century, you would embark in one of the following ways – by tender (boat transfer) or from another warship ( UNREP – Underway Replenishment), or Carrier Onboard Delivery (COD) either by helicopter or fixed-wing aircraft. For us, it is the latter with the venerable Grumman C-2A(R) (Reprocured or late production) Greyhound. C-2A provides transport of high-priority and mission-critical cargoes to carrier from shore bases. For TS.19, two aircraft of Fleet logistics Support Squadron-30 (VRC-30), Detachment 5, deployed to Amberley RAAF Base for the duration. Prior to boarding C-2A BuAer 162154, MODEX NF-30; callsign “Password 30”, Cranials went on, straps and oral protectors tight. Visor down. Ear plugs, a necessary evil.
Along with COMCTF-70, Rear-Admiral Thomas (we shall speak with him later), we flew transit around 45 minutes but had to hold off as they weren’t ready to take us because of planes preparing for launch and had to circle for awhile, resulting in a one hour flight. The arrested landing or “trap” on arrival, decelerated the C-2A from 169 to 0 (kph) within two seconds, pushing us into our seats.
On deck, there was constant activity as aircraft pre-flight and sortie, conducting carrier landings (observed “by many eyes”, as the Rear Admiral later notes) and missions as part of the exercise.
The Ronald Reagan Strike Group, as stated earlier, is part of Carrier Task Force 70, currently deploying the Ticonderoga-class, Guided-Missile cruiser USS Chancellorsville (CG 62) and Arleigh Burke-class, guided-missile destroyer, USS McCampbell (DDG 85), joined by destroyer escorts and other, somewhat guarded assets.
The air assets launched from the carrier operate either “blue air” (friendly) or “red air” missions with or against land-based air forces and maritime forces as well as theatre support relating to amphibious operations such as those conducted in northern Queensland during the exercise.
The main purpose of the media visit was to visually record operations off the flight deck, with many launches and recoveries observed, providing a sense of the tempo of air ops. This tempo may increase dramatically and be maintained indefinitely if Ronald Reagan’s Strike Group were stood-to for active operations. So much occurs in such a limited space (approx. 18,000 sq. Metres) and of course, being embedded within the environment is exciting and requires all of your attention!
It is sobering to view the air-deployed munitions prepared, both above and below decks. The presence of “jugs”, tactical fuel tanks positioned everywhere it seemed, as we walk past on our deck-walk, indicates some targets may take the strike packages a distance away. A constant stream of aircraft, returning from missions, passes overhead the “island”, prior to initial-and-pitch, for landing. (the “Island” at about 150 feet (46 m) tall – is the command centre for flight-deck operations, as well as the ship as a whole). Some come in pairs, tailhooks down. There’s the COD, returning from RAAF Amberley or from up the coast from Rockhampton, perhaps doing the “milk run”. We are very impressed with the smooth launch of the E-2D Hawkeye. Helicopters “SARBIRDS”, cruise never too far from the ship, just in case. Again, sobering. A Sea Hawk of HSC-12 (Helicopter Transport Squadron-12) runs up on the flight deck for another VIP mission.
The Squadrons embarked are of Carrier Strike Wing Five (CVW-5) and many had previously been sighted by this correspondent, aboard USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63) in Brisbane in 2007, including the following Squadrons now embarked: VFA-27 “Royal Maces”, VFA-102 “Diamondbacks” and VFA-195 “Dambusters”, all now flying versions of the Boeing/McDonnell-Douglas F/A-18 Super Hornet in strike and tactical support (aerial refuelling) roles. Other units fly EA-18G Growlers in the Electronic attack role (VAQ-141), Airborne Early Warning E-2D Hawkeye (VAW-125), Helicopter combat MH-60R MH-60S (HSC-12, HSM-77), Fleet Logistics support (VRC-30 as mentioned) and Strike Fighter 115 (VFA-115) F/A-18E Super Hornet. CVW-5 was initially formed in 1943. It has participated in the Second World War, the Korean War, the Gulf War, Operation Southern Watch, the War in Afghanistan, and the War in Iraq.An interview was held with Commander of Battle Force, 7th Fleet (CTF-70), Rear Admiral Karl O. Thomas, at his seat in “the island”. Questions were to be kept to the subject of TS.19.
Rear Adm. Thomas focussed on the true value of interoperability with allied nations and their respective militaries. A range of strategic scenarios were being rehearsed, covering many types of local and regional actions, including all levels of threat during combined operations.
“It’s really about maintaining security in this region. It’s an important part of the world and we recognize that as the United States puts in a lot of effort to ensure the security of maritime sea lanes, to ensure that people operate within the international laws that exist.
On interoperability, the keyword for the times, he continues: “The good thing is that their (Australian) aviators are very skilled, they fly the same type aircraft that we fly at the same technical capability, the same tactical capability. And so for us it’s great training because they are at the same level that we’re operating to.. communication channels, common data links, ensuring that we can see each other’s pictures…
It can be the tactics that we operate in, (whether) it sits in the air, that’s on the surface or that’s underneath the surface too, so that interoperability to be able to fight as one force just doesn’t happen you have to (practice) too and that’s why we’re down here. The carrier is currently generating 80 to 100 sorties per day, not overly tasking, just comfortable”.
An example of the type of missions flown: “When you’re flying in the air-to-air mission and you’re going to have several of our F-18s next to the F-18s from the Australian Air Force and we’ll have some jamming capabilities from the Growlers which we both fly, there might be a blue side and a red side and they’ll come together in the air and they’ll have certain tactics that (we) employ so that’s an air-to-air kind of training then we go out and we do maritime strike when we have to define shifts and we employ air-to-surface tactics; doing land attack missions where we go out to find targets on land, you have to find them and fix them and then track them and target them and then engage them and assess how well we did during the strike…we’re doing it together and we have not only an attack coming off the carrier, we have maritime aircraft like P-8s out here, air-to-air refuelling, big wing tanking which our aircrews are getting a chance to do, it covers the gamut”. Aviation Report enquired how the exercise is set up – whether there was any simulation of near-peer aggressors “we don’t set the exercise up against any one country, its more just to practice the tactics that we would employ in any scenario”.
As it is about maximising the training opportunities the Carrier Strike Group would not range too far out so they operate at a comfortable distance to reach targets located in from the coast.
We later met the “Handlers’, whose task is to move aircraft about the deck and amidships. They utilise the “ouija board” system, a bit like a Monopoly board with pegs in different shapes and colours symbolising aircraft prioritisation by preparation for launch, by tasking, for refuelling/defuelling, for bombing-up/armaments, maintenance or just parked up. They also represent readiness for launches. Some adjustments may be made in actual conflict….
Our departure was by catapult-assisted (CAT) launch, reaching 205-kph in three seconds. As advertised, it was quite a ride and an experience not to be forgotten!
Postscript: The US Navy has announced the imminent retirement of the C-2A type from COD duties (C-2A crews expect to begin transition training onto the CMV-22B COD version of the Bell Boeing Osprey V/STOL military airlifter in October, 2019) – but will keep them flying from shore bases until 2026. It is sad there will be no more tailhook CODs trapping onto carriers after that, especially from the esteemed stable of superlative Grumman products.
Aviation Report wishes to thank the following for an incomparable demonstration of deployed sea and air power; Carrier Task Force 70; Rear Adm. Karl O. Thomas, Commander, Battle Force 7th Fleet; LCDR Leslie Hubbell, PAO, USS Ronald Reagan; our guide, Stuart (“Senior”); Amelia Gard, Director, Defence Media; Flying Officer Clarice Hurren, Public Affairs, Ex. Talisman Sabre, Headquarters 82 Wing, RAAF Amberley.