Common Support Aircraft
|This article does not cite any references or sources. (December 2006)|
The Common Support Aircraft (CSA) is a proposed concept, which has been considered by the United States Navy since at least the early 1990s, to replace a number of different fixed-wing aircraft capable of operating from an aircraft carrier and which serve a "support" function, with a single type of aircraft or aircraft platform able to perform all support tasks.
Current roles deemed "support" by the Navy include: carrier on-board delivery (COD), electronic surveillance (ES), electronic warfare (EW), and airborne early warning (AEW). Another possible support role for a carrier-based aircraft is that of aerial refueling.
Current carrier-based fixed-wing support aircraft used by the US Navy, and which would presumably be replaced by the CSA, include:
- the C-2 Greyhound, for COD;
- and the E-2 Hawkeye, for AEW.
Other support aircraft used by the US Navy in the recent past include:
- the S-3 Viking, for ASW, ASUW, and aerial refueling;
- the ES-3 Shadow, for ES.
- the EA-6B Prowler, for EW;
|This section does not cite any references or sources. (March 2009)|
A major rationale for the CSA is cost. Using one aircraft or aircraft platform for many or all support functions, rather than several different aircraft, would permit cost savings in a number of ways.
The first would be in economies of scale in manufacturing. With a lower per-unit cost for each support aircraft and its spare parts, the expense of purchasing the support aircraft (as well as maintaining it over the course of its lifespan) is reduced.
Another cost saving would be in reduced training expenses. Maintenance crewmen would only have to be trained for one support aircraft, rather than many.
Still another would be in reduced logistical requirements. With the same spare part, such as an engine, avionics component, tire, and so on able to be used for aircraft used for multiple roles, either fewer total spare parts could be brought on board, or the same-sized pool of spare parts could be applied to any support aircraft, giving the crew more options. Furthermore, in a constrained environment such as a budget crunch or emergency battle damage control, cannibalization of some support aircraft to keep others flying and functional is a greater possibility.
For these reasons, the US armed forces as a whole are moving toward vehicles and weapons platforms that are generalists rather than specialists, capable of performing a wide variety of missions, or serving as a base from which variants can be produced to fill specialized roles. Examples include the replacement of many different aircraft by the F-35 Lightning II; and the production of the Stryker armored vehicle, which serves as a base for a wide array of variants.
It may be noted that the Navy is already some steps toward a CSA, rather than having a completely different and separate aircraft type for each support mission. The C-2 Greyhound is a derivative of the E-2 Hawkeye, and the two aircraft have significant parts commonality. The ES-3 Shadow was a derivative of the S-3 Viking. And the S-3 Viking fills at least three different roles, not just one.
The Navy seems to favor the role of EW to be filled by converted attack aircraft. The EA-6B Prowler, based on the A-6 Intruder, is slated to be replaced by the EA-18G Growler, based on the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. (Also note the U.S. Air Force's now-retired EF-111 Raven EW aircraft, based on the F-111 Aardvark fighter-bomber.) Moreover, the Super Hornet is also capable of serving as an aerial refueler for other Hornets, Super Hornets, Prowlers and Growlers. While these airframes were not originally designed for the support role, their use is evidence that the US military prefers versatility and multi-capability in its vehicles, and to avoid designing a new platform for each role unless necessary.
Some potential arguments against the CSA would include:
- Developing modern military aircraft, particularly carrier aircraft, is an expensive process, and the cost of creating a new aircraft to serve as a CSA may substantially erode or entirely eliminate the cost savings that commonality provides.
- Current support aircraft are serving well, and in many cases are years away from their expected end of service. Therefore there is not only no need to replace current aircraft, but doing so would in fact be wasting money because the full benefit of current aircraft has not been realized yet. Furthermore, when current aircraft are considered worn out, more of the same could perhaps be manufactured as replacements. The only exception is the S-3 Viking, which has been retired from front-line operational service aboard aircraft carriers without replacement.
- The design compromises involved in creating such a generalized, multi-purpose aircraft risk creating a "jack of all trades and master of none"; a plane that can do many things, but none of them particularly well, and perhaps not as well as the planes it replaces.
Conclusion and Future Prospects
The Navy is still studying the CSA idea, but has not committed to it. The impending introduction of the EA-18G Growler may be a sign that the Navy is leaning against the CSA; or perhaps simply that the CSA, if adopted, will not be filling the EW role.