Carrier air wing

Carrier air wing
Aircraft from Carrier Air Wing Two fly in formation above the USS Abraham Lincoln.

A Carrier Air Wing (abbreviated CVW) is an operational naval aviation organization composed of several aircraft squadrons and detachments of various types of fixed wing and rotary wing aircraft. Organized, equipped and trained to conduct modern US Navy carrier air operations while embarked aboard aircraft carriers, the various squadrons in an air wing have different, complementary (and sometimes overlapping) missions, and provide most of the striking power and electronic warfare capabilities of a carrier battle group (CVBG). While the CVBG term is still used by other nations, the CVBG in US parlance in now known as a carrier strike group (CSG).

Until 1963, Carrier air wings were known as Carrier Air Groups (CAGs). Carrier air wings are what the United States Air Force would call “composite” wings, and should not be confused with Navy Type Wings (such as Strike Fighter Wing Atlantic), which are primarily administrative commands composed of squadrons of the same type of carrier-based aircraft. Carrier air wings integrate closely with their assigned aircraft carriers, forming a "carrier/air wing team" that trains and deploys together. There are currently ten U.S. Navy air wings, five based at NAS Oceana, Virginia, four based at NAS Lemoore, California, and one forward deployed to NAF Atsugi, Japan. These air wings are occasionally reassigned to different aircraft carriers based on carrier maintenance schedules. A modern air wing consists of roughly 2,500 personnel and 60–65 aircraft.


Wing aircraft composition

Carrier Air Wing Five aircraft in 2007.

The air wing composition is designed to allow for broad striking power hundreds of miles from the carrier's position, while providing defense in depth of the battle group through early warning and detection of airborne, surface and subsurface targets. No two U.S. Navy carrier air wings are identical in composition, but typically modern air wings consists of:

Staff organization

A U.S. Navy air wing has a small staff of 16-20 officers and approximately 20 enlisted personnel. It is headed by the "CAG" (Commander, Air Group -- a legacy term from the earlier term for the Air Wing) who is a Navy Captain or a Marine Corps Colonel with an aeronautical designation as a Naval Aviator or Naval Flight Officer.[1] Second in command is the Deputy Commander (DCAG), also a Navy Captain or Marine Colonel aviator or NFO, who "fleets up" to the CAG position after about 18 months. Also on the staff are an Operations Officer (typically a Commander or Lieutenant Commander), a number of warfare specialists (typically Lieutenant Commanders or Lieutenants), two Wing Landing Signal Officers, an Intelligence Officer, and a Maintenance Officer. The air wing staff is often supplemented with squadron personnel, such as the squadron intelligence officers. The CAG reports to a Rear Admiral in the position of Commander, Carrier Strike Group and is coequal in stature with the Commanding Officer of the aircraft carrier as well as the embarked Destroyer Squadron (DESRON) Commander and the attached guided missile cruiser commanding officer. The CAG serves as the Strike Group's Strike Warfare Commander, responsible for all offensive strike operations (including Tomahawk Missiles). CAGs are typically qualified to fly at least two types of aircraft in the Carrier Air Wing inventory.

Active Carrier Air Wings / identification

Atlantic Fleet air wings have an "A" as the first letter of their tailcode identification, while those of the Pacific Fleet have an "N". The "A" or "N" is followed by a letter that uniquely identifies the air wing (e.g., CVW-1 aircraft, part of the Atlantic Fleet, have a tail code of "AB").[2]

"AG" on tail indicates it is an Atlantic Fleet CVW-7 aircraft. Ship assigned is also indicated below the tail.
Airwing Insignia Tailcode Assigned Aircraft Carrier Homeport
CVW-1 Cvw-1.gif AB USS Enterprise (CVN-65) NAS Oceana
CVW-2 Cvw-2.gif NE USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) NAS Lemoore
CVW-3 Carrier Air Wing 3 patch (USN).gif AC USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75) NAS Oceana
CVW-5 Cvw-5.gif NF USS George Washington (CVN-73) NAF Atsugi
CVW-7 Cvw-7.gif AG USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) NAS Oceana
CVW-8 Cvw-8.gif AJ USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77) NAS Oceana
CVW-9 Carrier Air Wing 9 logo (2011).jpg NG USS John C. Stennis (CVN-74) NAS Lemoore
CVW-11 Carrier Air Wing 11 logo (2011).jpg NH USS Nimitz (CVN-68) NAS Lemoore
CVW-14 Cvw-14.gif NK USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) NAS Lemoore
??? ??? ?? USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) NS Norfolk
CVW-17 Carrier Air Wing 17 logo (USN).jpg AA USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) NAS Oceana

See List of United States Navy aircraft wings.


Carrier Air Group organization, naming, and identification

The 1945 Visual Identification System.

The first Carrier Air Groups (as they were then called) were activated in 1937. Initially, the commander of the air group (known as the "CAG") was the most senior commanding officer of the embarked squadrons and was expected to personally lead all major strike operations, co-ordinating the attacks of the carrier's fighter, bomber, and torpedo planes in combat. The CAG was a department head of the ship reporting to the carrier's commanding officer. From July 1937 to mid-1942 Carrier Air Groups were permanently assigned to and identified by their parent aircraft carrier, and group squadrons were numbered according to the carrier's hull number. For example, the Enterprise Air Group, assigned to USS Enterprise (CV-6), were all numbered "6": Fighting Squadron (VF) 6, Bombing Squadron (VB) 6, etc.[3] In 1942 air groups were no longer named for their carrier but were given unique numbers according to their assigned carriers' hull number (i.e., the Enterprise Air Group became CAG-6). This numbering scheme was also soon scrapped as carrier groups (now abbreviated CVGs) frequently moved from carrier to carrier. At this point, the carrier groups simply retained their number designation regardless of the carrier assigned. The first formal system for air group identification (Visual Identification System for Naval Aircraft) was established in January 1945. This consisted of geometric symbols that identified the parent carrier, not the air group. As there were just too many carriers and the symbols were hard to remember or to describe over the radio, a single or double letter system was introduced in July 1945. The letters, however, still identified the carrier, not the air group. The following identifications are known:[4]

A VBF-88 FG-1D Corsair showing the letter code introduced in July 1945.

Shangri-La is known to have had her hull number "38" on the flight deck forward replaced by her air group identification letter "Z".[5] Due to the ongoing combat and the end of the war, a mix of identification codes was used in late 1945. Starting in late 1946, the letters identified the carrier air group, and not the carrier. The use of single letters was discontinued in 1957.[6]

On 20 December 1963, Carrier Air Groups were redesignated Attack Carrier Air Wings" (CVW – CV is the hull designation for fixed wing carriers). From 1960 to 1974 the U.S. Navy also operated Carrier Anti-Submarine Air Groups (CVSG). These typically consisted of two fixed-wing anti-submarine squadrons (VS), a helicopter squadron anti-submarine (HS), and two smaller squadrons of 3-4 aircraft for airborne early warning (VAW) and self defense (VA, VMA, VSF).[7] In 1973 the anti-submarine squadrons were integrated into the Attack Carrier Air Wings, leading to the simple designation "Carrier Air Wing".

Prior to 1983, CAGs were typiaclly post-squadron command aviators in the rank of Commander who would typically promote to Captain while in command and would subsequently track to command of a deep draft support vessel followed by command of an aircraft carrier once they achieved greater seniority in the rank of Captain.

In 1983, Secretary of the Navy John Lehman elevated the CAG to be coequal with the Captain of the ship with both officers reporting directly to the embarked Commander of the Carrier Battle Group. The CAG was then referred to as a "Super CAG" and a Deputy CAG (DCAG) position was added who "fleets up" to the CAG position. This system is still in place, although the term "Super CAG" was soon reverted back to CAG.

Air Group/Wing historical composition

Air wing composition has changed continuously and no two air wings are configured exactly the same.


A Carrier Air Group over battleships in 1940.

Typical air group composition aboard the Yorktown Class carriers, at the beginning of World War II, consisted of approximately 72 aircraft:

During the course of the war in the Pacific the compositions of the air groups changed drastically. The scouting squadrons were disestablished by early 1943 and the number of fighter planes was increased continuously. Typically in 1943 an Essex class carrier carried 36 fighter planes, 36 bombers and 18 torpedo planes.[8]

By the end of WWII, a typical Essex air group was over 100 aircraft, consisting of :

  • 1 squadrons of 18 F6F fighters
  • 4 squadrons of 72 F4U fighter/bombers
  • 1 squadron of 12 TBM Avenger torpedo bombers[9]

Korea and Cold War

CVG-9 aboard USS Philippine Sea (CV-47), 1953.

Carrier Air Groups typically had four fighter squadrons with 58 planes and an attack squadron of 14 planes.

New to the air wings in the Cold War period after Korea were specialized squadrons of aircraft for heavy attack/nuclear strike (VAH), photographic reconnaissance (VAP/VFP, RVAH), airborne early warning (VAW), all-weather medium attack (VA), advanced twin-seat fighters (VF), electronic countermeasures (VAQ), and helicopters (HC, HS).


During the Vietnam War Attack Carrier Air Wings typically consisted of approximately 70 aircraft, including two fighter squadrons and three attack squadrons, plus the special squadrons.[10]

CVG-15 aboard Coral Sea, 1963.

In 1965, a typical air wing consisted of:

By the end of the Vietnam War in 1973, a typical air wing consisted of ~90 aircraft:

  • 2 fighter squadrons (VF) flying F-4 Phantoms or F-8 Crusaders (on Essex class carriers)
  • 2 light attack squadrons (VA) flying A-7 Corsairs or A-4 Skyhawks
  • 1 medium/all weather attack squadron (VA) flying A-6 Intruders
  • 1 electronic warfare squadron (VAQ) flying EKA-3B Skywarriors or EA-6B Prowlers
  • 1 airborne early warning squadron (VAW) flying 3-4 E-2 Hawkeye aircraft
  • 1 reconniassance attack squadron (RVAH) flying 3-6 RA-5C Vigilante on Forrestal class and larger carriers, or a detachment of RF-8G light Crusaders from a light photographic reconnaissance squadron (VFP)
  • Detachments of SH-3s or UH-2s from a helicopter combat support squadron (HC) and dual-mission EKA-3B electronic warfare and aerial refueling tankers as a detachment from a VAQ squadron

An anti-submarine air group (CVSG) aboard the Essex-class anti-submarine carriers (CVS) operated five squadrons:

  • 2 anti-submarine squadrons (VS) flying S-2 Trackers
  • 1 helicopter anti-submarine squadron (HS) flying SH-3A Sea Kings
  • 1 early warning squadron (VAW) of 4 E-1 Tracers
  • a detachment of 4 A-4 Skyhawks for self defence from various squadrons (VSF, VA, VMA, H&MS)

1983 Invasion of Grenada

CVW-1 over USS America (CV-66) in 1983.

By the early 1980s, typical air wings were replacing F-4s with F-14 Tomcats, KA-6D tankerss and A-6E bombers with aerial refueling pods had replaced A-3 as tankers, and EA-6B Prowlers had largely replaced EA-3s in the VAQ mission, although detachments of EA-3s from fleet air reconnaissance squadrons (VQ) soldiered on through the late 1980s as ELINT aircraft until replaced by the ES-3A Shadow in the carrier-based VQ mission.

  • 2 fighter squadrons (VF) of 14 F-4s or F-14As
  • 2 attack squadrons (VA) of 12-14 A-7Es
  • 1 all-weather attack squadron (VA) 10-12 A-6E (including 4 KA-6D tankers).
  • 1 early warning squadron (VAW) of 4-6 E-2Cs
  • 1 tactical electronic warfare squadron (VAQ) of 4-6 EA-6Bs
  • 1 anti-submarine squadron (VS) of 10 S-3A Vikings
  • 1 helicopter anti-submarine squadron (HS) of 6 SH-3H Sea Kings
  • detachments of EA-3B air reconnaissance and RF-8G light photographic reconnaissance aircraft

1991 Gulf War

CVW-17 aboard USS Saratoga (CV-60) in 1992.

The Gulf War marked the largest concentrated use of carrier air wings since World War II. All F-4s had been retired and A-7Es had largely been replaced with FA-18 Hornets.

  • 2 fighter squadrons (VF) of 14 F-14s, including TARPS photo reconnaissance aircraft
  • 2 strike fighter squadrons (VFA) of 12-14 FA-18 Hornets
  • 1 all-weather attack squadron (VA) 10-12 A-6Es (including 4 KA-6D tankers).
  • 1 early warning squadron (VAW) of 4-6 E-2Cs
  • 1 tactical electronic warfare squadron (VAQ) of 4-6 EA-6Bs
  • 1 anti-submarine squadron (VS) of 10 S-3A Vikings
  • 1 helicopter anti-submarine squadron (HS) of 6 SH-3H Sea Kings
  • 1 detachment of C-2A Greyhound aircraft for Carrier Onboard Delivery COD

2003 Iraq War

CVW-5 aboard USS George Washington (CVN-73), 2008.

By 2003, A-6s had been retired with their tanking duties being assumed by S-3s, ES-3s had been retired, and older F-14s were being phased out.

  • 1 fighter squadron(s) (VF) of 12 F-14A/B/D
  • 3 strike fighter squadrons (VFA) of 12 F/A-18Cs (one often a USMC VMFA squadron)
  • 1 early warning squadron (VAW) of 3-4 E-2Cs
  • 1 tactical electronic warfare squadron (VAQ) of 3-4 EA-6Bs
  • 1 sea control squadron (VS) of 8 S-3Bs (primary aerial tankers)
  • 1 helicopter anti-submarine squadron (HS) of 4 SH-60F and 2 HH-60H
  • 1 detachment of C-2A Greyhound aircraft for Carrier Onboard Delivery COD

Inactive Carrier Air Wings

Official Name Disestablished
Carrier Air Wing Four 1 July 1970
Carrier Air Wing Six 1 April 1992
Carrier Air Wing Ten 20 November 1969
Carrier Air Wing Twelve 1 June 1970
Carrier Air Wing Thirteen 1 January 1991
Carrier Air Wing Fifteen 31 March 1995
Carrier Air Wing Sixteen 30 June 1971
Carrier Air Wing Nineteen 30 June 1977
Carrier Air Wing Twenty One 12 December 1975


Official Name Disestablished
Carrier Air Wing Reserve Thirty 31 December 1994


The Navy has described an air wing for 2020 as follows:


  1. ^ Although eligible, Marine to "CAG" or "DCAG" (Deputy Commander) positions are limited to 1 to 2 Air Wings.
  2. ^
  3. ^ Swanborough, pp. 38
  4. ^ Greer, p. 33
  5. ^ File:USS Shangri-La (CV-38) underway in the pacific, 1946.jpg
  6. ^ Swanborough/Bowers, p. 37
  7. ^ Terzibaschitsch, Luftwaffe, p. 16
  8. ^ Terzibaschitsch, Flugzeugtraeger, pp. 31
  9. ^ John Roberts, Aircraft Carrier Intrepid
  10. ^ Terzibaschitsch, Flugzeugtraeger, pp. 146


  • Gordon Swanborough; Peter M. Bowers: United States Navy Aircraft since 1911. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis (Maryland) 1990, ISBN 0870217925.
  • Rene Francillion: US Navy Carrier Air Groups: Pacific 1941-1945. (Osprey Airwar 16). Osprey, London 1978, ISBN 0850452910.
  • Don Greer: F4U in Action. Squadron/Signal Publications, Carrollton, Texas (USA) 1977. ISBN 0897470281
  • Bert Kinzey; Ray Leader: Colors and Markings of U.S. Navy and USMC CAG Aircraft. Part 1: Fighters! F-8 Crusader, F-4 Phantom, F-14 Tomcat" (Colors and Markings, Bd. 10). Airlife Publishing, Shrewsbury 1988, ISBN 185310602X.
  • Bert Kinzey; Ray Leader: Colors and Markings of U.S. Navy CAG Aircraft. Part 2: Attack Aircraft. A-6 Intruder, A-7 Corsair" (Colors and Markings, Bd. 16). Airlife Publishing, Shrewsbury 1990, ISBN 1853106232.
  • Stefan Terzibaschitsch: Die Luftwaffe der U.S. Navy und des Marine Corps. J.F. Lehmanns, Munich, Germany, 1974, ISBN 3469004668.
  • Stefan Terzibaschitsch: Flugzeugtraeger der U.S. Navy. Bernard & Graefe, 2nd edition, Munich, Germany, 1986, ISBN 3763758038.
  • Stefan Terzibaschitsch: Jahrbuch der U.S. Navy 1988/89 (Schwerpunkt: Luftwaffe der U.S. Navy und des Marine Corps). Bernard & Graefe, Munich, Germany, 1988, ISBN 3763747923.
  • Stefan Terzibaschitsch: Seemacht USA. Bd. 1. 2nd revised edition, Bechtermünz, Augsburg, Germany, 1997, ISBN 3860475762.
  • John Roberts: Aircraft Carrier Intrepid (Anatomy of the Ship). Conway Maritime Press, 2004. ISBN 0851779662

External links

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