Aircraft Carrier Complement

Although the Constellation and Nimitz belong to different classes, all current US aircraft carriers carry about the same complement of aircraft. Most carriers are capable of carrying about 90 aircraft, as they did during much of the Cold War. Today's ships carry only about 70 to 80 planes mainly because of budget cuts and the changing roles these aircraft perform. Air superiority aircraft like the F-14 are being withdrawn since the threat of air attack on carrier battle groups has decreased significantly, and the A-6 dedicated attack aircraft has been retired altogether. The following table compares a typical carrier wing of the mid-1980s to one of the mid-1990s and today.

mid-1980s mid-1990s early 2000s Notes
24 F-14 14 F-14 10 F-14 Having been upgraded to carry smart bombs, the F-14 is now capable of performing fighter and attack missions. However, the F-14 is very expensive to operate and is due to be withdrawn from service in 2006. It is to be replaced by the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.
24 A-7E
24 F/A-18A
36 F/A-18C 36 F/A-18C Older F/A-18A and F/A-18C models are slowly being withdrawn from service and will be replaced by the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet as well as the F-35 by about 2015 and 2019, respectively.
10 A-6E 10 A-6E no equivalent The A-6 was supposed to have been replaced by the A-12 Avenger, an advanced stealth aircraft. Although this project was cancelled in 1991, the A-6 was phased out by 1996. Its duties were taken over by the F/A-18 and S-3 as well as F-14s modified to carry bombs.
10 S-3B 8 S-3B 6 S-3B The S-3 is now equipped for ground attack missions and surface surveillance as well as anti-submarine duties. Also serving as an in-flight refueling tanker, the S-3 has become one of the most versatile aircraft in the fleet. Proposals have been made to retire the aircraft by 2010. Its anti-submarine mission will likely be taken over by helicopters while the tanker duties will probably be transferred to F-18E/F aircraft fitted with buddy stores.
4 KA-6D [4 KA-6D] no equivalent The KA-6D airborne-refueling tanker has followed the A-6 into retirement, and tanker duties have been taken over mainly by S-3 aircraft carrying buddy stores.
4 E-2C 4 E-2C 3 E-2C The Navy continues purchasing new E-2s with upgraded electronics to replace older models. Plans call for the aircraft to eventually be replaced by the Common Support Aircraft, if it ever comes into being.
4 EA-6B 4 EA-6B 4 EA-6B The EA-6B is currently the only radar-jamming aircraft in the entire US military and has been called upon to support the Air Force as well as the Navy. While upgrades continue, the Navy plans to replace the aircraft with a specialized variant of the two-seat F-18F called the EA-18G.
no equivalent 2 ES-3A 2 ES-3A An electronic intelligence variant of the S-3, this specialized aircraft is only operated by about half of the carrier air wings. It will likely be retired along with the S-3 by about 2010, but no suitable replacement has yet been announced.
no equivalent 2 C-2 2 C-2 This ship-to-shore transport aircraft was re-introduced in the late 1980s and is also planned for replacement by the Common Support Aircraft. However, the C-2 is considered to be a shore-based aircraft and is therefore not counted in the carrier air wing totals.
6 SH-3H 4 SH-60
2 HH-60
4 SH-60F
4 HH-60H
Though originally designed for anti-submarine warfare, the H-60 series has been upgraded to carry Hellfire air-to-ground and Penguin anti-ship missiles. Many are also to be upgraded to the SH-60R standard. The mutli-role H-60s typically perform rescue, logistics, anti-submarine warfare, and combat search-and-rescue missions.
total: 86 total: 74
not counting A-6E, KA-6D, C-2
total: 63
not counting ES-3A, C-2

The latest aircraft complement of each carrier in the US Fleet is available at US Navy Fleet Help Desk Carrier Airwing site (no longer available to the public as of 01/2002).
- answer by Doug Jackson, 4 March 2001

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