The Navy needs a new fighter to replace the Super Hornet by the 2030s, and that means moving a whole lot faster than the F-35’s development.
The U.S. Navy joined the Air Force in garnering attention for their Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program recently, but just because they’re using the same acronym as the Air Force doesn’t mean they intend to field the same aircraft. In fact, it seems the Navy is open to looking broadly at potential replacements for its workhorse 4th generation fighter, as well as its electronic warfare counterpart, the EA-18G Growler.
This new fighter, which some have assumed will qualify for a “6th generation” moniker, will have its work cut out for it as the United States military pivots back toward deterring nation-level foes with increasing technological parity like China. In fact, it’s likely that whatever the Navy’s new fighter is, it’ll require support from at least one un-crewed aircraft in order to maximize its capabilities.
“As we look at it right now, the Next-Gen Air Dominance is a family of systems, which has as its centerpiece the F/A-XX – which may or may not be manned – platform. It’s the fixed-wing portion of the Next-Gen Air Dominance family of systems,” Rear Adm. Gregory Harris explained.
Admiral Harris’ suggestion that the Navy’s next fighter might not have a pilot may not be indicative of where the program currently sits developmentally, but rather, it likely suggests that the U.S. Navy is willing to consider a variety of potential solutions to the problems facing the nation’s fleet of flat-top fighters.
China, widely seen as America’s most militarily potent adversary, has already begun fielding hypersonic anti-ship missiles with operational ranges in excess of a thousand miles. Because of the incredible speed in which these weapons fly (greater than Mach 5), the U.S. currently does not have any reliable means of intercepting or defending against such an attack. As a result, America’s supercarriers would have to remain outside the thousand-plus mile reach of these weapons, creating what’s known as an “area denial bubble” extending from Chinese shores with these weapons in place.
Currently, America’s Navy fighters have a combat radius reaching up to 750 or so miles, making them unable to cover the distance required to fly combat sorties over China without putting their carriers at risk of hypersonic missile strikes. You can read a more complete explanation of this area denial bubble and the Navy’s fighter fuel range woes in our in-depth discussion on it here.
But these new jets will need more than just range in order to dominate a 21st-century battlespace. The Navy’s Super Hornet replacements will need to leverage at least some degree of stealth in order to be survivable, and in fact, will likely need improved stealth capabilities over jets like the F-35 and F-22 in order to be seen as a truly 6th generation fighter. Improved avionics and data fusion capabilities are also all but certain–but the element that may make these new fighters really stand out from Lockheed Martin’s existing stealth jets is their use of drones for a variety of support roles.
“But we truly see NGAD as more than just a single aircraft. We believe that as manned-unmanned teaming comes online, we will integrate those aspects of manned and unmanned teaming into that,” Harris said.
“Whether that – we euphemistically refer to it as our little buddy – is an adjunct air-to-air platform, an adjunct [electronic warfare] platform, discussion of could it be an adjunct advanced early warning platform. We’ll have to replace the E-2D [Advanced Hawkeye] at some point in the future, so as we look to what replaces that.”
The U.S. Air Force drew headlines the world over last year when they announced that they had already built and tested a prototype for their NGAD fighter program, prompting many to wonder if a new jet is right around the corner. Of course, the truth is, that prototype was likely a demonstrator for some elements of new fighter technology, like operating while interlinked with a constellation of support drones. In other words, the Air Force’s tests might have been about proving something was possible, moreso than moving into production.
But the progress the Air Force has made in the NGAD realm will almost certainly benefit the Navy’s NGAD efforts, despite both branches being clear that they have no intention of repeating mistakes made during the F-35’s acquisition process. The Joint Strike Fighter program that berthed the F-35 required a single fighter platform that could fill the disparate needs of multiple military branches and allied forces. The result was an incredibly complex, expensive, and slow development process that hasn’t been fully completed to this day, even in its 14th year of flying.
With the Navy’s stable of Super Hornets and Growlers expected to age out of service within the next two decades, the F-35’s timetable just won’t cut it. The Navy needs a new, more capable, longer-range fighter–and it needs it sooner rather than later. That’s where some degree of cooperation between the branches can still be viable, even as the Navy and Air Force pursue different airframes with different specialties.
By using an open system architecture in designing these aircraft, the Navy and Air Force will be able to leverage new sensors and other digital technologies in both aircraft. Fielding the same modular systems would reduce costs, increase interoperability, and importantly, make it similarly inexpensive to replace those systems with newer ones as technology allows.
“So if you think about it, a contractor may have a particular sensor – let’s just use the radar as an example – and over time, perhaps the performance of that radar isn’t what you want, either from a sustainability standpoint or purely from a capability standpoint,” he said.
“With that open mission system architecture, you have an ability to more rapidly replace that without getting into vendor lock. And we’ve seen vendor lock create problems for us before. We firmly believe that competition will give us a better reliability, lower sustainment costs and lower the overall costs.”
The Navy is taking a two-step approach to replacing its 4th generation jets, first focusing on a replacement for the F/A-18 Super Hornet, and then for the EA-18 Growler, which is fundamentally the same or very similar, but is equipped with a suite of electronic warfare systems instead of kinetic munitions. The next-generation platforms in these roles may not be two similar jets. Instead, some roles will likely be filled by drones, as the Navy works toward fielding a larger uncrewed fleet.
The Navy is currently developing the MQ-25 Stingray as part of this very endeavor. Boeing’s prototype was originally intended to serve as a carrier-based UCAV (Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle), but the Navy pivoted toward a fuel carrier in order to begin picking away at China’s area denial bubble. The MQ-25 will be able to refuel manned aircraft in contested airspace, allowing for greater range. It stands to reason, however, that the MQ-25 could find other uses aboard the Navy’s flat tops, including the kinetic one it was originally designed for.
“Right now – notionally – looking at driving towards an air wing that has a 40-60 unmanned-manned split and overtime shift that to a 60-40 unmanned-manned split. So to try to drive an air wing that is at least 50 percent or more unmanned over time,” Harris explained.
“Again, a lot of that’s going to be dependent on the success we see with the MQ-25 Stingray, on our ability to truly learn how to operate around the aircraft carrier and safely execute that both on the flight deck and then airborne.”
Despite an increased focus on using artificial intelligence to aid in decision making aboard drones, it seems unlikely that the Navy’s next fighter will come without a cockpit. Dogfights between aircraft are considered to be among the most complex situations pilots could contend with, and the technology isn’t quite mature enough to hand those life or death decisions off to an AI system yet. Further, before we can field such platforms, America will have to contend with the idea of giving a machine the decision to choose a target and execute. Currently, human operators manage those decisions. However, using drone platforms as “arsenal ships” or “missile magazines” that support stealth aircraft may indeed be feasible.
“Having an unmanned platform out there as an adjunct missile carrier I see as not a step too far, too soon. I could have an unmanned friend. I typically say a flying Dorito chip when I’m thinking about it – doesn’t have to be that, right,” Harris continued.
“An unmanned system with missiles I can clearly in my mind envision a way to say, ‘fine defensive combat spread. Shoot on this target.’ And I will squeeze the trigger or I will just execute – enable that unmanned platform to shoot the designated target. That doesn’t stretch beyond my realm of imagination.”
It seems clear that the next fighters America fields will be just one piece of a larger “family of systems,” blending crewed and uncrewed aircraft, fusing data from air, ground, and sea-based sensors, and engaging targets with its own munitions as well as weapons carried by other assets. This networked interoperability will allow decision makers a broader set of options and pilots a great degree of awareness and capability.
The only question is, can they do it in time to beat the Super Hornet’s final flight off into the sunset?