The U.S. Navy elaborated on its plans to replace the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, saying the service’s next strike fighter will “most likely be manned,” Popular Mechanics reported.
The jet will probably fly alongside robotic allies, and remotely crewed aircraft could eventually account for six out of 10 planes on a carrier flight deck.
“As we look at it right now, the Next-Gen Air Dominance (NGAD) 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,” said Rear Adm. Gregory Harris, the head of the Chief of Naval Operations’ air warfare directorate, during a Navy League event.
The F/A-18E/F Super Hornet dominates Navy’s strike fighter fleet, made up of fighters that can execute both fighter and attack missions. Although the Navy is buying the F-35C Joint Strike Fighter, it’s only purchasing enough of the planes to replace one or two of the four strike fighter squadrons per deployed aircraft carrier. The Navy believes it needs to replace the Super Hornet and its electronic warfare variant, the EA-18G Growler, in the 2030s
NGAD is the Navy’s effort to replace the Super Hornet. Note: It’s a completely separate program from the Air Force’s own NGAD—which recently designed, tested, and flew a secret new fighter jet—and will produce a completely separate plane. The two aircraft will almost certainly be quite different, with the Air Force’s jet more optimized for air superiority. It’s likely the two fighters, developed roughly within the same time period, will share much of the same technology.
The Navy’s NGAD crewed fighter would be part of a “family of systems,” a phrase popular in the Pentagon that typically means both crewed and uncrewed vehicles. Harris used the term “little buddy” to refer to uncrewed aircraft, which he sees as augmenting crewed fighters. A “little buddy” could act as a flying missile carrier, teaming up with the NGAD fighter to boost a carrier’s airborne firepower.
The Navy is working toward a goal of having 40% uncrewed and 60% crewed aircraft, and eventually flipping those numbers so drones will make up 60% of the carrier air wing. In addition to the fighter mission, Harris said drones could take over the electronic warfare (Growler) and airborne early warning (E-2D Hawkeye) roles.
One possible offshoot of a shift to drones could well be a larger carrier air wing.
Today’s carriers typically go to sea with about 76 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. During the Cold War, carriers with approximately the same deck space and volume routinely went to sea with nearly 90 aircraft. A carrier could easily embark another squadron’s worth of drones, or even more than that, depending on the drone’s size and cost. The result would be larger carrier air wings with more capability and a greater ability to accept losses and still remain functional.
The Navy needs to invest heavily in drones if it wants to keep its super carriers. The cost of carrier aviation is extremely high: A Gerald R. Ford-class carrier costs somewhere in the area of $12 billion, and the 44 strike fighters that justify the ship’s existence cost another $100 million each.
Then there’s easily another $1.5 billion in support aircraft, such as the E-2D Hawkeye aerial command and control plane, the upcoming MQ-25A Stingray tanker, MH-60 Seahawk helicopter, and the CMV-22 Osprey transport. The carrier’s escorts—typically a guided missile cruiser, two or three guided missile destroyers, and a nuclear-powered attack submarine - cost another $10 billion.
Remotely crewed aircraft represent the Navy’s best chance of reversing skyrocketing costs. A carrier might embark another 20 NGAD combat drones, boosting the number of aircraft that can shoot missiles or drop bombs by nearly 50 percent. At the same time, the Navy could replace some of the crewed jets with cheaper uncrewed jets. In a world of flat defense spending, the future of the aircraft carrier as we know it just might depend on NGAD.