Navy Boss Hints At A Very Different Looking Future Fleet Of Naval Combat Aircraft

He also talked about the possibility of deploying those manned and unmanned aircraft on ships beyond traditional aircraft carriers.

US Navy aircraft fly in formation over the USS Nimitz.
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The U.S. Navy's top officer says that his service is still looking at a mix of still largely undefined manned and unmanned advanced "aviation combatants" to follow on from its existing primary combat jets, the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and F-35C Joint Strike Fighter. He also said that it was not clear what platforms those future aircraft might launch from, raising the possibility that the Navy may be looking beyond traditional aircraft carriers as it refines its naval aviation requirements.

On Dec. 5, 2019, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Gilday made his comments about the future of naval aviation at the U.S. Naval Institute’s annual Defense Forum Washington. In April 2019, U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Scott Conn, the Navy’s Director of Air Warfare, had told legislators that a study of core requirements for the service's Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program, not to be confused with the U.S. Air Force's program of the same name, would be ready by the summer. NGAD is the Navy's current effort to develop a "family of systems" to supplant the F/A-18E/F and F-35C. As the Department of the Navy is responsible for overseeing the U.S. Marine Corps, this could have an impact on the future of that service's combat aviation elements, as well.

“I do think we need an aviation combatant, but what the aviation combatant of the future looks like? I don’t know yet," Gilday explained. "I think there’s going to be a requirement to continue to deliver a seaborne launched vehicle through the air that’ll deliver an effect downrange. ... I do think that that will likely be a mix of manned and unmanned."

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Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Gilday speaks at the Defense Forum Washington on Dec. 5, 2019.

The Navy has been actively exploring what its future combat aircraft fleets might look like since at least 2008. In 2012, it formally dubbed the program F/A-XX, with the primary goal being the development of a sixth-generation manned stealth fighter. 

The service has also been separately working on an Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV) since at least the 2000s. That effort eventually evolved into the abortive Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike program, or UCLASS, a saga in of itself that The War Zone has covered in detail in the past.

Though then-Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus declared in 2015 that the future of naval aviation was unmanned, UCLASS morphed into the MQ-25 Stingray unmanned tanker program the following year and the Navy's focus returned primarily to manned aircraft with F/A-XX. However, as Admiral Gilday has made clear, this view has shifted again with the evolution of F/A-XX into NGAD and the return to a discussion about a future mix of manned and unmanned platforms.

"Anything beyond a Block III Super Hornet is a Next-Generation Air Dominance discussion, in terms of what is going to replace that aircraft," Rear Admiral Scott Conn explained to lawmakers in April. The NGAD study that the Navy planned to complete this summer would "inform future choices reflected in future budget cycles in terms of what do we need to do to get after the lethality that we need at a cost that we can afford," he added.

This is, in many ways, extremely similar to how discussions about a future air combat platform have transformed over the past two decades within the Air Force. That service also started with a focus on a manned sixth-generation combat jet, referred to as F-X, before shifting focus to a family of systems approach that will include unmanned designs as part of its own, unrelated, NGAD program.

The Air Force has described its vision of NGAD as including manned aircraft worked together with "loyal wingman" drones, autonomous UCAVs, low-cost unmanned swarms, and much more. The service is also looking at novel concepts within these categories, including "fighter jets" that do not fit traditional definitions, such as a derivative of the future B-21 Raider stealth bomber armed with air-to-air missiles and networked together with a number of loyal wingmen. You can read more about the Air Force's NGAD effort in this recent in-depth piece on the present state of that program at The War Zone.

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Kratos' low-cost experimental XQ-58 drone is at the center a number of advanced US Air Force aerial combat efforts.

NGAD is also only one element of how the Air Force is hoping to disrupt typical notions about air combat, as well as the development and acquisition of combat aircraft. This includes a questionably ambitious plan to spur rapid development of new, advanced aircraft designs and work on plug-and-play systems that could add increased autonomy to future drones or pilot-optional designs, as well as generally increasing network connectivity among aircraft and munitions. 

Golden Horde, the munitions networking effort, and Skyborg, the program to develop an artificial intelligence "brain" for future unmanned platforms are two of the Air Force's first three new "Vanguard Programs." The service says it will designate various efforts as "Vangaurds" in the future, which will highlight them for greater emphasis in future budgets and overall planning.

The Navy has no doubt been watching what the Air Force has been doing and there is a distinct possibility that the two NGAD efforts could eventually find themselves working closely together, if not blended together into a single joint program. The two services are already working together on a new joint networking initiative to better link all of their various platforms together, which Admiral Gilday has described as being a new "Manhattan Project," the name of the effort that developed the first atomic bomb. 

The Navy has already made significant strides in this regard with its Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC) and Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter-Air (NIFC-CA) efforts, which you can read about more here and here. It has also been working on a distributed, networked electronic warfare architecture called Netted Emulation of Multi-Element Signature (NEMESIS), which could be a factor in the service's future combat aircraft developments and that you can read about in this recent War Zone feature.

Of course, the Navy, as well as the Marine Corps, certainly has different requirements than the Air Force and there have been reports in past that the torturous experience with the F-35 program has soured all three on another future joint combat aircraft effort. The increasing emphasis on a diverse family of systems rather than a single 'exquisite' aircraft design may mitigate those issues to a degree. In addition, the Navy's unique need for "seaborne launched" designs may be less of an issue going forward if its future combat aviation fleets include aircraft that do not need to operate from traditional aircraft carriers.

"The platform which they launch from?" Admiral Gilday asked rhetorically at the Defense Forum Washington. "I’m not sure what that’s going to look like."

This is a particularly interesting comment given the ongoing troubles the Navy is having with its new Ford class supercarriers, its efforts together with the Marine Corps to investigate the use of amphibious assault ships as light carriers, and the recent dramatic decision within the Marines to emphasize using platforms beyond traditional amphibious warfare ships as part of future distributed operations. 

It's possible that the Navy may also consider more novel platforms, including large submarines, as options for launching unmanned aircraft, including swarms of small drones, in the future. The Marines are also in the process of exploring their own multi-faceted advanced drone efforts as part of the Marine Air Ground Task Force Unmanned Aircraft System Expeditionary program, or MUX

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An F/A-18E Super Hornet, at left, and an F-35C Joint Strike Fighter, at right, onboard the Nimitz class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln during tests in 2018.

How the Navy's NGAD program continues to evolve and mature, and how they may blend together with other efforts within the service or elsewhere within the U.S. military, remains to be seen. A number of tertiary factors may impact those plans, as well, especially given Rear Admiral Conn's remarks earlier this year about the need to fit the requirements into a package "we can afford." The U.S. government has returned to the use of short-term spending packages, known as continuing resolutions, amid concerns about possible government shutdowns and general budget uncertainty, which will influence long-term planning throughout the U.S. military.

The Navy itself is in a period of flux. Admiral Gilday only took up the role of Chief of Naval Operations in August, after the prospective nominee for the position, now retired Admiral Bill Moran, withdrew from the process. Then-Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer had called Moran's judgment into question over his correspondence with another officer who had previously retired amid a sexual harassment scandal. Spencer himself was forced out in November as a result of a convoluted series of events following President Donald Trump's decision to pardon Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher. A court martial had acquitted Gallagher of murdering a prisoner of war, a war crime, as well as other charges, but had convicted him of "wrongfully pos[ing] for an unofficial picture with a human casualty."

What is clear is that the Navy is still considering a multitude of options as it continues to refine its requirements and potential concepts of operation for its future combat aircraft fleets.

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com