Navy, Air Force Team on New Fighter as Navy Aims for 50 Percent Robot Jets

The Air Force and Navy are working together on the Next-Generation Air Dominance program, and the Navy version has a good chance of being unmanned, said Rear Adm. Gregory Harris, the Navy’s director of air warfare, during a Navy League virtual event March 30.

NGAD will be a family of systems for both the Air Force and Navy, and the centerpiece of the Navy variant will be the FA-XX, an aircraft that will succeed the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, Harris said.

“We truly see NGAD as more than just a single aircraft,” Harris said. “We believe that as manned-unmanned teaming comes online, we will integrate those aspects” into the air wing, which will see “adjunct,” unmanned aircraft performing the roles of aerial tanking, electronic warfare, and possibly airborne early warning, succeeding the E-2D Hawkeye.

The Navy has just begun the “concept refinement phase” of NGAD, Harris said, and “we’re working closely with our Air Force counterparts” on their version of the system.

“The two will likely be different as far as outer mold line, just based on different services’ needs, but a lot of the internal mission systems will be similar,” and will have open mission architecture, Harris said. This will enable competition in industry and “enable us to use best of breed.” Open missions means that if a subsystem isn’t performing as the Navy needs it to, or is too costly to maintain, “you have an ability to replace it without ‘vendor lock,’” he noted, adding that’s an issue that has “created problems for us before.”

The Navy “firmly believes” that competition will “give us better reliability, better sustainment costs, lower overall costs,” Harris said. He encourages industry to look beyond its usual teaming partners, “broaden their view,” and maybe bring on smaller companies that could “work into the niche markets” of subsystems. Studies are underway about how to replace the EA-18G Growler electronic warfare platform, and that mission will likely be “half manned/ half unmanned,” Harris said.

The decision on whether the Navy’s NGAD will be manned or unmanned will be informed by whether “autonomy and artificial intelligence [have] matured enough to put a system inside an unmanned platform that [can] …go execute air-to-air warfare.”

Harris’s guess is that the FA-XX will be manned. He said last year’s experiment in which an AI defeated a living pilot in an F-16 was not a pure test of skill, as the AI had full knowledge of the F-16’s energy state. Air combat maneuvering is “the most complex” mission being contemplated for an AI, he said.

“In the real world,” a pilot would be making judgments “as he watches the other aircraft maneuver; … did he go high or low, how many times did he go high or low, the rate at which the nose is turning, am I seeing differences in the nozzles … All those things … [an] AI will have to learn to sense and react to.”

Harris said it’s not hard to imagine, in the near future, “an adjunct missile carrier … with missiles, flying defensive combat spread” missions. Such an application of an unmanned system is not a “stretch” by any means, he said.

Where it becomes a policy issue is when the AI is given the authority to shoot targets on its own, he said, suggesting that limits and rules like Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics may come into play.

“In the next two to three years, we’ll have a pretty good idea if the replacement for the F/A-18 E/F will be manned or unmanned,” he predicted. “I would believe it most likely will be manned, but I’m open to the other aspects of it.” Among the trades, he said, will be whether it’s worth it to put the life support and escape systems into a jet, because that space and weight could be used for fuel, which translates to range or persistence.

Industry is also supplying the “art of the possible,” Harris said. Ideally, the Navy likes an aircraft to be able to “call the ball” or declare itself on the right flightpath from three-fourths of a mile away from the carrier, but if it can be done safely only a half a mile away, “that could change the angle of attack … and that difference … could change the outer mold line and could affect stealth capabilities, or range, or speed, or G.” The current discussion “lets you find out what trade is worth what,” he added.

The carrier airwing continues to shrink, even though the new Gerald R. Ford class is the largest yet, Harris said.

“In the ‘80s, … we typically had 90 aircraft up on the deck, now we’re more like 66,” Harris said.

“Right now, notionally, we are driving toward an air wing that has a 40-60 unmanned/manned [aircraft] split, and over time, shift that to a 60/40 unmanned/manned split,” Harris said. The aim is to “drive to an air wing that is at least 50 percent or more unmanned, over time.”

The speed with which that will happen depends on how easily the Navy absorbs the Boeing MQ-25 Stingray, Harris said. The unmanned aircraft will principally be used for aerial tanking—both on recovering aircraft coming back to the carrier, and to extend the range of jets at the edge of the carrier’s operating zone. While all tests so far have shown the Stingray to work well, much is yet to be learned about operating it in and around the carrier environment, and in getting crews used to it. Sometimes, Harris noted, it will be the humans that make mistakes, and not the unmanned aircraft. The Stingray will also do some intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, and possibly some light strike, he said.

“I’m very confident in the unmanned plan,” Harris said. “The challenge for all of us will be very similar, and it will come down to the networks: the reliability, sustainability, and resiliency of those networks” to support the new systems.

The Navy doesn’t think that a larger number of smaller carriers—like the Marine Corps amphibious ships—will fit the bill in the future, despite the reduction of tails on a flattop. But it is considering the idea of a “light carrier,” and has looked at 70 iterations so far, Harris reported, with a decision due in 2022.

“Over the long run, we don’t find a compelling return on investment” for a small carrier, he said, due to the need to carry a lot of jet fuel and the ability to remain on station a long time. He touted the big ships as highly survivable and flexible.

The big carriers are seeing longer cruises, Harris said, with some at sea for 10 months at a time. Though sailors want predictability, the changes have to do with global tasking and the flexibility demanded of by great power competition.

Harris said the F-35C will make its first operational cruise this summer, with 10 aircraft embarked aboard the Carl Vinson. The F-35C’s longest time at sea so far was five weeks aboard the Vinson during the work-up phase. The jet has performed well, and “the performance of the most junior pilots … is really very encouraging,” he said.