JUST IN: Navy’s Next-Generation Air Dominance Program to Mix Manned, Unmanned Systems

By Yasmin Tadjdeh

Boeing concept

The Navy is eyeing a mix of manned and unmanned platforms as it embarks on its next-generation air dominance program, which will replace some of the service’s aging planes, said a top official March 30.

At the center of the iniatitive is an effort to procure a sixth-generation fighter and replace the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, said Rear Adm. Gregory Harris, director of the air warfare division of the office of the chief of naval operations. The Super Hornet will begin nearing the end of its service life in the mid-2030s.

The Navy has not yet decided whether that platform will be robotic or have a pilot in the cockpit, he said during a virtual event hosted by the Navy League of the United States.

“In the next probably two to three years, we'll have a better idea of whether the replacement for the F/A-18E/F will be manned or unmanned,” he said. “I would believe it will most likely be manned but I'm open to the other aspects.”

That decision will be informed by a concept refinement phase, which the Navy is currently in, he said.

“That concept refinement phase and the teams that we have with our prime air vehicle vendors will start to advise what's in the realm of possible — has autonomy and artificial intelligence matured enough to be able to put a system inside an unmanned platform that has to go execute air-to-air warfare?” he said.

Air-to-air warfare is perhaps the most complex mission for an autonomous capability to perform, he noted.

The service is “absolutely” considering an industry teaming concept for the effort, Harris said. Officials believe that competition will give the Navy a more reliable platform with lower sustainment costs.

“Industry should look at different ways to team,” Harris said. “Our industry primes get very comfortable with the folks they've worked with in the past. Some of that's worked out very well for us. Other times it may not have worked as well as we would've liked.”

Contractors should “broaden their view” when looking at potential teaming partners, he noted. This will enable a lot of the smaller companies to be able to work in niche markets that they may be successful in, he added.

As the Navy works with industry it is also collaborating with the Air Force, which is pursuing its own next-gen air dominance platform. "The two will likely be different as far as outer mold lines, just based on the different services' needs,” he said. However, “a lot of the internal mission systems will be similar.”

The Navy sees its program as more than just a single aircraft, Harris said. While the first increment will focus on the replacement for the Super Hornet, the service is currently studying a second increment that will replace the E-18G Growler electronic warfare plane.

As the service eyes new robotic jets, it is currently working toward an air wing that is made up of a 60/40 percent mix of manned and unmanned platforms, Harris said. Over time, the service plans to shift to a 60/40 percent mix of unmanned and manned platforms.

However, that future will be dependent on the success the Navy sees with its Boeing-built MQ-25 Stingray unmanned tanker, he noted. The platform is the first unmanned plane to be deployed off an aircraft carrier, he said.

The service previously tested its unmanned combat air system demonstrator, or UCAS-D, on a carrier and proved that it can take off and land successfully, he said. However, the Navy still lacks operational experience with such a system.

“People sometimes don't understand how difficult that challenge is of operating in and around a carrier with other air wing aircraft each and every day, whether that's in the stack overhead as you're departing or recovering ... [or] all the procedural things that we do to stay safe,” he said.

The MQ-25 will be able to offer other aircraft 14,000 to 16,000 pounds of fuel at a range of 500 nautical miles, Harris noted. The first iteration of the platform will also have some intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities that are expected to grow over time.

A test demonstrator of the platform known as the T1 recently had a refueling store integrated into the system, Harris said.

“We've been flying that aircraft … and very successfully starting to knock down some of the data points for that vehicle,” he said. “We've been able to get air vehicle operators out there to be the co-pilot, if you will, getting experience with the aircraft before we bring that into the fleet.”

The Department of the Navy recently released an “Unmanned Campaign Framework” that said robotic systems will be vital for military operations going forward on land, sea and underwater.

The framework’s overarching vision is to "make unmanned systems a trusted and sustainable part of the naval force structure, integrated at speed to provide lethal, survivable and scalable effects in support of the future maritime mission,” the report said.

The framework stressed capabilities over platforms and spelled out a variety of technologies that will be needed to rapidly develop and deploy new robotic systems.

Harris noted that he was very confident in the plan.

“That may be jaded by the confidence that I have in the air portion of that plan, but I'm a firm believer in all of the unmanned capabilities that we're trying to bring forward,” he said.

The successful employment of unmanned systems will come down to the reliability, sustainability and resiliency of the networks that power those platforms, he noted.

— Additional reporting by Stew Magnuson

Topics: Air Power, Navy News

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