Up to 60% of the US Navy’s future carrier fleet could be unmanned, according to the head of the Navy’s Next Generation Air Dominance Program (NGAD).
Rear Adm. Gregory Harris, the chief of naval operations air warfare directorate, comments came during a Navy League special breakfast event last week.
In the conversation about future plans for the Navy’s airwing, Harris stated that the Navy would develop “at least 50% unmanned or more” airwing over time. US Naval forces will continue to evolve their airwing in the face of net-centric warfare, with Harris stating,
“We expect that family of system will be a combination of manned and unmanned. Right now, notionally looking at driving towards an airwing that has a 40/60 unmanned/manned split. And over time shift that to a 60/40 unmanned/manned split”.
The future of US Naval Operations
In the hour-long discussion, the admiral made it clear that the airwing and the carrier need to “evolve together” to face the challenges of the shift to net-centric warfare. However, as expected, the talk primarily focused on the US Navy airwing’s adoption of unmanned aircraft.
Harris speculated that the success of the drive towards a 50% unmanned airwing depended on the outcome of the new MQ-25 Stingray. Boeing’s crewless MQ-25 carrier aircraft is currently in production and will assist refuelling efforts on Naval aircraft carriers.
The Stingray presents a new dawn for US Naval engineering as it will be the first unmanned used on their carriers. Harris said that it would be “the lead for all of our manned and unmanned teaming”.
Harris detailed the new aircraft’s exciting capabilities, including the option to bring “up to three cycles of gas” in a recovery cycle. The Stingray should extend the combat range of the pre-existing Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet and its electronic counterpoint, the EA-18G Growler.
But the admiral also discussed the retirement of those aircraft, set for the mid-2030s. According to Harris, the Hornet’s replacement, F/A-XX, may or may not be manned – however, it will more likely be an aircraft with a pilot.
F/A-XX will be the “centrepiece” of NGAD, according to the senior naval chief. Yet, Harris was keen to demonstrate that the program will not be limited to only the F/A-XX. He described NGAD as a ‘family of systems’ that will integrate manned and unmanned teaming and a variety of future aircraft and systems.
This will include an NGAD drone pairing component, which the admiral light-heartedly referred to as “little buddy”. The role of such drones may be warning system or warfare aircraft but may simply act as an in-air partner to other human-crewed aircraft.
However, the admiral also took the time to discuss the likelihood of an unmanned replacement for the F/A-18 Super Hornet. He stated that the decision would come through the current “concept refinement phase.”
Harris stated that through this, the teams would “start to advise what’s in the realm of possible, has autonomy and artificial intelligence matured enough to put a system inside an unmanned platform that has to go execute air-to-air warfare”.
While Harris did state that this development would take time, he also added that “having an unmanned platform out there as an adjunct missile carrier I see as not a step too far, too soon.”
Words by Jonathan Ritchie