The service branch is leading a development programme, called Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD), to replace its F/A-18 Super Hornets.
Gregory Harris, who leads the chief of naval operation’s air warfare directorate, has said the aircraft following the Super Hornets will “most likely be manned,” but the NGAD programme will include a mix of both manned and unmanned platforms.
Harris said: “As we look at it right now, NGAD is a family of systems, which has as its centrepiece the F/A-XX... It’s the fixed-wing portion of the Next-Gen Air Dominance family of systems.
“But we truly see NGAD as more than just a single aircraft. We believe that as manned-unmanned teaming comes online, we will integrate those aspects of manned and unmanned teaming into that,” he continued. “Whether that – we euphemistically refer to it as our little buddy – is an adjunct air-to-air platform, an adjunct [electronic warfare] platform, discussion of could it be an adjunct advanced early warning platform. We’ll have to replace the E-2D [Advanced Hawkeye] at some point in the future, so as we look to what replaces that.”
Harris said the US Navy has divided work on the NGAD programme into two parts: increment one will determine the replacement for the Super Hornets, while increment two will assess the follow-on for the EA-18G Growler.
While the service has used F/A-XX to refer to the F/A-18 E/F replacement, NGAD refers to the family of systems as a whole.
“We’re going through the study portions of what Inc two will be to replace the EA-18G Growler. And we expect that that family of systems will be a combination of manned and unmanned,” Harris said.
The NGAD programme is currently in the "concept refinement phase," which is when the US Navy will work with industry partners to determine the latest technology and whether it could pursue an unmanned fighter aircraft. Harris expects the Navy to have “a better idea” within the next two or three years as to whether it will buy a manned or unmanned fighter to follow the Super Hornets.
“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,” Harris said. “I think air-to-air warfare is one of, if not the most, complex ones to try to put into autonomy.”