Military Aviation

US Navy is Not Sure if its Sixth Generation Combat Aircraft will be Launched from an Aircraft Carrier

The US Navy is still working on the question of what the next combat aircraft after the F-35C will be, or even if it will be launched from an aircraft carrier.

The US Navy is unclear how it will proceed with its next generation of combat air assets following the introduction of the F-35C Lighting II into the carrier air wing, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Gilday said on Dec. 5, 2019.

After years of churn, the service is in the midst of a broad evaluation of its fleet design and its future capabilities which will shape the service’s force structure. As reported by USNI News, the evaluation pays particular attention to unmanned systems, unlike previous efforts. Specifically, the US Navy doubles its investment for unmanned surface vehicles as part of the its Fiscal Year 2020 budget submission.

However, since it abandoned a planned unmanned, low-observable strike aircraft program in favor of the simpler MQ-25A Stingray unarmed tanker, the US Navy has lagged in the development of a next-generation, carrier-based combat air asset.

Over the last ten years, the US Navy has moved from an F/A-18E/F Super Hornet replacement, or F/A-XX, to a “family of systems” approach under the banner of the Next Generation Air Dominance program in 2016.

Gilday said that the US Navy is still working on the question of what the next combat aircraft after the F-35C will be, or even if it will be launched from an aircraft carrier.

“I do think we need an aviation combatant, but what the aviation combatant of the future looks like? I don’t know yet. 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,” Gilday said at US Naval Institute’s Defense Forum Washington conference. “I do think that that will likely be a mix of manned and unmanned. The platform which they launch from? I’m not sure what that’s going to look like.”

His comments come as the Navy’s carrier fleet is under increased scrutiny from US Congress and the White House for the cost of its programs.

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Actually, the service has been questioned for not developing a longer-range air wing to keep up with the increased range of Chinese anti-ship ballistic missiles that put the multi-billion capital ships at risk.

Earlier this year, a report from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments said, in order for a future carrier air wing to be effective in a major conflict with China, it would need to field a combatant that could fly sustained combat air patrols up to 1,000 nautical miles from the carrier. That’s 400 nautical miles beyond the effective combat radius of the F-35C and 500 nautical miles more than a current F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.

The March 2019 report, Regaining the High Ground at Sea: Transforming the US Navy’s Carrier Air Wing for Great Power Competition, called for an unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) to keep the carrier effective in major combat operations.

At the time, the CSBA report reflected internal Navy thinking on the future of its air wing, or so UNSI news understood. However, it is unclear how changes to the air wing will be incorporated into the service’s new fleet architecture.

For now, what we know is that Rear Adm. Scott D. Conn claimed last April the U.S. Navy expects to attain a 50-50 percentage mix of F-35Cs and F/A-18E/Fs by about 2030. The service has ordered 78 Block III Super Hornets and plans to bring more than 100 older Super Hornets to the Block III configuration.

“Any additional resources that would be available from an F-35 perspective would provide us some buffer to meet our transition schedule as we get transition squadrons from Super Hornets into the Joint Strike Fighter,” Conn said.

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Photo credit: Rodrigo Avella

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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