The U.S. Navy is looking at unmanned and artificial intelligence capabilities as options to replace its F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet and E/A-18G Growler aircraft carrier forces, officials said at a conference Friday.

Capt. Richard Brophy, who is working on the “Next Generation Air Dominance” (NGAD) study, said the Navy is looking at various technology and program investments needed to succeed the F/A-18 and E/A-18G and their follow-ons once they reach the end of their service life in the 2030s.

F/A-18 Hornet Photo: Boeing
F/A-18 Hornet
Photo: Boeing

The NGAD is looking at future replacement of the larger F/A-18 and EA-18G family of systems (FoS) that includes the F-35, E-2, MQ-25A, and associated networks, sensors, and weapons of the carrier air wing (CVW). The study began as an analysis of alternatives (AoA) in January 2016.

Separately and unconnectedly, the Air Force has a similar effort underway looking into possibilities for an F-22 follow-on it expects to finish in 2018 (Defense Daily, July 10).

Brophy spoke about NGAD at a panel about sea-based aviation and force projection here during the 2017 Naval Future Force Science and Technology Expo. The Navy now knows what capabilities future carrier strike groups need and what threats they will face, he said.

The Navy is looking at how to replace the carrier forces from a holistic standpoint. “The trade space is completely wide open as we look at what is going to replace those airplanes.”

He said the Navy is breaking up this effort using four categories of alternatives ranging from status quo to evolutionasry to transformational: status quo, extend/increase the current inventory with a significantly abbreviated acquisition cycle, improve baseline capabilities (called derivative) with an abbreviated acquisition cycle, and “new start capability” (called developmental) with an extended acquisition cycle.

The status quo merely removes F/A-18s and EA-18G aircraft; the extend/increase inventory option adds additional weapons to current aircraft; the derivative option upgrades the F/A-18a and EA-18Gs, F-35Cs, and others in the FoS; and the developmental option changes the weapons, sensors, engines, networks, and tanking.

Brophy emphasized the Navy is taking a cooperative approach as it examines its options across government and industry stakeholders. This has already included an NGAD team-hosted Industry Day in October 2016 that included 15 interested defense contractors, he said.

NGAD is working through a step-based design timeline that runs through April 2018. The steps include decision framing, develop objectives and measures, generate alternatives, evaluate alternatives, synthesize results, and present materiel solution recommendations. Brophy said the Navy is in Phase 3: generating alternatives.

He noted “it is not lost on us that AI, unmanned, it’s coming and it’s out there, and we need to be able to incorporate that into what we’re looking at out there.”

Brophy elaborated on what other capabilities the Navy is looking into: longer ranges (including weapons range beyond aircraft), propulsion, high speed, and stealth.

“We certainly need survivability. Stealth is just one piece of the survivability equation.”

“I kind of look at stealth as sort of like chaff and flares. It’s not going to defeat [enemies] every time, but it will help. Stealth is part of what any future design — if you look at any country, they’re going that way. So yes, it would probably be part of it,” he added.

Bill Nickerson, a program officer at the Office of Naval Research, added they are making investments into counter-directed energy capabilities along with technologies that would improve survivability and durability like ultra-lightweight armor.