by DAVID AXE
The U.S. Navy is beginning the planning process for its next-generation carrier air wing. New fighters, drones, radar planes and resupply aircraft are in testing or concept development. The result, sometime after 2030, could be an even more powerful naval air force.
For decades the Navy’s super-carriers have represented one of America’s most powerful tools for diplomacy and combat. In a new shipbuilding plan published in March, the Pentagon committed to maintaining 10-12 nuclear-powered carriers through 2042. A typical carrier air wing includes more than 40 fighters, four or five each radar planes and jamming planes plus helicopters and a detachments of cargo haulers — 60-70 aircraft in all.
But by the 2030s, today’s main carrier aircraft will need replacing. Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighters and EA-18G Growler Electronic Warfare jamming planes will reach the end of their fatigue lives, as will Northrop Grumman C-2 Greyhound cargo planes that deliver people, mail and urgent supplies to carrier decks.
All three types could be replaced by new or upgraded aircraft. Manned and robotic vehicles already in advanced stages of development will complement the fighter, EW and cargo replacements.
Officially, the Navy is still committed to procuring more than 200 F-35C Joint Strike Fighters from Lockheed Martin to fly alongside the Super Hornets. The F-35 is in testing and low-rate production, but rising costs and mounting delays have seemed to undermine the program’s future. There is little doubt the Air Force will acquire the F-35A model to replace its aging F-15 and F-16 fighters, but the Navy’s need for the F-35C is less urgent, as its 500 Super Hornets are only a few years old, on average — and the Boeing fighter is still in production. The Navy could curtail or cancel the F-35C and supplant the stealthy fighter with more F/A-18s.
The Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike drone could also factor into the Navy’s fighter plans. UCLASS is a Navy initiative to test a jet-powered, armed attack drone for carrier use. Northrop built two X-47B prototypes under a related program and has been testing them in California and Maryland. An X-47B is slated to go to sea for carrier trials next year. UCLASS will use the test results to guide the acquisition of potentially hundreds of combat-ready strike drones, which could be a version of the X-47 or new designs from Boeing, Lockheed or General Atomics.
UCLASS will be stealthy and long-ranged, giving carriers the same “first-day” strike capability against a determined enemy that is also the rationale behind the F-35C. A mixed fleet of Super Hornets and drones would arguably equal the capabilities of an F-35-equipped force, and at lower cost. The Navy wants to begin fielding UCLASS drones before 2020, around the same time the F-35C should be combat-ready. The Navy has not publicly signaled any intention to cut the F-35, but if it does back away from the stealthy jet, the decision should come in the next few years.
A version of the UCLASS drone is also a prime candidate to carry radar-jamming gear and replace the roughly 100 EA-18Gs after 2030. The Navy is working on a broadband radar jammer called the Next-Generation Jammer that industry officials say can be scaled for a wide range of platforms.
If the F-35C survives, the Navy could boost its production numbers to fully or partially replace the Super Hornets after 2030. Drones or a new manned fighter design could make up the balance. This month, the Navy issued a formal Request for Information to the aerospace industry asking for ideas for a new “FA-XX” fighter that could be ready for testing by 2020 and full-scale service 10 years later. Boeing has already publicized a concept for a two-man, tailless fighter that promises extreme radar stealth.
The Navy is considering replacing the 40 or so C-2s with a similar number of Boeing-Bell V-22 Osprey tiltrotors, which take off and land like helicopters but cruise like airplanes thanks to their rotating engine nacelles. Northrop is also studying an upgraded version of the existing Greyhound.
The future radar plane is already in production. Northrop took the basic E-2 Hawkeye airframe that has been in service since the 1960s and added a new radar and new avionics to produce the essentially brand-new E-2D. The new plane should enter service in 2014.