Future Navy Carriers Could Have More Drones Than Manned Aircraft, Admiral Says

USS Theodore Roosevelt training drone.
U.S. Navy Sailors assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) hold safety lines to steady a training drone as it is raised on to the ship’s flight deck Aug. 20, 2020. (U.S. Navy/Airman D.J. Schwartz)

Nearly two-thirds of the aircraft flying off U.S. Navy carriers could be unmanned someday, including the possibility of drone fighter jets, a top aviation leader said this week.

Like the Air Force, the Navy will take a "family of systems" approach to its next-generation air dominance, or NGAD, program, which will use aircraft, sensors and other equipment that complement one another and work together to stave off threats, Rear Adm. Gregory Harris, the chief of naval operations' air warfare directorate, said during a Navy League event Tuesday.

"We expect that that family of systems will be a combination of manned and unmanned right now, notionally looking at and driving toward an air wing that has a 40-60 unmanned/manned split. And over time ... shift that to a 60-40 unmanned/manned split," Harris said.

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The effort will "try to drive an air wing that is at least 50% or more unmanned over time," he added.

The approach will center on the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet's follow-on aircraft, which the Navy is studying now, Harris said. The service is weighing whether the fighter, known as F/A-XX for the time being, will be manned, unmanned or partially autonomous, he explained.

"We truly see NGAD as more than just a single aircraft," he said, echoing the Air Force's plan.

Air Force officials have said NGAD defies traditional categorization as a single aircraft platform or technology. Instead, it's made up of a network of advanced fighter aircraft, sensors and weapons, and could also include fighters and autonomous drones fighting side-by-side.

Harris said the Navy is whimsically referring to its drone pairing concept as a "little buddy," which would act as an air-to-air sidekick and potentially an electronic warfare platform.

"Could it be an adjunct advanced early warning platform? We'll have to replace the [E-2D Hawkeye] at some point in the future," he said, referring to the carrier-capable airborne early warning aircraft.

Many of these decisions are predicated on the performance of the MQ-25 Stingray, the Navy's new unmanned refueling aircraft, the admiral said.

Service leaders announced in November that they want to base a squadron of 20 MQ-25A tanker drones, which they expect to revolutionize carrier air wings, at Naval Base Ventura County in Point Mugu, California. The Navy is studying how the drone -- capable of refueling aircraft in flight, and conducting intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations -- amplifies carrier air wing operations.

"Just think about the complexity of the rules of the road for a surface vessel," Harris said. He added that humans may be the ones who have to err on the side of caution -- not necessarily the drones.

"It may be the manned aircraft interpreting what the unmanned aircraft is doing, incorrectly," he said. "We just have to get down to the rehearsal piece of operating in and around all those other aircraft."

The Navy revealed last year that it has established its own NGAD program office in an effort to speed up the fielding of a new fighter prior to the 2030s, according to USNI News.

The service is conducting separate studies for the F/A-XX follow-on and EA-18G Growler replacement aircraft, Harris said Tuesday.

In September, the Air Force revealed it had quietly built and flown a brand-new prototype that could become a future advanced fighter jet -- or something more, as part of its own "family of systems" initiative.

The NGAD program is being developed alongside the service's future fighter road map.

In the ongoing "TacAir study," Air Force officials are trying to determine the right mix of aircraft for the future inventory and assessing how future fighter concepts will fit into the current mix of fourth- and fifth-generation fighters.

-- Gina Harkins contributed to this report.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @oriana0214.

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