F/A-18 E/F: Boeing's concept for the FA-XX strike fighter includes both manned and unmanned versions. (Boeing)
WASHINGTON — The makeup of the US Navy’s carrier air wings will start to shift in a few years as the F-35C joint strike fighter begins to enter service. The typical carrier flight deck will see both F-35s and F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets in operation. But thoughts already are turning to what lies beyond the F-35’s fifth-generation aviation technology, to the planes that in the 2030s will begin to replace the F/A-18s flying with US and international services.
Rear Adm. Bill Moran, the Navy’s director of air warfare in the Pentagon, offered his thoughts on the future aircraft, dubbed the F/A-XX, during an interview in the Pentagon.
Q. Where are you today on what you think the sixth-generation aircraft is?
A. We don’t talk in terms of generations of airplanes. It’s really ill-defined in my view, and mostly wrapped around stealth technology. So we are not in the business of trying to design and build a sixth-generation air wing. I do not even talk about sixth generation. But I do talk about where our aircraft quantities start to run out of service life.
The bulk of our force today are Super Hornets and they will be there for a long time, out until the end of the 2020s, early 2030s timeframe. But then that need starts to occur when the airplanes reach 9,000 hours of service life. When that happens, we are either going to buy a bunch more F-35Cs, or we are going to have to start looking at capability that we can replace the capability set, the mission set that the F/A-18 E/Fs do today.
We are taking an approach called FA-XX. We’ll [start a study] next year that would assess all those missions the F/A-18 E/F plugs into, in the air wing. How could we capture those capabilities in another way instead of buying another very high-end, very expensive platform replacement? Certainly there will be platforms involved, but do they have to be platforms that look and feel and operate much like an F/A-18 E/F or an F-35 does today? Could it be done differently? Could we do the mission sets different?
For example, we talk a lot to NAVAIR [Naval Air Systems Command] about future designs being more of a truck that has an open architecture design, so you can plug different sensors, different payloads and weapons into that for a specific mission, and be able to move those sensors and payloads around so you can do multiple different missions on different days, or different sorties, instead of trying to build everything into a jet — that becomes very expensive.
It is very much in line with [the direction of Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations], where he talked about payloads over platforms. In other words, the payload piece is what is important. Getting the right payload in the right place, at the right time is also critical. But what kind of truck that payload rides around on is what we are really after.
So we want to look holistically at all of the things that contribute to a mission. They include space-based. They include other platforms that are already part of the air wing — E-2D Hawkeyes, EA-18G Growlers — and the rotary wing component. How do we do a system-of-systems look across all of those platforms, and decide what capability gaps we need to cover as the F/A-18 E/Fs start to fall off?
Now we try to tell industry that we are just opening up the aperture to have a conversation about what they think the art of the possible is. I have had some great discussions with industry partners about this. Do not just look to walk in here with a new design, a sixth-generation aircraft. I am not interested in that conversation yet. I am interested in what are the technologies that you think you can bring? And specifically propulsion, which drives future capability. That is the timeline driver. If you are looking at a game-changing propulsion capability, whether it is long dwell, fast and high, all of those types of attributes to a propulsion capability, we have got to start working that now to lead to whatever the truck looks like.
And as you are developing that propulsion capability, then you can start to look at what kind of payloads? What kind of sensors? What kind of integrating capability that you want to develop across the air wing, so you continue to have the same effect of a different shape, a different mix of an air wing in the future.
Q. Do you think about unmanned aerial vehicles?
A. You could look at small UAVs launched off a truck that do different mission sets currently done by larger platforms that are very costly or expensive. There are lots of [concept of operations] questions that come into play as we study this. And of course, now you are trying to project a threat that is in the 2030s and ’40s and even in the ’50s — and what that threat could evolve to. That is going to drive a lot of how you view what the air wing ought to look like that far out.
So it really is our opportunity right now, while we are building F-35s, while we are continuing to mature F/A-18 E/Fs to deal with the ’20s and ’30s. What are we looking at beyond that?
When you look at normal development plans that take an average of 17 years for aviation, we are at that point right now if we are truly going to get to a 2030 capability. But we are not bought into [whether] it has to be a high-end fighter, or a high-end anything. What we do know is that we need to design it to allow us the most flexibility in how we operate that, whatever it is in the future.
Do not wait for us to tell you line by line what the requirement is. We are way too early in that. I need to understand what you think are the possibilities in propulsion, sensors, networks, architecture. All of those things have to be designed into whatever this thing might look like in the future.
Q. You issued a request for information (RFI) about a year ago for the next fighter. What were the responses?
A. Official responses are highly classified; we are parsing through with a team at NAVAIR and in our Special Programs branch. And they are intriguing. They run the gamut of, here is our aircraft design of the future, to here is a capability design of the future. And somewhere in there is our trade space and how we are going to view this.
But again, it just opens up the conversation. We are very early in this. And what we hope to do is now take that process into an analysis of alternatives, a formal AOA, that will take a couple of years to complete because it is very complex. We hope to get it started in 2014.
Q. The logical responders to the RFI would be Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman. Are you interested also in hearing from conceptual groups, not necessarily aircraft manufacturers?
A. The major folks have all jumped in, and to the degree to which we have maybe some others that might want to contribute in a different way, I could not tell you right now. But I want to hear from people who think completely outside our normal acquisition process.
Q. What is your thinking about a manned versus unmanned fighter?
A. What we said in the RFI was, we want you to think manned, unmanned and optionally manned. We are not trying to drive a solution here. And we recognize there might be different mixes of those options that are more effective in the ’30s and ’40s than what we have today. But we want to understand why you think that. What are the capabilities they bring? And then let’s have a discussion.
Q. Are you driving to introduce an aircraft around 2030?
A. Yes. See, everybody wants to dive right back into, do you want a platform? And my answer is, I know I am going to start to lose the capability set that Super Hornet brings to the air wing today, starting in the late ’20s or early ’30s. So what capabilities can we start designing that replace that, the mission sets that the Super Hornet does today? When you think there are at least nine or 10 different missions the Super Hornet contributes to today, does it have to be done by the same very advanced, complex capable airplane platform?
Q. Do you envision that say, in 2040, the FA-XX will completely replace the F-35 along with the Super Hornets? Or will it serve alongside the F-35?
A. This effort is not at all to replace the F-35 — it is almost if you flip it upside down. When you look out in the ’30s and ’40s, what we are aiming to do is to complement what the F-35 brings, much like the F-35 will complement what the F-18s currently bring and deliver in the air wing. Today, there is a graceful, gradual replacing of legacy Hornets with F-35s. As the F-18 population starts to run out of service life, we have got to bring in a new capability that complements what the F-35 brings.