WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy is on the brink of an explosion in research and development funding for its next-generation fighter program — an effort that could make or break the mainstay of the fleet’s powerful strike arm.

The service this year proposed quadrupling funding for its next-generation air dominance program from last year’s paltry $5 million to $20.7 million, with plans to increase funding every year to at least 2024, when it peaks at $372 million, according to the Navy’s fiscal 2020 budget documents.

The effort to develop a “family of systems” to replace the shorter-range F/A-18 Hornet is a do-or-die effort that will determine if aircraft carriers remain relevant into the 21st century or will go the way of the chariot and battle elephant.

As the U.S. pivots away from small wars toward squaring off with peer adversaries like China and Russia, the carrier is finding itself out-ranged by investments in long-range anti-ship cruise missiles such as China’s DF-21. And while there has been mounds of commentary dedicated to the carrier’s irrelevance now that there is a missile with the range to challenge it, the Navy isn’t ready to give up.

Rescuing the carrier from history’s graveyard of superseded military technologies will require an urgent intervention, and it’s not just about replacing the relatively limited-range Hornet, according to a study released this year by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

The carrier air wing of the future will also need to be able to hunt submarines (serving as a replacement for the S-3 Viking aircraft), provide surveillance and targeting, and destroy ships and land targets with standoff weapons, all while fighting at nearly double the range of today’s air wing, according to the study, which was led by retired submarine officer and analyst Bryan Clark.

If the Navy wants to counter China’s anti-ship cruise missiles and increasing naval capabilities, it must resurrect the Cold War-era “outer-air battle” concept, which focused on longer-range aircraft to counter Russia’s bombers. However, instead of fighting at 200-plus nautical miles, the air wing will have to fight at 1,000 nautical miles, the study found.

“The air wing of the future is going to have to be focused less on attacking terrorist training camps and huts in Syria, and more focused on killing ships and submarines at sea — dealing with naval capabilities and island-based littoral capabilities,” Clark said in a telephone interview. “Those are the challenges: Range and the mission set is changing.”

In other words, the entire air wing, both the range at which it can fight and the missions it is set up to execute, must be completely overhauled. That’s a big ask that can’t be answered overnight. It starts with committing to the MQ-25 Stingray, Clark said, referring to the unmanned tanker aircraft under development by Boeing following an $805 million contract award last year for the first four aircraft.

The Navy’s senior leadership has described the MQ-25 Stingray as a test-bed platform for filling an agreed-upon need (carrier-based tanking) while also learning how to integrate unmanned platforms into the air wing. But rather than thinking of it as a prototype-plus, the Navy needs to move forward on implementing up to eight Stingrays per air wing into the fleet as soon as possible so it can push out existing four-generation fighters to farther ranges, Clark said.

“The Navy needs to get off this idea of the MQ-25 as a technology demonstration or the first foray into unmanned off of the carrier, and start talking about the military capability and how it will be implemented,” he said.

Bob Work, former deputy secretary of defense under the Obama administration, said in an April phone call that the MQ-25 should be able push a few Hornets out to the ranges suggested in Clark’s study, but argued that approach isn’t a long-term solution.

“They are going to be able to drag some forces out pretty far, but [the air wing is] not going to be able to sustain a large number of aircraft at 1,000 nautical miles,” Work said.

Clark said the Navy could sustain larger numbers of aircraft off the carrier if it began integrating 12-15 Stingrays in each air wing. However, he added, the navy would pack its hanger bay so full of tankers that the whole effort eats into how much strike capacity the service can retain on any given carrier. Still, that would offer the Navy at least a near-term fix, he noted.

Upgrades and updates

The longer-term fix for the Navy is whatever comes next. For Work, the Navy must focus on range if it wants to recapture relevance in a potential fight with China. And range means unmanned, he said.

“So now the focus should be on the F/A-XX. If you really want range, that has to be the platform you are shooting for,” Work said. “Because with the Navy buying the F-35Cs, and the Marine [Corps] buying the F-35Bs, and the Navy buying the Block III Super Hornet, you are not going to be able to afford two or three programs. So the F/A-XX is the one you need to focus on. And if the analysis shows you need range, that points to unmanned.”

In the study, Clark called for an unmanned combat air vehicle, or UCAV, with a range of up to 3,000 nautical miles without refueling and the ability to perform missions from anti-submarine and electronic warfare to anti-surface and strike.

But the study also called for retaining a manned fighter for command-and-control capabilities in environments where communications are jammed or nonexistent, Clark said.

“There is still going to be a need for manned fighters to do close-air support, but mostly to do command and control of other platforms that are perhaps unmanned inside a comms-denied environment,” Clark said. “So you send some loitering missiles or you send UCAVs up forward, you would expect them to be managed by someone who is able to maintain comms with them. That would be a human in a fighter that is able to remain close enough to them to stay in comms.”

For that, Clark points to a retooled F-35 fighter jet, one that switches out internal payload space for fuel.

“The F-35 folks, when you talk to them about what it would take to make it a longer-range command-and-control aircraft, they’re pretty optimistic because most of the challenge in doing these kinds of changes is in the software,” Clark said. “And the software isn’t dramatically different because it’s really just changing how it manages the fuel, not any of the other functions.”

Missed opportunities

When it comes to unmanned multirole aircraft, the Navy is late to its own party.

The service has experimented with its Northrop Grumman-developed X-47B unmanned demonstrator aircraft, which made history in 2013 as the first unmanned aircraft to make a carrier landing. In 2015, the X-47B demonstrated the first unmanned aerial refueling.

But the program, which was fiercely debated internally, moved away from delivering a penetrating strike aircraft or a long-range reconnaissance aircraft, instead evolving into the less ambitious MQ-25 Stingray, with the goal being to get something on deck as quickly as possible with a minimum of requirements.

Work, who was part of the decision to pursue a tanker, identified cost as the main consideration at the time. Consider the F-35 program, the Navy’s plans to buy new carrier onboard delivery aircraft and the Marine Corps’ efforts to acquire heavy-lift CH-53K helicopters: With all of that happening simultaneously, the dollars didn’t add up, especially in a time of spending cuts, Work added.

“There was no way — with all the other things going on — unless we wanted to totally cancel the F-35C. We could have said: ‘We’re out of the F-35C business, we’re going to stop building it and we are going to go whole hog into another aircraft.’ The costs would have been extraordinary, and the Navy needed stealth on the deck of the carriers. And the F-35C was going to give them stealth.”

Instead, the effort to get a long-range unmanned aircraft with deadly capabilities is delayed until at least the mid-2020s, when the Navy starts funding the project. For now, however, the Navy must start pumping money into its unmanned systems for its capital ships to remain relevant, Clark said.

“The near-term fix is to get more tankers,” he added. “The mid-term fix is to start investing in a longer-range aircraft. Because the idea of having to have 12 or so tankers just so your fighters can get to 1,000 miles means you have to have a lot of your deck and hanger space being taken up by tankers and not strike aircraft. This way you can use the tankers you’ve developed for other missions — either strike or [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] on their own — or free up that deck space for other aircraft.”

It’s either that, or, as his study put it: “If the Navy is unable to transform its [carrier air wings], Navy leaders should reconsider whether to continue investing in carrier aviation or shift the fleet’s resources to more relevant capabilities.”