What should the carrier air wing of the future look like? The topic has taken on new significance as a consequence of an article in the July issue of Proceedings by the Chief of Naval Operations ADM Jonathan Greenert. The title of the article, “Payloads over Platforms: Charting a New Course,” its discussion of the diminishing value of stealth, and the positive mentions of both the F/A-18 Hornet and unmanned systems such as the Scan Eagle and Fire Scout led some observers to accuse the CNO of being secretly opposed to the carrier variant of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. In response, ADM Greenert and his staff have stressed that the article did not refer in any way to the F-35, but instead to stealth in the future.
The F-35 noncontroversy aside, Greenert made a profound statement that could have dramatic implications for the character of U.S. air power, in general, and the future carrier air wing, in particular. The CNO declared “we need to move from ‘luxury-car’ platforms—with their built-in capabilities—toward dependable ‘trucks’ that can handle a changing payload selection.” Why? Well, by definition “luxury car” platforms are expensive. A payload-centric approach allows for more rapid technological refresh at lower cost as well as the ability to tailor forces for the conflict du jour.
One conclusion to be drawn from the CNO’s assertion that the Navy needs to move toward “dependable trucks” is that the value of the performance characteristics associated with so-called “luxury car” platforms is declining Those characteristics include stealthiness, speed, maneuverability, perhaps even survivability. There are those who argue that the combination of advanced sensors, data fusion, high-performance missiles and directed-energy weapons will bring the era of manned fighters and penetrating bombers to an end. It is by no means certain that the U.S. aerospace industry will be able to design an affordable sixth generation manned aircraft with the combination of range, persistence, stealth, ISR, and payload required to operate in such an intensely hostile environment.