The Navy has to move quicker in its development and fielding of a sixth-generation fighter, the service’s top uniformed officer said Tuesday.
Speaking at a virtual forum hosted by Defense One, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday emphasized that the service cannot afford to move at the same pace it did when developing the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Lighting II.
“We can’t wait until 2045 or 2050 to field the next manned aircraft, if that’s what we think is required. We also have to come to grips with what is required: what do we think the future’s going to hold if we continue to develop and invest in weapons that are more precise and that have range and that, one would argue, will be doing fewer air-to-air combat type of scenarios?” Gilday said.
“We’re going to want to be able to reach up and touch … at quite a distance,” he continued. “So what am I going to get from that investment, from a warfighting perspective, that I can’t get from unmanned? So we have to take a look at that.”
Gilday said that, while the Navy is working “hand in glove” with the Air Force on developing a sixth-generation fighter, the effort requires “rigorous analysis” and both services are still determining the path forward.
“I think both the Navy and the Air Force have a lot more work to do to create a compelling argument that, if we’re going to be making investments in the double-digit billions, that it’s going to be worth it,” Gilday said.
“And it’s going to be delivered timely, and it’s going to bring the kind of lethality that’s required, because we’re in a day – I’m being completely honest with the audience here – we’re obviously in a day and age where we don’t have time to waste and we don’t have money to waste. And so it’s got to count,” he added.
While the Navy in May quietly stood up a program office, known as PMA-230, and tapped a program manager for its Next Generation Air Dominance effort, or NGAD, the service has provided few details on what kind of aircraft it could buy. Navy acquisition chief James Geurts told reporters in August that the service and the Air Force were refining the best way to work together and approach their individual NGAD initiatives.
USNI News previously reported that the Navy has initiated conversations with industry about NGAD, which would develop the replacement for the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and electronic attack EA-18G Growlers in the 2030s.
The Air Force garnered attention for its own NGAD initiative last month when a service official disclosed that it flew a type of NGAD demonstrator, according to multiple reports. But a recent Congressional Research Service report pointed out a crucial distinction between a “full-scale flight demonstrator,” which Air Force acquisition chief Will Roper said the service flew, and a “prototype,” which is how initial reports described the platform.
“[I]t is notable that the aircraft was described as a ‘full-scale flight demonstrator,’ not a ‘prototype,’” the report reads. “The former phrase is used to describe an aircraft that is showing off some form of technology and is different from ‘prototype,’ which indicates a more production-representative system.”
The report noted that the Air Force’s NGAD effort seeks to analyze five technologies, but only one technology — propulsion — is publicly known.
“The announcement came as a surprise to many observers, both as the NGAD program was believed to be an early-phase technology development program unlikely to yield hardware in the near term, and because funding began two years ago, which is unusually fast to design and build a military aircraft,” the report says of the Air Force’s flight demonstrator disclosure. “DOD had mentioned an interest in building a new ‘X-plane’ prototype as far back as 2014, but it is not clear whether this led to the NGAD demonstrator.”
While the Navy has disclosed few details about its own NGAD effort, Gilday last year indicated the service could shift toward a family of systems approach, which would be similar to how the Air Force is tackling NGAD, and that he anticipates the Navy having a combination of manned and unmanned platforms in the future air wing.
“I think there’s going to be a requirement to continue to deliver a seaborne launched vehicle through the air that’ll deliver an effect downrange,” Gilday said at a conference last December.
“I do think that that will likely be a mix of manned and unmanned. The platform which they launch from? I’m not sure what that’s going to look like,” he added.
The CRS report about the Air Force’s program says NGAD could feature one aircraft in addition to a combination of systems to supplement the aircraft, or a variety of systems that could include both unmanned and manned platforms.
“There appears little reason to assume that NGAD is going to yield a plane the size that one person sits in, and that goes out and dogfights kinetically, trying to outturn another plane—or that sensors and weapons have to be on the same aircraft,” the report reads.
When asked about a sixth-generation aircraft during Tuesday’s event, Gilday highlighted a need for the Navy to carefully consider how it spends money for new programs.
“We’re making tough decisions on where the next dollar goes. The Navy gets a $160 billion budget – that’s a lot of dough, and my job is to maximize naval power with that money,” Gilday said.
“We’re making a lot of cuts to put money toward shipbuilding. The secretary of the defense talked about that,” he continued. “And so as I’m taking a look at modernization programs, they’ve really got to yield lethality for us. I can’t be buying stuff just to buy it.”