A shrinking defense industry may be jeopardizing key elements of the U.S. Navy's electronic warfare (EW) plans. Of most concern is the dearth of companies that are still capable of building strike aircraft—manned or unmanned.

By 2030, service leaders worry that there may be no competition for new designs. Boeing, for example, has already bought the last long-lead items for its F/A-18E/F Super Hornet line.

The F/A-XX strike fighter, which is to replace the Super Hornet, the EA-18G Growler, an unmanned combat aircraft (currently exemplified by two X-47B test platforms) and a nascent arsenal of specialized air-launched standoff weapons are all part of the Navy's new emphasis on exploiting the electromagnetic spectrum through airborne electronic exploitation.

The discipline of airborne EW now encompasses electronic attack (which includes jamming and spoofing), electronic protection against jamming and cyberattack, and offensive cybercapabilities to attack enemy networks.

The Navy just issued a request for information (RFI) for the Next Generation Jammer (NGJ) that will greatly improve the Growler's electronic attack capability.

While the Navy is reluctant to talk about the F/A-XX, aerospace industry officials contend that some of its features will be similar to the F-22's. The new strike-fighter design will likely fly faster, higher and farther into the threat ring than other Navy aircraft. That will produce an increase in its radar and infrared detection horizons and allow it to pinpoint targets for weapons launched from nonstealthy designs at lower altitudes and farther from the target.

Another feature of the new fighter is expected to be its ability to remotely slew sensors in unmanned strike and reconnaissance aircraft for real-time attack of pop-up targets.

“We'll get the final request for proposals out in June,” says Rear Adm. Donald Gaddis, program executive officer for tactical aircraft at Naval Air Systems Command. “Our emphasis is getting NGJ out there by 2020. Everybody is excited about it.”

An RFI for the F/A-XX also has just hit the street. The new aircraft is scheduled for operations in 2030-35.

“We're looking at replacing the Super Hornet when it reaches 9,000 flight hours,” says Gaddis says. About 150 Super Hornets will be modified for a 10,000-flight-hour life, says Capt. Frank Morley, program manager for the F/A-18E/F and EA-18G.

“Attributes of the [F/A-XX] aircraft— speed, range, payload, growth—will be shaped by what else is going on. There is a lot of analytical work on manned and unmanned follow-on platforms, advanced networks and where we are headed with [the] AirSea Battle [concept].”

As a result, Navy officials are preparing for a long analysis of alternatives (AOA) for the F/A-XX with lots of excursions to determine the makeup of the future carrier air wing and the capabilities of a next-generation carrier battle group.

“We need it to have advanced sensors, be more transitional and provide access into the anti-access, area-denial environment,” says Gaddis says. “We're asking industry what this aircraft might have in terms of tanking, airborne electronic attack, ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] and suppression of enemy air defenses.

“The resource team will be looking to increase kinematics, range, payload, bring-back weight, survivability growth and airframe [options],” he says. “But the biggest thing is to define the trade-space box and capabilities we want.”

While cost will be a major consideration, Navy planners also wonder how many of the major aerospace competitors will be left by 2020-30 to compete for a new program.

“If you want to know what I worry about, it's the industrial base as it relates to F/A-XX,” says Gaddis. “The true engineering and development cost [for F/A-XX] won't be [available] until next decade. Boeing's not going to be around next decade in terms of fighter design. The fighter industry and where it is going is something that [the Pentagon] will have to take a hard look at. I think the Air Force is going to have the same issue with its F-X program. [Defense officials] want competition, but where are they going to get it?”

The desire to cut military spending by adopting common programs also could become a factor in the Pentagon's acquisition plans for new strike fighters. It could be that Congress and others may push for a joint F-X and F/A-XX competition.

“There's always a chance,” Gaddis says. “I think that the defense secretary will want us to do a joint AOA. But the attributes of a carrier aircraft and an Air Force program may be different. We have to be ready for that.”

Another worry is that gaps will appear in the number of aircraft available for service if there is a long lag between the end of Super Hornet production and the availability of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters.

“On the supersonic tactical aviation side, F-35 doesn't [start replacing Super Hornets] until 2019. Does that leave a gap for when aircraft are actually available to the squadrons?” As a result of the unknowns in acquisition plans and budgets, the Navy believes it is necessary to continue investing in the Super Hornet flight plan. Upgrades are added and funded in increments.

“There are a lot of capabilities there that offset the gaps in warfighting capabilities,” Gaddis says. “I also think there is a need to keep investing in the JSF. They have the Block 3 and 4 programs, and our analysis is showing that the F-35 is going to need continued R&D investment [because] there aren't enough new [aircraft program] starts to ignore upgrades to existing programs.”

“Super Hornet is a balanced approach to survivability and lethality,” says Morley. “It carries practically every weapon in the inventory. We also do that through reduced-signature and integrated defensive countermeasures. We don't want to be seen except for deception [purposes].

“The active, electronically scanned array radar is a powerful sensor,” he adds. “We've only scratched the surface of where that system can go. It does a lot of radar functions automatically so the pilot can concentrate on other efforts—[including] everything that has to do with exploiting the network, whether it be electronic attack, electronic protection or any of those other classified facets.”

The Navy also is continuing to improve the advanced targeting forward-looking infrared (ATFlir) so that aircrews can track individuals and detect what they are doing from a tactically survivable altitude.

Moreover, infrared search and track (IRST) will allow Super Hornet aircrews to work outside of the radio-frequency bands. The Distributed Targeting System is being readied for operational testing; it allows the generation of high-quality weapons coordinates onboard the aircraft at long ranges.

As for the vulnerability of AESA radars to cyberattack, Morley says: “Any system does have vulnerabilities in both defense and attack. We're adding techniques and we continue to build them better.”

Signature will also be improved on the Super Hornet with an enclosed weapon pod and conformal fuel tanks for an additional 3,500 lb. of fuel. Despite adding an internal IRST, the aircraft retains its cannon. Navy officials say one of the highest priorities is for anti-electronics weapons.