The U.S. Navy's F/A-XX strike fighter, 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 a new emphasis on exploiting the electro-magnetic spectrum.
Airborne electronic warfare is growing quickly in part because its definition has been expanded to include electronic and cyber attack.
The discipline now encompasses electronic attack (which includes jamming and spoofing), electronic protection against jamming and cyber attack and offensive cyber capabilities to attack enemy networks. In addition, the Navy has just issued a request for information (RFI) for the Next Generation Jammer (NGJ) that will greatly improve the electronic attack capability of the Growler.
Navy officials are reluctant to talk about possible F/A-XX capabilities but aerospace industry officials contend that some capabilities will be similar to the F-22. 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 non-stealthy designs at lower altitudes and farther from the target. Another capability is expected to be the ability to slew sensors in unmanned strike and reconnaissance aircraft for realtime strike of popup targets.
“We’ll get the final request for proposals out sometime 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.”
Another RFI that has just hit the street is for the F/A-XX, a replacement for the Super Hornet. The new aircraft is scheduled for operations in 2030-35.
“We’re looking at replacing the Super Hornet when it reaches 9,000 flight hr.,” 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 airsea battle.”
The desire to cut defense 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.”
Yet another worry is that gaps will appear in the number of aircraft available for service if there is a long lag time 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 future 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.