As peer competitors increasingly challenge the supremacy of the aircraft carrier, the US Navy is responding with a range of modernisation and development plans that will reshape the carrier air wing to better support allied operations and power projection in the Indo-Pacific.
Many in the strategic policy and defence analysis communities around the world have questioned the continued survivability and relevance of the world's premier, maritime-based power projection platform: the aircraft carrier.
The advent of advanced and integrated anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) systems, like China's DF-21, DF-26 and other related anti-ship ballistic missile systems, combined with peer competitor aircraft carriers and land-based aircraft, particularly in the Indo-Pacific, have emerged as the key catalysts for the transition, pushing the limits of current carrier-based aircraft.
Further complicating the matter is the growing success of Russian and Chinese fifth-generation fighter aircraft like the Su-57, J-20 and JF-31, the US has kicked off a suite of development programs to replace the ageing F-15 Eagle and fifth-generation F-22 Raptor airframes and the evolving F/A-18E/F Super Hornets operated by the US Navy beginning in the 2030s.
The US Air Force has actively progressed its plans to acquire a next-generation air combat capability to replace the Raptor, as outlined in the 2016 'Air Superiority 2030' study conducted by the US Air Force, which sought to identify the capabilities of the 'Next Generation Tactical Aircraft' air superiority/dominance fighter jet expected to enter service in the 2030s.
The US Navy has been slower to the party, despite kick-starting its F/A-XX Super Hornet replacement program in mid-2008, the branch has made little progress when compared with the US Air Force.
Nevertheless, the Air Force solicitation provides some interesting commonalities between the proposed Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighter and the Navy's proposed F/A-XX fighter, driven largely by developments in Russian and Chinese air combat capabilities and the proliferation of increasingly advanced and complex integrated air defence systems like the S-400 and S-500.
The initial stages of this next-generation program, the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) and Penetrating Counter Air (PCA) programs aimed to deliver a:
"Future system [that] will have to counter adversaries equipped with next-generation advanced electronic attack, sophisticated integrated air defence systems, passive detection, integrated self-protection, directed energy weapons, and cyber attack capabilities. It must be able to operate in the anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) environment that will exist in the 2030-2050 time frame."
As it is expected both the Navy and Air Force platforms will operate in conjunction with one another in the Indo-Pacific, the platforms would naturally have a degree of commonality, with the US Navy's requirements focused on extending the reach of the carrier strike groups, which have become increasingly exposed to advanced Russian and Chinese anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles.
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In light of this, the US Senate Armed Services Committee has laid down the gauntlet for the US Navy as it seeks to play catch-up with its Air Force counterpart, ahead of budgetary approval for the FY2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), telling the branch to come up with a "concrete plan for fielding next-generation fighter aircraft".
The US Navy has responded to the emerging challenges, both from peer competitors and the limitations of current platforms reaching the end of their operational lifetime, leading the charge, Rear Admiral Greg Harris, the US Navy's Director of Air Warfare has kicked off a program to deliver the range and capability to ensure the US carrier maintains its position as the monarch of the seas.
Unmanned systems a key component
As with the broader military revolution through the advent of increasingly capable unmanned and autonomous systems, the US Navy is expanding the role, capability and acquisition of such platforms to meet an evolving threat environment.
For RADM Harris, the stand out performer of this revolution is the introduction of the MQ-25 Stingray, an unmanned refuelling platform to extend the range of the US Navy and Marine Corps' carrier-based F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, E/A-18G Growlers and the soon to be fleet-wide F-35C Joint Strike Fighter.
"The MQ-25 adds range, which adds lethality to the carrier strike group. When you add that additional range to fourth and fifth [generation] fighters; when you add that range to the range we’re looking at for F/A-XX or next-generation air dominance family of systems; if you add that to the long-range weapons that we are currently procuring and look to procure in the future: we have an ability to strike at range and with volume and temp," RADM Harris explained.
The introduction of these unmanned platforms comes following the recent warning by Congress, which saw the Senate Armed Services Committee's Fiscal Year 2021: National Defense Authorization Act summary establish an expectation from the Navy, stating that it "requires the Navy to create a fighter aircraft force structure acquisition strategy and report on aircraft carrier air wing composition and carrier-based strike fighter squadrons to better prepare for potential conflicts envisioned by the National Defense Strategy".
However, this has been met with some confusion as the Navy has failed to identify what the F/A-XX will be when delivered to the fleet, however, this should evolve into a clearer image as the Navy enters a concept development phase.
Nevertheless, there is still a lack of consensus on the next-generation fighter, with Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, testifying before the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) that it would make sense to keep buying the F/A-18s to keep the line hot for a potential F/A-XX.
"I think the F/A-XX is going to need to be probably a derivative of an existing airplane rather than some complete new clean sheet design given the fiscal constraints we're under. Therefore, keeping production lines going for both of our existing strike fighters is a good idea to allow both to be an option for this future F/A-XX," Clark told the HASC.
Carrier's are survivable and reliable, in short, they're not going anywhere
RADM Harris remains one of the most stalwart proponents of the US aircraft carrier as a fundamental capability that cannot be easily or rapidly replaced in the US arsenal, with the RADM responding to critics of the carrier as a continued form of US power projection, stating:
"We just finished a future naval force structure study that looked very specifically at the carrier air wing, and throughout that study the folks who were working with us challenged us to operate farther and farther away from the threat, with the assumption that threat systems were going to prevent us from being able to operate from inside certain ranges,” he said, adding that the outcome was that the Navy could make it work with changes planned and already in the pipeline.
Adding to this, RADM Harries explained, "I’ll never stop saying it: the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier is one of the 11 most survivable airfields in the world. You put on top of that a flexible carrier air wing and supported by a carrier strike group and all the capabilities that are resident with our flight III DDGs and the rest of our systems, you have an amazing capability that is able to strike at range, at depth and with volume."
Based on the immense efforts behind the scenes it is clear that the US is committed to expanding and enhancing the capability of the carrier, but it isn't alone as many nations, including the UK, France, Japan, South Korea and of course China are all committing vast sums of capital to these immense platforms of national prestige, but equally, strategic power projection and force multiplication.
In light of this, how long can the carrier survive and should other US allies, including Australia, consider adding these platforms to their own arsenal?
The increasingly challenging operating environment emerging on Australia’s doorstep – combined with similar concerns developing among allies, including the US, UK and, more broadly, the European Union – raises questions about the Royal Australian Air Force’s plans to adequately defend Australia’s airspace against increasingly capable threats.
Accordingly, is it time for Australia to be involved with the development and introduction of a highly capable, high-speed, low-observable, air superiority-focused platform to complement the low-end capability of other platforms, future-proofing the capability and enhancing the interoperability of the Royal Australian Air Force and allied air forces?
For Australia, the future operating environment to the nation’s immediate north will necessitate investment in a highly capable, long-range, air dominance fighter aircraft to complement the F-35 Joint Strike Fighters and replace the ageing F-18 E/F Super Hornets by the mid 2030s.
The growing number of next-generation air combat development programs in the US, UK and European Union provides the nation with multiple avenues to pursue to ensure that the Royal Australian Air Force establishes and maintains a regionally superior air dominance capability.
We would like to hear your thoughts as fixed-wing naval aviation and amphibious capabilities are key force multipliers reshaping the region.