Conceptual drawings of futuristic unmanned fighter jets adorned glossy posters at the Sea-Air-Space Exposition sponsored by the Navy League in early May. And many Navy leaders talk about 2025 or earlier as the target year for those aircraft to join the fleet.
But the Navy is preparing to keep today’s manned aircraft on carrier decks well beyond that timeline. Plans are underway to extend the lives of today’s F/A-18 Super Hornets by 50 percent — from 6,000 flight hours to 9,000.
Considering that most Super Hornets fly about 350 hours a year under today’s high operational tempo, the 3,000-hour extension would keep the newest aircraft flying for at least another 25 years.
And if the Navy buys another batch of Super Hornets, as senior officials are suggesting, that means Boeing’s fourth-generation fighter/attack jet will be deploying on carriers until nearly 2040.
The Navy is pressing ahead with the lengthy acquisition process for an unmanned fighter by issuing a call for private-sector industry to submit information about a possible “unmanned carrier-launched airborne surveillance and strike” aircraft.
That request calls for “limited fleet operational use” by 2018. The Navy’s defense contractors have responded. At the expo, aviation companies displayed possibilities beyond the current Navy-funded demonstration project, the Northrop Grumman X-47B unmanned combat air system. General Atomics Aeronautical Systems was pushing a carrier version of the Predator C Avenger. The “Sea Avenger” uses many systems similar to the Predator and Reapers already in use by the Air Force.
And Boeing displayed images of its F/A-XX “sixth-generation fighter,” which the company’s drawings show in both two-seat and unmanned variants. But those aircraft are still pretty far away. The Navy has yet to land a large, low-observable unmanned aircraft on a carrier.
A larger unmanned helicopter may be significantly closer to reality. The Navy on April 30 issued a request for information about a possible unmanned helicopter ready for operations as early as 2016. It’s referred to as a “persistent ship-based unmanned aircraft system.”
The April 30 request seeks a much larger aircraft than the MQ-8 Fire Scout, an unmanned helo built by Northrop Grumman. The Fire Scout, which just finished a test deployment aboard the frigate McInerney, is less than 24 feet long.
The request calls for an aircraft closer to the size of a traditional, manned helicopter. It should be able to operate from cruisers, destroyers or amphibs. It should have a payload of 1,000 pounds, a combat radius far wider than Fire Scout’s and be able to use satellite communications rather than line-of-site control systems, according to Navy documents.
Options on display at the expo included an aircraft from Northrop Grumman, the Fire-X, which would use essentially the same control mechanisms as the Fire Scout. Another potential offering was the Boeing YMQ-18A Hummingbird.