The US Navy is going full speed ahead on replacing F-18 fighters jets with unmanned aircraft, hoping to eventually have a 40/60 unmanned to manned aircraft mix. But not everyone is sold on the idea. Credit: Boeing photo.

The admiral in charge of the US Navy’s air wing says it aims to have 60% of its carrier air wing comprise unmanned aircraft as it replaces F-18 Super Hornets and Growlers, but lawmakers in Washington are rapidly losing patience with the service’s recent record of dismal program failures.

The Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) effort — a joint project between the Navy and Air Force — will initially try for a 40/60 unmanned to manned aircraft mix, leading to the 60/40 ratio as time goes on, Breaking Defense reported.

“In the next probably two to three years, we’ll have a better idea whether replacement for the F-18 E and F will be manned or unmanned,” Rear Adm. Gregory Harris,  director of the Navy’s Air Warfare Division, said at a Navy League event this week.

The service is also lobbying for billions of defense dollars for drone ships, in an effort to create a fleet that matches China’s fast-growing naval forces.

China has the largest navy in the world with roughly 350 ships and submarines, including more than 130 major surface combatants, according to the Defense Department’s latest report to Congress on Chinese military power. 

By comparison, the US Navy had about 293 ships as of early 2020.

Harris’s comments came a week after a retired Navy officer in Congress said she was disappointed by the “lack of substance” in the Navy’s ambitions for unmanned platforms.

“I thought it was full of buzzwords and platitude, but really short on details,” said Rep. Elaine Luria, a Virginia Democrat who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, reported.

Top Navy and Marine leaders had appeared before members of Congress to present a new campaign plan to make unmanned systems an “integral part” of the force.

Luria was one of several lawmakers to point out a number of Navy programs that have been delayed and over budget, including the Ford-class aircraft carrier, Zumwalt-class guided missile destroyer, and littoral combat ship (LCS).

The USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) alone cost US taxpayers $12.8 billion in materials and labor, and it remains years away from deployment.

This also doesn’t take into account the US$4.7 billion spent in R&D of the new carrier class.

To this day, only half of the crucial elevators in the big ship are working.

“With the recent acquisition program failures that we’ve had on the last several ship classes, rightly, those of us on this committee are skeptical of the Navy’s ability to shepherd this new technology into employable assets that contribute to the lethality of our forces,” Luria said.

A US Navy F-18A lands on the USS Gerald R. Ford supercarrier during tests held in the Pacific. Photo: US Navy

Rep. Rob Wittman, a Virginia Republican, echoed those concerns, citing the US$700 million the Navy invested in a mine-hunting drone for the LCS.

The program was scrapped after 16 years because the drone couldn’t spot explosives.

“I will not support a misguided acquisition program that wastes taxpayers’ resources in an effort to deliver this vision,” Wittman said.

“We need to be realistic in our technology assessments, resolute in our desired end state, and adaptable to delivering key attributes of this vision.”

Understandably, some in government are now asking, with all these disasters, can the Navy be trusted to field a wing of unmanned aircraft, and keep it under budget? Or will this just be another Pentagon fiasco?

Adding pressure on the service to get its act together, last year the Navy said it would close out the Super Hornet production line after 2021 to instead fund NGAD.

“We truly see NGAD as more than just a single aircraft,” Harris said. “We believe that as manned/unmanned teaming comes online, we will integrate those aspects” into a more refined acquisition plan.

“As we look at it right now, the Next-Gen Air Dominance is a family of systems, which has as its centerpiece the F/A-XX – which may or may not be manned – platform. It’s the fixed-wing portion of the Next-Gen Air Dominance family of systems.”

A major part of the effort will involve Boeing’s MQ-25 Stingray refueling drone, which is separate from the NGAD effort, but will work alongside those aircraft.

The USS Carl Vinson — the first carrier to be modernized to fly the F-35 for the Navy — has also been modified to allow it to operate the MQ-25.

MQ-25 Stingray is a next-generation unmanned aerial refuelling aircraft being developed by Boeing for the US Navy’s Carrier-Based Aerial-Refueling System (CBARS) program. The USS Carl Vinson has also been modified to allow it to operate the MQ-25. Credit: US Navy photo.

Harris suggested that the unmanned portion of the future air wing could be anything from an air-to-air platform that can conduct electronic warfare missions to an advanced early warning platform to replace the E-2D surveillance aircraft at some point in the future.

“Having an unmanned platform out there as an adjunct missile carrier, I see as not a step too far, too soon,” Harris said.

“An unmanned system with missiles I can clearly — in my mind — envision a way to say ‘fly a defensive combat spread, shoot on this target,’ and I will squeeze the trigger or I will enable that unmanned platform to shoot the designated target. That doesn’t stretch beyond my realm of imagination.”

While some members of Congress remain skeptical of the navy’s far-reaching plans, the head of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs has no illusions.

Gen. Mark Milley recently predicted that the struggling economy and the continued Covid-19 pandemic would put downward pressure on future military spending, and that appears to be coming true.

President Biden must now consider reducing the total defense budget from the proposed $755 billion for FY 2022 to about $700 billion, as suggested by President Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton and the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

 If he does opt to reduce the budget, it could free up funds for more Covid-19 relief or for rebuilding US infrastructure.

Last week, 50 House Democrats wrote President Biden arguing he should divert “hundreds of billions of dollars now directed to the military” to diplomatic, humanitarian, and public health programs at home and abroad.

The effort follows a similar failed attempt in the Senate last year to cut defense spending by 10%, which was handily defeated on floor votes.

Whatever the overall budget is once it’s released in May, it appears that the size of the Navy budget will receive particular scrutiny. 

Sources: Breaking Defense,, Center For American Progress, Task & Purpose