The Navy's first answer to these problems is the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. Designed as a replacement for the Navy's aging fleet of F-14s and F/A-18A/Bs, the Super Hornet represents a dynamic blend of new technologies and proved hardware. While not truly stealth, the F/A-18E/F incorporates low-observable technologies wherever possible. It features redesigned engine inlets and gear doors to help reduce its radar signature, as well as electronic warfare and communications antennae that are incorporated into the fuselage skin, further decreasing radar-reflective protuberances. The Super Hornet is 25% larger than its predecessor, capable of better straight-and-level performance on less power, and possessing increased range, giving the aircraft truly lethal striking capabilities. In addition, the aircraft incorporates a number of technologies that enhance its combat effectiveness: "In designing Super Hornet, low-observable technology was blended with state-of-the-art defensive electronic countermeasures, reduced areas of vulnerability, and high precision technology air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons." The test pilots flying the aircraft believe that there are few missions that the F/A-18E/F cannot perform. It has been designed to serve as both a superb strike platform and air-defense fighter. With buddy stores on the outboard and fuselage hard points, the aircraft will also have the endurance and excess fuel to serve superbly as an aerial tanker. With some modifications and the implementation of newer electronic intelligence and aerial reconnaissance systems, the Super Hornet will be able to fill reconnaissance and electronic-warfare mission roles as well. Thus, the aircraft is certain to meet the short-term needs of the Navy and possess the adaptability to meet the needs of the future, as well.
In addition to its design successes, the Super Hornet represents a success in another area vital to effective air operations procurement and testing. The testing of a new tactical aircraft is an expensive, laborious, time-intensive process. In the past, manufacturers would test their aircraft thoroughly before submitting the aircraft to the Navy for testing. The F/A-18E/F testing combines both manufacturer and Navy testing, using the integrated test team concept, in which engineers from McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing) work side-by-side with Navy test pilots and technicians to complete both phases of testing in less time. The integrated test team concept has proved highly effective—to date, the F/A-18E/F project has been ahead of schedule and under its projected cost. In fact, the combined test team concept has proven so effective at reducing test and evaluation costs that its example is being followed by the Boeing/BellTextron/Marine Corps V-22 test team, and a similar testing structure will likely be implemented in the testing of the Navy's next generation tactical aircraft—the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF).
The Joint Strike Fighter is the product of congressional and military efforts to provide truly joint capability to our military forces by using a common aircraft platform for all the services. Such a task, however, carries with it a number of engineering and logistical headaches. Common platforms have not been used by all services in the past because carrier operations require aircraft be specially built to withstand the rigors of life at sea. Simply mounting a tailhook on an existing aircraft will not work. The development of the T-45 Goshawk drove this fact home. The T-45 is an adaptation of the BAe Hawk, a highly successful British trainer. Adapting the aircraft for carrier operations was a lengthy, expensive process that took many years and required extensive testing to ensure that the aircraft could operate safely from an aircraft carrier. In the end, a number of design compromises were made that limited the aircraft's overall performance. The JSF is likely to pose similar challenges, and the Navy must prepare itself to meet them. The JSF also represents the introduction of an aircraft constructed largely of composite materials to the harsh, corrosive maritime environment, and it is not known yet how these materials will hold up. The Navy is investigating the issue. The F/A-18E/F uses a number of composite components in its construction, including the empennage, and lessons learned from its operations in the fleet undoubtedly will impact the JSF project and help prevent costly design errors.
The Super Hornet and JSF projects will fill the immediate needs of the Navy, but long-range planning demands that these projects be flexible in order to adapt to new missions and technologies as they develop. Similarly, naval planners must budget for these developments, even while ensuring that the Navy will have the financial means to develop other projects. The Director of Naval Air Operations, Rear Admiral Dennis V. McGinn, recently emphasized this point strongly: "We can't spend all of our resources on near-term readiness. To do so would mortgage the future of naval aviation and detract from tomorrow's readiness. We must continually invest in future programs to maintain our world-class capability." Invest the Navy certainly has done—and handsomely. Both the F/A-18E/F and JSF ultimately will serve on the Navy's next-generation aircraft carrier, the CVX. As in the JSF program, the CVX designers are tasked with designing a carrier capable of serving well into the 21st century, requiring it not only to incorporate current technologies, but also to have the flexibility to incorporate future technologies, as well. Journalist David Perin writes, "Predicting the future is risky business, but the Navy cannot ignore ongoing changes in missions, threats, technology, and resources while deciding on a next-generation aircraft carrier that will serve the nation through much of the 21st century."' Such a responsibility demands that the foresight used in designing the F/A-18E/F and the JSF must be carried over to the CVX, as well. Planning for future contingencies is a formidable responsibility. As Perin points out, "Once JSF . . . and CVX are decided, it will be a long time before the Navy will have another chance to develop a new fighter . . . and design a new aircraft carrier."
One of the ways naval planners intend on making the CVX adaptable to future technologies and missions at minimal cost is to consider new, radical techniques of launching and landing aircraft, such as electromagnetic rail catapults. These catapults offer the benefit of a launch capability independent of the ship's power plant, as well as a 50% reduction in weight, a 65% reduction in volume, and a 30% reduction in manpower requirements, as compared to equivalent steam catapults. Also being considered are ski-jump launch platforms similar to those seen on Royal Navy aircraft carriers, and shifting the Navy's aircraft from conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL) aircraft to short takeoff and landing (STOL) aircraft. However, implementing such radical technologies will take time, and inevitably, money. Admiral McGinn encourages naval planners to not go overboard:
There is no need for a major reinvention of naval aviation. We must, however, leverage technology and innovation to exploit capabilities in information warfare, precision strike, and operational maneuver. In this era of information technology and open global markets, a potential adversary has the ability to easily obtain sophisticated weapon systems. Our challenge is to remain two steps ahead.
The Navy must be certain that future platforms developed to carry naval aviation into the 21st century will have the flexibility to remain two steps ahead, and to do so while staying within budgetary limits. By carefully considering possible contingencies and incorporating adaptable technologies that can be updated quickly and easily, such flexibility is assured.
Naval planners also have investigated the possibility of incorporating a variety of other technologies to reduce costs and increase flexibility for future operations. A great deal of research has been done in the area of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and uninhabited combat air vehicles (UCAVs). UAVs offer a number of operational advantages—they do not compromise manpower, they are freed from the burdens of conventional operations, and they generally cost much less than equivalent manned aircraft. It is commonly known that the limiting factor to the maneuverability of today's combat aircraft is not the structural integrity of the aircraft itself, but the ability of the aircrew it carries to withstand high g-loading. UAVs are free of such constraints, and without a crew, components on an aircraft can be placed as necessary to optimize combat or other design parameters. For example, intakes can be placed where the cockpit would normally be in order to improve aerodynamic efficiency or reduce the radar signature. Costs can be reduced by designing the aircraft for short, relatively maintenance-free lives and by eliminating crew-safety factors and their associated redundant components. "Operational costs of UCAVs are expected to be only 15% of an F/A-18. It is entirely feasible for UAVs to perform aerial tasks that do not require intensive human involvement, such as reconnaissance and aerial-refueling duties. However, UCAVs offer a spectacular boost in strike capabilities, as well. The NASA X-36 program has already demonstrated the impressive combat capabilities of an unmanned vehicle-capabilities that could be deployed in a fleet-ready, AV-8B-derived vehicle as early as 2020. Because of their reduced size, deploying UAVs and UCAVs with existing carrier battle groups would greatly augment the existing, manned-aircraft complement. "Through extra deck space and by substituting support UAVs for manned aircraft on Nimitz (CVN-68)-class carriers, tactical manned aircraft can be increased from 36 aircraft to 54." By using relatively inexpensive UCAVs and support UAVs, the strike-sortie capability of the battle group would be nearly doubled, and at a fraction of the cost of deploying manned aircraft to accomplish the same task.
In the end, it must be remembered that flexibility is not only necessary in weaponry, but in personnel as well. Uncertainty typifies our current operations, and we must be prepared to adapt to whatever challenges arise. Admiral McGinn writes:
All of us in naval aviation have a job to do: to boldly and honestly look to the future—with all of its dangers, challenges and uncertainties—and take control of our destiny. No one group, either in the fleet or in Washington, has the only ideas on how best to navigate to the future without risking our hard-fought credibility.
Through vigilance, flexibility, and adaptability, it is certain that naval aviation will remain effective, well into the 21st century.
Ensign Pinson is a native of Texas and will be a naval aviator.