No, I’m not a pilot, I’m a navigator.”
“Well, have you seen Top Gun? I’m like Goose.”
“So, the pilot and I can do every job the other can . . . except I can’t fly the plane.”
Odds are, all naval flight officers (NFOs) have uttered one of those phrases, or something like them, countless times over the course of their careers. NFOs are best known as a Hollywood plot device:
Does your hero pilot need motivation to complete a dangerous mission over Hanoi? Kill the NFO with a stray shot from a North Vietnamese farmer, a la 1991’s Flight of the Intruder.
Is your protagonist a hotshot jet jockey flying too close to the sun? Kill the NFO in a freak ejection-seat accident like in Top Gun.
In movies from 1930’s Hell’s Angels to 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back, killing the backseater is a time-tested trope made even more clichéd by the lone exception: Owen Wilson’s character in 2001’s Behind Enemy Lines, a victory for beleaguered NFOs everywhere. NFOs wait breathlessly to see whether the anti-NFO trend continues in Top Gun: Maverick. Despite the plot-fodder image in popular culture, NFOs do more than provide pathos along the hero’s (i.e., pilot’s) journey.
The persistence of NFOs in today’s strike-fighter community boils down to strong lobbying by their predecessors. The S-3 Viking, F-14 Tomcat, and A-6 Intruder had various flavors of NFOs, and those officers advocated for, and got, a two-seat replacement for those aircraft: the F/A-18F Super Hornet—the variant crewed by a pilot and an NFO, called a weapon systems officer (WSO, or “wizzo”), a slight upgrade from the Vietnam-era term GIB, or “Guy in Back.”
Most NFOs have been asked at some point, in jest or in seriousness: “What exactly do you do back there?” And as technology has made more airborne tasks available to a single aviator where once two (or more) were required, the tactical NFO seems doomed to obsolescence. Indeed, the Marine Corps’ fielding the F-35B as its sole tactical fixed-wing aircraft has closed the Marines’ NFO community completely. The NFO community’s death scene is already written, it seems.
However, NFOs should not consign their insignia to museums and shadow boxes quite yet. Indeed, the unmanned, semiautonomous future of aviation may mean more work for NFOs in the near term.
Marrying the Manned and the Machine
The Air Force’s Loyal Wingman project has explored the probable immediate future of tactical aviation: Man-machine teaming in which a manned aircraft controls a number of unmanned aircraft.1 This aviator-in-the-loop model likely will persist for quite some time as the drone future gains steam. As unmanned aircraft grow in capability and capacity, the aviators who control these robot wingmen will need to be closer to the action to direct them.
Future fights will feature intense electromagnetic confusion (e.g., jammed electronic signals, deception, countermeasures, hacking, etc.) that may preclude operating drones over large distances. In addition, this electromagnetic warfare may require the humans close to the fight to think and act more quickly than decision-makers on the flagship far away. Aviators controlling drones will need to understand drone intelligence and programming, rules of engagement, tactics, weapons, and enemy courses of action. Aside from operating semiautonomous drones, these are all tasks NFOs already do.
Strike-fighter and EA-18G Growler NFOs already qualify as air wing strike and fighter element leaders, responsible for directing large groups of aircraft toward an objective. Pilots do this as well, but NFOs have the advantage of not needing to maneuver or employ the aircraft. While pilots focus on the aircraft’s onboard sensors and weapons, NFOs focus farther afield, taking data from across the battlespace to make decisions. In this way, an NFO as a strike lead is like a Hollywood director—instructing the constituent parts of the air wing to act in a way that accomplishes the mission, while leaving the creative choices to the stars (pilots, of course).
This concept is a perfect outlet for the future of the Navy’s manned-unmanned teaming mission. An NFO who directs several drones can focus more intently on that task, free from most of the concerns of maneuvering and fighting the aircraft. The pilot can focus on those tasks closest to the aircraft (which will be significant when operating in a contested environment at long ranges from the carrier), while the NFO directs drone wingmen enabled by artificial intelligence to employ sensors and weapons to shape the fight.
An NFO in the loop, controlling unmanned wingmen, will understand when a drone may need to sacrifice itself to an enemy fighter; a ship-based controller far from the battle might not. Furthermore, aviators in proximity to a fight might have a better grasp of when action based on human, not machine, understanding is required. Operations at long distances in contested signals environments require aircraft closer to the action, where data streams may persist long enough to act quickly, despite a lack of communications with the chain of command. Independent action by aviators on the scene has been fundamental to naval aviation’s success, from Midway to Syria.2
Human understanding in the face of uncertainty, combat decision-making that programmers might not foresee, and independence of action without waiting for sensor relays or guidance all point to a future that is a hybrid of man and machine.
Opportunities for NFO-Machine Teaming
Using NFOs to direct drones is even more enticing beyond the strike-fighter community. A P-8 Poseidon teamed with antisubmarine and antisurface drones would extend the NFO’s sensor reach to potentially thousands of miles. Connecting P-8 NFOs to drones will fill a tactical gap that disappeared with the S-3, particularly if the drones are carrier-based. Imagine an SQ-XX drone loaded with sonobuoys and torpedoes, launched from the carrier’s deck in submarine-infested waters. Once airborne, this drone connects to a P-8 stationed many miles away. The P-8 NFO can now direct the search of this drone, process the data it collects, pass the information to the carrier, and direct the drone to act.
The E-2 Hawkeye could act similarly. An EQ-XX equipped with an appropriate radar could operate hundreds of miles from the carrier for hours or days and connect to the NFOs in the E-2, who can build a more accurate picture for the strike group.3
In either case, the NFO becomes the director, moving the various drones, processing the information they return, and guiding the action of manned and unmanned aircraft. It bears repeating that this is the exact role NFOs currently fulfill in fleet aircraft; all that is missing is the drone.
Naval Aviation’s All-or-Nothing Approach
With the development of the F/A-18’s replacement underway, naval aviation’s decision-makers are already pondering manned-unmanned teaming as part of the DNA of the program.4 Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD, see “Next Generation Air Dominance Needs a New Flight Path,” pp. 34–39), the clunky name for the project, consists of a strike-fighter aircraft, F/A-XX, and still-on-the-drawing board drones to pair with it. To put it clearly for those who have slept through the past 20 years of Navy procurement: Accepting too much technology risk in NGAD will doom the program to a redux of every disastrous Navy project of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
The Navy’s recent track record on new platforms (the littoral combat ship, DDG-1000, F-35 joint program, CVN-78) is poor at best, and naval aviation must resist the urge for wholesale change. That eagerness is exactly how the fleet ended up with no dedicated tanker, no medium-range antisubmarine aircraft, no long-range strike fighter, and an F-35C fleet that has matriculated into a handful of squadrons nearly two decades after then-Midshipman Scarbro watched the X-35 fly over the Severn River in 2002.
Developing F/A-XX as a single-seat platform banks on two assumptions:
1. The autonomous technology of unmanned NGAD aircraft will present a sufficiently manageable workload to F/A-XX’s pilot.
2. F/A-XX’s lone pilot will be technologically, temporally, and cognitively capable of flying and fighting his or her own aircraft while simultaneously directing some number of drones.
Aerial combat is so difficult that the Navy and Air Force have spent the half-century since Vietnam trying to make sure it never happens again. The U.S. military has sought dominance in the skies in every campaign since World War II precisely because contested airspace is a brutal killing ground.
Combat against an enemy fighter is stressful, difficult, perilous work, even in today’s digital age, and despite long-range air-to-air missiles and sensors, future fights will be complicated by jamming and exploiting the electromagnetic spectrum and the need to control electronic signatures to avoid detection as long as possible.
Future air warfare will be awash with electronic signals dedicated to denying a clear view of the skies. These signals will drive fights to close range as radars are jammed, missiles are decoyed, and datalinks are hacked and exploited. Combine an uncertain electronic battlefield with the looming presence of staff judge advocates setting rules of engagement from a thousand miles behind the front lines, and aviators should expect future aerial fights to be more like the swirling furballs of the past than the long-range missile barrages that have filled Air Force generals’ daydreams since before Vietnam.
What does any of this long digression have to do with NFOs?
• Electromagnetic warfare by red (enemy) and blue (friendly) aircraft will degrade the ability of the other side to detect, track, and kill other aircraft at long ranges.
• Electromagnetic warfare also may preclude operating drones at long ranges; drone operators will need to be close enough to their drones to power through jamming.
• Fully autonomous operational drones will be subject to yet-unwritten rules of engagement and rely on still-nascent machine-learning technologies.
• Relying on unmanned aircraft alone is a technology risk the Navy has proven itself incapable of overcoming in nearly every acquisition and development program of the past 20 years (to include X-47/MQ-25).
• Placing the control of unmanned systems, which are predicated on technology that does not currently exist in meaningful numbers, on the shoulders of single-seat pilots who must operate in the environments described above risks overburdening aviators who will have to fight at close range in contested skies.
This is not to slight single-seat pilots, who can fly and fight their aircraft under demanding circumstances, but they are doing so in the F/A-18, an aircraft with more than 40 years of development behind it, and the F-35, which, as discussed ad nauseum, equips one operational Navy squadron after nearly 25 years in development. Pilots have had plenty of time to sort out those aircraft.
Developing F/A-XX as a two-seat aircraft removes some of the technological uncertainty from the pilot, while paving the way for decades of incremental improvements that may ultimately take the pilot out of the aircraft altogether.
At best, an F/A-XX NFO will prove redundant to a seamless integration of drones using data-link technology, artificial intelligence, and control interfaces that currently do not exist in any operational capacity. At worst, those problems get the attention of a community of flying, fighting, thinking NFOs whose only job is fly, fight, and think about how to better develop and employ those drones.
Whether as F/A-18 WSOs, electronic warfare officers, radar intercept officers, or bombardier-navigators, NFOs have been vital to the success of the Navy’s tactical aviation communities for decades. NFOs provide a community of officers who are true aviators: experts in aviation, masters of their weapons and systems, and part of the squadrons in which they serve. As unmanned systems become more prevalent and capable, they will eclipse manned aircraft on the fleet’s front lines, but despite predictions to the contrary, manned aircraft also will be part of that front line for the foreseeable future. Harnessing a community of aviators already dedicated to understanding and employing weapons and aircraft to direct the unmanned fight is the logical way for the Navy to realize the benefits of the unmanned wingman concept while mitigating technology risk.
The day when Hollywood no longer has the NFO-as-plot-device trope to rely on is fast approaching, but there is a long way to go before unmanned systems can overcome the significant hurdles to true autonomy. Until that day comes and the curtain closes on the NFO community, they should serve at the forefront of unmanned wingman operations.
1. Tate Nurkin, “The Importance of Advancing Loyal Wingman Technology,” Defense News, 21 December 2020.
2. Robert J Mrazek, A Dawn Like Thunder: The True Story of Torpedo Squadron Eight (New York: Back Bay Books, 2009); Geoff Ziezulewicz, “The Inside Story of How a U.S. Navy Pilot Shot Down a Syrian Jet,” Navy Times, 10 September 2018.
3. Garrett Reim, “U.S. Navy Looks at Manned-Unmanned Teaming Role for E-2D Advanced Hawkeye,” Flight Global, 19 March 2021.
4. Thomas Newdick, “Navy’s Aviation Boss Lays Out Big Vision for Drone-Packed Carriers of the Future,” The War Zone, 31 March 2021.