The arrival this month of Top Gun’s long-awaited sequel perfectly captures the problem facing U.S. naval aviation.
The 1986 original took place during the late Cold War when Navy and Marine Corps aircraft ruled the waves, countering Soviet bombers or fighters at long range and holding submarines at risk across the North Atlantic. Three decades later, the U.S. military faces more challenging threats than the Warsaw Pact, but like the ageless Tom Cruise, naval aviation has barely changed.
Navy and Marine Corps aircraft have excelled at enforcing no-fly zones and bombing terrorists in relatively permissive airspace since the Cold War ended. But today, aging naval fighters lack the range to reach places such as the South China Sea or the East China Sea, where China could attack U.S. allies, and maritime patrol aircraft cannot handle the number and quality of submarines China and Russia could deploy. The challenges facing naval aviation will only become more acute during the next decade, when U.S. military leaders believe China may attempt to force reunification with Taiwan and Russia may lash out underseas following its poor performance in Ukraine.
The Navy and Marine Corps will need to re-balance aircraft and missions between each other and between sea and shore to address these threats by 2030. And they’ll have to do so without breaking the bank.
The most fundamental change needed is for aviation to provide naval forces greater reach and adaptability, as suggested by the Pentagon’s new Joint Warfighting Concept. The short ranges and high vulnerability of today’s all-manned naval aviation portfolio make U.S. operations more predictable. The future naval air force will need to give commanders more options to counter Chinese or Russian actions and create greater uncertainty for enemy planning. That will require rethinking some cherished naval aviation traditions. Aircraft carriers, considered jacks of all trades since the Cold War, will need to focus on their primary mission of deploying F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and F-35C Lightning II strike fighters, whose relatively short ranges will demand a growing number of the Navy’s new MQ-25 Stingray unmanned tankers.
To make room for MQ-25s, carriers will need to move some electromagnetic warfare, airborne early warning and control, and anti-submarine warfare aircraft, and their missions, ashore or onto other ships. But rather than being a challenge for naval aviation, the need to re-balance missions away from carriers represents an opportunity to exploit new unmanned system technologies. Instead of relying only on their own E-2D Hawkeye early warning aircraft, carriers will need to augment them with E-2Ds coming from shore and with unmanned systems such as the MQ-4C Tritons the Navy already operates from Guam, satellites, and Marine MQ-9s flying from Japan or the Philippines. The Navy’s short-legged EA-18G Growler electronic attack jet will need to stay closer to the carrier for air defense and shift most of its high-risk offensive jamming and deception missions to expendable drones such as those in the Army’s Air-Launched Effects program or the Air Force’s Skyborg program, which could launch from amphibious ships or by larger unmanned aircraft such as the MQ-9.
Fighting submarines also increasingly needs to be an unmanned mission. Shipboard helicopters developed in the late Cold War lack the reach to search outside submarines’ anti-ship missile range and P-8A Poseidon patrol aircraft are too vulnerable to risk close to the choke points that are the best hunting grounds. Although managing the undersea fight and attacking submarines will still be a job for U.S. submarines and P-8As, unmanned vehicles such as the MQ-9 and medium unmanned surface vehicles could search for submarines and provide naval forces more reach, persistence, and adaptability. These increased investments in unmanned systems leverage existing vehicles and would not substantially cut into naval aviation budgets, which will be important because the Navy and Marine Corps fighter fleet cannot stand still.
F/A-18E/Fs and F-35Cs will need to improve their networking with a growing variety of unmanned systems on and above the water and increase their ability to detect targets passively, including in the infrared and ultraviolet parts of the spectrum. The Navy will also need to sustain its production of F/A-18E/Fs for a couple more years to help alleviate its strike-fighter shortfall while continuing the development of its replacement, the F/A-XX. As the war in Ukraine brought into stark relief, munitions supplies could be the way to sustain a force’s adaptability through even a relatively short conflict. The Navy spends more than 14 times as much on new aircraft as it does on weapons. To avoid following in Russia’s footsteps and having to use gravity bombs in a future war, the sea services should re-balance their spending to buy more long-range missiles. The re-balancing needed in naval aviation will require some cultural change, but the urgency of the threat posed by China should spur leaders to disrupt their plans.
Congress can help because most of the new spending proposed is for existing programs. Unless the Navy, Marine Corps, and their friends on Capitol Hill move the force in a new direction, the unchanging face of naval aviation will put U.S. deterrence efforts in the “danger zone.”
Bryan Clark is a senior fellow of the Hudson Institute and director of its Center for Defense Concepts and Technology, where Timothy A. Walton is a senior fellow. They are authors of Regaining the High Ground Against China: A Plan to Achieve US Naval Aviation Superiority This Decade .