Report to Congress on Air Force Next-Generation Air Dominance Program

The following is the June 23, 2022 Congressional Research Service In Focus report, Air Force Next-Generation Air Dominance Program. From the report According to the Air Force, the Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program is intended to develop “a portfolio of technologies enabling air superiority.” The Air Force intends for NGAD to replace the F-22 fighter […]

The following is the June 23, 2022 Congressional Research Service In Focus report, Air Force Next-Generation Air Dominance Program.

From the report

According to the Air Force, the Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program is intended to develop “a portfolio of technologies enabling air superiority.” The Air Force intends for NGAD to replace the F-22 fighter jet beginning in 2030, possibly including a combination of crewed and uncrewed aircraft, with other systems and sensors. NGAD began as a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency project. Since 2015, Congress has appropriated approximately $4.2 billion for NGAD.

NGAD is a classified aircraft development program, but the Air Force has released a few details. On September 15, 2020, then-U.S. Air Force acquisition executive Dr. Will Roper announced that the Air Force had flown a full-scale flight demonstrator as part of the NGAD program. Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall announced on June 1, 2022 that NGAD program technologies have matured enough to allow the program to move to the engineering, manufacture, and design phase of development.

Is the Goal of NGAD a New Fighter? 

While a stated aim of the NGAD program is to replace the F-22 fighter jet, the aircraft that come out of the NGAD program may or may not look like a traditional fighter. The Air Force is developing technologies involved in NGAD to provide air dominance. Part of the program’s goal is to determine how to achieve that end, independent of traditional U.S. military approaches to air dominance. NGAD could take the form of a single aircraft and/or a number of complementary systems—manned, unmanned, optionally manned, cyber, electronic—forms that would not resemble the traditional “fighter.”

For example, a larger aircraft the size of a B-21 may not maneuver like a fighter. But that large an aircraft carrying a directed energy weapon, with multiple engines making substantial electrical power for that weapon, could ensure that no enemy flies in a large amount of airspace. That would achieve air dominance. There appears to be little reason to assume that NGAD is going to yield a plane the size that one person sits in, and that goes out and dogfights kinetically, trying to outturn another plane—or that sensors and weapons have to be on the same aircraft.

Download the document here.

Navy’s F/A-XX Fighter Will be the ‘Quarterback’ for a Team of Unmanned Aircraft

The future F/A-XX sixth-generation fighter will operate as the Navy’s “quarterback” for manned and unmanned teaming in future carrier operations, according to the service. Navy officials described the vision for the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program, meant to expand the range for carrier-based operations, in written testimony to Congress this week. “The NGAD [family […]

An F/A-18F Super Hornet, attached to the ‘Red Rippers’ of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 11, lands on the flight deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75), Jan. 7, 2022. US Navy Photo

The future F/A-XX sixth-generation fighter will operate as the Navy’s “quarterback” for manned and unmanned teaming in future carrier operations, according to the service.

Navy officials described the vision for the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program, meant to expand the range for carrier-based operations, in written testimony to Congress this week.

“The NGAD [family of systems] will replace the F/A-18E/F Block II aircraft as they begin to reach end of service life in the 2030s and leverage Manned-Unmanned Teaming (MUM-T) in order to provide increased lethality and survivability,” reads joint testimony from Department of Navy acquisition officials. “F/A-XX is the strike fighter component of the NGAD FoS that will be the ‘Quarterback’ of the MUM-T concept, directing multiple tactical platforms at the leading edge of the battlespace.”

Jay Stefany, who is currently performing the duties of the assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition, deputy chief of naval operations for warfighting requirements and capabilities (OPNAV N9) Vice Adm. Scott Conn, and Marine Corps deputy commandant for combat development and integration Lt. Gen. Karsten Heckl submitted the written testimony earlier this week to the Senate Armed Services seapower subcommittee.

According to their testimony, the Navy initiated the “concept refinement” stage for F/A-XX, which is expected to be a manned fighter, in Fiscal Year 2021. That phase is progressing on time, the officials told Congress.

Stefany, along with the chief of naval operation’s air warfare director (OPNAV N98) Rear Adm. Andrew Loiselle and Marine Corps deputy commandant for Aviation Lt. Gen. Mark Wise submitted similar testimony about NGAD this week in a joint statement to the House Armed Services tactical air and land force subcommittee.

The idea for NGAD is that a family of manned and unmanned systems will work together, centered around F/A-XX, which is expected to be a manned fighter.

“These manned and unmanned aircraft plus attritable assets will be employed across domains to enable integrated kinetic and non-kinetic fires at tactically relevant ranges,” the Navy’s 2030-2035 aviation vision document from last year reads. “As autonomy and [machine learning] efforts mature, the appropriate mix of F/A-XX, manned and unmanned platforms will be evaluated to ensure the most lethal and affordable [carrier air wing] possible.”

The F/A-XX platform will ultimately succeed the F/A-18E/F Super Hornets as they reach the end of their service lives in the 2030s.

“Its specific capabilities and technologies are under development, however analysis shows it must have longer range and greater speed, incorporate passive and active sensor technology, and possess the capability to employ the longer-range weapons programmed for the future,” the aviation vision says of F/A-XX. “As the Super Hornets are retired from service, a combination of F-35C and F/A-XX will provide Navy tactical fighter aircraft capability and capacity within the CVW.”

The effective combat radius of the carrier air wing has contracted since the F-14 Tomcat interceptor left the inventory in the early 2000s. Due to the Pentagon’s strategy focused on the Indo-Pacific and the need to counter China in a potential conflict, the Navy has had to explore ways to extend the range of carrier operations due to the vastness of the region. The combat radius will nominally increase with the introduction of the MQ-25A Stingray unmanned carrier tanker. The first MQ-25As will deploy on USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-73) in 2026.

While the Navy is currently putting more research and development dollars into the NGAD program, the service has kept those costs classified for three consecutive budget cycles. During the March rollout of the FY 2023 budget proposal, Navy deputy assistant secretary for budget Rear Adm. John Gumbleton acknowledge that the research and development spending for NGAD increase “somewhat dramatically” across the Pentagon’s five-year spending plan.

Navy officials have repeatedly cited classification when asked for details about the program, but the service has not said why the research and development costs for NGAD are classified.

The Air Force is developing a separate Next Generation Air Dominance program. While the Navy and Air Force efforts are different programs, the concepts are similar in that a manned fighter would operate with unmanned aircraft.

Navy Keeps Next-Generation Fighter Research Costs Classified For Third Consecutive Budget Cycle

THE PENTAGON – The Navy is spending more money to develop its sixth-generation fighter program but is keeping the costs classified for the third year in a row, the service said on Monday. For the last three budget cycles, the Navy has classified the research and development dollars it’s spending on Next Generation Air Dominance […]

An F/A-18E Super Hornet, assigned to the ‘Stingers’ of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 113, recovers on the flight deck aboard Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) on Sept. 23, 2021. US Navy Photo

THE PENTAGON – The Navy is spending more money to develop its sixth-generation fighter program but is keeping the costs classified for the third year in a row, the service said on Monday.

For the last three budget cycles, the Navy has classified the research and development dollars it’s spending on Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) and service officials have provided few details about the program due to the classification. The Fiscal Year 2023 proposal, unveiled Monday, lists NGAD under the aircraft section of its research and development efforts without dollar figures.

“Although NGAD is a classified line, investments do go up over the [Future Years Defense Program] somewhat dramatically for NGAD,” Rear Adm. John Gumbleton, the Navy’s deputy assistant secretary for budget, told reporters during a Monday briefing. Gumbleton was referring to the Pentagon’s five-year budget outlook.

Asked how the Navy justifies the classification and how the service will make the case to the taxpayer that it needs the money despite not revealing the specific cost, Gumbleton said Capitol Hill is looped in on the numbers.

“Our folks on the Hill who monitor this program and approve those budgets are read into these programs and they have full access to understand what we’re requesting and what they cost,” he said.

Pressed on why the program is classified, Gumbleton referred USNI News to the NGAD program manager.

Naval Air Systems Command, where the NGAD program office resides, did not immediately respond to a list of questions from USNI News.

The Navy last disclosed spending lines for NGAD in its FY 2020 budget books, asking for approximately $20.7 million in research and development dollars for the initiative at the time. That year’s budget books projected dollar figures throughout the FYDP, with the amount increasing each fiscal year. At the time, the Navy projected it would ask for $55.05 million in FY 2021, $111.26 in FY 2022, $255.59 in FY 2023, and $371.9 million in FY 2024 for NGAD.

While Navy officials have said little about the NGAD program, the service has acknowledged it will be a family of both manned and unmanned systems centered around a manned fighter, or F/A-XX.

“Bottom line is we see a threat out there that requires capabilities that we do not currently posses, from signature and speed and range capabilities. And so the sixth-generation program is built to solve those problems,” Rear Adm. Andrew Loiselle, who leads the chief of naval operation’s air warfare directorate (OPNAV N98), told USNI News in a December interview.

Loiselle described NGAD as a “highly classified” program, but could not say how long it would be classified.

“I can’t really answer that question. I don’t have a number,” he said at the time. “I would anticipate it’s going to be highly classified for quite some time.”

The Pentagon has kept parts of other fighter programs – like the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter – classified, but it’s rare to classify spending lines.The Air Force’s F-117 Nighthawk program – developed in the 1970s – and the early effort for the Navy’s A-12 Avenger II attack aircraft, which was canceled in the 1990s, were both classified.

The Navy needs NGAD to come online in the 2030s so the family of systems can replace the earliest F/A-18E/F Super Hornets and EA-18G Growlers when they are set to reach the end of their service lives.

In addition to NGAD, the Navy is also developing its next-generation destroyer, or DDG(X), to succeed the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers and its next-generation attack submarine, or SSN(X), to succeed the Virginia-class boats. The service is seeking $196 million in research and development funding for DDG(X) in FY 2023 and $237 million for SSN(X).

CNO Gilday: Navy Balancing New SSN(X) Attack Submarine Design Against Need For NGAD, DDG(X)

ABOARD THE NUCLEAR ATTACK SUBMARINE USS SOUTH DAKOTA – A banner over the sonar operators in the control room of one of the Navy’s most technologically advanced submarines declares the attack boat is the service’s “Apex Predator.” The sign – complete with a portrait of the alien from the 1987 sci-fi adventure film “The Predator” […]

USS South Dakota (SSN-790) stand at parade rest during a change-of-command ceremony onboard Naval Submarine Base New London in Groton, Conn., Sept. 27, 2022. US Navy Photo

ABOARD THE NUCLEAR ATTACK SUBMARINE USS SOUTH DAKOTA – A banner over the sonar operators in the control room of one of the Navy’s most technologically advanced submarines declares the attack boat is the service’s “Apex Predator.”

The sign – complete with a portrait of the alien from the 1987 sci-fi adventure film “The Predator” – refers to a package of sensors and quieting technology the service installed for testing aboard USS South Dakota (SSN-790). Commissioned in 2019 as one of the last Block III Virginia-class attack boats, five years ago the Navy chose South Dakota to be the service’s acoustic superiority test ship.

“Stealth is the cover charge, stealth is the price of admission,” then-director of undersea warfare, now U.S. Strategic Command head, Adm. Charles Richard told USNI News at the time.

The boat received coatings that keep the ship quieter, a quieter water jet propulsor and additional sonars mounted on the sides of the hull to increase the crew’s ability to detect enemy ships and submarines, USNI News reported in 2016.

On Monday, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday toured the boat as part of a day-long trip to Naval Submarine Base New London, Conn., and submarine builder General Dynamics Electric Boat.

Overview of USS South Dakota (SSN-790) upgrades for teh XXX program. US Navy Image

Speaking to USNI News en route to the submarine, Gilday said the trip would help him assess the progress in building the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine and the Virginia-class attack boat, as the Navy weighs the direction of its next crop of attack boats.

While the upgrades over the baseline Block III boat make South Dakota among the most dangerous submarines in the fleet in 2022, its basic design and mission set is more than 20 years old.

The Virginia attack boats were a post-Cold War departure for the Navy to develop multi-mission submarines that had an expanded land-attack capability and special operations and signals intelligence capacity to operate closer to shore. The class was a departure from the bigger, faster and more heavily armed Seawolf-class boats that are still widely considered to be the most dangerous submarines in the world.

Now, with Russia and China both expanding their submarine forces, the Navy is again looking to build an attack boat that looks more like USS Seawolf (SSN-21) than South Dakota.  The service wants larger hull diameter and more horizontal weapons like torpedoes to take on ships and submarines, rather than vertically launched land-strike weapons like Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles.
“We don’t know the specific characteristics that will be in SSN(X). But we do believe that the next submarine will have a large horizontal payload capacity. You can read that as it’s going to carry a lot of torpedoes,” Rear Adm. Doug Perry, the current director of the undersea warfare division on the chief of naval operations staff (OPNAV N97) said in November.
“The heavyweight torpedo will remain the weapon of choice for the submarine for this for the foreseeable future, primarily due to its inherent stealth, its destructive effects in the battlespace, and [it’s] pretty difficult to defend against and it also [preserves] the stealth of launch platform.”

Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. Mike Gilday departs from the Virginia Class submarine USS South Dakota (SSN-790), after a tour of the submarine on Feb. 28, 2022. US Navy Photo

“Submarines are for the foreseeable future going to continue to be our most survivable, lethal strike platform. We’ve taken great pains during constrained budgets in the past several years to eliminate that divot in attack boats that we’re going to see in the late 2020s,” Gilday told USNI News.

EB and Huntington Ingalls Industries’ Newport News Shipbuilding are now working through the Block IV Virginia attack boats that have suffered months-long delays in delivery due to complications from the COVID-19 pandemic and other shortfalls. There was more than a two-year gap between the delivery of the first Block IV Virginia – USS Vermont (SSN-792) on April 17, 2020 – to USS Oregon (SSN-793), two weeks ago.

While the Block IVs are still under construction, EB and Newport News have started the construction of the Block V Virginias that will push the limits of the existing Virginia design by including the Virginia Payload Module, which installs an 84-foot-long extension that will have the capacity for the submarines to field more Tomahawks and eventually hypersonic weapons.

“We go from 12 tubes to 40, which is a significant increase and we start bringing those online in 2025-2026. The third hull will be configured for hypersonics,” Gilday said.

But like the Flight III Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, the Navy is pushing the limits of Virginia’s 1990s-era design and has to decide when it will need to develop a new hull.

“There’s the possibility that this Virginia line gets extended beyond the Block V and the planned 10 Block V submarines. There’s the possibility we continue that line,” Gilday said.
“We’re also looking at SSN(X). That would be a mid-2030s [start]. In the Fiscal Year 2022 budget proposal to Congress, we had [$98] million in [research and development] requested for SSN(X). That’s with respect to advanced propulsion, plant machinery, acoustic superiority that we want to maintain. We need to stay ahead of China and Russia and we sure we can’t lag them. So that’s an important effort, the exact timing when we start building those boats is yet to be determined.”

Notional Navy DDG(X) hull design. PEO Ships Image

However, development of SSN(X) comes at the same time the Navy is looking to design the new DDG(X) guided-missile destroyer to succeed the Arleigh Burkes and the aging Ticonderoga-class cruisers, and develop the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program, the service’s sixth-generation fighter meant to replace the F/A-18E/F Super Hornets in the next decade.

“That [SSN(X)] aim point is important for the bigger picture as we take a look at other lethality upgrades, Gilday said.
“We’re working our way through the late 20s with respect to NGAD and DDG(X), but there needs to be progress in both of those. In terms of priority, they’re both important. I think what we’ll come down to is the pace that we move through both of those programs.”

While there is a chance the Navy could get more money to develop the new programs as a result of a recently reported budget expansion for Fiscal Year 2023, last year’s assessment from then-acting Navy Secretary Thomas Harker was bleak.

An F/A-18E Super Hornet attached to the ‘Gladiators’ of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 106 approaches USS Gerald R. Ford’s (CVN -8) flight deck on Nov. 1, 2020. US Navy Photo

“The Navy cannot afford to simultaneously develop the next generation of air, surface, and subsurface platforms and must prioritize these programs balancing the cost of developing next-generation capabilities against maintaining current capabilities,” a June 2021 memo from Harker reads. “As part of the POM23 budget, the Navy should prioritize one of the following capabilities and re-phase the other two after an assessment of operational, financial, and technical risk.”

Faced with three major acquisition projects, in addition to the introduction of new unmanned systems into the surface, air and undersea domains, Gilday said he’s committed to a measured approach to the new programs.

“We’re not looking for consecutive miracles here like we’ve done in the past. It’s just too much,” Gilday said. “We’ve seen it from Zumwalt, Ford, even [Littoral Combat Ships], obviously LCS. I’m trying to avoid that with unmanned. I just prefer to get it right, rather than rushing,”

Hill Closer to an FY 22 Budget Deal as Navy Warns Against More CRs; White House Sets Pentagon FY 23 Topline at More than $770B

This post has been updated to correct the status of the latest Continuing Resolution proposal. The third CR for FY22 passed the House last week and is awaiting approval from the Senate. SAN DIEGO, CALIF., – Congressional appropriators are closer to cementing a deal that would finalize the belated Fiscal Year 2022 defense budget, three […]

NASA Photo

This post has been updated to correct the status of the latest Continuing Resolution proposal. The third CR for FY22 passed the House last week and is awaiting approval from the Senate.

SAN DIEGO, CALIF., – Congressional appropriators are closer to cementing a deal that would finalize the belated Fiscal Year 2022 defense budget, three legislative sources confirmed to USNI News on Wednesday.

The sources said the deal for the Department of Defense FY 2022 appropriations bill would be in line with the $768 billion FY 2022 authorization bill signed by President Joe Biden in late December. The FY 2022 spending bill would be about $25 to 30 billion more than the initial request for funds from the White House, the sources told USNI News.

Passage of the bill lingering in conference hinged on balancing a flat defense outlay with a marked increase in domestic spending. A small group of lawmakers had stalled negotiations over the DoD spending bill, prompting two patchwork continuing resolutions, according to legislative sources. The third FY22 CR proposal, passed last week by the House, extends federal government spending until March 11 and is awaiting approval from the Senate. The current CR expires on Friday.

The compromise comes as relations between Russia, China and the U.S. continue to deteriorate as a result of the build-up of Russian troops on the border of Ukraine and mounting Chinese air and naval operations in the Western Pacific in the last several weeks.

Service officials in recent weeks have voiced concern over the potential for a one-year continuing resolution, as lawmakers struggled to reach a spending deal.

Chief of Naval Operations Mike Gilday speaking on Jan. 11, 2022 from his office in the Pentagon. US Navy Photo

“Budgets are on my mind everyday,” Chief of Naval Operations Mike Gilday told reporters on a Wednesday press call.
“I still believe we’re in a critical decade and the Navy is dependent upon stable and predictable funding, funding that supports the military strategy, and our Navy’s navigation plan.”

During a Wednesday panel at the WEST 2022 conference, budget officials for the sea services reiterated concerns over CRs and the effect the stop-gap bills have on readiness and the industrial base.

Rear Adm. John Gumbleton, the Navy’s deputy assistant secretary for budget, said it’s “tactically a very challenging time” right now for the service, as it answers questions for the Fiscal Year 2022 conference bills, while also trying to wrap up the FY 2023 budget submission.

“A year-long CR would be – catastrophic is not too strong a term to use. It truly would be. within our personnel accounts and – it would be a challenge to make payroll,” Gumbleton said.

“Here we are in month five, and so we’ve learned to be good at bad behavior, right. We have spent the last decade of deferring contracts to Q2, and now we’re actually – we are adjusting and evolving to say, ‘actually, let’s move these to Q3 now,’” he added.

Under the CR, Gumbleton said the service is currently trying to find dollars in its weapons procurement account to award one of several weapons contracts the Navy had planned for in the second quarter of FY 2022.

Asked if the potential for a conflict with China in the Indo-Pacific is helping them convince the Pentagon to change the balance of the budget – which is typically split evenly between the Army, Navy and Marine Corps – Gumbleton and his Marine Corps counterpart said the thinking is slowly changing.

“You know, if you can read a map and read a newspaper, the military decisions in a higher-end fight will be decided on, above and below the ocean, influenced heavily from the littorals. So, a 30-30-30-10 construct by tradition of budgeting simply doesn’t square with what I consider a military now,” said Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Christopher Mahoney, the deputy commandant for programs and resources. “Now is there a shift? I think there is, not only from across the river and an understanding that we want it to be an away game. We don’t want it to be a home game and that away game will be led by the naval force.”

Gumbleton described the shift as “moving glacially.”

USS Fort Worth (LCS-3) pier-side at Naval Station San Diego, Calif., on Feb. 15, 2022. USNI News Photo

“It’s inherently a political question both internal to the Pentagon and external to the Pentagon. So I think we’re starting to see slight movement, but measured in millions … not billions,” he said. “So I would say we’re moving glacially.”

Meanwhile, the Pentagon is crafting a last-minute budget proposal for FY 2023 that will top $770 billion – a significant leap from the Fiscal Year 2022, USNI News has learned.

A source familiar with the White House budget deliberations told USNI News that the total topline for the Department of Defense would be $773 billion. Reuters first reported the topline would go above $770 billion.

Pentagon spokesman Capt. Mike Kafka would not comment on preliminary budget work and referred USNI News to the Office of Management And Budget. OMB did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

For the Navy, the extra funds could affect proposals for the service to continue a campaign of retiring ships before the end of their expected service lives. The service shed the first two Littoral Combat Ships and proposed decommissioning a significant portion of its guided-missile cruiser fleet. Several defense officials have told USNI News that the Navy had considered shelving some, if not all, of the Freedom-class LCS and the oldest Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers to keep up readiness of the current fleet and invest in new capabilities like hypersonic weapons and unmanned systems. However, the increased topline for the Pentagon gives the Navy more resources to preserve force structure while still pursuing new capabilities.

“You have to be a realist with respect, with respect to budgets,” Gilday said.
“We’re in a foot race with China and we need to move fast, we need to build capacity fast, we need to build capability, mature capability fast.”

Top Stories 2020: U.S. Navy Acquisition

This post is part of a series of stories looking back at the top naval news from 2020. 2020 may be among the most consequential years for Navy acquisition in recent memory, with the service making big moves in support of its Distributed Maritime Operations operating concept. 2020 was the year the Navy officially started construction […]

Attack boat Vermont (SSN-792) float-off on March 29, 2019. General Dynamics Electric Boats Photo

This post is part of a series of stories looking back at the top naval news from 2020. 2020 may be among the most consequential years for Navy acquisition in recent memory, with the service making big moves in support of its Distributed Maritime Operations operating concept. 2020 was the year the Navy officially started construction on the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine program, a massive every-other-generation effort to replace the sea-based nuclear deterrent subs. It was also the year the Constellation-class guided-missile frigate program was awarded to Fincantieri, who will design and build what will become a centerpiece of the future distributed fleet. It was the year the Navy called for an end to the F/A-18E-F Super Hornet program, reinvesting that money into a longer-range next-generation fighter that could help silence critics who say the aircraft carrier will be useless against China because the air wing’s range is too short. And it was the year the Navy and its Marine Corps partners moved out on a Light Amphibious Warship that could revolutionize how the Fleet Marine Force moves around a maritime theater in support of sea control and sea denial.

Surface Ships

Fincantieri FFG(X) Design based on the FREMM. Fincantieri Image

The surface fleet is among the parts of the Navy most changed by Distributed Maritime Operations. Rather than the Navy’s recent reliance on guided-missile cruisers and destroyers to drill with allies and partners, patrol chokepoints and conduct freedom of navigation operations, the Navy will instead rely on a large fleet of small combatants to do much of this day-to-day work, freeing up a smaller number of destroyers to conduct higher-end operations and haul around large, long-range missiles. Key to this plan is the success of the Constellation-class frigate. The Navy awarded a $795-million contract to Fincantieri on April 30 to do detail design work and build the first frigate in the class. Options for as many as nine more ships would bring the total value to $5.58 billion if exercised. Fincantieri beat out four other competitors with a design based on the FREMM multi-mission frigate already operated by the French and Italian navies. It will build the frigate at its Marinette Marine shipyard in Wisconsin. In October, the class officially received a name, with Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite announcing the first-in-class ship would be USS Constellation (FFG-62) – after it was nearly named USS Agility by former SECNAV Thomas Modly earlier in the year. Though there will be fewer large combatants in the fleet, their mission will remain important: Navy leadership has said the large combatants of the future will haul around the biggest missiles, including hypersonic weapons.

USS Detroit (LCS-7) sails in formation with the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers USS Lassen (DDG-82), USS Preble (DDG-88) and USS Farragut (DDG-99) while conducting maritime security operations in the Caribbean Sea. US Navy Photo

The Navy is still struggling to figure out how to get the ship it needs for a price it can afford, given the deemphasis on the large combatant portfolio in future fleet plans. What was once a 2023 start to the Large Surface Combatant program was pushed to 2025 and then 2026 – and this year, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday said the large combatant, which he calls “DDG-Next,” will begin detail design in 2026 and construction in 2028. New and important to the DMO concept – and the related Marine Corps concepts of Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment (LOCE) and Expeditionary Advance Base Operations (EABO) – are the Light Amphibious Warship (LAW) and the Next-Generation Logistics Ship (NGLS) programs that kicked off this year. After some Marine Corps officials had kicked around the idea of a stern-landing vessel for EABO operations last year, in February the Navy included in its Fiscal Year 2021 budget request $30 million each to begin working on the new amphib and new logistics ship.

Sea Transport Solutions Image

Throughout the summer, the vision of what LAW would become grew clearer, as the Marines made the case for small units operating outside the Amphibious Ready Group/Marine Expeditionary Unit construct. These units would move from shore to shore, providing the joint force forward refueling and rearming capabilities in remote locations, collecting intelligence, providing anti-ship and even anti-submarine strike capabilities, and more. Their small footprint and maneuverability with the LAWs would make them hard for an adversary to detect and hit. By the fall, a cost estimate of about $100 million apiece, as well as requirements for length, storage capacity, crewing and more emerged, showing the dedication to begin buying the ships in FY 2022. According to the long-range shipbuilding plan that accompanied the release of Battle Force 2045, the Next-Generation Logistics Ship would kick off procurement in FY 2023, though much less is known about that new ship compared to the LAW. This medium-sized ship would be able to help resupply the distributed Navy and Marine forces operating under DMO and EABO, while blending in with local merchant traffic and being harder for an adversary to target and disrupt the flow of supplies into theater. It’s unclear how far along the Navy is in developing its requirements. A previous effort for a somewhat larger set of ships to do resupply and other missions, called the Common Hull Auxiliary Multi-mission Platform (CHAMP), has hit several roadblocks as its price tag remains higher than Navy and White House officials are comfortable spending on an auxiliary ship.


Virginia-class submarine Delaware (SSN-791) was moved out of a construction facility into a floating dry dock using a transfer car system in 2018. HII Photo

The Navy in November awarded $9.47 billion to General Dynamics Electric Boat to officially start construction on the first ballistic-missile submarine in the Columbia class. This SSBN program is the Navy’s all-important program with no room for error or delays, after all schedule margin was eaten up in the early days of the program and the future USS Columbia (SSBN-826) must be ready for its first patrol in the fall of 2030. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the Columbia program remained on track, in a nod to the importance on the program and the Navy prioritizing resources – available workers, materials and money – to keeping this program on track, even if it means attack submarines or aircraft carriers slipping in schedule. Still, though the program has remained on track, the Navy announced last month it was looking at extending the life of the legacy Ohio-class SSBNs – again – to provide a bit of additional capacity for combatant commanders and a bit of cushion in case there are hiccups in the future with the Columbia program. Partly as a result of keeping Columbia on track, the Virginia-class attack submarines slipped further behind in production this year, after already having some schedule delays as the program tried to maintain a two-a-year production rate. Threatening to further challenge the program was a White House proposal to buy just one SSN in FY 2021, which would throw off the workflow for thousands of suppliers trying to smoothly ramp up their production rates to accommodate both the Virginia and the Columbia programs. The White House reversed course in late November and expressed support for a second Virginia sub. Looking towards the future, the Navy this year made headway planning for its Block VI Virginia design – which would add new capability and lethality such as improved stealth and the ability to conduct seabed warfare – as well as the SSN(X) design that would build upon both Block VI and the Columbia SSBN design. All told, the Navy is trying to morph its attack submarine fleet to something closer to the Seawolf class, which was designed to operate deep into Soviet waters and go head-to-head with peer adversary subs, compared to the Virginia class which was originally designed for land-attack and intelligence-collection missions.

Carrier Aviation

Sailors assigned to the air department aboard the aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) prepare to launch an F/A-18F Super Hornet attached to the Gladiators of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 106 during flight operations, March 29, 2020. US Navy Photo

Even as the Navy continued on with its Ford-class carriers this year, questions began swirling about the class’s future and what might come next to either replace or to supplement the Ford-class supercarrier. In March, Modly kicked off a Blue-Ribbon Future Carrier 2030 Task Force to look at the future of aircraft carriers and whether the U.S. Navy would stick with the Ford class beyond the future Doris Miller (CVN-81), whether it would move to a different nuclear-powered carrier design, or whether it would use conventionally powered carriers. Despite the prominent figures on the task force, it was not particularly well received: any reduction in demand for nuclear ship components could break the fragile industrial base, some worried, while others were concerned that the 11-carrier fleet was already overworked today and that the task force could lead to a reduction in CVNs in the future without a reduction in demand for their presence in theater. Though the study itself was canceled just two months later by Acting SECNAV James McPherson, the idea lingered: former Defense Secretary Mark Esper became interested in the notion of a conventionally powered light carrier to supplement the nuclear-powered supercarrier, and after months of study he settled on a plan to field eight to 11 CVNs – possibly down from today’s 11 – and supplement them with as many as six CVLs. He and Navy officials conceded that much work needed to be done to figure out what the CVL would look like and how to balance the two classes of ships.

Aviation Ordnancemen assigned to USS Gerald R. Ford’s (CVN 78) weapons department bring inert training bombs up to the flight deck during flight operations May 30, 2020. Ford is underway in the Atlantic Ocean conducting integrated air wing operations. US Navy photo.

Despite the questions about the future of carriers, the Ford-class program continued along, with USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) at times spending more days at sea than in port to conduct post-delivery tests and trials and get ready for full-ship shock trials next summer. Despite PDT&T moving ahead of schedule and the troubled Advanced Weapons Elevators finally coming online in numbers, the Navy fired its CVN-78 program manager and brought in a captain with “proven program management acumen and extensive waterfront experience” to see Ford through its remaining work before being fully turned over to the fleet for a maiden deployment.


An F/A-18E Super Hornet, attached to the ‘Dambusters’ of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 195, prepares to land on the flight deck of USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) on Oct. 16, 2020. US Navy Photo

In a major move for carrier aviation, the Navy announced in February in its FY 2021 budget request that it would not continue Super Hornet production beyond the end of the current multiyear contract, which runs through FY 2021. Funding that had been planned for another contract for FY 2022 through 2024 would instead be diverted to “accelerated development of Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) and other key aviation wholeness investments.” With little fanfare, the Navy stood up an NGAD program office under Naval Air Systems Command in May and quickly began industry talks. Though investing in NGAD was the primary reason for ending the Super Hornet line, the Navy also said that stopping new Super Hornet production would free up the production line for Super Hornet life extension work, which the Navy needs to add capability to the jets and keep them around long enough for a replacement to be designed and built.

Sailors assigned to Fleet Logistics Multi-Mission Squadron (VRM) 30 direct a CMV-22B Osprey from the ‘Titans’ of VRM 30 on the flight deck of Nimitz-class nuclear aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) on Nov. 20, 2020. US Navy Photo

Supporting a near-term change for the carrier air wing, Bell-Boeing delivered the first CMV-22B Osprey to the Navy in February, allowing the Navy to start a short test and evaluation program before turning the aircraft over to the operational squadron that will support the first deployment in 2021. The Navy needs the CMV-22 to serve as its new carrier onboard delivery (COD) platform because the legacy C-2 Greyhound cannot carry a large F-35C engine; the Osprey could carry the engine out to an aircraft carrier and would also have the added flexibility of being able to bring people and supplies directly to the other ships in the strike group, which can support the V-22 landing on their helicopter decks. USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) will make the first deployment with the F-35C in 2021, so the CMV-22 needs to be ready too for that deployment. Looking a few years out, the Navy is making good progress on its MQ-25A Stingray unmanned carrier-based refueling tanker. In April the Navy exercised a contract option to buy three more aircraft from Boeing, and in December the Stingray made its first flight with the refueling system attached under its wings.

Unmanned Systems

Medium Displacement Unmanned Surface Vehicle (MDUSV) prototype Sea Hunter pulls into Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii on Oct. 31, 2018. US Navy Photo

In other unmanned news, the Navy set off down a path to design and build medium and large unmanned surface vessels of its own, after earlier work had been done with Pentagon-purchased USVs. L3 Technologies in July won a $35-million contract to develop a prototype Medium Unmanned Surface Vehicle (MUSV), with options for eight follow-on craft that could bring the contract to a value of $281 million. In September, the Navy awarded six companies contracts to begin determining what the service’s Large Unmanned Surface Vehicle will look like. Austal USA, Huntington Ingalls Industries, Fincantieri Marinette, Bollinger Shipyards, Lockheed Martin and Gibbs & Cox each won about $7 million for LUSV design studies. Using Pentagon-built prototypes, the Navy operated the Sea Hunter medium USV with a carrier strike group this year, and an Overlord large USV conducted the first-ever autonomous transit of the Panama Canal as it sailed from the Gulf of Mexico to Southern California. In the undersea domain, just this week the Navy released its final request for proposals for the Snakehead Large Displacement Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (LDUUV) program, with the intention to select a single vendor next year to begin designing and building two prototypes.

Plans and Budgets

USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) and USS Nimitz (CVN-68) and their carrier strike groups (CSGs) steam in formation on July 6, 2020. US Navy Photo

Though many of these moves in 2020 will be instrumental in creating the fleet the Navy and Marine Corps know they need to deter China or win a fight if needed – especially the unmanned vessels, the light amphib and the frigate – the exact future shipbuilding plans for the Navy are still unclear. After the Navy and Marine Corps wrapped up an Integrated Naval Force Structure Assessment in January, Esper did not agree it was the right plan. He ultimately kicked off a Pentagon-led Future Naval Force Study that worked from February to October to look at what the sea services needed to do to be prepared to beat China in a fight in the 2045 timeframe. This effort led to a Battle Force 2045 plan that had all the same themes as the Navy’s original INFSA earlier in the year. The Pentagon couched the differences as a matter of timelines and how aggressively to begin making changes: The Navy had been focused on a 2030 timeframe and what needed to happen quickly to overhaul the fleet in the next decade to support DMO, LOCE and EABO. The Pentagon instead took a longer view meant to incorporate what kind of threat China could ultimately become in the long run and therefore what the Navy and Marines would need to do to counter it – with the expectation that transformation would start now with that 2045 threat in mind. The plan will need buy-in from lawmakers, who have been largely unimpressed with the plans presented to them this year. The original FY 2021 budget request was called “dead on arrival” after it contained the smallest shipbuilding budget in years. The Battle Force 2045 and its accompanying long-range shipbuilding plan was panned for the opposite reason, for being out of touch with budget realities and calling for too quick a naval buildup.