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Next-Generation Air Dominance: The U.S. Navy’s New Fighter Jet

USS Dwight D. Eisenhower
MEDITERRANEAN SEA (March 26, 2021) An F/A-18E Super Hornet attached to the "Gunslingers" of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 105 sits on the flight deck aboard the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) in the Mediterranean Sea, March 26, 2021. The IKE Carrier Strike Group is on a scheduled deployment in the U.S. 6th Fleet area of operations in support of U.S. national interests and security in Europe and Africa. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Jacob Hilgendorf) 210326-N-OB471-1130

As the U.S. Navy’s fleet of Super Hornets continues to age, their replacement continues to mature — and it might be an optionally manned platform, though whatever the Navy ultimately sends to the skies will be a mix of both manned and unmanned system.

Naval Rear Adm. Gregory Harris explained that, “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,” USNI News reported.

Though the Navy’s air assets such as the F/A-18E and F/A-18F Super Hornets have many flight hours left in their airframes, they’ll need replacing in the not-so-distant future. The plan is for them to be replaced by the F/A-XX, and not just the Super Hornets, but some of the Navy’s other aircraft too.

“But we truly see NGAD as more than just a single aircraft. We believe that as manned-unmanned teaming comes online, we will integrate those aspects of manned and unmanned teaming into that,” Harris elaborated . “Whether that – we euphemistically refer to it as our little buddy – is an adjunct air-to-air platform, an adjunct [electronic warfare] platform, discussion of could it be an adjunct advanced early warning platform. We’ll have to replace the E-2D [an all-weather, carrier-capable, airborne early warning aircraft] at some point in the future, so as we look to what replaces that.”

The Next-Generation Air Dominance fighter will likely come in several variants, each tailor-made to fulfill different mission requirements: the F/A-XX will ultimately replace the Navy’s Super Hornets specifically, whereas the NGAD program encompasses the Navy’s new future fighters more broadly. The Air Force also has their own NGAD program, and while their fighter will likely have similar systems as the Navy’s NGAD, differing requirements between the two services will likely result in somewhat different airframes.

The Navy appears to be committed to fielding a mix of manned and unmanned aircraft, and not just fighters. One Navy initiative would see unmanned aerial refueling tanker drones taking off from Navy carriers and keeping future fighters aloft. Much of the know-how and flight experience gleaned from the unmanned tankers would help aid future unmanned fighter jets.

“Right now – notionally – looking at driving towards an air wing that has a 40-60 unmanned-manned split and over time shift that to a 60-40 unmanned-manned split. So to try to drive an air wing that is at least 50 percent or more unmanned over time,” Harris explained. “Again, a lot of that’s going to be dependent on the success we see with the MQ-25 Stingray, on our ability to truly learn how to operate around the aircraft carrier and safely execute that both on the flight deck and then airborne.”

So regardless of what exactly the Next-Generation Air Dominance program ultimately produces, and how the Navy NGAD differs from the Air Force program — they’ll likely be unmanned at some point in the future.

Caleb Larson is a Defense Writer based in Europe. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.

Written By

Caleb Larson is a multiformat journalist and defense writer based in Berlin but has spent most of 2022 reporting from Ukraine. He covers the intersection of conflict, security, and technology, with a focus on American foreign policy and European security. Follow him on Twitter @calebmlarson.



  1. Sailorcurt

    March 31, 2021 at 4:20 pm

    Um…what happened to the F-35? I thought that was supposed to be the next gen, do it all platform for all services.

    Shouldn’t we at least get that wonderplatform in service before we start brainstorming the next multi-billion dollar boondoggle?

  2. Bambu

    March 31, 2021 at 7:07 pm

    Would have a bigger effect if a picture of an aircraft carrier were shown with an empty deck and caption: “Here are six of the Navy’s next generation of stealth fighter jets”.

  3. DweebyEE

    March 31, 2021 at 8:43 pm

    They can darn near do the unmanned thing right now.

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