Looking to its long-term fighter needs, the U.S. Navy in April announced a request for information (RFI) for what it calls the F/A-XX, a future program to replace the carrier-based Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and EA-18G Growler in the 2030s. Issuing an RFI is a preliminary step. The sea service doesn’t have funds for F/A-XX currently, nor is it requesting money in the administration’s fiscal year 2013 budget proposal.
Picking up on a term that began as a marketing tool for planemaker Lockheed Martin, the Navy calls F/A-XX a “sixth generation” fighter. The term “fifth generation” was coined for the Air Force’s F-22 Raptor and the multi-service F-35A/B/C Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). Some observers say the terminology is misleading because aircraft typically identified as “fourth generation,” such as the Super Hornet in some cases have capabilities nearly as great as those labeled as being of later vintage.
The Navy envisions an ultra high-tech fighter capable of operating from Nimitz- and Ford-class aircraft carriers and complementing the F-35C and a yet unnamed unmanned aircraft system (probably based on the Boeing Phantom Ray or the Northrop Grumman X-47B) in providing air superiority and precision strike capability.
Rear Adm. Donald Gaddis, the Naval Air Systems Command’s program manager for tactical aviation, told attendees of the Navy League’s Sea-Air-Space exposition on April 17 that the Navy wants “far greater kinematic performance and greater range” in the F/A-XX than in current fighters.
The Navy wants the new aircraft to attain initial operational capability in 2030 when its earliest Super Hornets reach their airframe fatigue life of 9,000 hours. The next step after an RFI is usually an analysis of alternatives (AOA) followed much later by a request for proposals (RFP). Both require funding not likely to be available soon.
Both Lockheed Martin and Boeing (which will run out of Super Hornet and F-15 Eagle orders before the target date) are working on fighter designs that could be compatible with an F/A-XX requirement. At the Navy League event, Boeing demonstrated a scale model of a possible new fighter with a modified delta wing, tailless configuration and internal weapons bays.