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Bye-Bye to Super Hornet: US Navy Cuts F/A-18E/F Production to Develop its Sixth Generation Combat Aircraft

Previously known as F/A-XX, the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) is aimed to replace the payload capacity of the F/A-18E/F Super Hornets on carrier decks.

The US Navy revealed in its Fiscal Year 2021 budget request that wants to cut production of the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet to boost the development of its long-gestating next-generation carrier-based fighter program.

According to USNI News, next year’s order of two dozen F/A-18E/F Super Hornet strike fighters would be the last on the books for the service under this plan. In 2019, Boeing won a $4-billion multi-year contract to buy 78 Super Hornets through FY 2021.

According to the justification in the documents, the money the Navy for planned a subsequent multiyear buy of 36 Super Hornets from FY 2022 to 2024 would be rerouted to “accelerated development of Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) and other key aviation wholeness investments.”

The cut of the F/A-18E/Fs past FY 2021 is estimated to route $4.5 billion over the five-year horizon of the Future Years Defense Plan (FYDP) to the new aviation effort.

“The decision to cease F/A-18 procurement after FY 2021 ensures the Carrier Air Wing will maintain capable strike fighter capacity to pace the most stressing threats through the 2030s,” read the Navy documents.

Previously known as F/A-XX, the NGAD is aimed to replace the payload capacity of the F/A-18E/F Super Hornets on carrier decks as the incoming F-35C Lighting II Joint Strike Fighter brings a stealthy fighter to the air wing. The program has had fits and starts over the last decade as the service has grappled with shaping the future of the air wing.

Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Gilday said on Dec. 5, 2019 that the US Navy is still working on the question of what the next combat aircraft after the F-35C will be, or even if it will be launched from an aircraft carrier.

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“I do think we need an aviation combatant, but what the aviation combatant of the future looks like? I don’t know yet. I think there’s going to be a requirement to continue to deliver a seaborne launched vehicle through the air that’ll deliver an effect downrange,” Gilday said at US Naval Institute’s Defense Forum Washington conference. “I do think that that will likely be a mix of manned and unmanned. The platform which they launch from? I’m not sure what that’s going to look like.”

Noteworthy after years of churn, the US Navy is in the midst of a broad evaluation of its fleet design and its future capabilities which will shape the service’s force structure.

The service in fact has been questioned for not developing a longer-range air wing to keep up with the increased range of Chinese anti-ship ballistic missiles that put the multi-billion capital ships at risk.

In 2019, a report from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments said, in order for a future carrier air wing to be effective in a major conflict with China, it would need to field a combatant that could fly sustained combat air patrols up to 1,000 nautical miles from the carrier. That’s 400 nautical miles beyond the effective combat radius of the F-35C and 500 nautical miles more than a current F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.

It’s unclear if NGAD will be manned, unmanned or some combination of both. While former Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said in 2015 that the F-35C would be the last manned fighter the service would buy, the service has been lukewarm in introducing unmanned carrier aircraft into the air wing.

Last year in fact Navy leaders said they weren’t working on development of a new unmanned carrier aircraft a claim confirmed by the fact that the service abandoned a planned unmanned, low-observable strike aircraft program in favor of the simpler MQ-25A Stingray unarmed tanker.

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Photo credit: US Navy and Rodrigo Avella

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