Analysis shows the US Navy’s F/A-XX 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.
In a written testimony to Congress last week Navy officials said that the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program is meant to expand the range for carrier-based operations.
“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.”
The written testimony was submitted last week to the Senate Armed Services seapower subcommittee by Jay Stefany, 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.
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.
The concept for NGAD is that a family of manned and unmanned systems will work together, centered around F/A-XX which will 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 replace the F/A-18E/F Super Hornets in 2030s as they reach the end of their service lives.
“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.”
As we have previously reported, the US Navy’s Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) said in a document called “Navy Aviation Vision 2030-2035,” released in November 2021 that “The CVW of the 2030s achieves a complementary mix of F-35C Lightning II, F/A-18E/F Block III Super Hornet, and next generation strike fighter (F/A-XX), with the F/A-18E/F Block III providing the backbone of the CVW through 2035. […] The advanced carrier based power projection capabilities resident in F/AXX will maintain CVN relevance in advanced threat environments. […] The appropriate mix of F/A-XX, manned and unmanned platforms will be evaluated to ensure the most lethal and affordable CVW possible.”
Since the F-14 Tomcat interceptor left the inventory in 2006 the effective combat radius of the carrier air wing has contracted. Since 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 MQ-25A Stingray (set do deploy aboard USS Theodore Roosevelt in 2026) unmanned carrier tanker will nominally increase the combat radius.
As we have already reported, the service in 2016 began forecasting plans to seek a family-of-systems approach, now known as Next Generation Air Dominance. However, the family of systems approach will see the Navy going down a path similar to the US Air Force’s NGAD pursuits, in which the Navy buys a manned fighter and uses different unmanned systems to supplement the mission.
Photo credit: Rodrigo Avella