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US Navy starts development of next-generation manned fighter to replace the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and EA-18G Growler aircraft

The US Navy is moving toward the pursuit of a manned fighter aircraft that would include many of the capabilities on the F-35C Lighting II.

The US Navy has quietly initiated work to develop its first new carrier-based fighter in almost 20 years.

The multi-billion-dollar effort is aimed to replace the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet strike fighters and EA-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft beginning in the 2030s.

James Geurts, Navy acquisition chief, unveiled that the service created a program office for the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) initiative.

The US Navy is moving toward the pursuit of a manned fighter aircraft that would include many of the capabilities on the F-35C Lighting II, but with updated technology and expanded range, Bryan Clark, a naval analyst and senior fellow with the Hudson Institute, told USNI News this week.

“The idea would be that you would take those same capabilities forward and have them be built into an architecture that’s designed around a 21st-century model. So you’d get more seamless fusion and integration of all these sensor inputs, and better ways of interacting with the pilot, and more incorporation of autonomous operations,” Clark said. “So even more so than with the F-35, you’d end up with an aircraft where the pilot is really operating a computer that is flying the airplane and operating its systems, more so than today.”

The service wants to develop a whole new aircraft instead of a derivative design of an aircraft already on the production line, for the sixth-generation fighter.

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, 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.

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According to Clark, although the service’s objective for fielding the new fighter aircraft had been the 2030s, when the Super Hornets would begin to reach the end of their service lives, the Navy will try to speed up that timeline because the Super Hornets are likely to reach their maximum flight hours sooner than previously anticipated.

A January 2020 report from the Congressional Budget Office estimated the US Navy could spend approximately $67 billion to replace the F/A-18E/F fleet from 2032 to 2050 and $22 billion to replace the Growlers.

The Navy formally stood up the Next Generation Air Dominance program office, which the service is calling PMA-230 in May to kick off the NGAD initiative. Capt. Al Mousseau was tapped to serve as the program manager.

The service has already begun convening industry days for NGAD, USNI News says. Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman are the three likely competitors for the manned fighter, USNI News understands.

The US Navy in 2016 began forecasting plans to seek a family-of-systems approach, now known as NGAD, instead of buying one fighter aircraft (an initiative known as F/A-XX) to replace the Super Hornets and Growlers

The family of systems approach could see the Navy going down a path similar to the US Air Force’s NGAD pursuits, according to Clark, in which the Navy buys a manned fighter and uses different unmanned systems to supplement the mission.

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Photo credit: Rodrigo Avella

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