The Navy is beginning to work on a a next-generation carrier-launched fighter jet to replace the existing F/A-18 Super Hornet and Growler aircraft by 2030 and supplement the F-35C the Pentagon is still developing, service officials said.
The Navy effort, called the F/A-XX study, includes early work on the desired technological capabilities for the new aircraft. The idea is to have a new aircraft ready and producible by the time existing F/A-18s reach their end-of-service dates. Navy officials emphasize that the early work is in the very early stages and purely a conceptual effort to explore alternatives.
The Navy is analyzing industry proposals on the F/A-XX it started collecting two years ago. Navy officials are trying to pick out what they like and study potential ideas.
This effort is going on as the Navy considers various upgrades of the existing inventory of F/A-18s in order to extend its service life well into and beyond the 2030s. Nevertheless, unless more aircraft such as Growlers are purchased for future production, Boeing’s domestic production of the F/A-18 will come to an end in the next several years.
Meanwhile, these early F/A-XX efforts are going on while the service vigorously pursues ongoing developmental testing of its F-35C, slated to be ready by 2018.
Navy officials did say the platform would be a sixth-generation fighter but emphasized that service experts were reluctant to talk about the new aircraft because so much has yet to be determined and the project was still in the very early stages.
Meanwhile, exactly how long the F/A-18 will fly remains somewhat of an open question. At a certain point the aircraft will eventually need to be replaced, however the Navy is still interested in acquiring more Growler electronic jamming aircraft and continues to upgrade the F/A-18 platform.
There are near term efforts such as the ongoing initiative to outfit 170 F/A-18E/F Block II fighter jets with a next-generation infrared sensor designed to locate air-to-air target in a high-threat electronic attack environment.
Infrared search and track, or IRST, system, is a long range sensor that searches for and detect infrared emissions, Navy officials said. Slated to be operational by 2017, the system can simultaneously track multiple targets and provide a highly effective air-to-air targeting capability.
While the Navy is making progress with existing modifications to the platform, the service is also looking into slightly longer-term anti-surface-warfare upgrades to the aircraft such as improving the active electronically scanned array radar and forward looking infrared radar technologies such as IRST, Navy officials said.
Alongside upgrades to the platform that are already underway such as targeting improvements and experimentation with conformal fuel tanks and an external weapons pod, the Navy is investing research dollars into upgrading the plane’s sensors, radar and computer systems, Capt. Frank Morley, program manager for the F/A-18 and EA-18G Growler aircraft told Military.com in an interview last summer.
One analyst said if Navy F/A-XX developers seek to engineer a sixth-generation aircraft, they will likely explore a range of next-generation technologies such as maximum sensor connectivity, super cruise ability and an aircraft with electronically configured “smart skins.”
Maximum connectivity would mean massively increased communications and sensor technology such as having an ability to achieve real-time connectivity with satellites, other aircraft and anything that could provide relevant battlefield information, said Richard Aboulafia, vice-president of analysis at the Teal Group, a Va.-based consultancy.
The new aircraft might also seek to develop the ability to fire hypersonic weapons, however such a development would hinge upon successful progress with yet-to-be-proven technologies such as scramjets, Aboulafia added.
Super cruise technology would enable the new fighter jet to cruise at supersonic speeds without needing afterburner, he explained.
Smart aircraft skins would involve dispersing certain technologies or sensors across the fuselage and further integrating them into the aircraft itself, Aboulafia said.
‘Smart skins with distributed electronics means that instead of having systems mounted on the aircraft, you would have apertures integrated on the skin of the aircraft,” he said.
This could reduce drag, increase speed and maneuverability while increasing the technological ability of the sensors.
Finally, Aboulafia said the Navy may be interested in developing a super-capable air-dominance or air-to-air fighter capability as a new, next-generation aircraft to replace the F-14 Tomcat – an aircraft known for its air-to-air fighter capability.
Navy officials said the F/A-18 is the current replacement for the F-14 Tomcat.
Also, about 20 years ago the Navy was interested in acquiring a Navy variant of the F-22 through what was called the Naval Advanced Tactical Fighter program, Aboulafia explained. This effort never came to fruition, leaving the Navy without a fifth-generation air-dominance platform, Aboulafia said.
While the Navy’s F-35C is engineered for strike missions, next-generation sensor fusion, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and air-to-air combat, experts maintain it does not have the fifth-generation air-to-air dominance and speed of the F-22. Nevertheless, Navy officials emphasize that the now-in-development F-35C is the service's fifth-generation platform.