U.S. Navy is looking for the fighter jet of the future

This post was published in Defence24. The point of view expressed in this article is authorial and do not necessarily reflect BM`s editorial stance.


WARSAW, (BM) – Without publicity, the US Navy has just started a program to build a new on-board fighter, which will replace the F / A-18E / F Super Hornet and EF-18G Growler in the near future. What assumptions were made for this machine and how will it differ from the F-35C, which, according to previous plans, was to become the only multi-role on-board fighter of this formation?

It is no secret that the program of the on-board variant of the F-35 fighter, the F-35C, is today considered the least successful version, especially in terms of readiness and operational availability [initial combat capability was achieved in 2019, the F-35C obtained it as the last of the three versions].

The cost and range of these machines are also a problem. Although it meets the previous assumptions, it is 1100 – 1300 km operating radius, depending on the configuration – much larger than in the case of the F / A-18E / F – it still seems too small today, and the US Navy thinks about a machine capable of operating within a radius of 1800 km and more.

The reason for changing these assumptions is Chinese (but also Russian or even Iranian) ballistic and maneuvering anti-ship missiles. For over a dozen years there have been voices that in connection with the development of these types of weapons in the arsenals of potential opponents, “super-aircraft carriers” such as Nimitz or Ford are becoming easy prey.

To avoid this, the ships with their accompanying escorts should operate at greater distances from enemy shores. But in order to be able to attack at the same time, they need long-range planes. This is what underlies the recently launched Next Generation Air Dominance [NGAD] program.

Price, quality or speed?

The plans of the US Navy are extremely ambitious today. The new planes would enter service from the beginning of the 1930s. At that time, the fleet of the currently modernized F / A-18E / F Super Hornet would start to crumble, despite the fact that there are still small deliveries of new aircraft. Then the first EF-18G Growler electronic warfare planes will also begin to require replacement. It is possible that the US Navy will want to implement the new aircraft even earlier, as it predicts that the 4th generation of aircraft will run out even sooner than assumed.

Given the tense situation in the South China Sea, the Middle East and the Mediterranean Sea, they may indeed wear out faster. If not in fights, then surely as a result of intensive use, during exercises.

Extremely ambitious time assumptions are made real by the experience gained with the F-35 program. However, the US Navy, contrary to the proposals put forward at times, does not want the development variant of this aircraft or the proposed “F-35 and F / A-18 fusion” but a completely new machine. American sailors would like it to have many of the capabilities of the F-35C, but it should receive the above-mentioned extended range and even newer on-board technology.

The latter are to consist of a new architecture of electronic systems, further improving situational awareness by fusing data from on-board sensors. Another assumption is the greater autonomy of the machine, making the pilot more focused on managing the mission than on piloting.

So far, there is no final vision of what the effect of the NGAD program will look like. It seems that two variants of this machine are being considered. The first is a long range manned fighter. This is associated with the Japanese plans for a heavy machine “distancing” the enemy from the Japanese Islands and performing long-range strikes.

The second concept of the “family of systems” is more like the Franco-German project FCAS [Future Combat Air System]. With this approach, the new US Navy fighter would not have to reach the enemy position at all. Instead, it would fire precision ammunition or swarms of unmanned aerial vehicles after it traveled part of the way, leaving US aircraft carriers beyond the range of enemy missiles anyway.

The latter solution seems to be more optimal in line with the argument that “long-range missiles are cheaper than long-range aircraft”. As a rule, the development of a manned fighter with a greater range is more expensive than a missile, which by its nature only performs one mission after launch.

So, responding with advanced planes to the next generations of missiles, the Americans would lose the “race” because of incurring much higher costs. Which concept will eventually be adopted and for what reasons – it will show the future.

However, bold technical assumptions and a tight time regime can only be reconciled by flooding such a program with a large amount of money. And then problems can arise, as proved most clearly by the F-35 program.

Meanwhile, there is no money, and in the face of the economic crisis, the Pentagon is even getting ready to tighten its belts in the coming years. The US Navy is looking for funds for the program at the expense of the concept of further purchases of F / A-18E / F Block III, which are currently being built at Boeing’s plants under a long-term contract.

Accordingly, it is planned that fiscal year 2021 is to be the last in which new generation 4th / 4.5th aircraft [24] will still be financed. The resignation from the supply of approximately 36 new Super Hornets financed between 2022 and 2024 and focusing only on the modernization of the existing fleet is expected to give about USD 4.5 billion.

This, of course, is only part of the resources needed. The program of the relatively modest Korean 5th generation KF-X fighter is estimated at around USD 8 million (not counting the purchase of serial copies), and the program of the Japanese future fighter even at several tens of billions of USD.

The cost of the NGAD program has not yet been officially estimated, but in January this year, an assessment appeared that the cost of replacing the F / A-18E / F fleet in 2032-2050 was estimated at $ 67 billion and for replacing Growlers at at least 22 billion. Interestingly, in the name of savings and shortening the time to put the aircraft into production, the US Navy is willing to give up some of the features of the aircraft.

In this context, the speed, stealth characteristics and the ability to carry weapons by the new aircraft are mentioned. This would be possible especially if the focus was not on the development of a “powerful” manned aircraft, but on the “family of systems”.

So far, no formal request for information has been sent to American aviation companies, but it seems that after the requirements are set, the same competition for the on-board aircraft will be taken by the same: Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman.

Consultations with companies and companies have reportedly started. Contractors have what to fight for. The new fighters would replace all Super Hornets and Growlers in their possession and planned for introduction, the program could cover even more than 600-700 aircraft.


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