Design of the long-range killer and F/A-18 successor is maturing

In the realm of American aerospace defense, a trio of leading contractors are engaged in a vigorous competition to construct the aircraft for the Navy’s clandestine next-generation strike fighter program. Alongside this, two additional entities are endeavoring to manufacture the engine, as the service disclosed to Breaking Defense today.

In a report published on Sunday by Aviation Week, it has been revealed that esteemed aerospace giants Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman are all embroiled in keen competition to secure the contract for the construction of the aircraft set to supplant the Navy’s venerable F/A-18 fleet. Pratt & Whitney and GE Aerospace, both prominent figures in the engine manufacturing sector, have also been pinpointed as the key contenders in the race to provide the engines for this significant military project.

Upon solicitation of a viewpoint from Breaking Defense, a representative from the Navy elucidated, “The F/A-XX project has successfully navigated through the Concept Refinement Phase and has now transitioned into the Design Maturation stage. The Navy can affirmatively state that Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, GE Aerospace, and Pratt & Whitney are integral industry contributors to the F/A-XX Program.”

F-18 SH redeployment to Kuwait will be carried out by Boeing
Photo credit: Pixabay

The spokesperson elucidated that the service has pinpointed several pivotal factors that are instrumental in shaping the Air Wing of the Future and its corresponding Family of Systems. These elements include operational reach and capacity, the development of long-range kill chains, the integration of autonomy, and the incorporation of next-generation survivability mechanisms.

Although Boeing has not explicitly confirmed its participation in the competition, a statement from Steve Nordlund, the vice president and general manager at Boeing Air Dominance, offers insights into the company’s strategic direction. Nordlund articulates, “Boeing fighters constitute the mainstay of the contemporary carrier air wing, and our experiences are informing the multi-billion dollar strategic investment we are channeling into advanced open mission systems and the pioneering, fully digital factories of the impending future.”

In the statement, he expressed unflagging commitment towards assisting the US Navy in realizing its forthcoming vision, underscoring the imperative role of cooperation in progressing towards these ambitious goals.

Breaking Defense has received confirmation from a representative of Northrop Grumman that the firm is actively involved in the developmental activities associated with the Navy’s F/A-XX initiatives, though no further details were shared. This aligns with earlier statements made during the summer by Northrop’s CEO, Kathy Warden, affirming the company’s commitment to the pursuit of the Navy’s fighter program.

Some Finnish F-18 Hornets are starting to become museum pieces
Photo credit: Defense News

Northrop’s Aeronautics Systems President, Tom Jones, disclosed to Aviation Week, his organization’s strategic focus and investment in digital engineering, advanced manufacturing, and their legacy in designing and fielding aircraft with cutting-edge mission systems. He asserted, “These pivotal elements empower us to expeditiously design, execute, and sustain both our current and future systems.”

An official representative from Pratt & Whitney has affirmed the company’s involvement in the program. However, the representative refrained from providing additional commentary on the matter. Despite multiple attempts to solicit their input, spokespeople from Lockheed Martin and GE Aerospace remained unresponsive to press inquiries at the time this article was published.

The program, designated as “Next Generation Air Dominance” [NGAD], is the formal nomenclature for the Navy’s forthcoming strike fighter, a designation that interestingly mirrors that of the Air Force’s own next-gen fighter initiative, though they are disparate endeavors. The nature of this program is predominantly enveloped in an aura of secrecy. 

Future next-gen F-18 SH could be a manned or unmanned version
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Recent budget proposals indicate a shift in the Navy’s priorities, advocating for the allocation of funds towards the research and development phase of the NGAD, superseding the ongoing production of the venerable F/A-18 Super Hornets. This strategic choice, however, has been met with marked disapproval by congressional members whose constituencies economically thrive on the production of these legacy aircraft.

Insight into the progression of the Air Force’s Next Generation Air Dominance [NGAD] fighter suggests that it is outpacing the Navy’s corresponding development, with a prestigious award anticipated for the forthcoming year. Recent revelations from Northrop’s Warden indicate that the company has opted out of the competition for this advanced sixth-generation jet. In the wake of Northrop’s withdrawal, Lockheed and Boeing are presumed to be the exclusive contestants in the race to secure the Air Force’s program. However, neither of these heavyweight contenders has yet chosen to confirm this on public record.

In the race to construct the engine for the Air Force’s Next Generation Air Dominance [NGAD] program, Pratt and General Electric [GE] are engaged in a vigorous competition. In a recent announcement, a high-ranking service official unveiled renewed strategies that entail both corporations developing prototypes of the powerplant.

In a statement that has sparked considerable discussion, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall indicated that the projected costs for the forthcoming NGAD fighter are likely to surpass those of the F-35 by a significant margin. He further suggested that the initial procurement strategy involves the acquisition of approximately 200 units of this high-priced aircraft. 

F-18 SH redeployment to Kuwait will be carried out by Boeing
Photo credit: Pixabay

Set to supersede the F-22 from the 2030s onward, the NGAD fighter, according to Kendall, will be under increased government jurisdiction in terms of data rights. He also mentioned that the construction of this state-of-the-art aircraft will be facilitated through an expanding network of non-traditional vendors, marking a departure from conventional practices.


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