US Navy's Sixth-Generation F/A-XX Fighter: Just a 'Super' Super Hornet?
The United States Navy does not appear to have a coherent plan for how its carrier-based tactical aircraft will operate in the post-2030 threat environment. Sources tell The National Interest that even the Navy’s planned F/A-XX will not solve the service’s challenges in operating in an anti-access/area denial environment (A2/AD) defended by advanced integrated air defenses and a new generation of enemy warplanes. Meanwhile, the Navy remains skeptical of the F-35C—which is the only aircraft that might meet most of its requirements during that era.
“Naval aviation has got to get beyond the calcification and thinking that is inherent to older designs in order to be able to keep the aircraft carrier relevant in the future security environment that’s going to be dominated by advanced surface-to-air missile systems like the S-300 and S-400,” Jerry Hendrix, director of the Defense Strategies and Assessments Program at the Center for a New American Security, told The National Interest.
Despite the threat, the U.S. Navy will field only a handful of stealthy Lockheed Martin F-35C Joint Strike Fighters on the carrier flight deck in the 2030s. According to sources close to the Navy, while the service is no longer worried about the capability the stealthy single-engine warplane will bring to the fleet, both the N98 Air Warfare Directorate in the Pentagon and the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) remain extremely concerned about the cost of the F-35C. “They’re looking at it in a very short-sighted way. They’re still skeptical because the expense hasn’t come down to the degree they wanted,” the source explained. “Already the aircraft squadron buy of the new airplane is smaller than the Hornet squadron they’re supposed to replace—10 aircraft vice 12—simply because they can’t afford it.”
Hendrix said that the problem is simple. If the Navy has a flat top line budget and the new aircraft is much more expensive, the service simply can’t afford as many planes. “If you don’t have a budget line plus up, you’ve got buy fewer aircraft,” Hendrix noted. “In a flat budget environment, there is no additional money coming so you have to take the cut in your overall number of assets.”
Because of the sheer cost of the F-35C, if the Navy could find a way to leave the Joint Strike Fighter program, it would, the source said. Ideally, the Navy would like to bypass the F-35C and move directly to the nascent F/A-XX—which is still technically in an analysis of alternatives phase. “They would really like to delay it until they get to F/A-XX because they think it’ll be designed more according to their liking,” the source said. “But the fact is that F/A-XX is just a dream on a piece of paper right now and it’s a dream they’re getting push back on from DOD [Department of Defense] leadership.”
While many outside observers had assumed that a future F/A-XX would be some kind of supersonically cruising, broadband all-aspect stealth sixth-generation fighter or even a new long-range unmanned stealth bomber, the Navy’s vision for the F/A-XX is much more mundane. Not only does the Navy currently envision the F/A-XX as a manned aircraft, the service is not aiming to build a jet that is significantly more capable than the existing Super Hornet. Indeed, the F/A-XX—as it is currently envisioned—would offer little more capability than a F/A-18E/F with some radar cross section reductions and increased range. “What they really want—unfortunately—is something that looks remarkably like an F/A-18 Hornet—just super, heterodyned and modernized. It’s essentially just a super Super Hornet,” the source said. ‘That aircraft is simply not going to be able to operate in an S-300/S-400 anti-air environment. It doesn’t have an RCS [radar cross section] that’s going to allow it to do that.”
The reason behind the bizarre F/A-XX conception is the Navy’s internal cabal of Super Hornet pilots and weapons systems officers—who the source described as the F/A-18 lobby. “The Super Hornet lobby owns naval aviation writ large,” the source said. “They’re very close to Boeing and they tend to revert to a Boeing-like design.”
Indeed, one of the reasons the naval aviation community is getting severe pushback from senior DOD leadership and Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus is because the F/A-XX is being envisioned as an extremely conservative design that is less advanced by some margin than the F-35C, the source said. The Defense Department—particularly Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work—and Mabus had both wanted a much more capable long-range unmanned stealth bomber, which the Super Hornet community is uncomfortable with.
According to the source, the Super Hornet community torpedoed the Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) program because of their insistence that the drone be an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft optimized for a permissive environment. The source pointed out that a deep strike optimized unmanned aircraft would be a threat to the fighter-attack community’s control naval aviation. “Butts in seats is how they justify their leadership role,” the source said.