Earlier this year the United States Navy announced that it would cut production of the legacy F/A-18E/F Super Hornet as it prepared to accelerate the development of the next-generation carrier-based fighter program. Now, after a decade of starts and stops, it appears that the Navy is ramping up its efforts to find a replacement for the Super Hornet.
USNI News reported this week that the Navy is standing up a new program office and is holding early discussions with key defense contractors. This will be a multi-billion-dollar effort to replace not only the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet but also the electronic attack EA-18G Growlers beginning in the early 2030s.
This could be quite a task to develop a new manned fighter, especially as the Navy seeks one that can extend the reach of the carrier air wing.
Replacing Two Aircraft
Creating a replacement for one aircraft would already be challenging, but the Navy seeks to replace two.
The multirole Super Hornet, which is now manufactured by Boeing following its merger with McDonnell Douglas, is produced in two distinct versions including the single-seat F/A-18/E and the dual-seat F/A-18/F. It has been seen as a “force multiplier” that allows the aircraft to be deployed to meet the various challenges that a carrier might face.
The EA-18G Growler electronic attack fighter, which is derived from the F-18 Super Hornet fighter, is one of a small number of military aircraft designed with dedicated capabilities to jam and even potentially destroy hostile radar systems. The mission, known as Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD), is crucial when attacking an adversary with significant anti-aircraft defenses.
Next Generation Air Dominance
Last week Navy acquisition chief James Geurts told reporters that the Naval Air Systems Command has created a program office for the Next Generation Air Dominance initiative.
However, this new program office also has come together as the Pentagon faces a constrained budget environment and is adjusting its new defense strategy to be focused on threats from Russia and China in the Indo-Pacific Theater.
Beyond the F-35C
The Navy is also looking to develop a fighter that would offer many of the advantages and capabilities of the F-35C Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter, but with updated technology and, more importantly, extended range. The F-35 jet’s six to eight hundred mile range could be a problem as the stealth fighter cannot carry a drop fuel tank—which is why the Pentagon has explored ideas to develop a stealth tanker to extend the range of the Joint Strike Fighter.
Rather than trying to improve on the F-35 jet, the Navy is reportedly planning to seek a wholly new design rather than looking to a derivative design. However, the service would still like to see features from the Lockheed Martin F-35 jet combined with Boeing’s F/A-18 designs with the latest bells and whistles of course—and extended range of one thousand nautical miles.
Even as the Pentagon and Navy have referenced budget constraints when discussing such a program, it has also been noted that the Navy could save money by curtailing the Super Hornet and putting the savings—which could be around $4.5 billion across its five-year budget plan – towards the new aircraft. Yet, a January 2020 report from the Congressional Budget Office estimated the Navy could spend upwards of $67 billion to replace the F/A-18E/F fleet from 2032 to 2050 and another $22 billion to replace the Growlers.
One possible way to address some of the issues—notably the range of an attack aircraft—could be to couple it with an unmanned system that could allow the human pilot to get “close enough” to the target and allow an unmanned system to deal with an adversary’s long-range anti-aircraft systems.
That could allow the U.S. fleet and aircraft well beyond the enemy’s ability to strike back—and unmanned systems can be far cheaper than a combat aircraft as well.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.