F/A-XX is a development and acquisition program for a future sixth-generation air superiority fighter to replace the United States Navy's F/A-18E/F Super Hornet beginning in late-2020s. A requirement was first identified in June 2008. This USN program has also been referred to at different times as NGAD, or the: Next Generation Air Dominance program.
Air superiority fighter with multi-role capabilities
In April 2012, the Navy issued a formal request for information for the F/A-XX. It calls for an air superiority fighter with multi-role capabilities to replace the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and EA-18G Growler aircraft in the 2030s, while complementing the F-35C Lightning II and UCLASS unmanned aircraft, that can operate in anti-access/area-denial environments. Primary missions include air combat, ground attack, surface warfare, and close air support. Other missions can include air-to-air refueling, reconnaissance, surveillance, and target acquisition (RSTA), and electronic attack. There is consideration for manned, unmanned, and optionally manned platforms. The F/A-XX is being pursued as F/A-18 Super Hornets will reach the end of their 9,000 hours of service life by the early 2030s. Aside from the option of buying more F-35Cs, the F/A-XX is seeking to create a new aircraft to replace the Super Hornet's capability and mission set. An Analysis of Alternatives (AOA) was expected to begin in 2014, with a fighter to be introduced around 2030. Just as the F-35C will replace aging F/A-18 Hornets and complement Super Hornets, the F/A-XX will replace aging Super Hornets in the 2030s and complement the F-35C.
Although the F/A-XX platform will be a sixth-generation fighter aircraft, the Navy is reluctant to talk about a new aircraft because the project is still in the very early stages of development. A range of next-generation technologies may be explored including maximum sensor connectivity, and electronically configured "smart skins." Maximum connectivity refers to massively increased communications and sensor technology, such as having the ability to connect with satellites, other aircraft, and anything providing real-time battlefield information.
An open architecture design is desired, so different sensors, payloads, and weapons can be plugged in for a specific mission, and be able to be moved around for multiple different missions on different days or different sorties. The resulting open architecture design is likely to take shape depending on which style of new propulsion system is presented by the aircraft industry.
Scramjet engine propulsion
While the Navy is working with the U.S. Air Force on a next-generation tactical fighter with super cruise ability, and there is significant disagreement over the Air Force's claims that adaptive-cycle jet engine technology, where the ratios of bypass and compression airflow can be made variable to improve efficiency, can be scaled to benefit a carrier-based fighter. Engine technologies like scramjets would enable an aircraft to cruise at supersonic speeds without needing an afterburner. Smart skins would have sensors and electronics integrated into the fuselage of the aircraft itself to increase the technological ability of the sensors while reducing drag and increasing speed and maneuverability.
New spectrum of weapons
Chief of Naval Operations Jonathan Greenert speculated in February 2015 that the F/A-XX would not rely on speed or stealth as much as previous generation jet fighters due to better signature detection and proliferating high-speed anti-aircraft weapons. Instead, the fighter would carry a new spectrum of weapons to overwhelm or suppress enemy air defenses. On 9 September 2014, the Navy announced that an AoA for the F/A-XX aircraft would begin in 2015. Meetings with industry will be held focusing on building new aircraft to meet the requirement, developing a family of systems (FoS) approach, and discussing mission systems, avionics, and new next-generation weapons systems. One approach could create a minimum cost F/A-XX that uses high cost, high performance weapons to defeat threats; according to the Navy's Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air (NIFC-CA) battle network concept, an individual platform would not need to have a full suite of sensors and rely on off-board data-linked information from other platforms to provide targeting information and guide weapons launched from the platform. The F/A-XX platforms will be made to carry missiles, have power and cooling systems for directed-energy weapons, and have sensors that can target small radar cross-section targets; cyber warfare platforms at a tactical level as part of a FoS are being explored.
The payload of the F/A-XX will likely match or exceed the Super Hornet's payload.
In May 2015, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus stated that the F/A-XX should be unmanned. The effort may produce a family of systems to replace the capabilities of the F/A-18E/F and EA-18G rather than a single airframe, and the Navy is now conducting an analysis of alternatives for their next-generation aircraft in partnership with the Air Force. Greenert favors an optionally manned aircraft for a modular section that can either hold a pilot or more sensors.
Aircraft Carrier Compatible
In July 2009, Boeing unveiled a sixth-generation fighter concept for the F/A-XX requirement. It was a two-seat, twin-engined tailless jet with a blended wing. Although it has a tandem cockpit, Boeing said it can be manned or unmanned depending on the mission. The fighter concept is in the 40,000 lb (18,000 kg) weight class. The Northrop Grumman X-47B that was chosen for the UCAS-D program has also been proposed for the F/A-XX effort.
In a 31 May 2011 disclosure to Congress, the Department of Defense revealed that they were considering buying more F-35C fighters to replace 556 Super Hornets. The DOD plans to replace the older F/A-18C/D Hornets with 220 Lightning IIs. In March 2011, a Navy analysis of alternatives showed that they may buy more F-35C aircraft, develop a new platform, or do both for their NGAD fighter program.
Boeing unveiled an updated F/A-XX sixth-generation fighter concept in April 2013. The concept is a tailless twin-engine stealth fighter available in manned and unmanned configurations. It has canards, which usually compromises the frontal radar cross-section, but the lack of a tail shows an emphasis on all-aspect stealth. It also has diverterless supersonic inlets similar to the F-35. The manned version seems to have restricted rearward visibility without the aid of a sensor.
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