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In the far term, the Navy will need to replace its F/A-18E/F Fleet. Pre-Milestone A activities are underway to define the follow-on F/A-XX aircraft. Options include additional F-35s, a variant of the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike System (UCLASS), a new manned/unmanned platform, or some combination of these.

The Navy began work in 2012 on a next-generation carrier-launched fighter jet to replace the existing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and Growler aircraft in the 2030 timeframe, as well as to supplement the F-35C. The Navy effort, called the F/A-XX study, included early work on the desired technological capabilities for the new aircraft. The goal is to have the new aircraft ready and producible by the time existing F/A-18s reach their end-of-service dates. The US Navy issued the F/A-XX RFI in April 2012.

In 2009 the Navy asked RAND to evaluate the desirability of a prospective SLEP on F/A-18E/F fighter aircraft. The E/F version achieved initial operational capability in September 2001. F/A-18E/Fs will be due for a SLEP or for retirement sometime late in the 2010 decade or early in the 2020 decade. An E/F SLEP would add ten years to the aircraft’s life. This SLEP would cost $26 million (fiscal year [FY] 2009 dollars) per aircraft. The alternative to undertaking E/F SLEPs is to acquire the F-35C carrier variant of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF).

If E/F SLEPs are undertaken, it is possible that the Navy could skip JSFs (at least as F/A-18E/F replacements) and jump to the so-called next-generation F/A-XX, a strictly conceptual aircraft that, for instance, may or may not be manned. However, procuring an F/A-XX is not a realistic option in time to supplant the E/F SLEP due toward the end of this decade. It could be an option, however, to replace a once-SLEPed E/F a decade or so later.

The F/A-XX, a replacement for the Super Hornet, is scheduled for operations in 2030-35. It could be that Congress and others may push for a joint F-X and F/A-XX competition. RAND noted in 2009 that "If E/F SLEPs are undertaken, it is possible that the Navy could skip JSFs (at least as F/A-18E/F replacements) and jump to the so-called next-generation F/A-XX, a strictly conceptual aircraft that, for instance, may or may not be manned. However, procuring an F/A-XX is not a realistic option in time to supplant the E/F SLEP due toward the end of this decade. It could be an option, however, to replace a once-SLEPed E/F a decade or so later."

F/A-XX is the current designation for the material solution concept that will fill the gaps met by the Super Hornet with a requirement to be operationally ready to meet the retirement of the F/A-18E/F and EA-18G. The future air wing will be an integrated Family of Systems (FoS) that networks and integrates its capability with greater effectiveness than the sum of its parts. F/A-XX will host mission payloads that will complement the capabilities of the carrier air wing’s Lightning II, Advanced Hawkeye, and rotary-wing components. The ultimate concept must reliably incorporate future key technologies–propulsion, sensors, networks, automation, and others – within the bounds of affordability.

In 2009, the Congressional Budget Office noted that after 2025 "F/A-18E/Fs are projected to begin reaching the end of their service life. At that time, DoN could continue purchases of the JSF, extend the service life of the Super Hornets, or begin fielding a new aircraft. Navy leaders, indicating plans to do the latter, have discussed developing and fielding a new aircraft — the so-called F/A-XX — to replace the Super Hornet. They have not described the characteristics of that aircraft, however. One candidate might be an unmanned combat aircraft."

The Future Airborne Capability Environment (FACETM) Consortium is an aviation-focused professional group made up of U.S. industry suppliers, customers, and users. The FACE Consortium provides a vendor-neutral forum for industry and the U.S. government to work together to develop software components and to gain consensus on a common framework, addressing such areas as open standards, best practices, guidance documents, data acquisition and competition driven business models. NAVAIR plans to demonstrate potential open architectures, utilizing the FACE Technical Standard, Edition 2.0, and to influence future architecture development for both the joint DoD services Future Vertical Lift (FVL) and the F/A-XX.

Long-term efforts are underway to improve the efficiency of the F-35 engine as well as to develop a revolutionary engine for the F/A-XX aircraft with both the performance characteristics of a tactical fighter and the fuel efficiency of a commercial airline engine.

The ADaptive Versatile ENgine Technology (ADVENT) is a project under Versatile Affordable Advanced Turbine Engines (VAATE) program investigating adaptive cycle technologies. Current turbine engines are optimized for either high performance, as in the case of a low bypass fighter engine, or fuel efficiency, as delivered by a high bypass transport engine. The ADVENT project will combine these developments into a single propulsion system that can change internal configuration to operate in either an increased thrust mode for performance or an increased efficiency mode for lower fuel consumption.

While Navy scientists are coordinating with the Air Force on ADVENT, Navy investment has been limited to $2 million for studies to assess potential mission benefits of an ADVENT type engine for an Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) “like” system. Investments are needed to address Navy specific engine size and cycle requirements for future systems such as a naval UCAS or F/A-XX and to assess the potential noise reduction and system performance benefits of this very promising technology.

It is not clear how quickly the Navy will develop an operational UCAV. While the experimental X-47B platform shows promise, the Navy appears to be concerned that operational units built from an evolution of this design, which is extremely stealthy, will be plagued by high cost, limited endurance and low payload capacity. Naval aviation seemed to be stressing the need to rapidly develop a manned F/A-XX platform to follow the JSF.

The US Navy issued a Request for Information (RfI) on 13 April 2012 for a new fighter to replace the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and EA-18G Growler in the 2030s. "The intent of this research is to solicit Industry inputs on candidate solutions for CVN [nuclear-powered aircraft carrier] based aircraft to provide air supremacy with a multi-role strike capability in an anti-access/area denied (A2AD) operational environment... The intent of this research is to solicit Industry inputs on candidate solutions for CVN based aircraft to provide multi-role capability in an A2AD operational environment. Primary missions include, but are notlimited to, air warfare (AW), strike warfare (STW), surface warfare (SUW), and close air support (CAS).

"Also consider the ability of your concept to provide other capabilities currently provided by strike fighteraircraft, such as organic air-to-air refueling (AAR), Tactical Reconnaissance, Surveillance and Target Acquisition (RSTA), and airborne electronic attack (AEA). The trade space refinement activity will characterize a broad trade space, to include unmanned, optionally manned and manned aircraft. System attributes and system capabilities will be considered in the context of cost and affordability. Concepts that are derived from legacy aircraft, “clean sheet” new design aircraft, as well as innovative technology concepts specifically tailored for the operational context are all relevant.

"As a top level summary of some of the required system capabilities, the air vehicle should be capable of addressing the following needs:

  1. Capable of operating from CVN 68 and CVN 78 class aircraft carriers, as part of the Carrier AirWing (CVW), with minimal impact on the ship configuration and the operations of the rest of theCVW.
  2. This aircraft will be a complementary CVW asset to the F-35C and an unmanned persistent intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) vehicle with precision strike capability.
  3. The ability to conduct persistent, penetrating operations in an A2AD operational environment.
  4. The ability for an IOC in the 2030 timeframe. If a spiral approach to incorporation of systems and/or technology to achieve full operational capability is employed, provide the timeline toachieve full capability."

Navy officials are reluctant to talk about possible F/A-XX capabilities but aerospace industry officials contend that some capabilities will be similar to the F-22. The new strike-fighter design will likely fly faster, higher and farther into the threat ring than other Navy aircraft. That will produce an increase in its radar and infrared detection horizons and allow it to pinpoint targets for weapons launched from non-stealthy designs at lower altitudes and farther from the target. Another capability is expected to be the ability to slew sensors in unmanned strike and reconnaissance aircraft for realtime strike of popup targets.

The Chinese J-20 can cruise at mil power supersonic out to 300 plus miles before he has to turn around and come back, which makes it really hard for a subsonic fighter that needs afterburners for supersonic flight to go into that environment and survive. Especially in an away game when the US is outnumbered.

The strike fighters therefore should be designed primarily for an air-to-air mission. Strike capability can be treated as a secondary concern. The F/A-XX requirements may well be biased towards fleet air defense versus strike operations. The primary issue is the likely threat of numerical superiority in multiple dimensions.

There may be a need to develop new weapons for the jets, if the six generation F/A-XX is to be a supersonic design. If the future F/A-XX is going to have to carry more missiles, it will necessarily need to have a large volume — if the jet is going to be stealthy. But because a flying wing design is needed for all-aspect broadband stealth—there is no room to stack weapons bays along the length of the jet. By necessity, a high performance supersonic aircraft has to be long and slender in order to have a good “fineness ratio” for efficient performance.

A supersonic, flying wing fighter will likely require smaller missiles, or rely on directed energy weapons like a high energy laser to minimize internal payload volume.

John Stillion, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, however, argued that a next-generation fighter would not necessarily be a supersonic fighter, but rather a subsonic stealthy flying wing that would carry extremely long-range missiles. Stillion therefore supposed that stealth, payload and sensor capability would trump traditional fighter metrics like speed, altitude and turn capability.

Ray Mabus, Secretary of the Navy, told the Unmanned Systems Defense 2015 conference on October 27, 2015 that "I believe, that the F-35 should be and almost certainly will be the last manned strike fighter that the Department of the Navy will ever buy or fly. The successor, F/A-XX, will serve as our next generation air superiority fighter, replacing the capabilities that the Hornet and Super Hornet and Growler when they sundown. That next generation air dominance family of systems will have F/A-XX and unmanned components heavily networked platforms, sensors, weapons. Information will be shared across surface, subsurface, joint, air assets. This F/A-XX and what it looks like and what it should do will soon be part of an analysis alternatives and slated to begin operations here in the 2030s."

Northrop Grumman unveiled its vision for the Pentagon's new futuristic fighter jet on Sunday in a television commercial broadcast to over 100 million viewers during the Super Bowl 07 February 2016. The aircraft, which has no tail and fires lasers in a way that will not alert enemies to its presence, flashed across the television screen in a snippet of Northrop's 30-second commercial broadcast during Super Bowl 50. A sixth-generation fighter, meanwhile, will likely not be fielded for 15 to 20 years, eventually replacing the F/A-18 Super Hornet and possibly even the F-22 Raptor.

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