The U.S. Navy has requested a whopping $1.53 billion for 2024 to fund the continued development of its new stealth fighter, dubbed the F/A-XX. This marks the first time the service has assigned a publicly-known dollar figure to the program and it offers us an important glimpse into the Navy’s priorities in the years to come.
Today, the U.S. Navy operates a combination of F/A-18 Super Hornets and F-35C Lighting IIs from its fleet of Ford- and Nimitz-class supercarriers, representing the most potent form of force projection in Uncle Sam’s sprawling arsenal. These fighters represent some of the most technologically advanced tactical aircraft in the world.
But with an eye toward deterring conflict with China in the Pacific, the Navy will need an injection of new technology and capabilities in the near future. Not only has China fielded a rapidly advancing array of long-range anti-ship weapon systems designed specifically to target American aircraft carriers from four-digit ranges, but its development is ongoing on the Shenyang FC-31 (also sometimes known as the J-31) — a new stealth fighter China intends to operate from its own growing fleet of carriers.
So, the U.S. Navy is investing heavily in advanced new forms of airpower and the F/A-XX program is leading the way. In fact, the disclosed sum the Navy aims to invest into the F/A-XX in 2024 alone outpaces funding aimed at its next-generation attack submarine programs and next-generation destroyer programs… combined.
Related: The massive carrier problem the Navy’s F/A-XX has to solve
Bringing the F/A Prefix into the 21st century
It’s impossible to discuss a new stealth fighter in active development for the Navy without first addressing the most common misconception about this program: the idea that it’s meant as a replacement for the Navy’s existing F-35Cs.
Because of the F-35’s troubled acquisition process and technical setbacks, those who don’t stay abreast of these programs often tend to base their perceptions of the F-35 on hyperbolic and clickbaity headlines about the Joint Strike Fighter being a failure. Sandboxx News has addressed this common misconception from a variety of angles, from dispelling famously misleading reporting of its dogfighting prowess to publishing first-hand accounts from F-35 pilots themselves, but like so many hot takes fueled by the social media flame wars, the idea that the U.S. wants to do away with the F-35 is one bad take that simply won’t die.
And that almost certainly played a role in the Navy’s decision to give their next stealth fighter that same (arguably outdated) F/A prefix that currently adorns its Super Hornets.
The original F/A-18 Hornet was the first aircraft in history to transition from a ground-attack mission to an air combat mission and then back again all in the same sortie during the Persian Gulf War of 1991. At the time, this historic combination of air-to-air (or fighter) chops and air-to-ground (or attack) capabilities was groundbreaking, and its Fighter/Attack prefix was meant to signify that.
But in the years since, multi-role capabilities of this sort have become not only commonplace, but standard among advanced fighter platforms. Even the legendary air superiority F-22 Raptor has seen combat in an attack role, rendering that F/A prefix somewhat moot.
Why carry it forward into the 21st century then? Almost certainly as a clear indicator of which fighter this new jet will replace. The F/A-XX heading for service in the mid-2030s will relieve the Navy’s standing fleets of Super Hornets, not F-35s.
Related: Here are the 12 new stealth aircraft currently heading toward service
More range, more speed
The F/A-XX fighter remains shrouded in a great deal of secrecy. It’s currently being developed under the Navy-specific Next Generation Air Dominance program, which isn’t to be confused with the Air Force effort to field a replacement for the venerable F-22 Raptor of the same name.
Despite sharing a program name, the Navy and Air Force have been clear that each branch is independently developing a unique platform specifically suited to their particular requirements — seemingly suggesting that the Pentagon learned its lesson about trying to field one fighter for multiple branches from the F-35 program. However, because both efforts have placed a large emphasis on the modularity of internal systems, it seems likely that, despite having different external designs, these two next-generation fighters may share some similarities internally.
Because the F/A-XX program is expected to field a fighter a few years after the Air Force’s Next Generation Air Dominance effort, it seems unlikely that the Navy has already chosen a design and primary contractor for this jet. As such, hard specifics about the capabilities it will bring to bear likely don’t exist at all, let alone in disclosed documentation. However, the Navy has been rather clear on what it needs from this new platform, and that can tell us a great deal about where the priorities of its design will be.
“Its specific capabilities and technologies are under development, however analysis shows it must have longer range and greater speed, incorporate passive and active sensor technology, and possess the capability to employ the longer-range weapons programmed for the future,” the Navy’s Aviation Vision document spells out.
Today’s F/A-18 Super Hornet has a maximum combat radius of just shy of 640 miles — but according to the Navy’s own assessment, it can only engage targets that far away when flying completely clean (carrying no external armaments) except for a pair of AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles. Obviously, in order to be leveraged for its attack role, the aircraft would have to carry more firepower than that, so it’s safe to say that today’s Super Hornets are limited to striking enemy targets no further away than 600 to 620 miles in the best of circumstances.
The single-engine F-35C can stretch a bit further — in part thanks to the fact that it carries its munitions internally, to around 670 miles. To counter this power projection capability, China has fielded a variety of ballistic and hypersonic long-range anti-ship weapon systems, including the DF-ZF hypersonic boost-glide weapon carried aloft by China’s DF-17 intermediate-range ballistic missile. These weapons boast thousand-mile-plus ranges that would put American carriers directly in harm’s way if they sailed close enough to China to launch combat sorties.
The solution, the Navy’s vision statement suggests, is a new fighter design that offers greater range than either in-service fighter, coupled with the increased speed required to cover those ranges effectively, and a bevy of new long-range weapons that can further extend the reach of these F/A-XX fighters.
Like the Air Forcen’s NGAD program, these requirements suggest a larger airframe, capable of carrying more fuel and larger weapons internally, coupled with advanced new engines like GE’s Adaptive Cycle XA100s that offer more power, more electrical energy generation, and dramatically improved fuel economy. Its range will be further bolstered by the operation of the Navy’s new MQ-25 Stingray drone refuelers, as well.
Related: Air Force announces NGAD fighter will be fast-tracked into service
A larger airframe would allow the F/A-XX to carry a larger payload internally, or without compromising its stealth profile, and this allows for a number of possibilities. Advanced new air-to-air weapons like Raytheon’s Peregrine Missile offer all the range and kinetic power of today’s most advanced AIM-120 AMRAAMs at half the size, which could feasibly allow a new fighter to carry a large volume of these air-to-air missiles with near triple-digit-ranges. But further, it will also have space to leverage larger munitions like the AARGM-ER — an advanced anti-radiation missile with extended range, allowing it to take out enemy radar arrays from well beyond the reach of the arrays’ surface-to-air missiles.
Like today’s F-35s, the F/A-XX fighter will be able to carry weapons like the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) internally, making this long-range, high-speed fighter well suited for ship-hunting duties on the high seas. The LRASM’s most modern sibling, the AGM-158D JASSM-XR, is expected to offer a range of more than 1,100 miles. As such, an F/A-XX fighter with a 1,000-mile combat radius would be equipped to engage targets as far as 2,100 miles from the deck of the carrier — beyond the reach of Chinese anti-ship weapons.
Depending on the size of the payload bay and the types of hypersonic air-launched weapons the United States ultimately fields, even hypersonics aren’t out of the question.
Related: The Navy’s new missile could make non-stealth fighters viable again
The F/A-XX fighter will be paired with AI-enabled drone wingmen and more
Like most 6th-generation fighter concepts, the Navy envisions the F/A-XX fighter as a data-fusing quarterback at the center of a constellation of AI-enabled drone wingmen that will not only expand the fighter’s sensor reach and armament, but will allow a smaller number of advanced crewed fighters to fly missions that would have previously required four or more piloted jets.
This much was spelled out by Navy officials in a joint acquisition testimony last year:
“The NGAD [family of systems] will replace the F/A-18E/F Block II aircraft as they begin to reach end of service life in the 2030s and leverage Manned-Unmanned Teaming (MUM-T) in order to provide increased lethality and survivability. F/A-XX is the strike fighter component of the NGAD FoS that will be the ‘Quarterback’ of the MUM-T concept, directing multiple tactical platforms at the leading edge of the battlespace.”
The program entered what the Navy calls the “concept refinement” stage in 2021 and has reportedly been progressing on time.
But the crewed F/A-XX fighter and its drone wingmen won’t be the only assets in the sky according to Navy documentation. It appears the Navy is looking to take the Manned-Unmanned-Teaming concept even further by coupling these high-dollar platforms with lower-cost assets to overwhelm enemy air defenses through volume as well as stealth and firepower.
“These manned and unmanned aircraft plus attritable assets will be employed across domains to enable integrated kinetic and non-kinetic fires at tactically relevant ranges,” the Navy’s 2030-2035 aviation vision document from last year reads. “As autonomy and [machine learning] efforts mature, the appropriate mix of F/A-XX, manned and unmanned platforms will be evaluated to ensure the most lethal and affordable [carrier air wing] possible.”
The Pentagon’s concept for “attritable,” or low-cost and somewhat disposable, aircraft allows for a number of important developments in Naval airpower. Attritable platforms can accept greater degrees of risk in combat operations, as they’re meant to be inexpensive enough for commanders in-theater to have a great deal of flexibility in how they’re employed. The Kratos XQ-58A Valkyrie, for instance, is a low-cost, subsonic, low-observable drone capable of carrying two small diameter bombs and flying attack missions inside enemy territory, but the drone itself may only cost a bit more than a Tomahawk cruise missile to replace.
This approach to saturating enemy airspace with a variety of targets ranging in price and capability will not only offer a huge amount of firepower without placing many pilots at risk, but it also allows for a return to the World War II methodology of overwhelming enemy air defenses through sheer volume. Put simply, enemy air defenses are only effective until they run out of interceptors to launch. By sending in systems like the ADM-160 Miniature Air-Launched Decoy (MALD) that can broadcast the radar returns of any in-service platform ranging from F-16s to B-52s, alongside a bevy of low-observable cruise missiles, armed attritable drones, more capable stealth UCAVs, and finally, extremely low-observable crewed fighters, the Navy has the means to defeat even the most advanced air defense systems on the planet.
Once all of the interceptors in an area have been expended trying to take down drones and phantom radar returns, American aircraft are free to operate uncontested within that airspace.
Related: ADM-160 MALD: America’s secret weapon to engage air defenses
The F/A-XX is just one part of a new generation of American airpower
Whatever specific capabilities the F/A-XX fighter brings to bear, it’s important not to lose sight of the broader combat ecosystem it aims to be a part of. America’s Block 4 F-35Cs will offer a dramatic jump in capability over today’s Joint Strike Fighters, and they’ll soon be equipped to fly at the center of drone constellations of their own. As such, the amount of firepower, electronic warfare, and intelligence gathering capabilities pouring off the flight decks of American carriers is likely to see an exponential jump in the years to come.
These new capabilities will be further bolstered by advanced Air Force programs like the B-21 Raider, which will be capable of penetrating deep into China’s area-denial bubble to disrupt or destroy long-range anti-ship systems while carrier strike groups hang back at a safe distance launching F/A-XX sorties until the shoreline has been sufficiently pummeled to close into closer ranges for the full brunt of Naval airpower to be brought to bear.
The F/A-XX and F-35C fighters launched from carriers will be bolstered by advanced new NGADs and Block 4 F-35As launched from friendly airstrips nearby, while Marines wreak havoc from smaller amphibious landing ships launching their own sorties of modernized F-35Bs.
The United States spent more than three decades with a monopoly on stealthy, low-observable airpower. But now, as Russia, China, and other countries continue to work on their own new stealth fighters and bombers, Uncle Sam has no interest in allowing the competition to catch up. And F/A-XX looks to be an essential piece of that plan.
Feature image courtesy of Rodrigo Avella — See more of his work on RodrigoAvella.com!
Read more from Sandboxx News
- Air Force announces NGAD fighter will be fast-tracked into service
- What artist renderings tell us about the NGAD fighter
- X-44 Manta: How Lockheed nailed the NGAD in the ’90s
- What kind of fighter could the latest military tech really build?
- New fighter programs like NGAD are learning what not to do from the F-35
Why are you sharing this to the public!!!
Cuz the American public have the right to know. Not to mention I already knew about it for quite some time. And I only work for a aircraft parts manufacturer. I’m not quite sure whether you said that to be funny or you were being completely serious IDK. Yes, there is no doubt China tries to completely copy our secretive designs. But still they need two engines when the f-35 only needs one with the same power output damn near. Yes, the j20 Chinese stealth property fighter looks a lot like the f-35 in the front to midsection for a good reason. But let’s be realistic here. This isn’t World War II or post World War II era anymore w- dog fighting. The j20 is impressive.. to be cute.
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Jeffrey Marchant says
Alex needs to focus on not allowing classified information to be leaked into the civilian community. And needs to practice selective reporting. If he doesn’t he may get a knock from Secretary of Defense.
It really bothers me that the Chinese can build and deploy weapons. 5 times faster than we can.