America’s Navy is kicking development of its next-generation stealth fighter into high gear with its 2024 budget proposal. But in this era of broadly capable multi-role fighters, the Navy’s new jet is curiously still rocking the unique Fighter/Attack, or F/A, prefix adorning the F/A-18 Hornets and Super Hornets that have served on America’s flat tops for decades.
The choice of a prefix is likely more about managing public perceptions than the capabilities this fighter will bring to bear.
Confusion about the roles different fighters fill within America’s air warfare doctrine leads to a number of widespread misconceptions about which jets are replacing which, and it seems likely that the Navy is looking to avoid any confusion about the fighters it is placing on the chopping block in the years to come — all while maintaining an air of legacy in its most modern efforts.
Related: Here are the 12 new stealth aircraft currently heading toward service
What are aircraft prefixes?
For the first half-century or so of American military aviation, every branch was free to use its own naming conventions for aircraft, which led to some degree of confusion when airframes would see service across multiple branches. In 1962, this issue was addressed with the Tri-Service Aircraft Designation System, which made naming conventions uniform across the entire Defense Department. This system has seen updates in the years since, and today, it’s commonly referred to as the Mission Design Series, or MDS.
And while even this naming convention can still allow for some degree of confusion, there is a distinct method to its madness.
The first letter in any aircraft designation is meant to signify its type or mission. Regular fixed-wing aircraft all come with one of 13 common letter types (though there are several more used to denote special types or statuses). The most common types are:
- A Attack
- B Bomber
- C Cargo/Transport
- E Special Electronic Installation
- F Fighter
- L Laser
- O Observation
- P Patrol
- R Reconnaissance
- S Antisubmarine
- T Trainer
- U Utility
- X Research
Of course, these letters (and some of those less common ones) can be used in combinations to tell you more about the platform’s intended use. And that brings us to the F/A-18 Hornet.
Related: Where do NATO reporting names come from?
The birth of the F/A Prefix
Over the past century, fighters have evolved from specialized air combat platforms to broadly capable multi-role ones responsible for everything from attack operations to intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions.
During the Persian Gulf War in 1991, American F/A-18 Hornets became the first aircraft in history to switch from an air-to-ground mission to an air-to-air one mid-flight, downing two incoming MiG-21s with air-to-air missiles before simply switching back to ground attack mode and completing their original mission. This incredible (at the time) capability is why the Hornet and Super Hornet were given the unusual F/A prefix — meant to denote these aircraft’s classification as both fighters and attack platforms.
Today, of course, practically all modern fighters are expected to bring multi-role capabilities to the fight, and in fact, even America’s legendary air superiority platform, the F-22 Raptor, has only seen combat to date in that attack role.
But despite now-ubiquitous multi-role capabilities rendering that old F/A prefix somewhat moot, the Navy has opted to keep it for another reason besides tradition.
Related: The massive carrier problem the Navy’s F/A-XX has to solve
The Navy wants to be clear about what fighter is being replaced
Because of the way fighter roles and capability sets have grown to have a great deal of overlap, many fail to recognize the specific role a new fighter entering service is designed to fill. The F-35, as a prime example, is often lamented as a poor replacement for the F-22 Raptor. However, the F-35 was designed for, and fills, a completely different mission set, namely that of a stealthy attack jet with sufficient air-to-air and electronic warfare (EW) chops to self-escort deep into contested airspace.
With its powerful AN/APG-81 AESA radar array capable of serving as an electronic warfare asset, and the fighter’s onboard complement of air-to-air missiles like the advanced AIM-9X Sidewinder, a handful of F-35Cs can complete attack missions that once may have required a group fo A-6 intruders for the attack mission, EA-6B Prowlers for EW, and F/A-18 Hornets for air cover.
With the Navy actively developing a new fighter, many have already begun seeing this as a damning indictment of the branch’s commitment to the pricey and often troubled F-35 program. However, this isn’t true.
Related: America has 6 new air-to-air missiles headed for service
The F-35 isn’t going anywhere
The Navy intends to keep flying the F-35 for decades to come — and the new fighter in development is (very logically) slated to replace the service’s much older fleet of Block II and III F/A-18 Super Hornets. And that brings us to the decision to call this program F/A-XX.
It seems clear that, despite the fact that multi-role capabilities are now considered mandatory requirements for 5th and further generations of fighters, the decision to keep the prefix is more about managing perceptions than capabilities. The Navy wants to make it clear to the F-35’s naysayers that this new fighter is not going to replace its newer jets, but rather, its older ones.
Of course, it seems all but certain that as the F/A-XX program continues to mature, we’ll continue to see bad takes about how its very existence represents a failing of the F-35, but now you’ll know that these takes are based on a misunderstanding of air warfare roles, rather than any problems with the Joint Strike Fighter.
Feature Image: Concept rendering of the F/A-XX jet. (Boeing)
Read more from Sandboxx News
- What kind of fighter could the latest military tech really build?
- America’s enemies can track stealth fighters on radar (and it isn’t a problem)
- Why is it so hard to develop stealth aircraft?
- What really happened when F-22s squared off against the Eurofighter Typhoon?
- Is the V-22 Osprey actually as dangerous as people think?
“A rose by any other name…”
Shakespeare’s point was that it doesn’t matter what you call it – it is what it is.
Its name isn’t an attribute and has no relevance to its utility. They could call it the Mary Poppins and who should care if it serves our purpose?
Steven Beddoe says
Going to be the one to say it. First of all who ever did reasearch on the chinese and think they would be our friends needs to get drummed outof thier profession. Coomon sense the chinese have been chinese slnce pretty much all of civilized earth . in order for a country exist that long through different time periods you would bave to have done some ingenious thing and desperTe acts . we been aroind less than 300 years and we have a problem. keep our cou try together. This is not racsim just fact. every chinese nation*al needs to be looked at as a possible spy. put your self in their position. if your governme t told you that you eitber do thier bidding or their whole family tree wold be erased and they would die in extreme agony what would you do? that is where they would start and it would get worse from their. we are deling eith a country that has done everything and will do anything to win. so cbines matio als and anyone co. ected wwith the cccp needs to be questio ed and remover from this countrunless.they are.being used to survey the chineses.
There was nothing in that article about china.
What? Did you even read the article?
Ray Kling says
1. Sorry, but you don’t have a grip on English grammar !
2. McNamara insisted the military re-designate all aircraft to a code that would be known to civilians ! Hence, today’s alphabetical codes !
3. The F-22 is THE premier fighter in the world !
4. The F-15 has never been defeated in combat, with 100+ defeats, zero losses!
they need fo.create nano swarm.nets that are.airborn and they can remain in .the.air.for.a.very long.time if an aircraff passes through the area and is a single.nano swarm attatches itself yo the tbreat and enough of the swarm joint with the i itial to destroy the threat it tech could be deployed and lauched off oc a missle the.missle.would.reales.thes.nanswrns.ahead of an attacking fleet and they would fly though them being so.small they aert noticesand they attach themselcves.and boom one attaches tbey all home in they my I are ai driven so literally fire and forget only issue is propulsion and power. even if. they we just used to tag the plane and have drone fleet with missles. it would alao work deployed as counter measures if you cound have a counter measure that would attch ifself to.thd.attacking aircraft od missle and it becomes a tag
for a.missle to home i.nto. that would be cool.too whe need fo completely.cbange our rhinking we need to look at is like we are mass producing something we need to be able to have layers that will insure enemy is destroyed. being able to have something to tag all a
enemy aircraft then another layer to wioe them out with safegards if.something.got through and if they are unaware it would be like a turkey shoot the one on one godfighting wont cut it too many chinese ttake too much time also we cant afford to miss when it comes to missles
Mark L says
Mid you’re on this teat, then just create nano bots that “eat” enemy aircraft. Let’s be realistic today.
Kevin Munday says
One aspect of the F/A-XX that I haven’t heard anyone address is the cost per plane. Since it’s replacing the Super Hornet hundreds are going to be needed (something like over 500 SH are in service now). That’s obviously going to preclude spending NGAD type money since the Air Force is not aiming for the quantities the Navy requires.
Politics. Even the F-15 doesn’t have “F/A”.
James C says
F-15E aka F/A15. Lol
The FA 18 is an attack aircraft with fighter capabilities but no stealth. The F-35 is an attack aircraft with excellent fighter capabilities and stealth. The new FA XX will also be an attack aircraft with fighter capabilities and stealth, but with much greater range. Ideally, the Navy would like to replace both the FA 18 AND the F 35 with the FA XX, but they cannot, due to availability and COST, so they will make do with the F 35.
andrew allen says
Whatever we order we had better irder an s load if them and soon China Russia, Iran and North Korea are forming an Axis if you will snd thry ate sharing technology
MICHAEL L REYNOLDS says
Here! Here! The writing is on the wall/and Bible.
James Donohue says
Based on this nomenclature….shouldn’t the F-15E be a F/A-15E? Didn’t the A-7 carry AIM-9 and it was not an F/A? I think that F/A nomenclature was a mistake for the Hornet and the Navy is just going with the flow….
I assume F/A XX will be carrier based. It also likely will be 300 mill a plane.
Based on Rands Pacific wargaming results, carriers are not survivable in future peer adversary wars.
The future seems to be long range loitering munitions, drones and missiles.
Test the AETP engine on F-35C and if performance a lot better you have your FAXX program.
Reduce carrier fleet to 9, redirect shipyard capacity to building subs from surface ships
Convert carriers to drone and missile carriers. Create maritime RQ180 strike drone. Advance Dragon pallet missile program to other missiles.
Make KC46 missile capable.
Create maritime strike version of AARGM-ER and PrSM. Build lots of SM6-ER.
Nader Khan false identity on my driver's license is nader nawaaz gul says
Those two little jets in the water are sneaking up on the cute little boat mobile in the water.
The F35 is not stealthy like the F22. It has angles to help it. Ut there isnt a stealth plane like the F22. It’s a good companion to the F22 like the F16 was to the F15. It is still more than capable of doing its job.
Interesting take. Wrong, where did you get that info?
Emmanuel Costume says
This is the first article I’ve read about the F/A-XX program that is misinformed. I would just like to say that you are a very handsome father Mr Rolling.
Henry Stephens says
I really appreciate the great help I got from 760Plus Credit Score. I had many negative items on my credit report, late payments, collections, judgments, wage garnishment and inquiries. My credit score has been on the low 500s for a very long time, this had made my dream of getting a mortgage loan impossible. I realtor friend of mine introduced me to 760 and I started the process immediately. They helped me delete every negative item on my credit report and raised my score high 787,780 and 775 respectively. Thanks to them I have been pre-approved for a loan. You too can smile at last by reaching out to them via 760LUSCREDITSCORE at GMAIL dot COM.
Clif Posey says
Thanks for tossing an ad in the middle of my read. I’d never go there because of the tactic.