The Lockheed Martin F-35 has emerged for the first time as a candidate to replace a fleet of 556 Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornets as a carrier-based air dominance fighter for the US Navy after 2025.
The official disclosure by the Department of Defense in a 31 May report to Congress has put Boeing on the defensive as it continues to offer the F/A-18E/F as an alternative to the F-35 in international fighter competitions.
For more than a decade, the navy has planned to buy 220 F-35Cs to replace older-model F/A-18C/D Hornets as a multi-role attack and fighter aircraft. The service is still buying new F/A-18E/Fs, but is already analysing options for a replacement programme starting after 2020 called the next-generation air dominance (NGAD) fighter.
The NGAD aircraft is intended to perform the role once championed by the swing-wing Grumman F-14 Tomcat until its retirement in 2006, when it was replaced by the Super Hornet.
The DoD report, a 30-year aircraft procurement plan dated March 2011, describes an ongoing analysis of alternatives by the navy that is considering three options. These include the "F-35 aircraft or developing a new manned or unmanned platform, or a combination of both".
The study opens a lucrative market for the increasingly popular F-35C variant. In November, the UK announced that it would transfer its orders for the short take-off and vertical landing F-35B to the carrier variant. Three months later, the US Marine Corps announced it would follow suit and convert some orders for F-35Bs to the C-model.
But the possibility of an F-35 order for the NGAD programme threatens one of Boeing's last hopes for extending its presence in the fighter market beyond 2020. Last year, Boeing unveiled a carrier-based, tailless, air dominance fighter in manned and unmanned configurations.
Boeing has sought to downplay the significance of the involvement of the F-35 in the NGAD study.
"Given the many variables involved in the procurement process, especially over such a long timeframe, it would certainly be a challenge for any company to project the full impact of the plan at this time," it said. "Boeing supports the navy's stated position that the Super Hornet is the navy's premier frontline strike fighter today and that it will remain so through 2035."