The US Navy has issued a Request for Information (RfI) 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 RfI reads. "Primary missions include, but are not limited to, air warfare (AW), strike warfare (STW), surface warfare (SUW), and close air support (CAS)."
But in addition persistent capability inside an enemy air defence system, the USN also wants the prospective aircraft to provide other capabilities found in existing strike fighters. These include organic air-to-air refueling, tactical reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition (RSTA), and airborne electronic attack (AEA).
However, the USN is not limiting itself to manned aircraft or to an entirely new jet.
"The trade space refinement activity will characterize a broad trade space, to include unmanned, optionally manned and manned aircraft," the document reads. "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."
At a minimum, the aircraft should be able to operate from Nimitz and Ford-class carriers and should be a "complementary CVW [carrier air wing] asset to the F-35C and an unmanned persistent intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) vehicle with precision strike capability."
The RfI sets a target initial operational capability (IOC) date of 2030 and will consider a prospective jet's capabilities, in addition to technical risks and total cost of ownership. "If a spiral approach to incorporation of systems and/or technology to achieve full operational capability is employed, provide the timeline to achieve full capability," the document reads.
But there is no programme just yet. "All we're looking for is information," says Rear Admiral Donald Gaddis, the Naval Air Systems Command's (NAVAIR) programme executive officer for tactical aviation. "This particular AoA [analysis of alternatives] is going to be a long one," he adds.
Nonetheless, the earliest Super Hornets will be reaching the end of their 9000-hour life spans by the 2030s. Those aircraft will have to be replaced, but their successor will be defined as much by what industry believes as possible as the USN's own projected needs, Gaddis says. But he is willing to say that those requirements will call for far greater kinematic performance and increased range.
The industrial base, however, is of serious concern, Gaddis says. Boeing, he says, may not be around as a fighter design entity as the F/A-XX programme is assembled and the technology--to include advanced airframes and engines--to build the jet is matured. "I think that's going to be something [Office of the Secretary of Defense] is going to have to think about," he says.
That is also something the US Air Force will have to contend with on its nascent F-X programme to replace the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor.
It is also conceivable that the Department of Defense might compel the USAF and USN to do a joint AoA, Gaddis says. "But I think the attributes of a carrier aircraft and an air force programme maybe different," he says. "But there is always that potential."
In addition to the F/A-XX, Gaddis says that the USN's Northrop Grumman-built C-2 Greyhound carrier cargo-delivery aircraft will have to be replaced. The service is conducting an analysis of alternatives to figure out what it needs to do. Gaddis says any such programme would have to wait until the "next decade," but there will be a "full and open competition."
Meanwhile, NAVAIR's programme manager for the Bell-Boeing V-22, Marine Col Greg Masiello is pitching the tilt-rotor as the best, most natural, replacement for the aged C-2s. The V-22 has recently been certified to operate from the decks of USN carriers and would give the navy enormous flexibility, he says.
Additionally, the USN should also be issuing a final request for proposal for the next generation jammer programme to equip the EA-18G fleet in June, Gaddis says. The emphasis will be on getting a "mid-band" capability out to fleet by 2020, but there will also be a strong focus on affordability.