Boeing has started publicly marketing two concepts for a stealthy, tailless, supercruising strike fighter to replace its F/A-18E/F Super Hornet after 2025.
Both twin-engine concepts, which feature optionally-piloted cockpits, resemble a modern-day replacement for the ill-fated A-12 Avenger. The carrier-based stealth bomber project was cancelled in 1991 amid cost overruns and technical problems.
But the provisionally 9g-rated airframes also reflect the air-to-air performance once provided by the Grumman F-14, which the Super Hornet finally replaced in 2006, says Dave Thieman, a programme development official in Boeing's advanced global strike systems division.
Talk of replacing the F/A-18E/F, which entered service from 1999, may seem premature, but the earliest stages of the navy's acquisition process have already started, Thieman says.
"They're going to need [replacement] vehicles beyond 2025," he says.
© Boeing & Tim Bicheno-Brown/Flightglobal
In June 2008, navy officials publicly unveiled plans for an F/A-XX requirement, which included both manned and unmanned airframes as options.
More recently, the service has renamed the requirement as next generation air dominance (NGAD), seeking to widen the possibilities to include new airframes or land-based systems, such as missiles.
Naval requirements officials have submitted an initial capabilities document to the Joint Requirements Oversight Council for approval.
An analysis of alternatives is expected to start in late 2011, which could lead to the launch of a technology demonstration phase with competing prototypes about two years later. Boeing's rivals would likely include both manned and unmanned options.
For Boeing, NGAD represents a strategic opportunity to re-enter the US market for next-generation strike aircraft, which seemed lost forever after Lockheed Martin claimed the Joint Strike Fighter contract in 2001.
As a result, Boeing officials have focused on the navy's thinking for a Super Hornet replacement that remains at least 15 years away. The company understands that its potential customer wants a replacement with more engine power to supercruise, with the low observable aircraft to carry internal weapons, distributed sensors and have extreme agility.
"It's a [Lockheed] F-22 on the carrier," Thieman says.
Meanwhile, the US Air Force has launched an early study called a capabilities based analysis for an F-22 replacement. Like the Super Hornet, the fighter remains in active production, but the air force expects a replacement will be required after 2025.
If funding for a replacement programme can be found, there is likely to be pressure to launch a joint technology demonstration, where the air force and navy would co-operate on a next-generation air dominance fighter.
In that situation, the air force may require a bigger airframe than a carrier-based fighter to accomplish its mission, Thieman says. However, the two projects could share common engines, systems and weapons, he believes.