A senior US Department of Defense official is questioning how the US Navy will fund a next-generation replacement for the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. Meanwhile, retired US Marine Corps flag-officers say that the USN's nascent F/A-XX effort demonstrates the service's lack of commitment to the carrier-variant of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF).
The US Navy has issued a request for information (RFI) for a new F/A-XX fighter that would start to replace the Super Hornet in the 2030s--effectively starting the search for that aircraft's successor. The USN says that the F-35C will replace the earlier Boeing F/A-18A to D-model jets, but not the larger Super Hornet.
But how the USN hopes to pay for a new tactical fighter programme given the US' fiscal situation is an open question.
"There is no expectation of additional funds for this effort. It is also in direct competition with the next generation bomber for the USAF [US Air Force] and follow-on UAS [unmanned aircraft systems] platforms," a senior DoD official says. "Looking at CV[aircraft carrier] life plans and E/F life plans, points to a 2025 full-on RDT&E [Research, Development, Test & Evaluation] effort in order to meet a 2030 initial LRIP [low rate initial production]."
That, the official says, is "very optimistic."
A bigger problem is that the USN is working on the F/A-XX effort by itself. Not even the US Marine Corps, with which the USN's tactical fighter force is integrated, has had any input into the F/A-XX.
"They once again seem to want to go it alone," the official says, "Big mistake."
But the DoD has ordered the services to fund research and development efforts where ever possible in order to preserve the US industrial base for the future.
"Considering the guidance to fund science, technology and general RDT&E accounts, I expect DoN [Department of the Navy] will get support for this at some level," the official says.
Retired USMC Lt Gen Emerson Gardner, a former principal deputy director of the Pentagon's Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE), says that there are lots of reasons to be sceptical about the USN's ability to fund the F/A-XX.
"It's not going to happen," Gardner says. "There's not going to be any money there."
Gardner says that the USN will probably not have any money for the programme in the fiscal year 2014 budget. Nor is it likely that the USN will ever come up with the $20 billion to $30 billion in research and development dollars to fund an F/A-XX development programme.
Gardner estimates the total cost of a new F/A-XX programme to be more than $40 billion and yield a maximum of 150 aircraft. The unit cost, he estimates, could be as much as $125 million per jet.
The USN simply does not have the money to pay for F/A-XX. With the USN's ship-building budgets squeezed, Gardner says that naval aviation accounts will likely end up being raided to help pay for submarines and surface ships.
The only place the money can come from is from within the F-35 programme, Gardner says. "There is a community over there that says 'let's just skip the F-35C, let's just keep buying F/A-18s and we'll go and develop this other airplane,'" he says.
"That's very dangerous for the carrier because it makes the carrier irrelevant. They are not going to have first-day capability. I'm absolutely convinced that if you do not have stealth by the year 2022 to 2025 you will be irrelevant."
Lt Gen George Trautman, a former USMC deputy commandant for aviation, concurs.
"It sort of validates the naval aviators' overall lack of commitment to the F-35," he says. "It shows how much they're in bed with Boeing to include a whole host of retired navy aviators who work for Boeing. And it shows, frankly, their lack of commitment to unmanned systems."
Gardner concurs that the USN's relationship with Boeing is playing a role in the service's push towards a new tactical fighter programme.
"I think it's Boeing. There is a huge Boeing lobby in the navy," Gardner says. "That has a lot to do with it."
The senior DoD official, however, does not believe that the USN is trying to abandon the F-35C or that the F/A-XX threatens the overall JSF programme.
"I don't think it will suck up JSF money," he says. "It would have to come from S&T [science and technology] investments."
The USN, for its part, strongly defends its support for the F-35C.
"The RFI to which you refer does not affect in any way the Navy's continued strong support for our F-35 program of record," the USN says. "The AoA [analysis of alternatives] will study manned, unmanned, and optionally manned alternatives to fill capability requirements associated with a predicted 2030 threat and service life expiration of the Super Hornet airframes."
The service notes that the RFI specifically calls for an F/A-XX aircraft that is complementary to the F-35C. The USN adds that it takes about 20 years to develop a new aircraft.
Gardner says that the USN needs to be careful when embarking on a programme like the F/A-XX. Given the likely cost of developing a new sixth-generation fighter, the service won't be able to buy the 450 to 500 jets it would need to replace the Super Hornet on a one-for-one basis.
"At best this would be some kind of exotic silver-bullet, one squadron per carrier, capability," Gardner says. "I think they ought to be focusing their intellectual as well as their financial resources on making the F-35C the airplane they want it to be."
There are options to increase the F-35C's range, persistence and stealth, Gardner says.
The F-35C would give the USN the volume it needs to recapitalize its tactical fighter force and keep it relevant against future threats, says Gardner-himself a former naval aviator. It would also allow the navy to recapitalize its tactical aviation fleet before the bill comes due to pay for a new USN ballistic missile submarine in the 2020s.
"There is no clear need for the [F/A-XX] aircraft", Gardner says. "To be worthwhile it has to be sixth-gen, which no one even knows what that means," he says.
Trautman says that the USN could argue that an F/A-XX is a hedge against a potential failure of the F-35C to deliver or that emerging threats justify the effort.
The F-35, however, Gardner says, is superior to any potential threat for the foreseeable future.
Trautman says that the USN might become more amenable to operating the F-35C once the first fleet aviators have a chance fly the jet. "What I predict will happen is that when the F-35C starts flying, they're going to fall in love with it," he says. "They're going to realize that it's so much better than the Super Hornet that they'll they're going to want more of them."