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US Navy already looking beyond carrier-based F-35

More than four years before the aircraft is scheduled to enter service, the US Navy already is considering modifying the Lockheed Martin F-35C to perform future missions beyond 2030.

Navy officials announced on 9 September that an analysis of alternatives (AoA) for the FA-XX aircraft would begin in calendar year 2015 and will consider modifying both the F-35C and the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, as well as building a new aircraft to fulfil the requirement.

In the meantime, the Navy will host a series of technical interchange meetings (TIMs) with contractors “for the purposes of trade space refinement as a precursor” to the AoA.

The process began in 2012 with the release on a request for information (RFI) on aircraft concepts, technologies and capabilities “projected into future combat scenarios in the 2030 timeframe,” when the service foresees initial operating capability (IOC). The Navy’s F-35C is scheduled to reach IOC in 2019, after both the air force and Marine Corps versions have come online.

The documents released on 9 September list focus areas for individual TIMs, including modification of current aircraft and specifically names the Boeing F/A-18E/F and F-35C. Another of the meetings will focus on the possibility of building a new-start aircraft. The service is also asking for information on the projected technology readiness level of each proposal for 2020.

Some possible modifications of the existing carrier-based fleet have already appeared. The navy has discussed stealth modifications to the F/A-18E/F, while GE has studied more powerful engines enabled by expanded inlets. Meanwhile, the F-35 has long been discussed as possible benefactor of adaptive propulsion, in which the ratios of bypass and perhaps even compression airflow can be made variable to improve efficiency.

FA-XX is slated to replace the F/A-18E/F and EA-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft. The original RFI says it will compliment other aircraft in navy carrier air wings including the F-35C and whatever aircraft emerges from the ongoing unmanned carrier-launched airborne surveillance and strike (UCLASS) programme.

The aircraft is intended to serve multiple missions in an anti-access, area-denial environment. The RFI lists air warfare, strike warfare, surface warfare and close air support as possible missions. Navy officials also want to collect information on covering air-to-air refuelling, tactical reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition and airborne electronic attack.

The service is open to unmanned, optionally manned and manned aircraft.

“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,” the service says.

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