The US Navy is developing the F/A-XX: The key to air supremacy?

Little numbers of the F-35C, the first fifth-generation fighter to be launched from a carrier, have arrived. The F/A-18 Super Hornet has been upgraded so successfully over the years that it has lasted far longer in service than was originally anticipated.

So how will the Navy deal with advanced threats from the great ocean powers in the coming decades? The answer to this question has been clear and forceful from the Navy. The carrier-launched F/A-XX 6th generation stealth fighter, a new generation platform under development, is expected to burst onto the scene in the coming years.

The Air Force’s 6th generation air domain new generation fighter is already in the air. However, little or nothing is known about it for obvious security reasons, but what about the Navy’s 6th generation? Similarly, we also hear very little about it for obvious reasons, although there is a clear “need,” and the Navy emphasizes this effort.

In 2021, the Navy issued a document titled “Navy Aviation Vision 2030 – 2035,” which makes it clear that the F/A-XX NGAD aircraft would be a “family of systems” and will eventually replace the Super Hornet.

“Its specific capabilities and technologies are under development, but analysis shows that it must have greater range and speed, incorporate passive and active sensor technology, and possess the ability to employ the longer-range weapons scheduled for the future,” he says. The text of the Navy document.

The new 6th generation aircraft, which is meant to be an “attack fighter” to fly alongside the F-35C, will most likely be stealthy, AI-powered, and significantly faster than a F/A-18 or even the F-35C. However, its greatest margin of difference may be its ability to incorporate unprecedented, paradigm-shifting innovations.

The new aircraft or planes will almost certainly use manned-unmanned teaming and next-generation sensor, weapon, and networking technology, and they will likely fire hypersonic weapons.

Interestingly, the Navy text notes that the new sixth-generation Carrier-launched aircraft will specifically allow carrier operations to continue in high-threat areas. Perhaps this means that the new F/A-XX will function as an enhanced air dominance platform from the sea, similar to the F-22, capable of helping establish air superiority for an entire Carrier Air Wing.  

Certainly, such an advanced platform would bring new dimensions of “power projection” to maritime warfare and possibly open an “air corridor” for attack by heavily armed but less stealthy platforms.

“The advanced carrier-based power projection capabilities in the F/A-XX will maintain the relevance of the CVN in advanced threat environments,” the Navy strategy document states.

Air supremacy over the oceans?

In the event that the airspace above the Carrier Strike Groups is located too far offshore for F-22s or other land-based 5th-generation aircraft to access, having air superiority at sea could be crucial. Carrier Strike Groups, for instance, would be in a far stronger position to counter China’s long-discussed anti-access/area denial plan if F/A-XXs were stealthy and fast enough to destroy opposing aircraft and disable opponent radar and air defenses.

Suppose the 6th-generation aircraft could operate in small groups or as a family of stealthy manned and unmanned systems. In that case, they could provide advanced surveillance and identify potential launch points for China’s carrier-killer missiles, such as the DF-26, which can hit aircraft carriers at 3,000 kilometers.

With their stealth, speed, and network capabilities, 6th generation carrier-launched aircraft could operate as aerial or forward reconnaissance “nodes” to identify and even intercept attacking anti-ship missiles.

This kind of tactical capability would, of course, materialize through new dimensions of networking technology, in which multiple platforms could collect, organize, and transmit time-sensitive targeting and intelligence data across multiple domains over vast distances.

 The new applications of AI and the most advanced transport technologies, such as optical communication, encrypted radio frequency signals, or the new reinforced data links. Above all, more and more disparate or disconnected platforms are being built with interfaces and the kind of technical infrastructure sufficient to support interoperability between domains.