The box office success of Top Gun: Maverick last year has naturally spurred speculation about a possible third installation in the film franchise.
If the third Top Gun does indeed come out, it looks like U.S. Naval Aviation will already have a star ready to audition: the FA-XX.
Tom Cruise and his fictitious alter ego, Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, are getting a bit old to be flying fighter jets. Cruise is 61 years old, and Maverick, having been an O-3/LT when the original film was released in 1986, would be in the same age bracket. Meanwhile, the fighter jets that Maverick and his comrades-in-arms flew in both films are also getting long in the tooth, which is what is motivating the Navy to take on the FA-XX project in the first place.
A Brief History of the F-14 Tomcat and F/A-18 Hornet and Super Hornet
As those of us who have seen the films know, the Grumman F-14 Tomcat was every bit as much the star of that movie as Cruise, Val Kilmer, and Kelly McGillis were. And rightfully so, as the plane was a remarkable performer in real-world combat, whether it was U.S. Navy or Iranian Air Force pilots at the controls.
Alas, the Tomcat eventually grew old — crazy to think that she made her maiden flight back in 1970 — as did her Naval Aviation ground attack counterparts, the 1960-vintage A-6 Intruder and 1965 A-7 Corsair II. Hence the selection of the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet, which debuted in 1978 and went operational in 1983, and the F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet, debuting and entering service in 1995 and 1999. These aircraft took over the roles of all the Tomcat, Intruder, and Corsair. They are the classic “jack of all trades, master of none” that has repeatedly proven its worthiness in combat.
SPOILER ALERT: Accordingly, the Super Hornet was Tom Cruise’s mechanical co-star in the second Top Gun film, the F-14’s nostalgic reappearance toward the end of that film notwithstanding. But, at age 29, the Super Hornet is no longer a spring chicken itself. In fact, a recent Congressional Budget Office report revealed that the U.S. Navy’s Super Hornet fleet is actually deteriorating faster than the fleet of F-18 Hornets that came before it.
Enter the FA-XX
Hence, enter the FA-XX. The Navy chose to declassify the project this March, as reported by Sacha Brodsky in an article for Popular Mechanics:
“The U.S. Navy is asking for nearly $1.53 billion to develop its secretive next-generation fighter aircraft, known as F/A-XX…The Department of the Navy wants the funding as part of its Fiscal Year 2024 budget proposal…Details of the classified F/A-XX remain murky, but the plane is likely to act as the Navy’s ‘quarterback’ for human-crewed and uncrewed future carrier operations…The Navy’s Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) project, which is separate from the Air Force’s program by the same name, includes F/A-XX as a component. However, the Navy’s NGAD program details are not yet clear.”
The Way Ahead?
As Brodsky said, the details are murky, but there are at least subtle indications that the Navy is considering uncrewed airframes for the FA-XX. The consistently effective use of drones by Ukraine against Russian invaders is a lesson that evidently hasn’t been lost on the Navy’s R&D types. For its part, the U.S. Air Force has made no secret of its accelerated plans to include drone wingmen in its fleet.
Brodsky concludes his article by writing that, “Last year, the Navy said it was working to prevent a fighter jet shortage into the 2030s. The service wants to bridge any plane availability gap by fielding the F-35C Joint Strike Fighter, creating the F/A-XX manned fighter for the NGAD program, and giving existing F/A-18E/F Super Hornets an extra 4,000 flying hours of service life.”
Seeing how there was a 36-year gap between the first two Top Gun movies, chances are the FA-XX will be fully declassified and operational by the time the next sequel goes into production, thus affording ample opportunity for the Navy NGAD to wow and enthrall movie audiences. I can see it now: “‘Top Gun: Navy NGAD.’ Coming Soon To A Box Office Near You.”
And who knows, maybe the SR-72 can also play a more expanded role in the prospective Top Gun 3, especially if it does become a declassified reality in its own right. (Or maybe even the Maverick’s piston-driven P-51D Mustang, in case the screenwriters throw in an EMP strike that fries the computer chips on all the high-tech fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-generation Generation jet fighters alike and necessitates a reversion to carburetor-powered vehicles.)
Time will tell. Stay tuned, ladies & gents.
Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force Security Forces officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security. Last but not least, he is a Companion of the Order of the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS).
From the Vault
Note: As there is no image of the FA-XX, we chose a possible 6th-generation fighter image.