The largely secret and unseen Air Force 6th-Generation NGAD stealth fighter jet is airborne years ahead of the anticipated schedule, and it now looks like the Navy’s F/A-XX variant may also take to the skies in just the next few years.
Of course, planning and technological specifics related to F/A-XX are likely not available for security reasons, yet conceptual work on the fighter has been underway for many years and the Navy’s 2024 budget request asks for as much as $9 billion in funding for the new jet.
The request spread billions out over the next five years, yet an article in The Drive pointed out that this may be an indication that prototypes or demonstrators are on the near horizon.
F/A-XX: Accelerating Development
This would not be surprising given the large extent to which the Air Force, for example, has successfully accelerated weapons platform design, development, and production through the use of digital engineering. Advanced computer simulations can now precisely replicate key weapons performance parameters, a circumstance that enables weapons developers and innovators to analyze a number of different designs and performance specs of a given weapons system much more quickly and efficiently.
Along with the Air Force 6th-gen aircraft, the service’s new ICBM called the Sentinel also emerged ahead of schedule due in large measure to the successful application of digital engineering. Senior Air Force weapons developers, for example, say digital simulations enabled engineers and analysts to assess eight or nine different ICBM models before deciding which ones to build. This proved critical as the Air Force did not need to build ten different prototypes and “bend metal” as much to determine the optimal designs.
Given the success thus far with the use of digital engineering across several large weapons platforms, it seems entirely feasible that such progress at least in part accounts for Navy progress and funding increases with its F/A-XX aircraft. Perhaps demonstrators will take to the sky if they have not already.
Designed to fly alongside and ultimately replace the F/A-18 Super Hornet, the F/A-XX is expected to break new ground in the realm of carrier-launched stealth aircraft.
Certainly, many of the specific technologies are likely not available, yet industry and Pentagon weapon developers have in recent years explained a series of potential requirements, concepts of operation, and technologies likely to inform Navy 6th-gen development.
Some of the key areas of development include the use of multiple drones, drone swarms or other unmanned systems, AI-enabled networking, new generations of sensing and targeting, and an ability to share real-time combat data with existing 4th-generation aircraft.
The Pentagon, Navy, and Air Force, for example, are all fast-advancing technology enabling manned stealth fighters to control multiple drones from the cockpit, leverage speed of attack, and enable survivable forward reconnaissance. A carrier-launched 6th-gen could, for instance, direct multiple drones from the cockpit to test enemy air defenses, blanket an area with surveillance or even launch attacks when directed by a human.
The aircraft will likely incorporate new paradigms of stealth technology, wherein heat signatures and radar return signals can more easily be significantly minimized, if not eluded completely. The aircraft may also be built with “smart skin” sensors woven into the fuselage and various conformal structures such as built-in antennas.
Kris Osborn is the Military Affairs Editor of 19FortyFive and President of Warrior Maven – Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.