The F-18 is currently in its last years of production, and provided a relatively low-cost replacement to the more diverse fleets of heavier aircraft used in the Cold War years. Its replacement is expected to be a more ambitious high-performance design reflecting a return to great power competition, which required more capable aircraft as seen in the Cold War years.
The new aircraft is expected to begin replacing the Super Hornets in the 2030s, and according to the Navy will have a higher endurance and greater speed than the F/A-18E as well as the ability to deploy a new generation of armaments. As a sixth generation fighter it will also emphasise network centric warfare and integration with unmanned aircraft.
Like the F/A-18E, which was developed into the EA-18G Growler electronic attack jet, the F/A-XX is expected to have special electronic warfare configurations. The consensus among analysts remains, however, that the Navy is still not decided on the exact specifications required from the new aircraft.
A primary shortcoming of the Super Hornet has long been its modest range, not only compared to foreign fighters such as the Chinese J-20, J-16 and J-15 or the Russian Su-30, but also compared to its predecessors from the Cold War era such as the F-14 and A-6.
Indeed the transition from the F-14 to the F/A-18E sharply reduced the area of influence around American carrier groups by 77 percent due primarily to the difference in range with the newer fighter having a much lower endurance but being operable for a fraction of the cost.
This has hindered American carrier strike group’s ability to project power, particularly as the long range anti-shipping weapons of adversaries such as China and North Korea have improved. The F/A-XX is expected to have a very long range as the F-14 and A-6 did, allowing it to operate very far from carrier groups to reduce the risk to the surface warships.
Development of the new fight it has been ongoing since at least 2012, with new low resolution official artwork showing a lambda shaped wing and canard for planes. It has been indicated on multiple occasions that the new generation of fighters will place a much lower emphasis on stealth and focus more on electronic warfare and support from unmanned aircraft to remain survivable in highly contested airspace.
The new regulations regarding the new fighter come as China’s first fifth generation carrier based fighter makes its first flight, which is the only post-fourth generation fighter in the world to have done so.