With Super Hornet production coming to an end soon, the U.S. Navy has already started on the process of its replacement. Given that early production Rhinos will have reached their 9,000 hour airframe limit by the 2030s, along with the usual prolonged development schedule of modern fighters, this seems like a prudent move. It also provides an argument against Canada choosing the Super Hornet for delivery in the 2020 timeframe. What good is purchasing an aircraft due to be replaced in a mere 10 years?
So what can we gather from the F/A-XX program so far? Not much, of course, the program is still in its infancy. All we have to go on is a request for information (RfI) from the Pentagon, asking manufacturers for concepts. This RfI doesn't rule out replacing the Super Horner with even more F-35s, but given the Lightning II's many troubles so far, this is far from a sure thing.
One interesting thing to note is the name of the program itself, which is now referred to as the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD). This would seem to imply more of a focus placed on air superiority, rather than the JSF's primary strike role. This makes sense given the early termination of the F-22 along with the lack of a true replacement for the F-14 Tomcat. Of course, there is also the arrival of the PAK FA and J-20 into future airspace to consider as well.
Moving on to Boeing's images, one can see how the aircraft is already evolving.
|1st F/A-XX concept. Stealthy.|
|The 2nd F/A-XX concept, more aggressive.|
The second image appears slightly more aggressive. With wings similar to the X-47B, along with more traditional intakes similar to the F-22, this concept looks like it would be more likely to achieve supercruise, along with more aggressive manoeuvring.
|The newest concept.|
All three designs are twin-engine, likely to improve thrust rather than safety. They all incorporate a nacelle design similar to the F-14, YF-23, and PAK FA. Not only does this help flatten the aircraft out, reducing radar signature and improving lift, but the space between the engines allows for easy weapons and fuel storage. The large delta wings should hold quite a bit of fuel as well, especially compared to the small winged F-35.
Likely faster, stealthier, more agile, and longer ranged than the F-35, the F/A-XX could possibly have another advantage; simplicity. With no STOVL version or conflicting requirements, the F/A-XX's development could be a lot more streamlined than the F-35. It's also likely to avoid the costly and over-ambitious technology development of the F-22, A-12, and F-35 and stick with the fundamentals instead of trying to re-write the book.
With Canada needing a CF-18 replacement for 2020, yet a possibly far superior aircraft than any currently available on deck for the 2030s, perhaps Canada should take a "Hi-Lo" approach to its fighter procurement. Buy an affordable, versatile "work horse" fighter like the Gripen now, with plans to procure a higher end fighter like the F/A-XX in the 2035 timeframe. This would avoid another situation like the current CF-18 replacement controversy, where the RCAF is flying old, worn out fighters with limited replacement options.
Is it too early to start "F/A-XX for Canada"?