The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter can do a lot of things, but one thing it can’t do is double its combat range: That’s the challenge Navy aviation is facing as it shifts its sights away from ground support operations in uncontested airspace and toward near-peer level conflicts against technologically advanced opponents like China. Thanks to China’s hypersonic anti-ship platforms like the DF-21, America is being forced to reassess how its fleet of massive super-carriers fit into the modern combat methodology, and according to some, the only way to do it is with a new, long-range ship-based fighter platform.
The only problem is, Congress and the Senate just slashed 66% of next year’s funding earmarked for that initiative. The Navy asked for $20.7 million to continue development of their next-generation fighter program, dubbed the F/A-XX. But the lawmakers ultimately appropriated just $7.1 million for the initiative . Much of the funding requested this year was intended for development of this new platform’s engine systems — which is a logical place to start if the goal is to develop a further reaching attack fighter.
Currently, both the F/A-18 Super Hornet and carrier-based F-35Cs have an operational range in the vicinity of around 500 miles (or a fuel range of around 1,000 miles). This means that these aircraft can’t engage targets that are greater than 500 miles away without needing to refuel mid-flight. China’s anti-ship missiles have a range of around 1,000 miles, meaning American carriers cannot close to within striking distance of Chinese shores without running the risk of losing an entire carrier without doubling the existing range of its combat aircraft.
In order to mitigate this threat, both the Navy and Marine Corps have been experimenting with multiple new initiatives including the MQ-25 drone refueler program, adding new conformal fuel tanks to the Super Hornets and even hot loading Marine Corps F-35Bs on austere runways inside China’s “anti-ship bubble.”
None of these endeavors, however, are sufficient to eliminate China’s anti-ship advantage. This is precisely why the Navy believes that a new aircraft is essential to secure the strategic value and future of America’s Ford and Nimitz class carriers. According to some, the emphasis needs to not only be on the extended range provided by a new purpose-built platform; but it should also prioritize being unmanned.
“The focus should be on the F/A-XX,” explained Bob Work, former Navy undersecretary and deputy Defense Secretary. If you really want range, that has to be the platform you are shooting for. Because with the Navy buying the F-35Cs, and the Marine [Corps] buying the F-35Bs, and the Navy buying the Block III Super Hornet, you are not going to be able to afford two or three programs. So, the F/A-XX is the one you need to focus on. And if the analysis shows you need range, that points to unmanned.”
Lawmakers argue that it’s too early in the program to allocate so much funding to engine development. Proponents of the program, on the other hand, argue that a powerful, highly efficient engine is essential to serve as the basis of the program itself. President Trump has not signed the new National Defense Authorization Act that will make this decision final yet, but is expected to in the coming days.