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.”