WASHINGTON — In the coming years, the U.S. Navy will be faced with a decision that will radically shape the carrier air wing: Is the service willing to sacrifice dozens of new Super Hornet jets for the promise of a sixth-generation fighter in the 2030s?

The Navy is opting to buy a final 24 F/A-18E/Fs in fiscal 2021, slashing a planned purchase of at least 36 Super Hornets that would have spanned FY22 through FY24. The move will save $4.5 billion, which the service plans to redirect to its sixth-generation fighter program, known as Next Generation Air Dominance, or F/A-XX.

However, the decision may not be as clear cut — or final — as budget documents make it seem.

The Navy is at the very start of the NGAD development process, having completed an analysis of alternatives in June 2019, as well as broad requirements and guidance for a concept of operations. The effort is now in the concept development phase, during which defense companies explore ideas “that balance advanced air dominance capabilities and long-term affordability/sustainment,” said Navy spokesman Capt. Danny Hernandez.

But with an economic downturn potentially leading to even more pressure on the defense budget, the Navy may not have the funds to proceed with NGAD as a clean-sheet fighter jet.

“Although the Navy would like to start developing the next generation of aircraft ... I just don’t think — and increasingly people in the department are thinking — there’s not going to be the money to devote to this next generation of fighter,” said Bryan Clark, an analyst with the Hudson Institute and a retired naval officer.

“I think they are going to fall back to looking at F/A-XX as a modification or an evolution of the F-35,” he said. “Instead of the other half of the air wing being some new aircraft, you’ll have a combination of F-35Cs and then some modified version of the F-35 or a modified Super Hornet."

Multiple aircraft from Carrier Air Wing 5 fly in formation over the U.S. Navy’s aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan. (MC2 Kaila V. Peters/U.S. Navy)
Multiple aircraft from Carrier Air Wing 5 fly in formation over the U.S. Navy’s aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan. (MC2 Kaila V. Peters/U.S. Navy)

Jerry Hendrix, a retired Navy captain and an analyst with the Telemus Group, said the service’s enthusiasm for F/A-XX is a sign of a continued preference for manned aviation as well as a desire to shut out any hope of fielding a long-range, penetrating strike drone.

“I’ve always been in favor of extending the Hornet production line because it is solid and stable,” Hendrix said. “But the extension was based on the proviso that we’re extending in order to get to an unmanned combat aerial vehicle. If it was an extension to get to the next manned fighter … we’re missing the idea of what the future competitive environment, or really the present competitive environment, is all about.”

A tightrope of risk

The Navy has grappled in prior years with the question of whether to cease production of the Super Hornet in favor of a future fighter, and it is an argument that lawmakers are wary of.

The Navy first planned to stop buying the F/A-18 in its FY15 budget — a decision made to fund the transition to the F-35. But technical issues and delays pushed out the fielding of the Navy’s F-35C takeoff-and-landing model for aircraft carriers to 2018, leaving the service dependent on a fleet of aging, battle-worn F/A-18s in need of a service-life extension. The Navy ended up listing the F/A-18 on its unfunded priorities list, and Congress followed by funding enough Super Hornets to keep Boeing’s line running.

“If we go back a few years and we look at what happened when we thought we were going to plant the F-35, we let the F-18 slide down,” Rep. Donald Norcross, D-N.J., said in a March 10 hearing. Norcross is the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Tactical Air and Land Forces.

The process of standing up the F-35C was much slower than expected, and the Navy ended up buying additional F/A-18s to bridge the capability gap, he said. “Yet, here we are getting ready to curtail 36 Super Hornets because we are expecting, you know, the F/A-XX to come online,” he added.

Sailors perform maintenance on an F/A-18E Super Hornet. (MCSN Tomas Compian/U.S. Navy)
Sailors perform maintenance on an F/A-18E Super Hornet. (MCSN Tomas Compian/U.S. Navy)

Asked how he could be confident that F/A-XX would stay on schedule, Rear Adm. Gregory Harris, the Navy’s director of air warfare, said he could provide lawmakers a more detailed defense of the Navy’s Next Generation Air Dominance family of systems in a classified setting.

“We’re working closely with the Air Force to ensure the systems that we put on that have the [technology readiness level] that gives us confidence that we can achieve that aircraft on time in the early 2030s to replace the F/A-18E/F as it reaches the end of its service life,” Harris said.

Missouri Rep. Vicky Hartzler, the subcommittee’s top Republican, pointed out that the Navy already has a fighter shortfall of about 49 aircraft, with additional F/A-18s being pulled from the operational fleet into a service-life extension period that will take at least a year.

“I feel like this is too much operational risk,” she said. “If you add all those up, this is a severe shortage that we are experiencing, and if you don’t account for the attrition rate, actually in combat we would have a very large gap there potentially.”

James Geurts, the Navy’s assistant secretary for research, development and acquisition, said there is always risk when transitioning from legacy to new aircraft, but that improved mission-capable rates and a steady flow of jets moving through upgrades will help balance the shortfall.

“We’re taking risk until the late 2020s. I think 2029 is when we will get to the full fighter inventory, and so we had to take some risk as we balance that,” he said.

The most likely scenario is that, as the Navy presses forward with its plan to curtail funding for F/A-18s, Congress will simply continue buying more of them, Hendrix said.

Rep. Vicky Hartzler, left, eats lunch with U.S. Navy sailors on the mess decks aboard the aircraft carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower. The congresswoman from Missouri is concerned about the Navy's aircraft inventory. (Seaman Apprentice Joshua Murray/U.S. Navy)
Rep. Vicky Hartzler, left, eats lunch with U.S. Navy sailors on the mess decks aboard the aircraft carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower. The congresswoman from Missouri is concerned about the Navy's aircraft inventory. (Seaman Apprentice Joshua Murray/U.S. Navy)

But one unanswered question is whether lawmakers will also intervene to force the Navy to consider a wider range of aviation options that could give the carrier air wing longer legs.

“I’m hopeful that there will be a broader conversation, led by Congress and the administration, perhaps together, to say: ‘We are looking at the future security environment. We are looking at the Chinese threat. We are looking at what’s happening in Taiwan, what’s happening [in] Hong Kong and within the first island chain, and we really need to have this new capability of long-range, penetrating strike,’ ” Hendrix said.

“What I do realize is that because the Navy is very conservative right now in how it’s approaching its procurement programs, the Navy will not be the one to say we need this mission.”

No matter what the Navy decides, it could impact its procurement of the MQ-25 unmanned tanker drone currently under development by Boeing. Hendrix sees the MQ-25 program as a likely bill payer, particularly if the service continues to buy Hornets.

“What was the reason for the MQ-25? It was to take the strain off from the Hornets,” which were being used to refuel other F/A-18s and burning through their service lives faster than anticipated, Hendrix said. “When you reopen the Hornet production line and you add 120-something new Hornets, you actually took that strain off the Hornet fleet. So there really isn’t a requirement now for a recovery tanker.”

Clark agrees that the Navy should develop a long-range unmanned combat aircraft but is unlikely to do so.

But should the Navy choose not to proceed with an F/A-XX program, Clark believes the service could funnel some of that money into modifying the MQ-25 to supplement strike, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capacities, and could even end buy more MQ-25s than planned.

“The MQ-25 program, once it gets fielded and proven out, I could see the Navy expanding it,” he said. “I think the operational and programmatic pressures have driven the Navy to embrace the MQ-25, and because it’s a complement to the manned aircraft, it’s generated less resentment among the manned aviation community.”