The F-35 program is still ongoing and infamously over budget, yet the U.S. Navy is kicking off the early steps in the search for a sixth generation fighter to replace the current F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. This first step in searching for new fighter aircraft is a Request for Information from companies interested in participating with the program.
The document reads, "To support OPNAV N98’s request, this is a Pre-Material Development Decision (MDD) market survey for the purpose of determining market interest, feasibility, and capability of potential sources and does NOT constitute a Request for Proposals. NO SOLICITATION DOCUMENTS EXIST AT THIS TIME."
You may be wondering if this means that the F-35 as far as the Navy's concerned could be dead. Well, this new program has no bearing on the F-35 - the Navy document states the new sixth generation fighter will complement the F-35 and a planned unmanned aircraft.
"The intent of this research is to solicit Industry inputs on candidate solutions for CVN based aircraft to provide multi-role capability in an A2AD operational environment. Primary missions include, but are not limited to, air warfare (AW), strike warfare (STW), surface warfare (SUW), and close air support (CAS).
“Also, consider the ability of your concept to provide other capabilities currently provided by strike fighter aircraft, such as organic air-to-air refueling (AAR), Tactical Reconnaissance, Surveillance and Target Acquisition (RSTA), and airborne electronic attack (AEA). "
Interestingly, the Navy is accepting pitches for unmanned, optionally manned, and manned aircraft. The fighters proposed could be brand-new, clean-sheet designs or concepts derived from current aircraft. Of all the missions the aircraft should perform, one the most interesting is the ability to refuel other fighters in the air. That means that the proposed aircraft should be able to shunt its own fuel to another aircraft.
The document also stipulates that any aircraft presented in this Request for Information should be able to operate off current CVN 68 and CVN 78 class aircraft carriers with a minimum impact on the configuration of the ship and the operation of the ships Carrier Air Wing.
The Navy wants any company responding to the request to factor in as many costs as possible including cost estimates for development, flyaway cost, procurement costs, acquisition costs, and operating costs. The Navy also wants technology used in aircraft to be Technology Readiness Level 6 by 2020 with proposed Initial Operational Capability by 2030.
A) You would need to add a large fuel reserve, lowering performance and weapons payload- what's the point of a low-performance, poorly armed fighter?
B) A large reserve means internal fuel tanks - or a fighter without a lot of stealth capability, and a further reduction in maneuverability and speed
C) You would need to have a large squadron of refueling fighters to make up for a small fuel reserve - coordinating refueling would be problematic
D) Your refueling planes would have restricted use of afterburners - afterburners burn up fuel faster than anything
They'd be better off designing a stealthy, high-performance refueling air tanker. There are fighters, such as the F-18, that serve as refueling tankers, but they can't refuel a large number of planes.
The F-22 holds 18,000 lbs of fuel internally. The F-18 can hold 13,000 lbs of external weight as a tanker, ~70% of the F-22's load. The KC-135 air tanker can hold about 150,000 lbs of fuel for refueling. You're gonna be flying 12 F-18's (12 x $30M USD) to do the job of one KC-135 ($40M USD). There's a reason vehicles have roles: optimization....LOL
This story would die right there .... but then the Chief of Naval Operations (Adm. Jon Greenert) puts a monkey-wrench by bluntly stating that current fleet operations pace unsustainable. LOL
Bottom line .... if the Chief of Naval Operations is to be believed .... a 300 ship fleet is an inadequate number to sustain current operations and mission objectives....LOL
Source: Defense Tech