Navy’s Secretive F/A-XX Combat Jet Gets Big Funding In New Budget (Updated)

Among the aviation-related developments in the U.S. Navy’s proposed budget for the 2024 Fiscal Year is a request for almost $1.53 billion in support of the development of a Next-Generation Fighter aircraft, or F/A-XX. This appears to be the first time the service has provided a hard unclassified dollar figure for any of its investments in this effort, which is understood to be seeking a stealthy sixth-generation crewed combat jet.

The Department of the Navy formally rolled out its Fiscal Year 2024 budget proposal, which also includes requested funding for the U.S. Marine Corps, earlier today. The F/A-XX request is a clear standout that is worth delving into deeper, but first here is a brief overview of other notable aviation and air-launched munition program developments contained in the proposed budget.

The Department, as a whole, is seeking funds to acquire 88 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters:

  • 15 F-35C Joint Strike Fighters for the Navy and four more for the Marines.
  • 16 F-35B Joint Strike Fighters for the Marines.
  • Three MQ-25A Stingray tanker drones, one less than it had planned in the past to buy in the 2024 Fiscal Year.
  • The Navy still expects to purchase four more MQ-25As in Fiscal Years 2025, 2026, and 2027, and then increase that to seven in Fiscal Year 2028.
  • Two MQ-4C Triton maritime surveillance drones for the Navy, which the service now wants to be the last batch of these uncrewed aircraft that it buys.
  • The Navy had previously planned to purchase another four MQ-4Cs in the 2025 Fiscal Year.
  • Five MQ-9A Reaper drones for the Marines, bringing planned purchases of this type to a close.
  • 15 CH-53K King Stallion helicopters for the Marines.
  • Two KC-130J Hercules tanker-transports for the Marines.
  • 14 Multi-Engine Training Systems (METS) for the Navy and 12 additional examples for the Marines.
  • Currently designated ZT-54A, METS is a military training version of Beechcraft King Air 260 that will replace the two services’ existing T-44Cs as the “intermediate and advanced training platform for accession into P-8, EP-3, KC-130, E-6, E-2, C-2, CMV-22 and MV-22 aircraft,” according to budget documents released today.
  • Though there are no plans to purchase any of these aircraft in the 2024 Fiscal Year, the Navy’s new budget request lays out plans to buy 43 examples of what is described as a “T-45TS (Trainer) aircraft between Fiscal Years 2025 and 2028.
  • It’s unclear what this refers to since the Navy has not expressed any interest in buying all-new T-45 Goshawk jet trainers.
  • This could reflect plans for a major upgrade of the existing T-45s or somehow be a stand-in for a planned successor. We have reached out for more information.
A rendering of a notional variant of Boeing’s T-7A Redhawk jet trainer to meet the Navy’s requirements for a T-45 replacement. Boeing

Unlike the U.S. Air Force, the Department of the Navy typically does not release detailed breakdowns of aircraft it is seeking to retire as part of its annual budget proposal rollout. Service officials said today that the request broadly “aligns with the services’ transition strategy of sundowning legacy aircraft and investing in new capabilities.”

In addition to aircraft, the Navy’s budget request includes proposed funding for various air-launched munitions, including:

Beyond the nearly $1.53 billion for the F/A-XX effort, the Navy is seeking billions to fund other aviation-related research and development efforts, such as:

With all this in mind, it’s hard to overstress just how singularly significant the F/A-XX funding request is, both just in that it has been publicly disclosed and in its total amount. The Navy is still declining to say how much it has already received for this program in prior budgets.

However, the just over $1.5 billion that it is asking for now for F/A-XX represents some five percent of its entire $26.9 billion research and development request for the 2024 Fiscal Year. It is more than what the service is looking to receive for the development of its next-generation attack submarine ($545 million) and its next-generation destroyer ($187 million) combined in the upcoming fiscal cycle.

A basic breakdown of all of the Navy’s proposed research and development spending in Fiscal Year 2024. USN

This budgeting makes clear that the Navy views F/A-XX as central to not only its future tactical aviation plans, but the future of the service more broadly.

Details about what it is looking for in this aircraft, and how far along the program may be already, remain limited. F/A-XX is a component of a larger Navy Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) effort, which should not be confused with the Air Force’s initiative of the same name. Exactly what the Navy’s NGAD program encompasses is not entirely clear and it could well include work that lives entirely in the classified realm.

An unclassified “Navy Aviation Vision” document the service released in 2021 provided some broad details, including that it is expected to be the replacement for the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, at least in part, and that one of its core missions will be acting as a “quarterback” for groups of advanced drones. You can read more about what has emerged so far about the Navy’s plans for a next-generation combat jet here.

Details about the drones that the F/A-XX is expected to work with are limited, too, but we know that the Navy envisions them carrying munitions and electronic warfare suites, and acting as communications relay nodes. The Air Force recently confirmed that it has been engaging directly with the Navy as it works to refine its own plans for advanced drones with high degrees of autonomy, which it currently refers to as Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA).

The decision to truncate the MQ-4C buy is also an interesting development. Navy officials said today that this decision was driven by a desire to pursue more advanced uncrewed capabilities. Interestingly, they pointed to the service’s MQ-25A plans. Though intended primarily as a tanker, the Stingray does have a secondary intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capability, but one far different from the persistent maritime surveillance function the Triton was designed for. That being said, there has already been talk about expanding the MQ-25A’s ISR capabilities in the future. The Navy could have other advanced uncrewed aircraft in the works in the classified realm, as well.

Though the Fiscal Year 2024 budget only includes a small number of the LRASM-ER missiles, these weapons look set to become important additions to the Navy’s arsenal, as well as that of other services, in the coming years. The AGM-158C-3 is a hybrid of sorts that incorporates features from the AGM-158B Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile-Extended Range (JASSM-ER) land-attack cruise missile and other improvements. The way the Navy has described it in the past indicates that the C-3 could really be a more multi-purpose weapon able to engage a wide array of targets at sea and on land.

As is always the case when discussing proposed U.S. military budgets, it is important to remember that Congress will have the final say. Lawmakers routinely block cuts to programs and add funding above what is requested to efforts they feel should be priorities.

The War Zone will be taking closer looks at the more detailed budget documents from the Navy, as well as the other services and the Pentagon itself as they are released. More specific details almost always emerge from the full annual budget proposal, which could contain more information about the F/A-XX.

UPDATE 3/14/2023:

The Navy has now confirmed that the “T-45TS” line in the budget outlays for future fiscal year procurement plans refers to a still-to-determined replacement aircraft from the service’s existing Goshawks.

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