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Sunday, January 2, 2011

Boeing plots return to next-generation fighter market

By Stephen Trimble

Boeing graciously heeded my pleas to interview someone about their 1/16th scale model and poster (above) at Navy League displaying two concepts for an all-new fighter jet that would appear after 2025.

I admit the idea of launching a development program for a new, at least optionally-manned fighter seems ludicrous after the early termination of F-22 production -- not to mention the ongoing concerns about F-35 cost and performance.

But a Boeing official told me the acquisition process for a new fighter for the US Navy and US Air Force has already begun. The navy has renamed its program from F/A-XX to next generation air dominance (NGAD) as it enters the analysis of alternatives stage. The air force, meanwhile, also is starting an alternatives study for an F-22 replacement.

As far-fetched as the idea seams, there is a real need. After the F-35 replaces the navy's F/A-18Cs and the air force's F-16s and A-10s, something has to replace the F/A-18E/F and F-22.

Boeing is betting that something will be a clean-sheet, tailless fighter design. Concepts displayed at Navy League show off a 40,000lb-class fighter for carrier decks. The air force would likely need an airframe at least 50% larger to replace the 60,000lb-class F-22. If the airframes are not common, the air force and navy would likely be pressured to share the cockpit avionics and -- possibly -- engines.

Boeing unveils strike fighter options

Boeing used the show to reveal two concepts for a stealthy, tailless, supercruising strike fighter to replace the US Navy's F/A-18E/F Super Hornets after 2025.
Both twin-engine concepts, which feature optionally piloted cockpits, resemble a modern-day replacement for the ill-fated A-12 Avenger. The carrier-based stealth bomber project was cancelled in 1991 amid cost overruns and technical problems.
But the provisionally 9g-rated airframes also reflect the air-to-air performance once provided by the Grumman F-14, says Dave Thieman, a development official in Boeing's advanced global strike systems division.
Talk of replacing the F/A-18E/F, which entered service from 1999, may seem premature, but the earliest stages of the navy's acquisition process have already started.
"They're going to need [replacement] vehicles beyond 2025," says Thieman.
In June 2008, navy officials unveiled an F/A-XX requirement, including manned and unmanned airframe options.
More recently, the service has renamed the requirement as next generation air dominance (NGAD), seeking to widen the possibilities to include new airframes or land-based systems, such as missiles.
An analysis of alternatives is expected to start in late 2011, potentially leading to a technology demonstration phase with competing prototypes about two years later. Boeing's rivals are likely to include both manned and unmanned options.
For Boeing, NGAD represents a strategic opportunity to re-enter the US market for next-generation strike aircraft, which seemed lost after Lockheed Martin claimed the Joint Strike Fighter contract.
Boeing officials have focused on the navy's thinking for a Super Hornet replacement that remains at least 15 years away.
The company understands that its potential customer wants a replacement with more engine power to supercruise, with the low observable aircraft to also carry internal weapons, distributed sensors and have extreme agility.
"It's a [Lockheed] F-22 on the carrier," Thieman says.
Meanwhile, the US Air Force has launched a capabilities-based analysis for an F-22 replacement. Like the Super Hornet, the fighter remains in active production, but the air force expects a replacement will be required after 2025.
If funding for a replacement programme can be found, there is likely to be pressure for the air force and navy to launch a joint technology demonstration.
In that situation, the air force may require a bigger airframe than a carrier-based fighter, though the projects could share common engines, systems and weapons, Thieman believes.

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