The U.S. Navy will need a new “sixth-generation” warplane eventually to follow the F-35C stealth fighter that’s just beginning to enter service. But no one has any idea what that new plane might look like. Not even the Navy.
The Navy in February 2019 declared its first front-line F-35C squadron “ready for flight.” Strike-Fighter Squadron 147, based in California, in 2021 is slated to embark on the aircraft carrier USS Vinson for the type’s first deployment.
The fleet aims to integrate a 10-plane F-35C squadron into each of its nine carrier air wings, which embark on the 11 Ford- and Nimitz-class carriers. The U.S. Marine Corps plans to equip four squadrons with F-35Cs as that service’s contribution to the carrier wings.
It will be at least a decade before the sea services deploy all of the roughly 300 F-35Cs they plan to acquire at a cost of around $100 million per plane. The stealth fighters could fly for 25 years or longer before they wear out.
By the time the F-35Cs arrive, each wing also will include three F/A-18E/F squadrons plus detachments of EA-18G radar-jamming planes, E-2 radar planes, V-22 transports and MQ-25 tanker drones. All of the types are in production and none should leave service before the mid-2030s, at the earliest.
In other words, the Navy is in no rush to decide what its next warplane should look like. Hence the ambivalent comments from Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday. “I do think we need an aviation combatant, but what the aviation combatant of the future looks like?” Gilday said at U.S. Naval Institute’s Defense Forum Washington conference in early December 2019.