A US Navy F-14D Tomcat aircraft flies a combat mission in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom | U.S. Air Force photo by SSgt. Lee O. Tucker


While the requirement for a carrier-based long-range strike capability is a frequent subject of discussion around Washington, the U.S. Navy's need for improved air superiority capabilities is often neglected.

The service has not had a dedicated air-to-air combat aircraft since it retired the Grumman F-14 Tomcat in 2006. But even the Tomcat was adapted into a strike aircraft during its last years in service after the Soviet threat evaporated.

Now, as new threats to the carrier emerge and adversaries start to field new fighters that can challenge the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and Lockheed Martin F-35C Joint Strike Fighter, attention is starting to shift back to this oft-neglected Navy mission — especially in the Western Pacific.

"Another type of new aircraft required is an air superiority fighter," states a recent Hudson Institute report titled Sharpening the Spear: The Carrier, the Joint Force, and High-End Conflict, which is written by The National Interest contributors Seth Cropsey, Bryan McGrath and Timothy A. Walton. "Given the projection of the Joint Force's increased demand for carrier-based fighter support, this capability is critical."

The report notes that both the Super Hornet and the F-35C are severely challenged by new enemy fifth-generation fighter aircraft such as the Russian-built Sukhoi T-50 PAK-FA and Chengdu J-20.

Indeed, certain current adversary aircraft such as the Russian Su-30SM, Su-35S and the Chinese J-11D and J-15 pose a serious threat to the Super Hornet fleet. It's a view that shared by many industry officials, U.S. Navy, U.S. Air Force and even U.S. Marine Corps aviators.

These Soviet assets would have launched their arsenals of anti-ship cruise missiles from multiple points of the compass.

As Work described it, the Navy was relatively confident it could sink the Oscarsand surface ships before they could launch their missiles. They were far less confident about their ability to take out the Tu-22Ms before they could get into launch position.

The Tomcats, under Outer Air Battle, would try to "kill the archers" — the Backfires — before they could shoot and attempt to eliminate any cruise missiles that they launched. But, Work notes, no one knows how well it would have worked during a shooting war with the Soviet Union — and it's a good thing we never got to find out. But with China's emerging anti-access/area denial strategy, the threat is back.

While the F/A-XX and the Air Force's F-X are in their infancy, it has become clear that they will be different aircraft designs that will probably share common technologies. The Navy does seem to be focusing on a more defensive F-14 like concept while the Air Force is looking for a more offensively oriented air superiority platform that could replace the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor.

"As you'll see over the coming years, the differences between the primary mission and the likely threats will drive significant differences between the F/A-XX and F-X programs as well as legacy systems like the F-22 and F-35," one senior defense official told me.