There is no debate that America’s fifth generation fighters, the F-22 and F-35, tend to garner the most publicity, but in terms of operational aircraft, all of the functional Raptors and Joint Strike Fighters employed by the entire U.S. military wouldn’t even add up to a sizeable chunk of the number of F/A-18 Hornets and Super Hornets in use by the Navy and Marine Corps. Of course, that’s not the aircraft’s only claim to fame when compared to its more advanced successors. According to Boeing, the F/A-18 is also “the most cost-effective aircraft in the U.S. tactical aviation fleet, costing less per flight hour than any other tactical aircraft in U.S. forces inventory.”
It’s little surprise, then, that the Department of Defense has awarded Boeing $73 million to begin work upgrading the Block II Super Hornets to a new Block III configuration, aiming to keep the F/A-18 flying combat operations for at least another decade.
“The initial focus of this program will extend the life of the fleet from 6,000 to 9,000 flight hours,” said Mark Sears, SLM program director. “But SLM will expand to include Block II to Block III conversion, systems grooming and reset and O-level maintenance tasks designed to deliver a more maintainable aircraft with an extended life and more capability. Each of these jets will fly another 10 to 15 years, so making them next-generation aircraft is critical.”
The Navy’s massive fleet of 568 Super Hornets will take some time to update, so the contract hasn’t specified a delivery date for the total overhaul. For now, the changeover from Block II to Block III configuration will begin with just four Super Hornets at Boeing’s St. Louis production center. In the coming years, more production lines will be stood up to expedite the upgrade schedule, however.
Among the scheduled improvements are an updated heads-up display for the pilots and an upgrade to the computing capabilities of the onboard systems. A modest upgrade to the stealth capability of the aircraft, intended to limit its radar signature, is also included in the list of changes.
In order to make the Super Hornet a stealthier fighter, Boeing may use low-observable coating intended to absorb radar as it comes into contact with the plane, and new Conformal Fuel Tanks (CFT) are slated to replace the existing tanks. These new tanks change the radar-cross section of the aircraft slightly, but are also expected to reduce aerodynamic drag.
The Super Hornet will receive “advanced network architecture” through the upgrade in the form of a new computer called the Distributed Targeting Processor Network (DTPN). The computer comes with a large new in-cockpit display intended to help pilots manage the all the additional information they will now have at their fingertips. A new Tactical Targeting Network Technology (TTNT) system will streamline the management of all that new data as it flows in and out of the jet, and a long-range infrared sensor will be added to the technology suite in order to allow the Super Hornet to detect incoming threats far earlier than ever before.
According to Dan Gillian, Boeing F/A-18 and EA-18 program manager, stealth isn’t the priority of this update, but it’s included as part of an effort to give the Super Hornet “a balanced approach to survivability, including electronic warfare and self-protection.”
This is of particular import as the U.S. military transitions toward deterring peer and near-peer level opponents like China and Russia, whose anti-ship missile ranges are greater than the operational range of current carrier-based aircraft. That capability gap would currently make it too dangerous to bring carriers close enough to the fight to launch sorties of jets without risking losing the carrier to a hypersonic missile.
With fewer than 200 operational F-22s in the Air Force’s stable and nearly half of all delivered F-35s currently listed as non-operational, fifth generation aircraft may be the wave of the future, but at least for now, it would appear that the skies over the world’s waterways still belong to the Navy’s workhorse F/A-18.