The Navy’s flagship carrier-based fighter is getting a major tune-up.
The U.S. Navy has decided to fund Boeing’s fighter division to upgrade the service’s F/A-18E and F/A-18F Super Hornets to the “Block III” configuration. The most recent budget request from the U.S. Navy allocates $264.9 million over the next five years to upgrade the Super Hornet fleet with more advanced avionics and sensor capabilities, according to Aviation Week. The first Block III Super Hornets are slated to enter service in 2019. The program is designed to keep the Navy’s primary carrier-based fighter relevant deep into the 21st century.
The new configuration will improve the heads-up display and computing capabilities of the Super Hornet, while also modestly upgrading the stealth and radar cross section. The multirole fighter will receive “advanced network architecture” in the form of a new computer called the Distributed Targeting Processor Network (DTPN). A large new display in the cockpit will help pilots monitor the additional information they receive. New Tactical Targeting Network Technology (TTNT) will also improve the Super Hornet’s information pipeline so more data can be transmitted to and from the jet.
The improvements to stealth include possible low-observable coating, and new Conformal Fuel Tanks (CFT) are planned to replace the Super Hornet’s current external fuel tanks. The CFTs will improve radar cross section slightly, but they are primarily intended to reduce aerodynamic drag. The Navy is also planning a long-range infrared sensor for the Super Hornet for early threat detection.
The electronic warfare variant of the F/A-18, called the EA-18G Growler, will also be receiving some of the avionics upgrades. Dan Gillian, Boeing F/A-18 and EA-18 program manager, told Aviation Week that stealth is not a priority, and the avionics improvements will give the Super Hornet “a balanced approach to survivability, including electronic warfare and self-protection.”
The primary goal of the upgrade is to make the Super Hornet play nicely with the Navy’s incoming F-35C. The carrier variant of the F-35 is the last of the F-35s to enter service, as it has not reached initial operating capability (IOC) like the Marine and Air Force jets have. When the Navy starts flying the fifth-generation fighters, their air coverage will have a lot more incoming data to share and analyze with various aircraft.
The Navy is looking to dominate air space with fleets of Block III Super Hornets, EA-18s, F-35Cs, as well as E-2 Hawkeye airborne early warning planes. The computing upgrades to the Super Hornets in the field will ensure that all the aircraft can communicate over the same network to get the best picture of the battlefield.
“You can have an F-35 in its very stealthy way doing a deep-strike mission with Super Hornet providing air superiority at that same range, or you can have Super Hornet carrying large standoff weapons that F-35 cannot carry, with F-35 providing some air cover,” Gillian told Aviation Week.
The arrival of the F-35 has sent air warfare strategists back to the drawing board to develop the most effective packages to capitalize on the new fighter’s capacity to soak up information and transmit it to other aircraft in the formation. For the F-35C to work at full capacity, the Navy has decided the trusty F/A-18 Super Hornet needs to be a little smarter.