The Advanced Super Hornet offers a menu of upgrades for the U.S. Navy’s current or new built F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets. Original equipment manufacturer (OEM) Boeing believes the upgraded platform is a viable and economical way to counter emerging threats, though program personnel downplay any rivalry with the F-35C.
Most noticeably, the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and the EA-18G Growler, its electronic warfare platform sibling, are 25 percent larger than the original Hornet. Less noticeably — certainly from a radar’s perspective — the Super Hornet incorporates stealth technology. It also carries modern avionics and weaponry that cannot be retrofitted on legacy F/A-18s.
The Advanced Super Hornet, derived from the Block II Super Hornet, incorporates a trio of major upgrades, all retrofittable onto Super Hornets and Growlers currently in service: conformal wing-top fuel tanks, an enclosed weapons pod, and radar signature enhancements. Possible future enhancements include a high-resolution cockpit display, internal infrared search and track (IRST) system, and enhanced engines. An upgraded cockpit is already a standard international offering for new Super Hornet orders.
The two conformal fuel tanks, fitted atop the fuselage, hold 3,500 pounds of useable fuel, adding either 260 nautical miles in range or 130 nautical miles of combat radius, an impressive boost in capability for an aircraft this size. Gammon notes that “range is an ever more important topic in U.S. military, especially in the Pacific theater,” given the large distances to cover. Adding only 870 pounds of structural weight, the wing-top fuel tanks create no additional drag at subsonic speeds.
The upgraded cockpit on new Super Hornets includes increased computing power, supporting enhanced graphical data displays, and an 11- by 19-inch touch screen. “We can create three-dimensional images of the geography that’s in front of pilots,” Gammon says.
Meanwhile, the robust high-definition touch screen monitor (“You can stick a screwdriver through it, and it’s still functional,” Gammon says) replaces four separate cathode ray tube (CRT) displays, providing more area for presenting information and giving pilots more choices in the data they want to see. That minimizes the need to look around the panel or seek data on underlying pages during flight and combat operations. The consolidated displays also reduce the number of line replaceable units (LRUs) that have to be kept in inventory.
The Advanced Super Hornet also will be stealthier than current Super Hornets. Further reducing its radar profile, external weapons can be mounted within an enclosed pod that is opened for weapon deployment. The advanced airframe also offers an option to stealthily carry the IRST system the U.S. Navy currently plans to deploy on its fighters, concealed within the gun bay door.
In the future, the Advanced Super Hornet also may incorporate an enhanced version of its current GE F414-400 engines. General Electric Aircraft Engines has introduced modular upgrades to the motor that boost its power to 22,000 pounds of thrust and reduce fuel consumption from 3 to 5 percent. For combat missions, the enhanced engine could be operated at higher temperatures than previously allowed, providing an additional 20 percent thrust, a critical improvement for its air combat role.
The enhanced powerplant is also more durable and maintainable. Technology changes extend the time between overhaul from 2,000 to 4,000 hours for the hot section, and from 4,000 to 6,000 hours for the turbine fan.
Currently, flyaway cost of an F/A-18 E/F for the U.S. Navy is about $52 million, while the EA-18G Growler costs about $62 million. The Advanced Super Hornet capabilities would add about 10 to 15 percent to the cost of the aircraft. Meanwhile, estimates for the true costs of the F-35C range from about $85 million per aircraft to almost $300 million.
The next step is a multi-ship, multi-spectral fusion demonstration, referred to as Fleet Exercise (FLEX) ’15, scheduled for next spring. “That will involve multiple Super Hornets and Growlers using data link, which provides us with broadband Internet in the sky and a distributed targeting network that allows us to trade sensor information among all the airplanes in a strike package,”
The U.S. Navy has a Program of Record for 563 Super Hornets and 138 Growlers, for a total of more than 700 retrofittable platforms. Boeing will continue to deliver Super Hornets and Growlers to the U.S. Navy, as well as the Royal Australian Air Force, through 2016 based on the current Program of Record.