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Boeing Pushing For New Engines, Advanced Cockpit on Super Hornets, Growlers

First flight of the F/A-18E/F Advanced Super Hornet with conformal fuel tanks and Enclosed Weapons Pod. Boeing Photo

First flight of the F/A-18E/F Advanced Super Hornet with conformal fuel tanks and Enclosed Weapons Pod. Boeing Photo

The Navy has plans to boost its F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and EA-18G Growler capabilities in the coming years to match an evolving threat, but plane manufacturer Boeing is still pushing for conformal fuel tanks, an advanced cockpit system and a new engine that the company says would add even more range and warfighting capability.

Given tight budgets and a long list of needs for the Navy, Boeing F/A-18 and EA-18G programs vice president Dan Gillian said the company has scaled down its F-18 add-on list since a 2013 proposal for an Advanced Super Hornet.

“We’ve really matured our thinking on the Advanced Super Hornet and what the Advanced Super Hornet needs to be based on what the carrier air wing needs in the ‘20s and ‘30s – and that means a complementary way to F-35,” Gillian told reporters earlier this month.
“So if we think about the next 25 years, you’re going to have Super Hornets and F-35s on the decks together; what are the right things for the Super Hornet to bring to the carrier air wing … to give the Navy that warfighting capability they need?”

The Navy has already put on contract three Super Hornet upgrades included in Boeing’s new Advanced Super Hornet design. The service will upgrade its Raytheon AN/APG-79 Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar. It will add the Integrated Defensive Electronic Countermeasures (IDECM) Block IV with increased electronic warfare self-protection, which is set to be fielded later this year. And the Navy will buy Lockheed Martin’s Infrared Search and Track (IRST) sensor system to supplement the aircraft’s radar, which is set to reach initial operational capability for the first block later this decade, Gillian said.

IRST in particular will give the Super Hornet fleet an edge in a high-end warfighting environment, Gillian said, noting that “not having to rely on radar, given where stealth is, is a big part of the carrier air wing” in the future. IRST sees heat signatures and therefore can help build a picture of where enemies are on a battlefield without emitting energy via a radar, allowing for passive target-tracking at a distance in a stealthy environment. Gillian said the first low-rate initial production (LRIP) contract had been signed, with a projected initial operational capability date of 2018, and the second LRIP was headed towards being signed soon.

“This is less than it was in 2013 – in 2013 we had an enclosed weapons pod, internal IRST, because that’s what we thought Advanced Super Hornet could be. This is about what we think Advanced Super Hornet needs to be to fill out the carrier air wing in the ‘20s and ‘30s,” Gillian told reporters.

The Growlers too will get several upgrades in the coming years. The Tactical Targeting Network Technology (TTNT) is a pipeline that will bring more data to and from the Growler, and the Distributed Targeting Processor- Networked (DTP-N) will crunch all that data with 10-times more computing power than the Growler has today, Gillian said. The Northrop Grumman ALQ-218 – the sensor package that essentially turns a Super Hornet into a Growler – will get an upgrade, the Raytheon Next-Generation Jammer pod will be added on for “a huge revolutionary capability” increase, and the AESA upgrade will be added to the Growler as well.

Though a significant investment already, Boeing says the Navy should go further and invest in three major upgrades to ensure future air superiority – an enhanced engine, an advanced cockpit system and conformal fuel tanks.

The advanced cockpit system is a 10-by-19 inch display that brings modern graphics and user interface to the aircraft, Gillian said, adding that this is a big part of Boeing’s sale pitch to international customers.

The advanced engine, a project with General Electrics, would add more thrust and fuel efficiency but comes with a high price tag, making it the least likely of the items on Boeing’s wish list.

Boeing and General Electrics are still in the “technical maturation (phase), so it hasn’t flown yet, we haven’t built the engine, but a lot of the enabling technologies that go into the [engine] have been developed in labs and proven in labs, so we feel confident about the projections of the numbers: 18-20 percent thrust improvement, 3 percent fuel efficiency improvement,” Gillian said. If the Navy were to sign onto the engine upgrade today, it would take about four and a half years before the first engine was ready to be installed, he added.

And the conformal fuel tanks, perhaps the item on the wish list the Navy is most likely to pursue, would reduce weight and drag and expand range and speed. For the Growler, that means the plane can fly at higher altitudes and would have more weight margin for the Next-Generation Jammer pods that will be added on. Removing the current fuel tanks would also give the external sensors a greater field of regard, helping the plane see more. For the Super Hornet, the conformal fuel tanks would extend combat air patrols out 120 nautical miles further than they can go today and would allow the planes to go on strike missions deeper into enemy territory.

Gillian pushed for the upgrades on both the Super Hornet and the Growler, saying that “if you make changes for one, you get to incorporate them on the other with relative ease,” but it is still unclear if the Navy will find room in its budget for any of these upgrades going forward. He noted the upcoming Service Life Extension Program for the Super Hornets – the first aircraft is expected to hit 6,000 flight hours and enter the SLEP within the next year – as an ideal time to do the plumbing work needed for conformal fuel tanks and as a potential time to install the cockpit if the Navy chooses to go that direction.

  • omegatalon

    When your aircraft has a radar cross-section resembling a small house, doing what this article suggest is essentially adding more lipstick on a pig especially when there is no engine under development to replace those used by the Super Hornet and Growler.

    • Charles Pierce

      But I can buy two of them for what we pay for 1 F-35 which is a real dog.

      • sferrin

        That’s sarcasm right?

        • Mike

          How dare anyone say negative statements to the F-35 or stealth in general sferrin. You are such an aviation troll.

          • NR Taylor

            Not only can you get 2 F-18ASH for the price of 1 F-35, the F-18SH has a higher ready rate = effectively have more like 2.4 F-18ASH vs 1 F-35.

    • Masau80

      Stealth is becoming less and less of a consideration. The F-35 is needed because of the connectivity it brings, not its stealth and certainly not its flight characteristics. Re-read the article and try and understand what these upgrades will add to a jet that will be in the inventory for the next 30 years.

      • sferrin

        “Stealth is becoming less and less of a consideration.”

        Really? Since when?

        • Masau80

          Since everyone is realizing that radar and other sensor technology will always outpace stealth. Low observable is the more appropriate term.

          • sferrin

            I’m pretty sure you don’t qualify as “everyone”. You’re demonstrably incorrect. And “stealth” and “low observable” are the same thing.

          • Mike

            Maybe one day sferrin will backup his statements. For now he just leans on armchair generals and imagination.

          • NR Taylor

            Well, almost the same thing. Low Observable is a technical term, while stealth is the simplified word for public consumption.

            The F-35 will have an advantage over the F18ASH in terms of ‘stealth’…I don’t think anybody argues that!

            Canadian based arguements instead center around cost vs capability vs need. Do we need low observable (and the costs involved), does the F-35A provide more capability for Canada compared to the F-18ASh, is the F-35A additional expenses worth what it offers compared to other choices.

      • NR Taylor

        Masau80

        You are correct about the connectivity being essential on the F-35….BUT the F-18ASH can benefit from it just fine. It won’t have the sensor power + stealth of the F-35, but it will complement F-35 operations + work/connect with F-35 networking just fine!

        As a bonus, we save billions in purchase/training/operating expenses! Plus, we get a jet that is better for Canada (F-18ASH has Buddy Refueling, 2 engines, proven design).

        • Masau80

          I think you’re right as well. Plus it looks like the Canadians are going to replace their CF-18 fleet with Super Hornets – hopefully the ASH.

          • NR Taylor

            From what I’ve read, it will [retty much be what the above article describes. So = conformal tanks + advanced cockpit + upgraded/fixed radar + IRST (on centerline tank) + advanced EW….but (unless the US funds it) won’t have the improved engines, stealthiness modifications or enclosed weapon pods.

      • tipoo2

        Even as radars get more powerful, stealth has an advantage in getting in closer to them. Say you can detect a stealth plane at 40 kilometers today, and a non-stealth at 110, if you increase the radar power (Which is also a beacon towards yourself for enemies), and you can then detect the stealth plane at 60 kilometers and the non-stealth at 140…There’s no such thing as new radars making stealth obsolete, if anything they prove its mettle.

        And IRST only works at a range that a stealth fighter would be detected by radar in anyways. Stealth isn’t invisibility, it’s about seeing and shooting first.

    • tipoo2

      The ASH does have improved low observability, though of course not to rival a dedicated stealth platform.

  • Horn

    It’s too bad the Navy can’t afford all of these changes. The added range is especially nice.

  • Wm. T Ford

    Tight budgets aside, I foresee a certain degree of resistance to these enhancements by the USN/USMC. If they can be integrated cost-effectively across the SH fleet, voices will surely be raised aqainst the full buy of F-35s. But if the enhancements bring the price of the SH in line with F-35, why bother at all?

  • Paladin

    It would be nice to know some data associated with this upgrade such as improvement in range, thrust-to -weight, platform range and sensor range, I know the actual numbers are classified, but a hint would be better than nothing.

  • Ronsoppinion

    Would be nice to see Rolls- Royce in the mix for a more powerful engine, Rolls has worked well with General Electric on past ventures, working together they both created an engine for the F35.

    • sferrin

      RR doesn’t produce an engine in the class used on the Super Hornet.

      edit. Forgot RR bought Allison. Believe it or not, Allison built an engine for the Super Hornet back in the day that produced 30,000lbs thrust. Yes, you read correctly.

      Aviation Week – 5/27/91

      Allison
      GMA800 30,000lb thrust engine for Super Hornet.

      How far it got I do not know.

      • allison is not a reliable supplier for turbojet or turbofan, they are great for turboprop.

  • sferrin

    They’ve been talking about an upgraded engine for the Super Hornet for about 15 years. Have yet to see it.

  • Jacek Zemło

    There is so much noise about this IRST, but… didn’t late models of AAS-38 Nite Hawk on older F/A-18s already have some air-to-air capability? The Navy has no money for EWP, CFT? Maybe due to the fact of buying a single F-35C at a price of a half of a squadron of F/A-18E/Fs… BTW, I wonder if any solution has been worked out to get rid of the canted pylons (high drag/high vibrations) problem.

    • R McGinnis

      The pylon issue should have been addressed a long time ago. If they had conformal tanks they could probably get away with removing one pylon per wing, space them out a touch, and point them north. It’s such an annoying defect.

  • Norman

    Stop using the words “Kit” and Batch”

  • M&S

    Thrust Minus Drag PLUS SIGNATURE people.
    The Super Horror runs out of Ps about Mach 1 and 20K. That’s only about 70% of the profile height and supercruise Mach numbers that F-15 and F16 (with dash-100 engines) were coming across the fence with, in 1991.
    Now add to this the implicit drag of external carriage of a bunch of slantwise-to-wind (toed out pylons) external ordnance and you are seriously wrong-end-of-telescoping the problems of the F/A-18 companioning the F-35 to coequivalent operational depths.
    A fact made even worse by the simple assumption that the F-35 doesn’t get tagged out by C/X/Ka-band fire control sensors and thus doesn’t burner it’s way through half it’s gas trying to maintain profile height in a 40N6 environment where the threat sees you at 500km and shoots you at 300.
    The only way the F/A-18 trucks for the F-35 is if it goes lololo all the way in and FIRES JASSM about 600km or JSM about 200km short of the target defenses. And the Navy dares not admit this because while all stealth is not equal, taking an F-35 to overflight distances (because turning the jet away increases it’s signature more than simply ramming it down the enemy throat) in dealing with those self-same kinds of threats (mobile hyper-SAM GBAD is the only reason you need VLO as a Ninja Weasel capacity on relocatables) is a guaranteed loss of 400 billion and 15 years of Gen-5 development costs. Just like it was for the F-117.
    If it uses GBU-53, the F-35 can, for now, avoid this issue. But only to the extent that it accepts a ten minute flyout and thus _very_ limited ability to perform as a self-hunting ISR asset because the EO-DAS which gives you the global A2G classify and sort is non functional at 40nm standoffs where you are right back to soda strawing with the EOTS and the APG-81.
    The F/A-18 _never will be_ capable of safe glide-munition use, simply because it will have a very hard time getting the height required before it is shot to pieces by a Mach-5 9M96, coming the other way.
    In this, people see SAM networks as Vietnam era Christmas Trees of blinkers when in fact, the majority of your threat is going to be silent running with a Light House equivalent Tall King or Nebo-M ‘on the far horizon’ with digital longwave tracking cuing the high power EPAR to come up as the striker groundtrack passes right by the battery engagement radar.
    And while you will lose this fight, even in an F-35, you will REALLY lose it in a Blk.3 Super Bug.
    The only hope here is for tankers of some variety to cross over the fence with you so that you can use 100km SPEAR-3 (GBU-53 with microturbine), 800km MASSM or one of the aforementioned cruise systems to spike the ground threat while sucking hard on the TSFC straw, enduring the drag of lolo flight.
    My problem with this is simple: by the time you look at the doubled radial not range norms and the cost to allies of using once per day raid standoffs from the BASM/ASCM/ICD type threat (in OEF Anaconda ops, the air was tasked every 11 hours if fragged, and every 17 if emergency tasked off the ATO), you gain NOTHING from the manned solution and a 10-12hr mission evolution. Compared to sending in 2hr Cruise Weapons which will saturate defenses, destroy high value economic and infrastructure targets without comment to ISR (buildings don’t move) and even in the most stealthy of Tactom follow-ons, will typically run 1/50th the price of an F-35C.
    Double the cost to throw in super or hypersonic aeroballistics and now you have a missile which goes 1,000nm downrange in 10-20 minutes and which flatly overflies the threat midcourse defenses except for the S-300VM and S-400. Both of which have defensive interceptors that costs as much as the aeroballistic cruise weapons do.
    Point Being: your reactivity and flexibility goes WAY UP when you only have to deal with one way trips as ranged reach.
    You will still have to develop proper, gimbaled, MEMS-AESA to push the bandpipe of TTNT up to a GEO satcomms. You will still have to put that commo suite and a 3K MSEO, folded optics, system into a VLO shell which has 10-15hrs of endurance in the target area instead of just 2-4.
    But since the F-35 has no mass video memory ability to store, annotate or uplink large amounts of product anyway, it’s more a case of convincing the people with the purse that they are paying for Union Scale Wages as job rather than national security, an argument that the massively performance, weapons and indeed /CONOP deficient/ F-35 almost makes for itself anyway.
    If you’re going to bomb barbarians in the back woods of SWA or North Africa, you don’t need half of this stuff. If you are going to push your long nose in the Chinese or Russian doorjams of PacRim and Ukraine, what is on offer is not close to being enough.
    The USN is bent on fighting a forced entry condition engagement the same way that Nagumo fought Midway. And it’s neither necessary nor survivable, anymore now (ROTHR and DF-21D) than it was in 1942.