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.