Home » Aviation » Boeing Touts Block III Super Hornet’s Better Range, Improved Digital Connectivity to Fleet

Boeing Touts Block III Super Hornet’s Better Range, Improved Digital Connectivity to Fleet

An artist’s concept of a F/A-18E Block III. Boeing Image

ARLINGTON, Va. — They will be a little bit stealthier, pack a more powerful punch, fly with increased stamina and carry a more robust communication and targeting systems. That’s how Boeing officials talked up the benefits of the Block III F/A-18E/F Super Hornets as they prepare to start rolling off the production line next year.

In 2013 Boeing developed a plan that would make the Super Hornet 50-percent stealthier than its already-low-radar signature design, Boeing’s F-18 program manager Dan Gillian told reporters on Wednesday. But the Navy reportedly balked at the plan, explaining they don’t need Super Hornets to be extremely low observable – the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lighting II Joint Strike Fighter accomplishes that – but rather they need an F-18 to stay on station longer, deliver more weapons and be better integrated into the Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air (NIFC-CA) system, Gillian said.

“The Navy’s carrier air wing doesn’t need us to be at F-35 level of stealth to perform the missions the carrier air wing has to do,” Gillian said.
“They need us to improve our radar cross section and they need us to carry large amounts of ordinance far forward.”

The end result, according to Boeing, is that the Block III Super Hornets are only slightly stealthier than Block II fighters but will have greater range and the ability to carry more weapons on a more robust airframe designed to last up to 9,000 flight hours – about a decade longer than the current airframes. The jets will also have far superior data processing and communications capabilities than previous versions.

Boeing already is working on updating its first Block II Super Hornets, and the Navy has requested funding for new-build Block III planes starting in Fiscal Year 2019. Gillian said the first new-construction planes would deliver in early 2021.


Within six years from now, half the total Super Hornet inventory will be the Block III planes, Gillian said. Within a decade, the entire Super Hornet fleet assigned to carrier air wings – about 480 aircraft – will be Block III jets. This includes 116 new-build Super Hornets and modernizing about 364 Block II airframes. The Navy will retain about 100 Block I Super Hornets for training purposes.

Boeing focused its Block III development on outfitting Super Hornets with an Advanced Network Infrastructure, using systems already part of the Boeing EA-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft, Gillian said. Block III Super Hornets will have the Distributed Targeting Processor Network (DTP-N), which is 17-times more powerful than the previous systems. Block III Super Hornets are also getting the Tactical Targeting Networking Technology (TTNT) data link and satellite communications for advanced network connectivity.

The improved networking onboard Block III Super Hornets, though, still doesn’t address a vexing problem for the Navy’s future air wing – finding a way for F-35 jets to communicate with other platforms without losing their stealth. Boeing officials conceded they’re still working on a solution but would not elaborate.

Perhaps the most visible change to the jets is the location of fuel tanks on Block III Super Hornets. Instead of carrying external drop-tanks as previous versions did, the Block III Super Hornets will have conformal fuel tanks installed behind the cockpit on the jet’s shoulders. These hold slightly less fuel, but because they are lighter and make the jet more aerodynamic the end result is an increased range of about 129 nautical miles, Gillian said.

More importantly to the pilots, the new fuel tanks will allow the Super Hornets to remain on station longer and carry more weapons, Capt. Dave Kindley, the Navy’s F/A-18 and EA-18G program manager, said.

“As an operator, there is some interest in range, but there’s fascination with time. If I can get 100 miles farther, that’s awesome. But if I can stay in the air and support someone on the ground for 20 minutes or 30 minutes more, that’s much, much more interesting to us,” Kindley said.

  • omegatalon

    There’s no doubt that the Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet is a very capable aircraft; but the argument remains in this modern era of stealth, legacy aircraft like the F/A-18 are shot down 18:1 in Red Flag war games.

    • DaSaint

      Sure if they’re up against frontline peers with proper training. But I doubt that would be the case for MOST of the time they’re deployed. When was the last time that a foe shot down a US fighter?

      Iraq supposedly had front-line Russian fighters, and were supposed to have been veterans of their war with Iran. How did those engagements go?

      Libya had Russian equipment. No Bueno.
      Syria has frontline Russian fighters. Same results.

      Israel proved years ago that training mattered more than even equipment – most of the time. Not saying that premier fighters, with well trained pilots aren’t a threat – THEY ARE – but no one operates in a vacuum.

      F/A-18s are becoming shooters, with long-range air-delivered weapons, while the F-35s are the point of the spear. Just my opinion.

      • muzzleloader

        You are correct on your last paragraph. The plan has been for the F-35’s to be the silver bullets to kick in the doors so to speak, while the Hornets would be the platforms to deliver ordinance, while having very formidable defensive/ acm ability also.

        • Duane

          Yeah, that was the plan. However, SAM systems now are virtually all mobile systems, and the notion that you can knock them all out in the opening hours of a near peer war seems rather naive. Nothing prevents neer peer powers like Russia and China holding large numbers of such mobile plane killers in reserve, stored in underground garages or bunkers and hauling them out for use as required over an extended war.

          Far better to have an entire attack aircraft wing made up of far more survivable F-35s than to simply hope that our enemies haven’t thought this all out and won’t do the obvious thing.

      • Duane

        I dunno about you … but if I were a pilot, I’d far rather be the hunter and not the hunted … and fly the survivable aircraft that represents the 1 in that ratio than the other aircraft.

        Besides, the US needs to get out of the business of killing jihadi’s in technicals in the middle eastern deserts, and get back to making sure Russia and China can’t push us around. That will require the F-35, not the jihadi-killing Super Hornet which will die in the opening hours of near peer war.

        Plus even the goatherding Yemeni jihadis are getting armed by Iran with sophisticated anti ship missiles and ballistic missiles … no doubt they’ll soon be operating Iranian knock offs of the Russian S-300 … and the Syrians are already protected by Russian operated S-400s.

        The days of ignorant jihadis in pickup trucks arned only with S-7 RPGs and AK-47s are already long gone.

        • DaSaint

          I don’t want to minimize what you’re saying, but you also need to recall that during the Korean war and even part of the Vietnam war, our opponents had more and better aircraft. And yes, there were losses, but it was our training that allowed us to overcome those aircraft until our aircraft evolved and became clearly better.

          Again, our F-14s, F-15s, F-16s, and F-18s have all come up against front line Russian built fighters, and have come out ahead each time. So unless you feel that every Chinese fighter pilot is an ace, and unless you know about more Chinese carriers than I know about, I feel confident that our forces could conduct offensive missions against them, should that unfortunately be required, by smartly deploying our assets to maximize the strengths of each type.

          After all, you don’t advocate for an all-Burke fleet, you advocate for a mix of LCS and Burkes. Likewise, a mix of less stealthy F-18s and F-35s is appropriate. Otherwise, you would ascribe to ” I dunno about you…” but I’d rather be in the most formidable ship out and nothing else.

          • Curtis Conway

            Also in Hi-Lo Stealth capability, there are tactics that have been developed that enable the unseen to take out those who go after the seen. One must play the game intelligently. Just stating our aviators are ‘a bunch of targets if they are not in stealth’ is not accurate. As soon as someone in a like ‘low observable’ reveals themselves with engagement activity, our stealth boys/girls go to work and eliminate the threat. We are assuming SEAD has taken place.

          • Duane

            Our fighters and pilots are better than Russian and Chinese fighters and pilots. But any fighter pilot flying today knows that the key to air combat victory is getting inside the OODA loop of your opponent. Not by being able to accomplish prettier air maneuvers or having a better gunner’s skills. And the F-35 is the supreme OODA loop constrictor.

            Plus, with very long range AAMs and proliferating advanced mobile SAM systems, our pilots will never actually eyeball an enemy aircraft most of the time. Therefore, the keys to constricting the enemy’s OODA loop are quite simple if you have the right equipment and are properly trained to use it:

            Sight the bad guy before he knows you’re there.

            And then kill the bad guy before he even realises he is under threat.

            That’s precisely why the F-35 is vastly superior to the SH or any other fighter on the planet. It has superior sensors. It has superior battle management computing power. It has superior electronic counter measures. It has superior secure digital comms designed to network with multi-domain forces. And last but not least, it is stealthy enough to evade detection until it is too late for the enemy to respond.

          • Patrick Bechet

            I hate to agree with you, but your’e spot on. The downing of the Israeli F-16I Sufra has hopefully been sobering to the USN and to F-35 haters…

          • Chesapeakeguy

            “…our pilots will never actually eyeball an enemy aircraft most of the time.”

            That cannot always be relied on. There are those pesky ‘rules of engagement’ that often undermine the technological advantages of many of our systems. There will potentially be crowded skies and waterways that might preclude the launching of weapons that have ranges in the hundreds of miles. And if we ever have another President like LBJ who intones that ‘they won’t bomb an outhouse without my express permission’ then having to VISUALLY identify targets might indeed become routine.

          • Patrick Bechet

            I don’t think Scott Spiecher’s relatives would agree with that (Again, our F-14s, F-15s, F-16s, and F-18s have all come up against front line Russian built fighters, and have come out ahead each time). …

          • DaSaint

            Ok Patrick. Not all. There was 1 loss. But the point remains valid.

      • CharleyA

        F-35s are becoming armed scouts as a forward deployed sensor node. Still trying to work out the comms to dissimilar fleet assets though, a rather large oversight. Block 4.x should address some of that, although MADL will still be an issue for other aircraft.

        • DaSaint


      • Patrick Bechet

        Not that long ago, 17 January 1991, a F/A-18 Hornet….Scott Spiecher shot down by a Mig-25.

        • DaSaint

          Thanks for that reminder. Just re-read that history once you mentioned it.
          But my point remains, and is still supported. One can’t expect perfection, but the odds have been favorably on our side.

    • CharleyA

      Depends on the ROEs.

  • DaSaint

    A great complement to the F-35.
    I take it conformal tanks can’t be jettisoned. Right?

    • D. Jones

      I’d like to see a conformal tanks module for the LCS.

      • Bubblehead

        Good one.

        • Curtis Conway

          Did you notice Duane following D. Jones around calling him a troll? LOL!

          • Ser Arthur Dayne

            Totally noticed that myself.

          • Duane

            I will call him out for trolling. At least you actually try to make thoughtful comments most of the time … but this guy just engages in mindless stupid rants.

            You are old enough and experienced enough to distinguish between thoughtful commentary and obvious trolling.

          • CharleyA

            Duane’s a troll hunting troll.

      • Duane

        You’re one strange, one-track minded dude. A dedicated troll.

        Did it ever occur to you that commenters should engage positively in the threads here … rather than to attempt to turn every thread, regardless of the subject post, into yet another mindless diatribe on the ship you weirdly love to hate?

        What a bitter old man you must be. 😕

    • USNVO

      Correct, they are projected to weigh something more than 1700lbs empty and add 3500lbs of fuel.

    • Ser Arthur Dayne

      As I understand the whole fuel-tank concept …. External drop-tanks that go under the wings/fuselage hold a decent amount of fuel … But they impose a significant amount of drag on the plane, which increases fuel consumption, so a significant (I have seen so many different figures and they’re all different , I would not want to guess what the truth is) amount of the fuel INSIDE the external drop-tanks gets used up just being carried on the aircraft. HOWEVER, they do in fact increase fuel stores therefore range, and the benefit is they can be dropped at any time (jettisoned). This is why they are common on fighters like F-15/F-16 because if something were to happen where they suddenly need to dogfight or perhaps evade a SAM (in the early 2001 movie “Behind Enemy Lines”, when the F/A-18F gets shot at by a SAM, the star of the movie, the Weapons Systems Officer in the back screams “S**t THEY FIRED, DROP THE TANKS AND PULL UP!” because they need maximum speed/maneuverability immediately.)

      Now conformal fuel tanks impose a much, much less severe drag penalty on the aircraft, which means that they can deliver a lot more of their fuel to actual flying than simply being dedicated to the carrying of itself. However, there are a few concerns. As you stated, they can’t be jettisoned. So the impact on the performance of the aircraft is constant and unchangeable (while they are installed). Second, they’re a lot more difficult to put on and off than a drop-tank. Not IMPOSSIBLE, but not exactly pop-on pop-off. They’re heavy, fragile, etc. Need to be taken care of. BUT, they do work great for certain things- This is why for example F-15E Strike Eagles had them developed and use them often. They have a dedicated attack mission and are not going to be dog-fighting (unless in real SHTF mode) … They are ground-attack aircraft with long range, hi-precision, hi-capacity attackers that can carry some air-to-air missiles for self-defense and can also be escorted if necessary. But I am pretty sure they can carry AMRAAMS &/ AIM-9s in addition to a ton of air-to-ground ordnance, so even if they met up with air resistance, they can defend themselves with conformal tanks on.

      As I also understand it, their design and engineering is tough… People like the famous guy from Foxtrot Alpha/The War Zone are always all about “just add conformal fuel tanks!” — Well yeah sure great. It’s not like buying a 2×4 and bolting on a bookshelf, it’s a lot of precision aeordynamics studies and advanced engineering etc.

      • DaSaint

        Thanks SirArthur. I appreciate the time it took for that explanation. Be well.

    • CharleyA

      The CFTs are more or less permanent – they will have dry bay space for future systems expansion. They can be swappable between aircraft, but in practice that probably won’t be done very often after they become more plentiful. Their design also aids in transonic transition, and provide for an overall reduction in drag characteristics. As for as jettisoning EFTs, the Super Hornet fights with its center EFT on.

  • Ed L

    Israel has struck targets in the Middle East with the F-35 Adir jet twice, making the Jewish state the first country to use the stealth fighter in a combat role in the region, Israel Air Force Commander Maj.-Gen. Amikam Norkin announced on Tuesday.

    • Durr

      Actually wasn’t the F-117 used in combat during Desert Storm?

      • Duane

        Yes … but he wrote “the stealth fighter” obviously referring to the F-35. We’ve been using stealthy attack aircraft in combat since the 1980s, both F-117 and B-2.

        • Patrick Bechet

          And F-22 with JDAMs in Syria over the last three years (not that its an attack aircraft).

  • Bubblehead

    Sad to hear, or not hear, several missing items on the upgrade. Not upgrading the Growlers with CFT’s would be a massive mistake. The III’s would lose their ECM protection at the worst time.

    2) No mention of a radar upgrade? The 79 was the 1st EASA put into widespread production but it needs some updating.

    3) With the extra weight of CFT’s, engine upgrade is almost necessary. The Super Hornet was already a slow, under powered performer. Now it will be even slower. While less drag from the drop tanks is an improvement, drop tanks as the name implies can be dropped if needed. CFT’s are bolted on.

    But the extra range was drastically needed. But that is just a start. We need to increase the range even more.

    • USNVO

      You have to remember the individual was only talking about the E/F since those are the ones being rebuilt today. However,
      1) If a CFT fits on the F-18F, it fits on a Growler. Exact same systems. So finishing development of the CFT to turn the mock-up into a real system, testing it, and then producing the tanks (you didn’t think any of that was done did you? They just got the contract) is funded. Once it is done, it can be added to the EF-18s as well.
      2) Radar upgrades to the -79 have been funded through the Block II upgrade program. They hope to get it declared Operationally Effective and Suitable any day now (FY16 DTO&E Report discusses some of the issues, but most are classified). Until those are fixed, they are not adding new features. But it is a separate line item so it is not part of Block III.
      3) F414 upgrades are also a separate line item from the F-18 entirely, so not seeing them here doesn’t mean anything (although so far the Navy hasn’t shown any interest).

  • RunningBear

    I readily agree the SBug is the star performer for the USN. I also agree that any new aircraft would better fit into the existing SBug maintenance and support infrastructure. But I’m not sure I understand the Block III commonality with the existing Block II SBugs. I read (here) all of the Block II SBugs will be upgraded to Block III but what percentage of the existing infrastructures are compatible? Is this cost effective compared to continuing to buy 116 additional F-35 “Seas”. Those 116 would better expand this new F-35 support system, rather than add an additional “third” system, to a limited floor space on the carriers.

    Besides……all of the SBugs rely on the Link16 systems for communications and yes I understand the new data protocols/ programs and devices referenced here but….all of these are omni-directional transmitters thru existing antenna systems. On the other hand….the F-35 “Sea” uses a Low Probability to Detect/LPD and Low Probability to Intercept/LPI communications; Multifunction Advanced Data Link/MADL. Surely the advanced EA/EW Growler (and the enema) can easily detect and “locate” all of the radiating Link16 aircraft/ ships in it’s area of operations. Should any here offer up the developing miniature Einstein box that translates radiated comms, be it Link16, MADL,Intra-flight data link/FIDL, etc., only FIDL is a similar stealth (LPD/LPI) communications. MADL, being 5Ghz would be a better protocol/ system and compatible with the existing SatComm systems for all Navy aircraft and ships.

    ps. non of this is included in the Block III SBug.

    I hope Block III leads to a “best” decision for the Navy, the SBug (the bulk of Navy strike aircraft) has to carry the missiles and bombs for the strike missions and those existing weapons are not very stealthy, which is not an issue for the SBugs.


    • Duane

      dup comment

    • Duane

      You bring up good points. Buying more SHs in the next several years makes sense as the F-35C does not go IOC til next year, and full rate production is still 2 years off. But the decision to keep buying SHs for another 5 years after that does not make good sense. The F-35 is far superior to the SH in virtually every meaningful way … not just stealth, but sensors, battle management, comms, range, and at the least is equal or better in weapons deployed aa the SH.

      Better to ramp up F-35C acquisition and end SH buys after 2020.

      • muzzleloader

        It probably comes down to money. While your average CAG would like to have 60 F-35s in his air wing, that is not likely unless the per unit cost can come down considerably.

        • Duane

          The unit cost of the F-35C in full rate production in 2020-2021 will be about $90M, vs. these modified SHs in the mid-$70s. The cost differential will be small, while the capability differential will be humongous.

          Besides, what good does it do to claim we saved a few million in unit acquisition cost on a fleet of aircraft that just got destroyed on the first day of war? Not to mention pilot lives lost, and battles lost?

  • Corporatski Kittenbot 2.0

    Poor old Boeing…. 5 years now pushing this thing.
    5 years without actually making any.

  • b2

    Sounds doable.. What real choice do we (NA) have?
    “A bird in the hand means more than a pig, er bird, in the bush” Right?
    More important than either of those two is the MQ-25….
    We need purpose built aircraft not multi-mission jack of alls…

  • Ed L

    What’s strange is the US Airforce is not (January) is not going to use the latest F-16 viper with conformal fuel tanks which is selling like hot cakes to other countries. Conformal tanks On F-18 increase Increases the range 40% with a drag coefficient of 12%?

    • Patrick Bechet

      The last USAF F-16 was delivered over 20 years ago and the Airforce is starting to replace them with F-35s, so why bother.

  • Bubblehead

    For the love of g-d would somebody explain to me why every fighter jet the US uses have to use its own separate proprietary datalink? I am ingoring the Link 16 bc for all purposes that system is obsolete. But you would think a little of proper planning could have easily prevented today’s cluster f-ck if a dozen different datalinks in which none of them can communicate with each other. The MADL appears to be the answer to all the USN problems with datalinks/communicating, why is the Bk3 going with another different datalink? The USN is already in the process of using MADL to communicate with Arleigh Burke’s and obtaining firing data for an SM6. Once this is accomplished, the MADL solves all the problems.

    If the USN can’t even get its own fighters to communicate, how in the world are the USN and USAF fighters ever going to link?

  • TheMissingLink

    How does the location and addition of more internal fuel affect survivability?