U.S. Navy Just Got Its First New F/A-18 Super Hornets — Here Are The Key Upgrades
Last week, the U.S. Navy took delivery of the first two examples of the latest model of its F/A-18, the Block III Super Hornet. In service with the Navy and Marine Corps since 1983, the flexible design has gone through a Porsche 911-like evolution.
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Two type series of the original Hornet, the A/B and C/D preceded the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, a larger more capable version of the F/A-18 introduced in 1999. Since then the Super Hornet has been updated with “Block II” models and now there’s a “Block III” Super Hornet.
Like the latest (8th) generation of the 911, it’s not a completely new vehicle. It’s a “more networked and survivable” Super Hornet according to Jennifer Tebo, Boeing director of development for F/A-18 and EA-18G programs. But its importance to naval aviation can’t be understated.
Despite the entry of the F-35C into Navy service in February 2019, the Super Hornet will remain backbone of the Navy’s carrier air wings. More than 600 Super Hornets and Growlers (the electronic warfare version of the Super Hornet) are in the fleet with no planned date for retirement according to the Navy.
The service is buying just 257 F-35Cs for its carrier-based squadrons. The Marine Corps plans to buy 67 F-35Cs to serve on aircraft carriers and 353 vertical takeoff and landing F-35Bs for service on land and other ships. That means Super Hornets will outnumber F-35s on America’s aircraft carriers by almost two to one for the foreseeable future.
Boeing signed a $4 billion contract with the Navy in May 2019 for 78 new-build Block III Super Hornets which should be delivered by spring 2024. Tebo says Boeing will also convert all of the service’s current Block II Super Hornets – more than 550 airplanes – to Block III configuration with deliveries scheduled between 2023 and the mid-2030s.
The two Block III jets now in Navy hands will be used for carrier suitability testing, mission systems checkout and air crew familiarization – getting naval aviators used to the new car smell of the latest Super Hornet. So what is the Navy getting with the Block III model?
Tebo says the Block III Super Hornet incorporates five major upgrades.
Advanced Cockpit System
“The advanced cockpit system (ACS) takes the legacy displays of the Block II and puts them all into one big touchscreen piece of glass that’s almost like an iPad interface for the pilot,” Tebo explains.
Measuring 10 inches by 19 inches, the flat panel, customizable color display replaces the four multi-function displays found in the Block II Super Hornet. Two-seat F/A-18F Super Hornets will have the screen in the front and rear cockpits. Backup displays and manual buttons are provided in the event the new touchscreen fails. Tebo says the screen has flown multiple times and the pilots that have used it like it.
I spoke with a recently retired Super Hornet pilot with more than a decade of experience flying the jet operationally in the fleet and as a Navy test pilot. He says the big screen, customizable ACS will be an “awesome replacement” for the single seat F/A-18E’s separate multi-function displays. One of the displays, known as the situational awareness page, “sat between your legs in front of the stick which blocked half your view of it” he noted. “This will be much better.”
He compares the ACS to the displays in the F-35 which allow pilots to prioritize the information presented, giving them pertinent information when they need it and hiding it when they don’t. “It’s customizable and expandable and you can set it to how you want your displays to show up every time you jump in the cockpit. I’m left-handed so I like my keypad on the left side with fuel and engine information on the right,” he adds.
Conformal Fuel Tanks
The combat range of the Super Hornet has been an issue since it entered service. With an advertised range of approximately 1,200 nautical miles the fighter lacks the endurance of the 1,600 nautical mile-capable F-14D Tomcat, the aircraft it replaced on the carrier deck.
Modern anti-ship missiles like China’s DF-21D reportedly have a range of nearly 900 miles. If they’re accurate enough to actually strike an American aircraft carrier that would necessitate keeping the carrier roughly that far away from DF-21Ds in a conflict. Given that the combat radius of the Super Hornet is a little over 500 miles, the strike fighter’s ability to fly far enough to strike targets is questionable. For comparison, the F-35C’s combat radius is roughly 670 nautical miles.
Conformal fuel tanks (CFT) should help, slightly increasing the range of the Block III Super Hornet. Mounted flush to the leading edge extensions of the fighter’s wings, the CFTs “provide a low drag way to get more range” says Tebo. The tanks can hold 3,500 pounds of fuel she adds, making the Super Hornet “more compatible with the rest of the air wing to include the F-35.”
I asked Boeing how much additional range the CFTs would give the Block III Super Hornet but Boeing spokesman Justin Gibson declined to provide a number, saying the range increase “puts it at comparable range with the F-35 so that both jets can continue serving as complimentary capabilities for the U.S. Navy.”
The ex-Super Hornet pilot I spoke with thinks the CFTs make sense, noting that versions of Lockheed-Martin’s F-16 fighter have flown with CFTs for many years. “I assume it will fly just the same, same roll rate, same performance as a Super Hornet without them,” he says.
Tebo says that the few pilots who’ve flown the Block III with CFTs report that “they basically couldn’t even tell they were there.”
Lower Radar Cross Section
The Block III Super Hornet will be harder to detect according to Tebo with new treatments and coatings to reduce the fighter’s visibility to radar, known as its radar cross section.
Understandably, Tebo wouldn’t say how much more stealthy the Block III model might be, explaining that the Super Hornet already has “really good radar cross section performance” and that the Block III improvement “is really just buying ourselves a little bit more margin for what we think is needed.”
DTP-N and TTNT
Two new elements of the Block III Super Hornet are its powerful new Distributed Targeting Processor-Networked (DTP-N) mission computer and its Tactical Targeting Network Technology (TTNT) data link.
Tebo describes the DTP-N as an “adjunct computer that has 17-times the computing power of the existing mission computer.” She says the open architecture processor will provide the computing power that the Navy will need “for all of the future algorithms that are going into this jet”, including “algorithms to give the pilots better decision aids and faster timelines for decision making and engagement.”
In other words, the more powerful mission computer will be able to process massive amounts of data and host artificial intelligence software that could provide new capabilities for the Super Hornet. In a demonstration last fall, an EA-18G Growler with a prototype DTP-N was flown remotely. Tebo says the DTP-N could enable a lot more automation for pilots.
The TTNT is “like a big data pipe” according to Tebo. With high bandwidth and low latency, the data link “will allow all of the information to come into the jet from the battlespace that we need to be processed for decision making as well as pushing it back out to the rest of the air wing so that we can share common pictures of data and get better situational awareness,” Tebo says.
But TTNT won’t allow the Block III Super Hornet to receive data directly from or pass data directly to F-35s in the same air wing. Curiously, Block III Super Hornets will have to rely on the still relevant but three-decade old Link-16 tactical data link system to receive information from the F-35, a 5th generation fighter noted as much for its capabilities as a “sensor node” as its ability to conduct strike and fighter missions.
Gibson says, “TTNT will enable more communications across the air wing with other future USN platforms that intend to carry TTNT like MQ-25, EA-18G and E-2D.”
10,000 Hour Service Life
Extending the airframe life of the Super Hornet is a Navy priority. The F/A-18E/F has a 6,000-hour service life but the strike fighter has been used heavily over nearly 20 years of conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. That has worn out significant numbers of Super Hornets, leading to lower readiness rates and leaving some examples with little useful life remaining.
New build Block III Super Hornets will have an airframe service life of 10,000 hours says Tebo. Block II Super Hornets receiving Block III modifications will get an “additional 4,000 hours” of service life “per jet.”
Infrared Search Track System
Though it’s not officially part of Boeing’s Block III improvements, the adoption of a centerline tank-mounted infrared search track system (IRST) for Block III Super Hornets “is integral to the Block III future capability of the Super Hornet” according to Tebo.
The system gives the Block III model the ability to passively detect and counter-stealthy aircraft like Russia’s Sukoi Su-57 5th generation fighter and 5th generation Chinese fighters including the Chengdu J-20 and Shenyang FC-31.
Tebo says the IRST gives the Block III Super Hornet the “passive targeting that we need going into the future as the threat has evolved from an RCS perspective.”
The IRST is a “stealth equalizer” says the former Super Hornet pilot I interviewed, adding that the high quality IRST which the Block III and other U.S. fighters employ can “pick up gliders as well as F-117s, B-2s, F-22s and F-35s even in the forward quarter at well over 100 miles.”
“That’s the holy **** capability the IRST brings,” he concludes.
Block III Super Hornets will go through a year-long test program and by early next summer Boeing will begin delivering the new jets at a rate of two per month.
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