Boeing test pilot Ricardo Traven is flying his usual impressive routine here in the Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet. The price of this significantly upgraded warplane to the U.S. Navy has been significantly reduced in recent years, so Boeing is bullish about international prospects. Australia recently became the first export customer for the Super, and Boeing is eyeing India, Japan, Greece and Switzerland, among others.
The Australians signed up for 24 F/A-18E/Fs as a gap-filler, between their older F/A-18A/B Hornets and the Joint Strike Fighter. But the new Boeing jets, to be delivered from 2010, will also permit the retirement of Australia’s F-111s that are used for maritime and other strike missions. Boeing said that the Super Hornet can perform nine different missions–an “unprecedented’ degree of flexibility. Austrailian Air Force chief air marshall Angus Houston noted recently that the Super Hornet “is the only aircraft that has the most advanced AESA radar.”
In fact, Boeing says that the Raytheon APG-79 active electronically scanned array radar is the key to the Block II versions of the F/A-18E/F that are now being delivered to the U.S. Navy. The advantages of the active array are becoming ever more apparent, and in this case, are currently being explored by the first operational U.S. Navy squadron to receive Block II, namely VFA-213. In particular, Boeing is touting the ability of pilots in the two-seat F/A-18F to decouple their cockpits so that (for instance) one can concentrate on defending against an air-to-air threat, while the other prosecutes a ground attack, both using discrete functions of the radar simultaneously.
Other new features of the Block II Super Hornet include the third-generation Raytheon ATFLIR targeting pod, Link 16 datalink, and (to come) the AIM-9X high off-boresight air-to-air missile.
The U.S. Navy has declared that the Super Hornet can be used “on the first day of the war,” signifying that it has a degree of stealth that may not be widely appreciated. Boeing carefully describes the design as “a balanced approach to survivability.” It is known that there is a radar signal blocker in the inlets, made of composite materials, and the AESA radar antenna plate is angled backward to deflect radar energy. There is also a certain amount of edge alignment. The forward fuselage is now all-composite.
According to Chris Chadwick, Boeing’s vice president and general manager for global strike systems, the unit flyaway cost of the Super Hornet has declined from $82 million for the initial low-rate production 10 years ago, to $53.8 million today. How so? “We understand the supply chain much better today,” he said, “and the forward fuselage redesign alone saved $650,000 per unit. Boeing’s own ‘lean production’ drive has also been a major factor.” The U.S. Navy will fund production until at least 2015, he said, despite its commitment to the F-35C Joint Strike Fighter, and the two aircraft will operate together from then onward.