Boeing is flight-testing an F/A-18F Super Hornet with conformal fuel tanks (CFTs), an enclosed weapons pod (EWP) and “signature enhancements” designed to substantially increase the range and reduce the radar signature, compared with the U.S. Navy’s Block II Super Hornet. The modifications are part of an “Advanced Super Hornet” suite of upgrades the company hopes to sell to the Navy for both the F/A-18 and the EA-18G Growler electronic-warfare variant.
According to Boeing, the Advanced Super Hornet would provide the Navy with a carrier-based platform capable of operating in the anti-access, area denial (A2/AD) threat environment of 2030 and beyond. Tests have shown the CFTs can increase the Super Hornet’s mission radius by up to 130 nm, for a total mission radius exceeding 700 nm. Improvements to the aircraft’s radar cross section, including the EWP, produced a 50-percent improvement in its frontal low-observable (LO) signature. Next year, Boeing plans to incorporate a Lockheed Martin infrared search-and-track system on a Super Hornet as part of a “multi-ship/multi-spectral” demonstration for the Navy, of data-sharing involving an E-2D Hawkeye airborne early warning aircraft.
Some or all of the capabilities could be retrofitted or included as forward-fit options on the Super Hornet. Mike Gibbons, Boeing’s F/A-18 and EA-18G program vice president, said the cost of developing the entire set, including an upgraded F414-GE-400 engine, would be “less than a billion dollars” and could be accomplished by 2020. He estimated that the package would add 10 percent to the $50 million flyaway cost of a Super Hornet.
The demonstrator, a modified Super Hornet leased from the Navy, made its first flight on August 5. As of this week, it had performed 15 flights at Boeing’s facility at Lambert St. Louis International Airport and Patuxent River Naval Air Station (NAS), Md. The tests aim to validate the aerodynamics and radar signature performance of the CFTs designed by Northrop Grumman. The prototype CFTs weigh 1,500 pounds and are “dry”; production fuel tanks would weigh 870 pounds and carry 3,500 gallons of fuel. The centerline EWP is also a non-operating prototype weighing 2,050 pounds. The actual pod would weigh 900 pounds and carry a mix of weapons weighing up to 2,500 pounds.
Boeing and Northrop Grumman have self-funded the demonstration effort, which continues until October.
Separately, GE Aviation and the Navy have spent $100 million over 10 years developing elements of an F414-GE-400 “enhanced engine” upgrade, involving changes to the combustor and high-pressure turbine. Tests indicate the enhanced engine would provide 3 percent lower fuel consumption, increased time on wing, and an option for 20 percent more thrust.
GE currently has a performance-based logistics contract to sustain the engine at Jacksonville NAS, Fla. “We would propose that a -400 [engine] would come in when it needs to come in. You would have a separate line that would replace the parts and the modules there and it would come out as an enhanced engine,” said Daniel Meador, with GE Aviation military systems operations. The company would be able to retrofit about 300 engines per year, its current service rate, he said.