An F/A-18E/F Super Hornet Block III would sustain the U.S. Navy’s carrier air wings at full strength and complement the F-35C Lightning II fighter into the 2030s, Boeing says. The manufacturer is proposing a network-enabled upgrade of the fourth generation fighter that could also be feathered into a planned service life extension of Block II Super Hornets.
Super Hornet Block III differs from the earlier proposed Advanced Super Hornet in that Boeing is no longer focused on improving the fighter’s stealth capability relative to the F-35's, said Dan Gillian, F/A-18 and EA-18 program manager. Rather, it proposes to integrate networking components that along with other improvements would make the Super Hornet an equal partner with the F-35 in future strike formations.
“I think a huge and significant change from the 2013 Advanced Super Hornet to the 2016-2017 Block III Super Hornet is the need for the Super Hornet to be a ‘smart node’ on the Navy’s NIFC-CA [Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air] network,” Gillian told reporters April 4 at the Navy League Sea Air Space conference. “In the past, we talked about maybe the Super Hornet could be just a ‘dumb shooter’ out there, with information passed to it. But with all the information available, being a contributing part of the NIFC-CA network is really important.”
Boeing would enable the Block III fighter by installing a Distributed Targeting Processor-Networked (DTP-N) computer and tactical targeting network technology (TTNT) Internet-protocol-based, high-speed datalink, both program-of-record upgrades for the Super Hornet’s EA-18G Growler electronic warfare variant, Gillian said. It would have an advanced cockpit with a 10-by-19 inch Elbit Systems large area display as the pilot interface, similar to what Boeing has installed in the F-15 and the clean-sheet jet it developed for the U.S. Air Force’s T-X advanced jet trainer requirement. In terms of cost, “the delta between a Block 2 and a Block 3 is a couple million dollars,” Gillian said.
Not included in the offering is the F414-GE-400 engine upgrade GE Aviation and the Navy have been developing. “Obviously every pilot wants more thrust; we think there’s a compelling business case based on the fuel efficiency,” Gillian said. “We continue to work with GE and the Navy to fund the enhanced engine. We think there’s a great story there; it’s just not part of the Block III package today.”
The networking system upgrade, matched with the already approved Lockheed Martin AN/ASG-34 long-range infrared search and track (IRST) sensor pod and evolutions of the Raytheon APG-79 active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar and Harris AN/ALQ-214 integrated defensive electronic countermeasures (IDECM) self-protection system, prepare the Super Hornet for the future threat environment, Boeing contends. As with the Advanced Super Hornet, the Block III Super Hornet would come with shoulder-mounted conformal fuel tanks containing 3,500 gallons of fuel, increasing the fighter’s range by about 120 nm and/or time on station by about 20 to 30 minutes depending on its mission payload, Gillian said.
The IRST pod is especially a differentiator, he argued. “That’s something Super Hornet brings to the air wing that nobody else has—then you leverage it with things like the conformal fuel tanks and the DTP-N and TTNT and now your networked carrier air wing is much more effective,” Gillian said. The F-35’s integrated electro-optical targeting system (EOTS) infrared search and track sensor represents “medium range air-to-ground versus long range air-to-air” capability, he asserted.
[In a separate briefing at the Navy League conference, Jack Crisler, Lockheed Martin vice president of F-35 business development and strategy, said the Lightning II will incorporate IRST capability in a Block 4 configuration. Lockheed Martin is also advertising a weapons-laden “beast mode” F-35 capable of carrying 13,000 additional pounds of weapons externally. However, Crisler did not have numbers available to compare its range with a Super Hornet's.]
Boeing expects to secure a first contract from the Navy early next year to begin a service life modernization program that will extend the service life of Block II fighters from 6,000 to 9,000 hours. New build Block III Super Hornets would already be 9,000-hour fighters, which Boeing could start delivering in the early 2020s; Block II fighters could be retrofitted through the service life modification “a little later than that,” Gillian said.
With the Navy burning through the service hours it needs to fly Super Hornets into the next two decades, and with President Donald Trump questioning the cost of the F-35 program and hinting at a major new F/A-18 order, Boeing has ramped up promotion of the Super Hornet Block III.
“Both platforms are going to be flying in the carrier air wings through the twenties and thirties,” Gillian said of the Super Hornet and F-35. “You need the right attributes at the carrier air wing level to deal with the future threats that are out there. The long-range, air-to-air, infrared search and track sensor is a unique attribute that Super Hornet brings. Magazine depth—being able to carry a large number of missiles at range—is a unique thing that Super Hornet brings. Complementary capabilities like conformal fuel tanks put a Super Hornet and an F-35 in a strike package at a comparable range. Being able to do data fusion and move data around—all next generation fighters have to have that.”