On March 1 the U.S. Navy awarded Boeing an indefinite delivery contract to begin overhauling the service’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fleet, which currently numbers 568 aircraft. Known as the Service Life Modernization (SLM) program, the rework focuses on two main elements: extending the service life of the aircraft from 6,000 to more than 9,000 flight hours, and upgrading the aircraft’s systems and operational capabilities to a new Block III configuration.
To get SLM under way, Boeing will induct four airframes into the structural life extension program in April. The company has already examined two aircraft to establish some of the work required to extend airframe life. The rework will be nowhere near as extensive as that engineered for the “legacy” Hornet fleet, which required an entire center fuselage barrel replacement, but will focus mainly on correcting the ravages of corrosion, an omnipresent issue for carrier-borne aircraft.
Initial SLM work will be conducted at the main Super Hornet assembly plant in St. Louis, but in 2019, a second line will be established in San Antonio, Texas, to handle an increasing work flow. The initial contract is valued at a maximum of $73 million, but follow-on contracts are expected over the next decade. As more aircraft enter the rework program, sufficient data can be harvested to allow the application of advanced analytics to predict where remedial action is most required.
Upgrading Super Hornets to Block III configuration is expected to start in the early 2020s, concurrent with deliveries of a projected 66 new aircraft to this standard. Block III grew out of the Advanced Super Hornet proposal that was test-flown by Boeing in 2013, with export the primary driver, and several key elements of ASH remain in Block III. Chief among them is the adoption of conformal fuel tanks to extend the aircraft’s range significantly with 3,500 pounds of extra fuel and reduced drag.
Boeing will also make enhancements to the aircraft’s radar signature, although some of the stealthy features from Block III—such as podded weapons carriage—will not be included, and most improvements will be achieved through new coatings and possibly some minor design alterations in key areas such as the intakes.
Block III will have an improved AESA radar and new cockpit systems, including a 10x19-inch touchscreen cockpit display. The integrated defensive electronic countermeasures suite is to be upgraded, and the Super Hornet will have new connectivity in the form of the Tactical Targeting Networking Technology datalink system from Rockwell Collins. The upgraded Super Hornet will also feature an infrared search and track capability in the shape of Lockheed Martin’s IRST21, which can be carried in the nose of the centerline fuel tank. Last October Boeing contracted Lockheed Martin to develop a Block II version of IRST21, having flown the first version in a Super Hornet tank in 2014.