JUST IN: Boeing Delivers First Next-Gen Super Hornets to Navy

By Jon Harper

Boeing photo

Boeing has delivered the first set of souped-up F/A-18E/F Block III Super Hornets to the Navy for flight tests, the company announced June 17.

One of the two jets is a single-seat E model and the other is a two-seat F model. They will be used to conduct carrier suitability and integration testing of all mission system components, and facilitate air crew familiarization with the platform, according to a press release. The announcement comes about a month after Boeing conducted its first flight test of the aircraft on May 14.

The Block III variant will include five major upgrades compared with the Block IIs currently in the Navy’s inventory, Jennifer Tebo, Boeing’s director of development for F/A-18 and EA-18G programs, noted during a teleconference with reporters. Some observers have described it as a “4.5-gen” aircraft to suggest that it will be superior to legacy fourth-generation planes but not quite as advanced as fifth-generation aircraft such as the F-35 joint strike fighter.

The new-look Super Hornet will include conformal fuel tanks with an additional 3,500 pounds of fuel that will give it lower drag and increased range. The new variant has been designed to meet a Navy requirement that the additional fuel not have a negative impact on speed or maneuverability, Tebo noted.

The aircraft will have a lower radar cross-section than previous Super Hornet configurations, making them less observable to enemy radar. Additionally, the fighter’s service life will be extended from 6,000 hours to 10,000 flight hours.

It also features an advanced cockpit system. “That is taking the federated legacy displays of the Block II and putting them all into one big touchscreen piece of glass that’s almost like iPad interface for the pilots,” Tebo said.

The platform be equipped with an advanced networking infrastructure and distributed targeting process network with open architectures to enhance information sharing and situational awareness among the fleet.

“It’s really an adjunct computer that has 17 times the computing power of the existing mission computer,” she said. “What this does is provide the computing power and churn that we need for all the future algorithms that are going into this jet to deal with the complex battle space ahead of us, as well as putting in the algorithms to give the pilots better decision aids and give them faster timelines of decision-making and engagement.” The technology could facilitate manned-unmanned teaming in the future, she added.

“All of those items come together to make the Block III networked and survivable, which is key to any next-gen fighter” operating against advanced adversaries, she said.

The new configuration is expected to be a long-term business generator for Boeing. In March 2019, the Navy awarded Boeing a $4 billion contract for 78 new Block 3 F/A-18E/F Super Hornets. The company will also be converting all legacy Block II Super Hornets to Block III beginning in 2023 and ending in the early 2030s.

In mid-2021 the company will start delivering the “full-up” fully operational Block IIIs to the Navy, Tebo said. They are expected to be delivered at a rate of two per month through the early 2024 timeframe, she added.

Meanwhile, Boeing has its sights on the international market and is hoping to sell large numbers of the jets overseas, noted Thom Breckenridge, the company’s vice president of international sales strike, surveillance and mobility.

Five major international competitions that Boeing is pursuing include programs by Canada, Germany, Finland, Switzerland and India to modernize their fighter fleets. The company is also in talks with a number of other potential buyers, which Breckenridge declined to name.

In addition to the platform’s enhanced capabilities, Boeing officials are touting its tailorability to customer requirements, the availability of existing F/A-18-related infrastructure, relatively low operation and sustainment costs, and opportunities for industrial partnerships as major selling points for why nations should select the Block III.

The Super Hornet has the lowest cost per flight hour of any tactical air platform in the U.S. inventory, according to Breckenridge. “That’s something that would accrue to Canada as well as these other competitions, these other customers,” he said. “That we believe is a strength that we bring recognizing the importance of that as customers make decisions … [and] the implications that those have for operational budgets for decades to come.”

The economic fallout from the COVID-19 could increase foreign governments’ desires to leverage industrial partnerships that Boeing can offer as an inducement for them to buy the Block III, he suggested.

“From an economic standpoint, we all know that the world has changed dramatically in the last few months,” Breckenridge said. “Major [original equipment manufacturers’] abilities to bring economic benefits and really to bring jobs is more important than ever. And that’s an ability where really Boeing is unmatched … based on our proven track record around the world delivering industrial participation programs in a way that no one else is able to do.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy is bringing new F-35C fighters into the flight and is pondering a future sixth-generation aircraft. It remains unclear if the Navy will continue to buy Block III Super Hornets beyond those called for in the program of record.

Tebo was asked how upcoming Navy decisions about force structure plans would affect Boeing’s ability to keep its Super Hornet production lines open.

“We believe the next budget cycle is really when this decision needs to be made domestically in order to not have to do anything outside of the norm to keep those production lines more and more alive,” Tebo said.

Breckenridge noted that international sales could help keep the lines humming in the coming years. “Partly because of the significant investment in the Block III evolution, there is a lot of interest in the F/A-18,” he said.

The five big international competitions represent an opportunity for sales of over 400 aircraft, he noted. “Those are … just the public competitions that are [already] underway. So we feel very optimistic also on the international front in terms of the Super Hornet’s ability to win sales and contribute to the production.”


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