There is no debate that America’s fifth generation fighters, the F-22 and F-35, tend to garner the most publicity, but in terms of operational aircraft, all of the functional Raptors and Joint Strike Fighters employed by the entire U.S. military wouldn’t even add up to a sizeable chunk of the number of F/A-18 Hornets and Super Hornets in use by the Navy and Marine Corps, but that’s not the aircraft’s only claim to fame when compared to its more advanced successors. According to Boeing, the F/A-18 is also “the most cost-effective aircraft in the U.S. tactical aviation fleet, costing less per flight hour than any other tactical aircraft in U.S. forces inventory.”
It’s little surprise, then, than the Department of Defense has just awarded Boeing $73 million to begin work upgrading the Block II Super Hornets to a new Block III configuration as early as next month, aiming to keep the F/A-18 flying combat operations for at least another decade.
“The initial focus of this program will extend the life of the fleet from 6,000 to 9,000 flight hours,” said Mark Sears, SLM program director.
“But SLM will expand to include Block II to Block III conversion, systems grooming and reset and O-level maintenance tasks designed to deliver a more maintainable aircraft with an extended life and more capability. Each of these jets will fly another 10 to 15 years, so making them next-generation aircraft is critical.”
The Navy’s massive fleet of 568 Super Hornets will take some time to update, so the contract hasn’t specified a delivery date for the total overhaul. For now, the changeover from Block II to Block III configuration will begin with just four Super Hornets at Boeing’s St. Louis production center. In the coming years, more production lines will be stood up to expedite the upgrade schedule however.
According to Boeing, the Block III conversation will include a number of upgrades aimed at making the updated Super Hornets among the most capable fighters and attack aircraft in the skies today. Among the changes will be a new cockpit control system, a new suite communications systems, and improvements on the aircraft’s radar signature. The Block III’s will also be equipped with new conformal fuel tanks that hug the fuselage of the aircraft to limit any increase in radar signature while dramatically increasing the fighter’s range.
This is of particular import as the U.S. military transitions toward deterring peer and near peer level opponents like China and Russia, whose anti-ship missile ranges are greater than the operational range of current carrier-based aircraft. That capability gap would currently make it too dangerous to bring carriers close enough to the fight to launch sorties of jets without risking losing the carrier to a hypersonic missile.
With fewer than 200 operational F-22s in the Air Force’s stable and nearly half of all delivered F-35s currently listed as non-operational, fifth generation aircraft may be the wave of the future, but at least for now, it would appear that the skies over the world’s waterways still belong to the Navy’s workhorse F/A-18.
Featured Image Courtesy of Boeing