While the U.S. military waits patiently for the F-35 to become the new all-purpose go-to fighter of the 21st Century, the Navy has set its sights on upgrading its existing fleet of F/A-18E and F/A-18F Super Hornets to ensure America’s workhorse fighter stays relevant in the battlefield of tomorrow.
The original F/A-18 first took to the skies for test flights in November of 1978, and since then, it has enjoyed two technological refits intended to help the Navy’s most popular fighter keep up with the times. In the years since, these fighters have wowed American audiences as the premier choice of the Navy’s elite flight demonstration team, the Blue Angels, and has proven its combat effectiveness in the Persian Gulf and the Global War on Terror time and time again.
Now, the Navy intends to start fielding the latest update to the platform, dubbed the “Block III” configuration, as early as 2019. The $264.9 million dollar effort has been on the back burner since Boeing first recommended it in 2008, but President Trump’s bump to the defense budget seems to have been all the motivation the Navy needed to finally approve the refit.
Among the scheduled improvements are an updated heads-up display for the pilots and an upgrade to the computing capabilities of the onboard systems. A modest upgrade to the stealth capability of the aircraft, intended to limit its radar signature, is also included in the list of changes.
In order to make the Super Hornet a stealthier fighter, Boeing may use low-observable coating intended to absorb radar as it comes into contact with the plane, and new Conformal Fuel Tanks (CFT) are slated to replace the existing tanks. These new tanks change the radar-cross section of the aircraft slightly, but are also expected to reduce aerodynamic drag.
The Super Hornet will receive “advanced network architecture” through the upgrade in the form of a new computer called the Distributed Targeting Processor Network (DTPN). The computer comes with a large new in-cockpit display intended to help pilots manage the all the additional information they will now have at their fingertips. A new Tactical Targeting Network Technology (TTNT) system will streamline the management of all that new data as it flows in and out of the jet, and a long-range infrared sensor will be added to the technology suite in order to allow the Super Hornet to detect incoming threats far earlier than ever before.
According to Dan Gillian, Boeing F/A-18 and EA-18 program manager, stealth isn’t the priority of this update, but it’s included as part of an effort to give the Super Hornet “a balanced approach to survivability, including electronic warfare and self-protection.”
Paramount among the purposes of this upgrade is the need to ensure the Super Hornet seamlessly interacts with the advanced F-35C, slated to see expanding use on Navy carriers in the years to come. This variant of the F-35 is the latest to enter service and has not yet reached initial operating capability (IOC) like some other variants employed by Marine Corps and Air Force.
The Navy’s strategy to maintain air superiority against any potential foe, including near peer level threats like China or Russia, now sees fleets of Block III Super Hornets, EA-18s, F-35Cs, as well as E-2 Hawkeye airborne early warning planes working in unison, connected through the same level of advanced on-board technology. By upgrading the Super Hornets, they will be able to communicate on the same network as the most advanced fighters in the American military.
“You can have an F-35 in its very stealthy way doing a deep-strike mission with Super Hornet providing air superiority at that same range, or you can have Super Hornet carrying large standoff weapons that F-35 cannot carry, with F-35 providing some air cover,” Gillian told Aviation Week.
Image courtesy of the U.S. Navy