DN - Defence Notes

Paris Air Show: Sharper sting for Boeing's Super Hornet

10th June 2019 - 12:00 GMT | by Damian Kemp in St Louis

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Boeing expects to deliver the first two network-centric Super Hornet F/A-18 Block III aircraft in 2019 for testing and evaluation by the US Navy. 

Separately, the company has received a one-year contract worth almost $164 million to provide service life modification (SLM) work on ten F/A-18 Block II to take them to a Block III standard and establish a second SLM line.

This is the second of such contracts and seven aircraft have been inducted into the process already with the eighth due shortly on the St Louis, Washington line. The new SLM line will be opened in San Antonio, Texas and will be the main production line processing 40 aircraft a year with the first aircraft due in early June 2019.

The most visible change to the platform in its Block III standard is the installation of conformal fuel tanks above the wings creating a low-observable platform in longer-range mode and increased underwing space. 

The first flights of a conformal tank on an F/A18 took place in March 2019. According to Boeing, the flights ‘provided data points and pilot feedback to reduce risk, flew flight envelopes larger than in the demonstration phrase, and asked for feedback on angle-of-attack and we got good feedback from the pilots’.

Aside from the tanks, other changes are designed to create a network-centric platform and include Advanced Display Core Processor II (ADCP II), Distributed Targeting Processor Network, Tactical Targeting Network Technology, IRST and SATCOM. A key role for all these systems is to create a common tactical picture in multi-ship operations and provide bearings for attack missions.

According to the company, this process was key for the customer: ‘The main thing USN wanted was a common tactical picture, to take the three main pieces -  IRST, computing power and advanced datalink – and link those together so each aircraft gets line of bearing through IRST and with multi-ship operations so you now have target tracking capability.’ The new ADCP II flew for the first time on 19 April in a new Kuwait F/A-18 aircraft, 28 of which have been ordered.

Additionally, the SLM will take the aircraft from 6,000 flight hours to 10,000 hours with the further addition of coatings already in use on parts of the aircraft to create a low-observable platform. Conversions are expected to begin in 2020.

The two Block III aircraft to be delivered this year will be used to evaluate carrier suitability and test computing and networking capability. At the moment, 78 Block III aircraft will be manufactured under current contracts up until FY21 with a further 36 likely in FY22-24 and, with SLM work on Block II aircraft, about 550 Block III aircraft will eventually be in service with the USN.

Similar work is being conducted on the E/A-18 Growler electronic attack aircraft. Funding has been provided for a ‘functional requirements phase’ as part of a possible retrofit programme which may begin in 2025. A key difference for this programme is that the conformal tanks, and the removal of underwing fuel pods without losing extended range capability, would mean improved sensor coverage rather than additional weapons.

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