Navy Weighs Possible Upgrade to Advanced Super Hornet

MSF13-0082The Navy is evaluating a series of upgrades to the F/A-18 Super Hornet aircraft designed to increase the range, performance and “stealthy-ness” of the aircraft.

The technological innovations include engine improvements, new electronics, the use of a conformal fuel tank, an enclosed weapons pod and efforts to reduce the radar detectability or “signature” of the aircraft, service officials said.

These upgrades have resulted in newly configured or modified F/A-18s demonstrator flights in St. Louis, Mo., and Naval Air Station, Patuxent River, Md., to provide assessment data for the Navy, said Capt. Frank Morley, F/A-18 and EA-18G Program Manager.

“We’re getting good performance numbers on it and good signature measurements. These are items the Navy is considering,” Morley said in an interview with

The Boeing-funded enhancements, called the Advanced Super Hornet, are aimed at increasing performance while reducing the radar cross-section of the aircraft.

“We reduced the signature of the aircraft by over 50-percent. We added low-signature treatments to specific areas of the airplane and then when we designed the conformal fuel tanks and enclosed weapons pod.  They are designed specifically to address aerodynamic and signature components,” said Paul Summers, director of capabilities growth, F/A-18, Boeing.

Aerodynamically configured conformal fuel tanks are engineered to carry up to 3,500 pounds of fuel, Boeing officials said. The conformal fuel tank and external weapons pod are engineered to help make the aircraft able to fly further with more weapons — without increasing signature or drag for the airplane, Morley explained.

“If you have an external weapons pod then you can put weapons on that have a higher signature. You can be more aggressive in an anti-access or denied environment. It will give you more options for firepower without bringing up the signature of the airplane,” Morley said.

The external weapons pod, as opposed to using pylons for weapon, could lead to greater use of air-to-air missiles as well as air-to-ground bombs. The enclosed, external aerodynamically engineered weapons pod is built to carry up to 2,500-pounds of weapons.

The Super Hornet is configured to fire AIM-9X sidewinder air-to-air missile, the AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile, or AMRAAM, the Joint Standoff Weapon, the Small Diameter Bomb and the Mk-84 general purpose bomb, among others.

Additional aspects of the Advanced Super Hornet innovations include improvements to the engine designed to increase acceleration for the aircraft and next-generation cockpit technology, Boeing officials indicated.

Currently, the Super Hornet cockpit includes four separate screens; however Boeing engineers are suggesting a larger single-screen, touchpad approach, Summers said.

“We’re proposing one large 11 by 19 [inch] cockpit display surface which is high resolution, multi-color and touch sensitive so that it works like an ipad,” Summers said.

Overall, the Navy is looking at technological and budget considerations as it weighs the prospect of making these innovations as part of the future F/A-18 program. The Navy plans to have Super Hornet’s serve through 2030 alongside F-35 Joint Strike Fighters and EA-18G Growler aircraft, Morley said.

So far, the Navy, Boeing and its partners have built and delivered 487 F/A-18E/F on their way to a program goal of 563 aircraft, Morley explained.

The current Block II configuration of the F/A-18 Super Hornet, which first deployed in 2008, was engineered with a host of signature-reducing and endurance enhancing modifications compared to prior models of the aircraft.

Some of the enhancements include the use of Active Electronically Scanned Array, or AESA, radar, “jamming” decoys and an integrated electronic countermeasures system. The countermeasures system consists of three main components; they include and on-board jammer, visually cued radar warning receiver and a decoy, Morley said.

“You are able to sense the threat and react to counter the threat through defensive jamming or the decoy. These things are integrated and work together in concert order in to provide defense for the aircraft,” he added.

About the Author

Kris Osborn
Kris Osborn is the managing editor of Scout Warrior.
  • Static

    Upgrading some Super Hornets will be a great idea if they can reduce the F-35 buy a little in response to save money. The impressive capabilities of the F-35 are important to have, but they aren’t necessary for every mission. Many missions can be performed by ASH without any penalty, particularly those that aren’t occuring in a high threat environment.

  • Kevin Fisher

    Question for someone who knows more than I: how does the pilot operate a touch screen while pulling high G’s?

    • mhears

      In a high G maneuver a well trained pilots primary focus would be maintaining consciousness/control of the aircraft. Control of the aircraft means making sure it’s doing what he wants it to do, which only requires the yoke, throttle and pedals.

      In short – He should not be operating controls non essential to flight.

      • redbird

        That’s not really true. HOTAS is designed to be a programmable set of tactile-distinguishable buttons on your throttles and control stick which, depending on the master mode of the aircraft, enable you to manipulate the avionics without moving your hands from controlling the aircraft. Therefore, to answer the original question, you use HOTAS so you don’t have to reach up and push a button.

        • mhears

          HOTAS – Hands on throttle and stick… Isn’t that what I just said?

          • redbird

            Just read your post again. You didn’t mention HOTAS, no.

          • Mark Brown

            He didn’t use the acronym, but he did describe having hands (and feet) on the yoke (he meant stick), throttle, and rudder pedals only, so he’s referring to HOTAS operation even if he didn’t name it.

          • Mark Brown

            Also, do you happen to work for Redbird Flight Simulations? I might be replying to a coworker right now, funnily enough!

          • redbird

            Mark, no, I never worked for them. I just like the sound of the name. I don’t work with anyone named Mark Brown, so I think you are safe!

            Also, I get mhears didn’t use the acronym, but I wanted to make the specific distinction that in tactical aviation, if you need to manipulate something relating to the weapon systems during aggressive maneuvering, HOTAS is designed so that you can do just that while leaving your hands on the controls.

            mhears didn’t wasn’t specific, so I thought I’d be.

            @guest (re: post above about gloves) many people fly with fingerless gloves (WileyX, for example) so I’m sure they’ve come up with a specific set of gloves for the F-35 aircrew to wear that don’t interfere with whatever touch screen is installed.

    • Im more interested in how the touch screen works if it takes battle damage. I was under impression that with the multiple displays if one was knocked out one of the other displays could be switched to display information from the damaged display. Now if you have one big touch screen and it gets knocked out how does the pilot interact with the aircraft?

      • RWB123

        Short answer – he doesn’t.

      • Mark Brown

        I think a bigger concern from battle damage would be the sensors and systems that provide the displays becoming inoperative, rather than the display itself being damaged. Having redundant screens doesn’t do you a whole lot of good if the actual systems go down.

      • redbird

        That’s a good point, Mark. Battle damage non-withstanding, I imagine certain electrical or mission computer degrades will cause displays to malfunction on a normal jet, so what the heck do you do if you just have 1 display and it craps out!

    • The Driving Cat

      Under G, touch screens can be operated with HOTAS just like non-touch screens. There’s also voice commands and retina/helmet mounted display trackers that can be used. Most missions are flown under low G (<4G) most of the time (>90%.) During engaged high-G (>6) maneuvering HOTAS is used to operate sensors and release weapons regardless of display type. The main advantage of a touch screen is providing vivid and intuitive composite Situational Awareness on one display (vice having to scan multiple formats on several displays) allowing the pilot to make timely and accurate decisions in a high workload combat environment. Make sense?

    • dan austin

      The pilot has controls on his throttle and stick. He/she will make the same selection using these controls versus utilizing the touch screen. Sort of like a mouse clicker on a computer.

  • Kevin Fisher

    (2nd attempt to post)

    Question for someone who knows about this: How does the pilot operate a touch screen while pulling significant G’s?

  • blight_

    Boeing has two legacy prods it wants to succeed: the F-15 and the Super Hornet.

    Poor chaps.

    • Guest

      Given the track record, i.e., battle history and air worthiness of the airframes, combined with current budget constraints it seems that Boeing efforts are worthwhile. Are they an absolute fix? No, but what is?

    • redbird

      The Hornet was legacy, the Super Hornet isn’t. Poor chap.

      • blight_

        Everything that isn’t 5th gen is legacy. Scrap the old, buy the new. Maus tanks for everyone!

        • redbird

          “Legacy” is one of those words that has a different definition depending on who you ask. In the industry, a legacy Hornet is an F/A-18A-D, ergo, Super Hornet isn’t a legacy aircraft. The term “legacy” is really an annoying commercial cliche used to promote the “next new thing” in tactical aviation. It really has no bearing on the capabilities (and more importantly, limitations) of these aircraft.

          I think these off the shelf upgrades will greatly increase the capabilities of this aircraft which has a demonstrable “real-world” use. More gas, and more thrusties in a low cost package is a great idea.

    • Yes, and both of those airframes were McDonnell Douglas… sad huh?

      • d. kellogg

        Some people have this notion that “legacy” means “airframe built 20 years ago.”

        Just because the basic design is decades old, the latest iterations of F-15, F-16, and F/A-18, are leaps and bounds far more capable than the original -A models of each ever envisioned.

        Other than the actual lower-observable airframe features of the F-22 and F-35, every bit of avionics and weapons can just as well be incorporated into another Block variant of these 3 highly successful platforms.

        And again, stealth’s greatest advantage will principally be the first-days-of-war capabilities.
        But we don’t need stealth in the least for the countless “dumptruck” bomb runs against adversaries with minimal-to-no air defense that will continue to make up numerous wars for the foreseeable future.

        For what the B-52 has given us this last decade, it’s almost similarly nostalgic to say the USN and USMC would’ve been considerably well-served by upgraded A-6s doing a brunt of the dumptruck work.
        There were, once, plans proposing an A-6F should the A-12 Avenger fall thru. Well, we saw where that went.

        • freeamerica

          These old airframes are falling apart. Maintenance on them is expensive and time consuming. Fuel efficiency isn’t as good as the newer planes. Not all the avionics will work on the old airframes. Keep in mind there are man pads everywhere and the number is unknown. Stealth will be needed at all times.

    • SJE

      It also wants to rub LM’s nose in it.

  • BlackOwl18E

    The Super Hornet is really the best thing that could have happened to the Navy at this time period. It’s cheap, rugged, reliable, heavily armed, semi-stealthy, and available before it was scheduled to be. Pretty much everything the F-35 was meant to be but isn’t. With congress bought off in the form of campaign funds and incompetent leadership, the Navy has truly found the perfect tool for them to satisfy their needs.

    Lockheed Martin is trying to use increases in the F-35 funding to snuff out current Super Hornet funding. It is clear that the Navy wants to chose the Super Hornet over the F-35C though. They tried to float the idea of buying more and when that upset everyone they resorted to this.

    To be honest it looks like the Super Hornet fleet is going to get a real workout in the future. The USAF has its fleet of over 1,000 F-16s breaking down from age and is willing to cut the A-10 and F-15C to protect funding for the F-35A. They have a fleet of roughly 221 F-15Es and plan on upgrading only 300 F-16s. Alongside their small fleet of 187 F-22s, they don’t really have enough to do much in terms of the grand scheme of global military operations. The USMC has all but abandoned their Legacy Hornets to protect funding for the F-35B. If sequestration continues and the flaws in the F-35 series aren’t fixed at a price that is affordable then it looks like the USN will be the only service with a tactical fighter fleet capable of doing anything relevant to project power abroad.

  • jack

    From what I’ve read the Growler community is dying to get those conformal tanks on their planes.

  • Nicky

    It looks like the USN is backing out of the F-35 and going into the Advance super hornet. Wise move on the USN part, maybe the AF can do the same and go with block 60 F-16 & F-15 SE, K or SG.

    • Robert

      I agree with you Nicky. I think F-35 is proving too expensive for the performance differential. My opinion is that USN should buy more SuperHornets and USAF should buy new F-15 StrikeEagles, but both with avionic upgrades meant for F-35. USMC is in a tight spot because they *need* F-35B to replace AV-8B to keep their current doctrine going. But as a taxpayer, I think USMC needs F/A-18E/F, operating off CVNs. Once the grunts take the airfield, then the VMFA guys can fly off the CVN to the expeditionary airfield. Just like we did in WWII. But, what the heck do I know? I am only a lowly USN helicopter pilot.

  • oblatt1

    Because the F-35 drastically reduces the air combat ability of carriers they will have to double and tripple up to provide enough super hornet escorts. Anythign that improves the F-18 fleet is thus welcome

  • Lance

    I find it silly that we keep looking for ground attack planes while we still lack a true fleet defender after the F-14 forced retire by the bush administration in 07. We need a pure fighter for the Navy and we end up with light kiddy fighters like JSF. How many carriers need to be hit before we get a new fleet defender into service.

  • Steve B.

    Kind of hard to justify an F14 replacements when nobody has the numbers of bombers the Soviets had and would have used with scores of ASM’s against the carriers. Even the Chinese are going about it a different route with land based ballistic and cruise. You don’t need an F14 to counter those,

    OTOH, I think the Navy should pull the plug on the F35 and go the Super-Super Hornet route. The AF should do the same with F15’s. Leverage the F35 technology into proven airframes. Build a few more F22’s for the opening sequences and to gain AS.

  • Rob C.

    I don’t think the Navy has a choice, F-35 is suppose to be attack aircraft. Frankly only way to keep up with current new crop of potential rivals is updating what we have. F/A-18 Super Hornet Block II maybe a means to an end. Specially since its a proven aircraft, maybe easier to pass in a divided government. Unless the costs go nutso without warning.

  • DefenseTechGuest

    Nice work, Northrop Grumman, on the conformal fuel tank design & build. The article failed to mention that little piece.

  • William_C1

    CFTs, more powerful engines, and avionics upgrades should be a must for the EA-18G at least.

  • Rest Pal

    how about some urgent upgrades to the looks of the Super (Ugly) Hornet?

    it’s pure visual torture. I wouldn’t do such a cruel thing to enemy pilots. They might faint upon setting their eyes on this super ugly jet.

    oh wait, that’s its best, perhaps the only effective weapon.

    never mind.

  • TonyC.

    F-18E/F will be around for the foreseeable future, so it is logical to upgrade the capabilities to keep pace with potential adversaries. Conformal fuel tanks are telling that McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing) never had the range the airframe required. The conformals will produce drag, no matter how well designed. The upgrades to the engines will probably overcome the drag penalty. The issue with stealth is not to fly supersonic. Shock waves generate returns, so flying subsonic will save some fuel.

  • jffourquet

    While Boeing is at it, why not add supercruise and thrust vectoring?

  • PolicyWonk

    If the navy is seriously considering ASH’s, then the latest round of test results for the F-35 can’t have been all that good…

  • Big-B

    The F18 E will have to fly for decades and even in 20 years with these upgrades it will be good enough for 3rd world bashing. F35 is for the first days of a conflict.

  • Benjamin

    I hope they apply all of these improvements to the Growler. It does not make sense for a Jammer aircraft to be a stealth aircraft. They improve the engines and electronics on the Growler, it will lead to an aircraft that can be effective for 30-40 years

  • I think in the long run the F-35 has more operational efficiency, reducing cost especially on the repair side of the operation. Upgrading the Super-Hornet may be an effective solution for continuing operation of existing capital. Though is the upgrade necessary, or would it just be better to redefine the platforms mission parameters.

  • Bman

    Only wish the current F-15’s could be upgraded to include RCS reductions and improvements as well while we wait for the F-35. ASH and F-15SE are probably some dangerously capable aircraft.


    Looks like they are intent on making this aircraft into the B 52 of the fighter world…..this bird is getting mighty old…

  • ribby22

    I saw one of the Boeing pilots who had flown the Advanced Hornet to an air show to promote it and he claimed that due to the shape of the conformal fuel tanks that they actually create Lift and the net drag to the aircraft was “zero” ,he said it was like flying a “clean” F-18 ( Clean meaning no fuel tanks no pods and no weapons ). For that reason alone the Navy should buy the conformal fuel tanks, 2,500 pounds of fuel with no drag penalty ,that’s a win win in my book !! ( Sorry TonyC. you are mistaken about the drag )

  • Javier I.

    The Advanced Super Hornet would make an excellent fleet defense fighter. The increased range, IRST, and more powerful engines would add considerable capability to an already capable fighter aircraft. As for it being stealthier,I don’t think so. The EWP, like the F-15SE’s CWB’s, seems like a sales gimmick. You can’t make a non- stealthy aircraft stealthy by a simple bolt on solution. The ROKAF dropped the F-15SE in favor of the F-35A for this reason. Now, I don’t think the F-35 is stealthy enough to deal with today’s A2AD environment, let alone tomorrow’s. The Advanced Super Hornet coupled with the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye would give our multi-billion dollar floating cities more than enough protection, so something like the X-47B could perform the strike mission. Why risk precious aircrew?

  • Cruddy


  • gt350

    After all I’ve read how do we justify a F35 , F18, yes , F15 yes , F22 yes, How are we better with a F35-really.

  • navyvet4

    With all the new update improvements, I still wish they would have made them on the F-14 Tom Cat. And the Tom Cat was not ugly. It was aggressive looking, even while on deck, especially from a frontal view. Why the urgency to destroy them so quickly. Other fighters hung around for years after being mothballed. And I don’t buy that bunk that there was a danger from Iran stealing their parts. Somebody with high ranking had a pick with the Tom Cat to get it scraped so quickly.

  • I would love to see the F-35 cancelled, the FA-18E/F could have been the true JSF for the services starting 10 years ago. It would have provided lots of capability, lots of room for expanding capabilities and upgrades as well as a known cost. Yes, it lacks stealth. But after d-24 who cares. F-22s, B-2s and cruise missiles kick in the door and then all you need are the clean up hitters. FA-18E/F and UAS assets would be more then adequate for those missions. And with the the reduce operating costs of UAS assets the forces could afford a larger fleet. But that would require the services to use Financial planning… never gonna happen. Just my humble opinion. Not like it matters.

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