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.

    • hulo

      Many mission in low threat areas could be performed by an aircraft 1/4 the cost of a ASH.

      • Static

        Very true

        • redbird

          I think the AT-6 is an example of this mentality and certainly adding weapons the drone fleet is a push in that direction as well.

          You really can’t ignore the point you make — good one.

    • Cann0nF0dd3r

      Part of the problem with lowering the number of F-35s purchased is that it would increase the per-unit cost, so in the end you dont really save as much as you think. Look at the B-2 as an example, close to what, $2B a piece, but that was after the Airforce droped their order from over a hundred to 20.

    • The Flying Cat

      Day 1 capability of the next major war requires significant numbers of advanced weapons delivery platforms. F-35 is a huge leap in technology that, when all the bugs are finally worked out, will be an awesome weapons system, albeit the most expensive in history. The Super Hornet upgrades installed incrementally, and thus affordably and sensibly, will achieve the same level of superior advanced technology required to fight on Day 1 of the next major conflict. Both will be able to go into the same battlespace but one will be more sustainable and versatile on Days 2 through X.

  • 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.

          • Guest

            I would be more concerned about using a touch screen with nomex and leather gloves on.

            Have you tried to use a touch screen with gloves? It sucks.

          • 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.

  • 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.

    • SJE

      You also must consider overseas buyers, who want to upgrade but are worried about delivery times and cost. Australia, for example, is already upgrading its existing F18 fleet.

      • BlackOwl18E

        Well with 563 Super Hornets plus 135 Growlers (698 air frames total) in the Navy combined with the 36 airframes our Aussie allies have that’s plenty of aircraft to upgrade.

    • Tad

      Navy could cancel F35C/B, buy some F-35As and operate from shore facilities. That would keep the AF happy as it would share the cost burden, and the Navy would still have tons of money freed up for more SHs and UCAVS (and even V22s).

    • guest

      Assuming we have enough deployable carriers to be a global maritime force.
      Talk continues about cutting down to 8 carriers. With 2 or 3 in the shop that would leave 5 or 6 available all over the globe. With the Pacific Pivot charade, figure 3 out there. So maybe 150 Hornets for the entire Pac? Not comforting at all. #FailedNationalLeadership.

      • BlackOwl18E

        The reason we are cutting carriers is to fund the F-35C. Our Super Hornets have the best fighter pilots in the Pacific and when combined with our allies’ warplanes it will be enough to outnumber what the Chinese could use if they were to make an attempt at expanding to the Spratly Islands or past the First Island Chain. I honestly believe that as long as our allies in Southeast Asia are well armed (which they are) 150 Super Hornets or so combined with other naval assets would be sufficient for deterring the Chinese. There are also several bases there where the USAF could deploy from. In any war over the Spratlys we can project more power combined with our allies than the Chinese can. I just hope that trend continues.

        • William_C1

          Okay, when you’re blaming carrier cuts on the F-35 you’ve gone into full anti-JSF lunacy territory. If carrier cuts are to occur it will be the fault of sequestration and other idiotic policies by an idiotic government.

          • JCross

            To be fair to BlackOwl, I don’t think he means the Navy is directly choosing the F-35C over carriers. I do think he means that without the budgetary black hole that is the project, the Navy would have plenty of funding for the carrier groups left.

          • BlackOwl18E

            No, it’s the truth and it’s the words directly from Hagel’s mouth. He said that we are either going to have advanced technology or a larger force and he specifically mentioned the F-35 as one of those advanced weapons and cuts in carriers as part of the force that would be drawn down.

    • Big-Dean

      again, spot on Black Owl :-)

      you are indeed correct, air force is putting all of it’s chips in on the F-35 role of the dice and it’s going to backfire badly and their fleet will be greatly diminished.

      As they say, numbers have a quality of their own and in any war with the Chinese we will need lots of numbers. A few super duper F-22 will simple get overwhelmed and shot down

      • JCross

        I doubt F-22 losses would be an issue, but they only carry so many weapons per plane. Same issue but worse on the F-35 with the small stealth payload. It’s how the Flankers defeated the F-35s in the simulation, they bullrushed through with many planes and took out the tankers behind them. Depending on load state and variant, each F-35 could theoretically be deployed for air superiority with only 2 AAMs loaded.

    • redbird

      I completely agree. The hornet family isn’t as short-legged as MiG-29’s but it doesn’t have the capacity or thrust of the Su-27’s — so FOD – resistant, higher thrust engines in an off the shelf upgrade combined with another 3.5k#’s of gas means the SH becomes a better dog in the fight.

      As far as the F-35, it’s projected capabilities are a great addition to Navy fleets, but it’s pretty light on gas, it’s hook is too short (er, obviously), and since the Navy already spends 30% of it’s aircraft maintenance budget on corrosion control, adding all the special equipment and RAM will be hell to deal with on the big blue.

  • 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.

  • 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.

    • SJE

      I thought that the fleet defender role was being handled by a combination of aircraft and missiles, especially with the far more advanced missiles that we currently have.

    • Rich
      • redbird

        So, Rich, the Super Hornet, which sounds like the salvation of many ground-pounders in Afghanistan over the years, is a failure?

        The only thing I see from your post of value is the period ending it. You clearly have nothing to offer but your uniformed opinion on what constitutes a failure. Read the comment by so-called “21-Century Navy” and learn something. He actually hit the nail on the head and understands what’s going on.

    • 21st Century Navy

      Lance & Rich, the Cold War ended a couple of decades ago, and with it the funding necessary to build and sustain single mission aircraft like a “fleet defender”. The Navy isn’t building a naval air force to go toe to toe with a quasi-superpower like Russia or China, but rather conduct strike missions within potential adversary nations such as Iran and NK, where attrition rates will be governed not so much by the defense capabilities of locals, but more so by how much advanced tech they’ve imported from Russia & China (like sophisticated air defense missiles). Hence the focus on building new attack aircraft with low RCS, or improving the existing inventory. A block II SH can take care of itself and the fleet against any air threats that Iran or NK can field. No need for a fleet defender against these adversaries.
      Sorry if this sounds like the USN isn’t as capable as you’d like, but if someone wants the Navy to build a Fleet to take on the PRC, they’ll need to convince Congress to triple the Navy’s budget.

  • 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.

    • Another Guest

      Steve B.

      Col Michael W. Pietrucha, USAF, wrote a 24 page article in Air and Space Power Journal, “The Comanche and the Albatross: About Our Neck Was Hung”. He has got a good point why the F-35 must be cancelled now.

      The F-35 is based on a belief that radar low observability will remain effective against future air defence threats. Although true for the F-117 against Iraq’s Kari system in 1991, stealthiness is unlikely to remain so against an adversary that has two decades to prepare for US stealth fighters, which have much higher infrared, visual, and emitter signatures than did the F-117.

      Outside China and Russia, no massive threat from an advanced integrated air defence system exists. Moreover, China is a poor example of a threat to cite if someone is trying to justify a short-ranged fighter with limited payload flown from island bases within range of overwhelming missile attack. Losses of US aircraft have mainly been helicopters since the Vietnam war and fixed wing losses were not shot down.

      Only Russia and China can pose the kind of anti-access, area denial (A2AD) environment that justifies a massive investment in stealth.

      These facts make the risk calculation involved with prioritising stealth over performance, range, and weapons loadout inherently suspect—and the F-35 might well be the first modern fighter to have substantially less performance than its predecessors.

      Col Michael W. Pietrucha’s Proposal.

      • Maintain a limited number of F-35As (those already purchased) as a replacement for the capabilities lost upon retirement of the F-117; (To me the limited number of F-35As need to be sent to AMARC and to be recycled)

      • Create a modernised Tactical Air Force fleet consisting of a high-low mix of modernised F-15 and F-16 legacy fighters, light attack aircraft, and multi-purpose jet trainer / attack aircraft;

      • Recover some “sunk cost” of the F-35 program by using advanced systems to modernise older fighters, in effect fielding fifth-generation systems in fourth-generation airframes;

      • Restore the Air Force’s SEAD/EW (Suppression of Enemy Air. Defences – Electronic warfare) fighters and crews;

      • Expand the service’s global reach capabilities by providing deployable Tactical Air Force assets that can operate from short, rough airstrips on a logistical shoestring

      • Increase the number of absorbable cockpits to the point where the Air Force can augment the inventory of fighter/attack aviators to meet requirements;

      • Invest in affordable, exportable “light combat aircraft” derived from Air Education and Training Command’s T-X program;

      • Allow the Air Guard to maintain its position as the operational reserve and “relief valve” for experienced fighter/attack aviators while recapitalizing its portion of the CAF; and

      • Build a Tactical Air Force that can meet the nation’s demands for air-power capabilities even in the face of increasing fuel costs and decreasing budget.

  • 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.

    • freeamerica

      Super ugly? In your opinion which is the most aesthetically pleasing fighter?

      • Rest Pal

        Su-27, Su-30, Su-31, Su-34, Su-35, Su-47.

        Rafale is not bad either.

  • 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?

    • William_C1

      You’re not going to make the Super Hornet supercruise. Even clean the airframe is draggier than the F-15 or F-16, which can’t supercruise in their current form either.

      • Phil

        Actually, Rhino prototypes with the EPE have the ability to supercruise, believe it or not.

  • 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?

    • Phil

      Wow, you’ve never seen a RCS of a Rhino vs. a Hornet to say that. RCS is all about distance detected — the F-22 is detectable if you’re close enough.

      The canted pylons are a detriment to the Rhino’s RCS and drag and the the EWP is kind of a big deal in that respect.

  • Cruddy


    • Another Guest


      Here is more for the boondoggle F-35.

      – TOO BIG TO FLY.



  • 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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