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 Military.com.
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.