USN developing new Super Hornet upgrades

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A new distributed targeting system (DTS) for the US Navy's fleet of Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornets is scheduled to enter operational testing this summer, says a senior service official.

The new targeting system should enter into service with the fleet by early next year, says Captain Frank Morley, the service's programme manager for the F/A-18E/F and EA-18G.

"The distributed targeting system allows you to self-generate GPS-quality mensurated coordinates onboard the airplane autonomously," Morley says.

boeing f/a-18 super hornet, boeing 

 ©Boeing

That means that the Super Hornet will be able to use coordinates generated by its sensors, for example its Raytheon APG-79 active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar or its Raytheon AN/ASQ-228 Advanced Targeting Forward-Looking Infrared (ATFLIR) pod, and compare that to a precise onboard imagery database to generate precise weapons quality coordinates.

Every Super Hornet and EA-18G Growler will eventually be retrofitted with the new technology, Morley says.

Meanwhile, the Boeing is about one year into a development programme to field a new infrared search and track (IRST) pod that should be fielded on the Super Hornet fleet by late 2016, Morley says. Developed in conjunction with Lockheed Martin, the new sensor is an evolution of the Northrop Grumman F-14D Tomcat's AN/AAS-42 IRST camera. Boeing upgraded the Tomcat's camera technology for foreign F-15 sales, Morley says. The variant of the sensor that will be added to the Super Hornet is a further development of Boeing's F-15 developments.

"It's an evolutionary development path," Morley says. "So it's not just the same sensor being thrown in, but certainly you're not starting from a clean sheet of paper either."

For the Super Hornet, the USN opted for a podded-solution. A pod avoids retrofit costs, Morley says. An internal system would require modifications to the aircraft's outer mold-line and avionics hardware changes, which would require extensive testing. Nor does the USN need the pod for every mission, Morley says. The IRST is only required for air-to-air focused missions like fleet air defence or air superiority. As such, the USN will only buy about 170 pods, which it will use only as needed, Morley says. That should save the USN a considerable sum of money.

One of the unique design features of the new IRST pod is that it is built into an external fuel tank. Because the aircraft's centerline station is the optimum position for the IRST pod, it has to take the place of the Super Hornet's ever-present drop-tank.

"It's really the best place to put a podded solution for an IRST mouth on an airplane," Morley says.

The centerline station is far enough forward that it affords a podded-sensor an unobstructed up and down view, Morley says, which is critical for the sensor to be effective. In order to preserve the Super Hornet's range, the USN opted to have the sensor built into the forward half of the fuel tank. That way, some two-thirds of the fuel is still available for use.

Pilots can still jettison the pod for the sake of safety, but they would only do so in the most extreme of circumstances, Morley says.

In the future, the USN is hoping to further exploit the capabilities of the APG-79 while adding further combat identification methods, electronic attack and electronic protection upgrades on to the jet.

But one of the most important planned capabilities will be better multi-sensor integration (MSI). The aircraft will eventually be able to correlate all of the disparate information generated by the radar, ATFLIR, electronic warfare systems and data-links into one clear tactical picture, Morley says.

"One thing we are actively doing is modifying in a somewhat fundamental way the way we display a lot of the information," Morley says. "Because there is a significant amount of information coming on the airplane."

The USN is looking at programmes like the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor and elements of the F-35 programme for ideas. But the USN is not limiting itself--there are other concepts found within industry that are compelling, Morley says.

That could lead the USN to consider installing new cockpit displays into the Super Hornet in the future. One possibility is Boeing large area display technology, Morley says.