Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet will emerge as the comeback kid at this year’s Paris air show, with new orders from the US Navy and prospects cropping up across Europe and the Middle East.
For a programme pronounced dead almost a year ago, the Super Hornet is now experiencing an aviation renaissance. F/A-18 production will continue into the 2020s and the aircraft will remain in the navy’s inventory into the 2040s, Larry Burt, director of global sales at Boeing, told reporters this May. The USN has yet to identify the F/A-18’s replacement, a programme dubbed F/A-XX, but its near-term procurement plans entail roughly a 50/50 mix of Super Hornets and Lockheed Martin F-35Cs.
At one time, four F/A-18s rolled off the St Louis production line every month, but Boeing is producing two per month today including EA-18G Growlers. That rate could ramp up though, especially with a potential order from Kuwait on the horizon, Burt adds. Boeing is completing non-recurring engineering, but does not have a contract with Kuwait yet which entails 28 aircraft with an option for 12 more.
Kuwait would receive the most advanced Super Hornets coming off the line, with an all-glass cockpit and wide area display and high definition video for enhanced situational awareness, Burt says.
Dubbed the “Block III” Super Hornet by the USN, the advanced F/A-18 is outfitted with conformal fuel tanks, Raytheon APG-63(V)3 radar, Block IV integrated defensive electronic countermeasures and a Block II integrated defensive electronic countermeasures system (IDECM). Boeing will begin production of Block III configured aircraft as early as fiscal year 2019.
“[Kuwait] would get something very close to this,” Burt says. “We haven’t fully defined it, this is sort of a baseline.”
The new electronic defence countermeasures on the advanced Super Hornet are part of Boeing’s strategy to pitch the souped-up F/A-18 not as the stealthiest aircraft, but the most effective aircraft for the carrier wing. The pitch is a less-than-veiled attack on the Super Hornet’s nemesis, the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
“Stealth is part of being survivable but today’s stealth, the stealth you see on fifth-gen aircraft and the stealth that’s in F/A-18 today, is focused on a certain kind of frequency range where a lot of the threat resides,” Burt says. “The threat knows that and the threat’s moving off that, so it takes than more just stealth to keep yourself survivable out there. A lot of things contribute to that, the IDECM system – that full radio frequency electronic warfare self-protect system – is very key.”
Kuwait’s configuration would also depend on the country’s needs and Boeing is not sure whether Kuwait wants the conformal fuel tanks, an optional item that can be removed from the aircraft. However, both Kuwait and Canada are seeking Lockheed Martin’s Sniper Advanced Targeting Pod, which is used by the US Air Force but not the navy.
Farther down the line but still in Boeing’s view are recapitalisation programmes with Finland, Canada and India. Finland’s air force has not defined its requirements yet for its HX fighter competition, which would replace its existing Boeing F-18C/Ds, Burt says.
Meanwhile, Boeing’s meddling in the commercial market may have dampened its prospects in Canada’s fighter recapitalisation programme. In May, Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland threatened to pull out of an interim Super Hornet buy after Boeing accused Bombardier of dumping its CSeries jet onto the US market, prompting a US Department of Commerce investigation to determine if the company received unfair subsidies from the Canadian government. The interim buy of 18 Super Hornets and CF-188 recapitalisation are separate acquisitions, but Boeing’s interference in CSeries sales could spoil the larger fighter procurement.
India is seeking a shipboard aircraft, but Boeing is still in the early request for information stages of carrier suitability, Burt says.
Boeing is also standing up a service life modification programme this summer, aimed at extending the life of USN Super Hornets. As the service pushes the life of its overused aircraft, Boeing will extend the life of F/A-18 airframes from their current 6,000h rating to 9,000h, Burt says. That modification programme can also include a configuration upgrade, he adds.
The production line received another assurance with additional buys promised in President Donald Trump’s proposed FY2018 budget. The request would add funding to buy up to 74 Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornets through 2022, or 60 more than planned in previous budget forecasts.
The navy is requesting 14 Super Hornets in FY2018 to mitigate the service’s strike fighter shortfall, officials said this week. In addition, Trump’s budget proposal inserts new plans to procure 23 more F/A-18E/Fs in FY2019, 14 in FY2020, 14 in FY2021 and 15 in FY2022. The recent request not only includes funding for new Super Hornets, but also procurement dollars to address advanced capabilities.
While Boeing celebrated the intended purchase of new F/A-18E/Fs as a sign that the Trump administration would commit to funding Super Hornets year after year, the status of the five-year funding plan is not settled. During a budget rollout briefing in May, Pentagon officials warned that procurement numbers beyond FY2018 would be subject to change following the outcome of a defence strategy review due this August. John Roth, the Pentagon's deputy comptroller, emphasised that the long-term budget was not informed by strategy or policy.
“We have focused on getting a budget ready for FY2017 and then we pivoted to get '18 done to meet this date as well. The secretary has not spent any time looking beyond '18,” he says.
Trump’s FY2018 request continues a steady procurement for the navy. Although FY2018 budget documents detail 26 F/A-18E/Fs procured in FY2017, the navy only received funding to procure 14 fighters for that year. The original FY2017 base budget did not call for a Super Hornet order, but did request two aircraft using overseas contingency operations funding. When the navy released its unfunded priorities list, it included a request for 12 Super Hornets. The service called for another 12 in a supplemental budget released after the election, but those dozen aircraft were not funded.