Two Boeing F/A-18E/Fs have demonstrated a sensor fusion capability that combines the data from multiple sensors on both aircraft in near real-time as the programme launches production of the Block III version of the 20-year-old, carrier-based fighter, says Bob Kornegay, business development manager for the F/A-18E/F and EA-18G Programs at Boeing.

Lockheed Martin’s F-35 is most often associated with a sensor fusion capability that dramatically improves the data available to any single pilot in a strike package, but the F/A-18E/F fleet has been steadily catching up to its stealthy, sister aircraft’s most advanced capabilities.

The Block II version of the F/A-18E/F introduced a decade ago included a multi-sensor integration function, but it was limited to the two primary sensors – Raytheon’s APG-79 active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar and the Harris ALQ-214 countermeasure system – on a single aircraft only.

The Fiscal 2018 budget includes funds to procure 24 F/A-18E/F fighters, including the first six of 116 funded Block III fighters in the USN’s long-range spending plan, Kornegay says.

The Block III upgrade package includes a range of structural and sensor upgrades, but it crucially adds an ability to receive and transfer large amounts of sensor data with other Super Hornets and the Northrop Grumman E-2D Advanced Hawkeye.

The Block III version also adds a second-generation infrared search and track (IRST) sensor, allowing the Super Hornet to detect and track enemy aircraft without giving away its own position by using its radar. The IRST is able to detect even targets stealthy to radar at long ranges, but a single sensor on one aircraft does not provide enough clarity to provide targeting information to a guided missile.

But the Block III package also adds the Rockwell Collins Tactical Targeting Network Technology (TTNT) radio and an advanced processor. Those upgrades allow two or more F/A-18E/Fs to share IRST sensor data, giving a single fighter enough information to use for a targeting solution, Kornegay says.

The company demonstrated the Block III’s multi-ship targeting system during Fleet Exercise 2017, Kornegay says. During that event, two F/A-18Es equipped with a first-generation IRST, TTNT and the new processor shared and fused sensor data in near-real time, the company says.

“The aircrew that was involved -- the term they used was ‘eye-watering’, in terms of being able to see things they’d never seen before,” Kornegay says.