Boeing is hoping to convince the US Navy that the development cost of the electronic-attack version Super Hornet is more than outweighed by its benefits

Since losing the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) competition, persuading the US Navy to procure an electronic-attack version of the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet has become critically important to Boeing. The EA-18 derivative would bring needed engineering work to the company's St Louis, Missouri, military aircraft plant, and extend the F/A-18's production run.

Boeing should find out in the next few months if its efforts have been successful. With completion of the US Department of Defense's two-year Joint Airborne Service Electronic Attack analysis of alternatives (AOA), the USN has begun budget planning for a follow-on to the Northrop Grumman EA-6B Prowler. While the AOA findings will not be made public until next month, industry and service officials suggest the EA-18 is the preferred solution.

Boeing has been working on an electronic-attack variant of the Super Hornet for years. Initially dubbed the F/A-18G, the aircraft is still commonly referred to as the Growler. Originally intended to feature advanced electronic-attack pods developed by Northrop Grumman, Boeing's partner on the EA-18, the aircraft will now re-use the ALQ-99 jamming pods carried by the EA-6B Prowler it is to replace.

The changes are designed to reduce the cost of developing and acquiring theEA-18. Boeing figures provided to the USN have put the cost of system development and demonstration (formerly engineering and manufacturing development) at "a little more than $1 billion, in then-year dollars", says Paul Summers, director F/A-18 derivative programmes.

Development will take five to six years. Summers says the latest USN estimate is that it could need to begin replacing the EA-6Bs by 2008. "If we start development in 2003, we can deliver the first EA-18 squadron in 2008," he says. "But it's a day-for-day slip. If we delay development start to 2004, we delay delivery to 2009."


Repackaged solution

The cost and timescale is based on using the Improved Capability III (ICAP III) electronic-warfare suite being developed by Northrop Grumman for the EA-6B. The system's LR-700 receiver electronics will be repackaged on to a removable pallet installed in the EA-18's nose gun-bay, with the antennas mounted in wingtip pods.

The EA-18 is based on the two-seatF/A-18F with the Block 2 avionics upgrades, including active-array radar and advanced rear crew station, already under development for the Super Hornet. "Production cost on a unit flyaway basis will be 15-18% more than a basic F/A-18F in then-year dollars," Summers says. An EA-18 will cost $7-9 million more, based on the nominal Super Hornet unit price of $50 million by the end of the current multi-year procurement contract. "But we intended to do better than that," he says, referring to efforts under way to drive the E/F cost down to $40 million by 2005.

There are also other cost benefits, says Summers, as concurrent production ofEA-18s and E/Fs would further reduce the Super Hornet's price. The company estimates that, if 12 EA-18s are built each year alongside 48 E/Fs, the cost of each E/F would be reduced by up to $3 million. The USN would see operating and support savings, Boeing says, with the EA-18 expected to cost $7,400/h to operate, compared with over $17,000/h for the EA-6B.

Summers admits it is difficult to compensate for the cost of acquisition with operating and support savings, and that developing and acquiring the EA-18 is more expensive than extending theEA-6B's service life. "But the EA-18 is a much more suitable platform. It flies faster and can keep up with the fighters - and it can perform every other mission the E/F can. The navy can no longer afford a single-use platform. If 2008 is truly the need date, we believe the most cost-effective and timely solution is the E-18," he says.


The chief challenge faced by the USN'sEA-6B fleet is sustaining a realistic number of operational aircraft beyond 2010. The fleet totals 124 Prowlers, of which a minimum 108 are required to equip 11 USN carrier air wings, along with five land-based units and four US Marine Corps squadrons. While the fleet has been accident-free for five years, attrition will eventually erode available numbers of aircraft.

Northrop Grumman is replacing the inner-, centre- and outer-wing sections on the EA-6B fleet, and has already completed or begun modifications on 25 aircraft. A new wing gives an aircraft another 6,000h of life and, in the case of around 35 aircraft built before 1975, represents a second re-winging. "This will not solve the attrition issue, and within 12 years we're going to find ourselves in an unmanageable situation," says Dave Stafford, Northrop Grumman vice president business strategy, electronic warfare (EW) systems.

As part of the recently concluded AOA, Northrop Grumman was asked for information on the condition of EA-6B tooling, with a view to restarting production after more than 10 years. The proposed EA-6C would incorporate replacements for the aircraft's twin Pratt & Whitney J52 turbofans and modernised avionics including a fly-by-wire flight control system.

Prowler legacy

The USN is understood to prefer the proposed EA-18 based on the AOA's study of ownership costs over 30 years, given that many Prowler legacy systems are no longer available and the EA-6C would entail a major redesign. Northrop Grumman appears reluctant to champion a new EA-6C at the expense of the EA-18, given that the company has teamed up with Boeing as Growler prime system integrator. "We're not advocating [the EA-8C]," says Stafford. "We're in the electronic-attack business and we'll supply whatever solution is required. If that is the EA-18 or EA-6C or another platform, we'll support that."

Considerable resources are being poured into modernising the EW system irrespective of whether the EA-6C, EA-18 or another airframe is selected as the platform. Flight testing of the ICAP III system is scheduled to start soon as part of a $200 million programme that will initially re-equip the EA-6B fleet from 2004. ICAP III is the baseline capability for the AOA, and is intended to be applicable to any follow-on to the Prowler, be it a fighter, widebody jet, or even a large unmanned air vehicle.

At the heart of ICAP III is the new LR700 selective reactive jamming system designed to mimic and counter frequency-hopping ground-control intercept radars, and prevent aircraft being targeted. The proliferation in modern multi-function air-defence radars and surface-to-air missile systems, such as the Russian SA-11/12/17, and the continued use of older weapons like the Vietnam-era SA-2/3 in the developing world, demand a wider coverage of the electro-magnetic spectrum than ever before. "Nothing ever comes off the table, just more gets put on," says a senior USN official.

Under way is an evolutionary upgrade and expansion of the current ALQ-99 jamming suite, with the high-frequency Band 9/10 transmitter already deployed, and a low-frequency Band 1/2 system due to follow in 2005. BAE Systems has received funding to start preliminary development of a Band 7/8 system, while an advanced transmitter for Band 4-6 is still unfunded. As a result neither will be ready in time for the ICAP III initial operational capability. The USQ-113 communication jammer is also being upgraded and will be fully integrated with aircraft systems in place of the current stand-alone laptop arrangement.

The ICAP III upgrade includes new liquid-crystal colour displays for both rear-seat electronic countermeasure operators and, for the first time, the front seat navigator position. Scheduled to debut at the same time on the EA-6B is the Link 16 datalink, which will open the door to EW battle management with other airborne assets such as the Lockheed Martin EP-3 or Northrop Grumman E-8C Joint STARS.

Looking forward

Boeing's EA-18 proposal capitalises on these improvements and "will not be a trivial integration", says Summers. In addition to the ICAP III, the aircraft will use a palletised version of the USQ-113 communications receiver/jammer. The EA-18 will have a wideband satellite terminal as well as Link 16, and will be able to "act as a command, control and communication node on the battlefield", he adds.

Source: Flight International