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Block III Super Hornet upgrades to begin this spring

The first US Navy F/A-18E/F Super Hornet to receive service life modification upgrades will arrive at Boeing’s St. Louis facility next April and will leave with an additional 3,000 flight hours of service life, Boeing’s vice president of F/A-18 programmes tells FlightGlobal.

Unlike the legacy Hornet fleet, the Super Hornet modification will not entail one large replacement such as the centre barrel, says Dan Gillian. Instead, modifications will be distributed across the aircraft with a focus on corrosion, a perennial hurdle for the carrier-based aircraft.

After testing two F/A-18 “learning aircraft,” Boeing found corrosion was well maintained on Super Hornets that fly regularly but cropped up often on aircraft that had been grounded for a while. Boeing will not change materials on the aircraft but plans to use data analytics to predict how the navy should handle varied corrosion issues, Gillian says.

“We think the first 30-ish airplanes that we get our hands will help us dial in our data analytics predictive models to make those unknown things known,” he says. “There will be a lot of learning early in the program, which is one of the reasons the first of those airplanes is going to come to St Louis where we have the core of the engineering team.”

Once the service life modification (SLM) programme is stable, Boeing will add Block III capabilities onto the modified aircraft around 2022, he adds. That package will include 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).

Navy pilots will fly a stealthier F/A-18 after the modifications are complete, though the fighter will complement rather than compete with the Lockheed Martin F-35. Besides a fresh coating and painting, Gillian would not elaborate on engine inlet changes that could improve the F/A-18's stealth characteristics.

“Super Hornet is a pretty stealthy airplane today,” Gillian says. “This is low level improvements that are pretty simple to make, buying a little bit of margin, not trying to drastically change the airplane.”

Block III will be initially introduced through new aircraft off the line, followed by the Block II to III conversions, Gillian says. The president’s fiscal year 2018 budget funded 80 Super Hornets over the next five years, with 14 aircraft in FY2018 and 66 new Block III aircraft spread across FY2019 through FY2022.

The FY2018 budget also included about $265 million in research funding to support Block III capabilities including the conformal fuel tanks, advanced cockpit system, IRST21 (infrared search and track) and AESA radar upgrades. Boeing has been developing the advanced cockpit system for more than a year and plans to fly both the ACS and conformal fuel tanks with the navy in 2018, Gillian says. The Block III F/A-18 will also come equipped with Tactical Targeting Networking Technology (TTNT). The non-stealthy data-link is already a programme of record of the navy’s E2-D Hawkeye early warning aircraft and Boeing is now focusing on delivering the technology to the EA-18G Growler and Super Hornet, Gillian says.

Boeing has retooled the Block III concept to move away from a configuration that once included an enclosed weapons pod, now favoring a design that would allow the navy to hang a variety of weapons on the aircraft. But Gillian was also careful not to characterize the newest F/A-18 as a bomb truck.

“I think that’s old parlance for the super hornet’s mission,” he says. “I think both of the navy’s next [generation] fighters will play multiple role in air-to-air and air-to-ground but both are networked and survivable.”

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