Boeing Defense has “matured its thinking” about the Advanced Super Hornet concept that it launched in 2013 and flight tested, revealing a scaled-back configuration this week with fewer stealth features and perhaps a greater chance of being picked up by the US Navy.
The new design, which would be mostly common between Boeing’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and EA-18G Growler warplanes, is a mix of new capabilities and upgrades like the centreline fuel tank-mounted infrared search and track (IRST21) sensor, integrated defensive electronic countermeasures (IDECM) Block IV, active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar and next-generation jammer that are already being introduced as programmes of records.
Upgrades that have not yet been adopted by the Pentagon include an enhanced engine, conformal fuel tanks and an open architecture cockpit with a 48cm (19in) wide-area display.
The proposal comes ahead of the Navy League Sea-Air-Space exposition in Washington DC next week, and amid discussions within the Pentagon about how many more Super Hornets and Growlers the navy actually needs beyond the 568 F/A-18s and 160 EA-18Gs that have already been ordered.
Boeing is also preparing to undertake an F/A-18E/F service life extension programme that would extend that carrier-based aircraft’s usability from 6,000 flight hours to 9,000h.
The first Super Hornet to reach 6,000h will likely be inducted for overhaul later this year, and meanwhile, the lives of legacy Hornet types are already being extended out to 10,000h.
The US chief of naval operations recently told Congress that the maritime service needs 24-36 more Super Hornets to meet an acknowledged fighter capacity gap as the Lockheed Martin F-35 comes online six or seven years later than expected.
The navy currently maintains nine carrier air wings including a 10th “paper wing” to support America’s 10 aircraft carriers, as well as an 11th Ford-class vessel that is not yet commissioned.
Each air wing ideally contains four fighter squadron with 44 total aircraft, and current F-35 production and Hornet recapitalisation rates would see two F-35 and two F/A-18 squadrons per air wing in the 2030s.
Boeing’s vice-president of F/A-18 and EA-18G programmes Dan Gillian says based current orders – including the 15 added by Congress in fiscal year 2015 defence budget and the dozen more included in FY2016 – continues Super Hornet production in St Louis, Missouri through mid-2018 at a rate of two aircraft per month.
The congressional defence committees have moved to fund 16 more F/A-18 units as part of the FY2017 budget (14 more than requested) and Gillian remains confident of a near-term deal with Kuwait.
The Super Hornet executive says that while the navy has a nearer term need for 24-36 aircraft, Boeing’s analysis suggests that “about 100” more aircraft will be needed long-term.
As the navy considers if it needs more Growlers beyond the five to seven aircraft currently employed by each carrier air wing, Gillian suggests that eight are needed per carrier air group to meet navy mission needs and perhaps even as many as “10 to 11” per wing to fulfill joint force requirements for airborne electronic attack.
The company sees long-term viability in its St Louis line as long as production rates stay above two per month. Gillian says assembly dropped to that floor rate in April.
Boeing is eyeing fighter requirements by Canada, Denmark, Finland, Belgium, Spain and Kuwait and is even considering building some portion of the aircraft in India if it were successful in that campaign.
Regarding the Advanced Super Hornet and Growler, Gillian says Australia has already expressed interest in the conformal fuel tanks for its aircraft, and by doing away with drop tanks, the electronic attack pods on the EA-18G will have a greater field of regard.
It terms of differences between the Advanced Super Hornet proposal put forward in 2013 – which included low-observable enhancements like an enclosed weapons pod – and the one presented to the media on 11 May, Gillian says “the biggest different is maturation of thought”.
“Twenty-thirteen was really about how great can we make Super Hornet in some of those stealth areas?" he says. "That was a little bit more of a head-to-head discussion [versus the F-35].
"Twenty-sixteen is about complimentary capability and what does the carrier air wing need given the other assets like F-35, [Northrop Grumman] E-2D and Growler that are going to be out there.”