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US Navy revives interest in Super Hornet engine upgrades

The US Navy has revived interest in studying a major upgrade of the engine that powers the Boeing F/A-18E/F, EA-18G and two foreign fighters, including the possible addition of new technologies.

In early February, Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) notified industry that it would ask GE Aviation to submit a proposal for a contract for the company’s engineers to perform a study on an “F414-GE-400 core enhancement evaluation”.

Such notifications are required when the government plans to award a contract without inviting competing bids. No other details about the contents or objectives of the study were provided in NAVAIR study, which is described only as an assessment of “how upgrades ... could improve engine performance, as well as F/A-18E/F and EA-18G performance”.

Asked to comment on the contract notification, GE released a statement to FlightGlobal that was approved by NAVAIR.

“NAVAIR has expressed interest in GE evaluating how our latest engine technologies could be applied to the F414 Enhanced Engine,” GE says.

GE’s proposed Enhanced Engine design surfaced as a proposal several years ago as part of Boeing’s Super Hornet bid for India’s fighter competition. GE has tested the durability or thrust upgrades in laboratory rigs. NAVAIR also paid GE in late 2013 to evaluate the F414 Enhanced Engine, with the possibility of funding a development programme two years later, although that follow-on contract never materialised.

“We believe this study would be an update of the previous work to include new technologies,” says GE, without elaborating.

A term in the title of the latest NAVAIR study — “core enhancement” — suggests the navy is focusing now on the three modules in the core of the engine, which include the high-pressure compressor, combustor and high-pressure turbine.

Any new technologies would come on top of GE’s proposals for the F414 Enhanced Engine. In the core section, these included 3D aerodynamic shaping of the compressor blades and an improved cooling system for the turbine blades. GE had previously considered inserting ceramic matrix composites in the turbine of the F414 Enhanced Engine, but as of early 2014 had resolved to continue using metallic alloy blades.

NAVAIR’s interest in upgrading the F/A-18E/F’s propulsion system comes after a remarkable turn-around for the Boeing production line in St. Louis. A year ago, the programme appeared to be close to winding down after completing remaining deliveries to the USN. Then, Boeing won long-sought deals to deliver at least 28 Super Hornets to Kuwait, 36 fighters to Qatar and a commitment from Canada to buy at least 18 F/A-18E/Fs. Moreover, US Defense secretary Jim Mattis said in late January that the F/A-18E/F could continue to be used as an internal competitor against the F-35.

“The Super Hornet now appears to be one of the more solid aircraft programmes rather than on the brink of death,” says Richard Aboulafia, Teal Group vice president of strategy, speaking at the Pacific Northwest Aviation Alliance conference on 15 February.

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