President Donald Trump was ridiculed on Twitter after pronouncing during a visit to Boeing’s St. Louis facility that the company’s new F/A-18 Super Hornet will be equipped with the “latest and the greatest stealth, and a lot of things on that plane that people don’t even know about.”
But it turns out Trump was on to something. Boeing is about to kick off an exhaustive effort to transition the U.S. Navy’s carrier air wing to the “Block III” Super Hornet, a next-generation version of the strike fighter complete with new sensors, extended range, a more powerful computer and, yes, enhanced stealth coating.
These changes will allow the Super Hornet to fly alongside the Lockheed MartinF-35C carrier variant as the backbone of the Navy’s carrier air wing into the 2040s and beyond, says Dan Gillian, Boeing F/A-18 and EA-18 program manager.
Block III Super Hornet will get enhanced stealth coating
New aircraft will begin rolling off the production line in 2020
Trump previewed the new and improved fighter during a March 14 visit to the St. Louis facility, which has been building F/A-18s, first the A-D Hornet and later the E/F Super Hornet, since 1978.
Gillian confirms that an improved low-observable (LO) coating will be one of five key characteristics of the Block III Super Hornet. The fighter is already “a very stealth airplane today”—he says, declining to elaborate—but there are new coatings engineers can apply on different surfaces of the aircraft to make it even more survivable, he says.
The F/A-18 was not designed specifically to be stealthy and lacks many of the fundamental stealth characteristics baked into Lockheed Martin’s F-35 and F-22airframes. But there are other ways to enhance stealth, such as adding LO coating and radar-absorbent material improvements in certain locations on the airframe. A few simple changes “can buy us just a little bit of performance that’s low-cost and easy to go do,” Gillian says.
The souped-up aircraft the Navy has agreed to buy looks very different from Boeing’s original 2013 proposal for an “Advanced Super Hornet,” which focused on stealth. Boeing engineers found they needed to make design compromises to significantly reduce the aircraft’s radar cross section—for instance, by restricting payload, Gillian told Aviation Week in 2017 (AW&ST Feb. 20-March 5, 2017, p. 17).
This drove Boeing to drop certain features of the 2013 proposal, such as an enclosed weapons pod and internal infrared search-and-track (IRST) sensor, from the newest package.
The Navy will begin procuring the Block III Super Hornet in fiscal 2019 with a 24-aircraft buy. Credit: Boeing
The Navy will begin procuring the Block III Super Hornet in fiscal 2019 with a 24-aircraft buy, the first of which will come off the production line in 2020. Over the next five years, the Navy proposes buying 110 additional Super Hornets, including a three-year procurement, which is a significant boost from last year’s budget request. Meanwhile, the Navy will accelerate divestiture of the legacy Hornets, with the last active component squadron transitioning to the Super Hornet in 2018. The service plans to send the last F/A-18 A-D to the boneyard no later than the fiscal 2030 timeframe.
Boeing aims to deliver one Block III squadron per carrier air wing by 2024 and two squadrons of Block IIIs per carrier air wing by 2027, Gillian says.
Boeing will achieve this goal both by building new Super Hornets and by upgrading the older Block II aircraft to the Block III configuration i -depot. Boeing intends to start service life modification (SLM) work on the Block II aircraft in St. Louis in April.
The SLM’s initial focus will be extending airframe life to 9,000 hr. from 6,000, Gillian says. Later, SLM will incorporate efforts to make the aircraft more “maintainable”—for example, grooming wire, fixing corrosion and replacing ducts. Boeing is also working with the Navy on a “reset” of the Super Hornet’s environmental control system following a spike in hypoxia-like physiological episodes in the fleet.
SLM will expand to include the full Block II-to-Block III conversion in the early 2020s, Gillian says. This means LO improvements; an advanced cockpit system with a large-area display for improved user interface, a more powerful computer called the distributed targeting processor network, a bigger data pipe for passing information called Tactical Targeting Network Technology and conformal fuel tanks (CFT).
The CFTs will extend the range of the aircraft by 100-120 nm. They are designed to replace the extra fuel tanks the Super Hornet currently slings under its wings, reducing weight and drag and enabling additional payload.
Boeing in February received a potential $219.6 million order to design, develop, test and integrate the CFTs. This work will manifest both in the new-build aircraft that will roll off the line in 2020 and the aircraft being converted from Block II to Block III, Gillian says.
Finally, the Block III upgrade also will include a long-range IRST sensor that will allow the Super Hornet to detect and track advanced threats from a distance.
Gillian expects SLM work will take 18 months per aircraft at first, but he wants to drive that time down to 12 months.