F/A-18 XT Block III Advanced Super Hornet
At the rollout of Boeing’s newest 787-10 Dreamliner commercial airliner, Donald Trump indicated he could be looking at a large Super Hornet order. “We are going to fully rebuild our military. By the way, do you care if we use the F-18 Super Hornets? Or do you only care about — what do you think?” Trump said 17 February 2017, addressing the crowd at the Boeing 787 plant in North Charleston, SC. “We are looking seriously at a big order. We’ll see how that [goes].”
Trump tweeted on 22 December 2016, “Based on the tremendous cost and cost overruns of the Lockheed Martin F-35, I have asked Boeing to price-out a comparable F-18 Super Hornet!” Defense Secretary James Mattis ordered a review 27 January 2017 of the Pentagon’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Mattis said Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work will “oversee a review that compares the F-35C and F/A-18E/F operational capabilities and assess the extent that the F/A-18E/F [Super Hornet] improvements can be made in order to provide a competitive, cost effective fighter aircraft alternative”. The total F-35C requirement for the Navy is 260 aircraft, of which 26 carrier variants had been delivered to the Navy as of December 2016.
The “F/A-18 XT” is the Advanced Super Hornet, or the Block III fighter jet concept for the Navy. The first operational F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet squadron formed in June 2001 and deployed into combat aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) in July 2002. In April 2005, Boeing delivered the first Block II Super Hornet, complete with the world’s first tactical multi-mode AESA radar, and it became fully operational at the end of 2007.
In August 2013, Boeing and Northrop Grumman conducted flight tests with a prototype of an Advanced Super Hornet with with conformal fuel tanks, an enclosed weapons pod and signature enhancements. In combination with other advanced capabilities to include enhanced engines, internal infrared search and track, and a next-gen cockpit, the Advanced Super Hornet offers domestic and international customers a menu of next-generation capabilities that will allow Super Hornets to outpace threats in the 2030+ anti-access, area-denial (A2/AD) environment – affordably. The successful flights proved the Super Hornet can outpace threats through 2040.
More stealth, more range, more mission flexibility, more weapons -- are some of the advantages. Boeing advanced the stealth capability of the Super Hornet and give it that first-day-of-war capability. It can go farther into enemy territory without being detected, and bring much more to the fight.
- Significantly improves weapons kinematics in both air-air and air-ground regimes
- Reduces radar cross section with advanced low observable technologies
- Provides sophisticated counter electronic attack capability
- Provides access to area-denied scenarios
- Longer range with low-drag, stealthy conformal fuel tanks (CFTs)
- Enhanced low observability with enclosed weapons pod and next gen radar cross section reduction
- Enables long-range detection of adversary stealth aircraft with internal Infrared Search-and-Track (IRST)
- Significant acceleration and durability with Enhanced Engine
- Advanced information fusion optimizes decision loop
- Next-generation cockpit optimizes situational awareness and reduces workload
Since the first flight in early August 2013, by May 2014 the Advanced Super Hornet demonstration aircraft had completed a flight-test program totaling 27 flights and more than 40 hours in the air, first in St. Louis and later for additional testing at the U.S. Navy’s Patuxent River, Md., flight-test facility. The aircraft used for the testing was a factory-fresh, two-seat F/A-18F on loan from the Navy that was modified with several of the Advanced Super Hornet options, including conformal fuel tanks, an enclosed weapons pod and other enhancements that make the Advanced Super Hornet less visible to enemy radar.
Built in St. Louis, the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet is the mainstay carrier-based fighter of the U.S. Navy. More than 600 are in operation with the Navy and U.S. allies around the world. The Advanced version is not a new aircraft type, but a suite of enhancements that can be ordered a la carte by customers for new Super Hornets or retrofitted onto existing aircraft. They also can be added to the EA-18 Growler, the electronic warfare version of the Super Hornet.
Flight Global reported in May 2016 that Boeing Defense had “matured its thinking” about the Advanced Super Hornet with a scaled-back configuration with fewer stealth features. The new design, which would be mostly common between Boeing’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and EA-18G Growler, was a mix of new capabilities and upgrades like the centerline 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 were already being introduced as programs of records. Upgrades that had been embrasced by the Pentagon include an enhanced engine, conformal fuel tanks and an open architecture cockpit with a 48cm (19in) wide-area display.
By 2018 proposed Block III enhancements for the Super Hornet included the installation of plumbing and mounts for upper fuselage conformal fuel tanks (CFTs), development of which was funded in mid-February, optical fibre wiring to support new generation sensors and weapons, the new Tactical Targeting Networking Technology (TTNT) datalink and Distributed Targeting Processor-Networked (DTP-N) computer, integration of the ALQ-214 Integrated Defensive Electronic Countermeasures (IDECM) Block IV EW suite, a new 10” x 19” large screen cockpit display, enhancements to the APG-79 AESA radar, and further improvements to the aircraft’s radar cross section.
The Block III Super Hornet includes conformal fuel tanks that provide the Block III Hornet an increased combat radius while freeing up the high capacity weapons stations 4 and 8 by replacing the two external tanks currently used on almost every flight. A Block III Hornet with conformal fuel tanks would be able to carry 4 SM-6 Dual II missiles and 6 AIM-120D missiles along with a single external fuel tank on weapons station 6 to a combat radius of 510 miles.
The existing F-18 fleet carries external weapons, as will all three variants of the F-35 aircraft. The variety of stores carried externally is challenging to all aspects of weapons integration, from simply fitting the stores onto the airframe, to aircraft handling and control. Separation is especially difficult as additional stores are added; the aerodynamic interactions become more interdependent. A good example is the F-18E/F where significant effort was required to counter the adverse fuel tank aerodynamics in order to allow store separation. In that particular case, all pylons on the aircraft were toed 4 degrees nose outboard and additional structural issues had to be addressed. Modifications of this type can be effective but lack the elegance desired for effective integration of externally carried weapons.
Many studies have been performed looking at methods for reduced drag, improved separation and even reduced impact on aircraft signature for external store carriage. In the early 1970s, conformal carriage studies were conducted for the F-4 Phantom to reduce drag. Additional studies have addressed conformal carriage, semisubmerged carriage, and light weight structures (shrouds, etc.) mounted to the external store for improved carriage performance. External carriage and radar cross section seem to be at odds; however, innovative methods for shape modification, appropriately designed external pods, and specialized materials need to be explored to improve weapons load out while maintaining acceptable signature levels.
One of the largest volume stores carried on most aircraft is the external fuel tank. These all have a similar look to maximize the volume of fuel that can be carried. Conformal fuel tanks and collapsible concepts have been put forth as reduced drag alternatives with varying degrees of acceptance. One recent study has shown that aerodynamic shaping can be used to reduce drag and improve store separation characteristics near these large external stores. This area has a large potential for improved range/energy efficiency.
The first flight of an F/A-18 Advanced Super Hornet prototype featuring conformal fuel tanks (CFT) designed and built by Northrop Grumman Corporation took place in August 2013. The design and assembly of the tanks were completed in less than 10 months, ahead of schedule, due to rapid prototyping processes.The conformal fuel tanks and other new Advanced Super Hornet features allow flexibility for longer range and/or low-observable missions.
"We invested in conformal fuel tank research and development so we could offer our domestic and international customers the most capable and sophisticated F/A-18 possible," said John Murnane, F/A-18 program manager, Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. "Given the challenge of developing the CFT in a short period of time, the success of the first prototype flight is an incredible achievement for our team."
Both the F/A-18 and its electronic attack variant, the EA-18G, will benefit from the conformal fuel tanks. The tanks, which are added to the upper fuselage of the aircraft, accommodate up to 3,500 pounds of additional fuel. For a typical strike mission, a Super Hornet or Growler with CFT can increase its unrefueled radius by up to 130 nautical miles or increase its station time by more than 30 minutes. For the EA-18G aircraft, the tanks also provide enhanced capabilities when operating from an aircraft carrier by reducing overall weight. CFTs are an example of practical modernization of a reliable, proven airframe. The tanks provide new capabilities to the warfighter and can be included on new aircraft or retrofitted to the 600-plus aircraft already operating worldwide.
On 14 February 2018 the Boeing Co., St. Louis, Missouri, was awarded $219,600,000 for cost-plus-fixed-fee delivery order N0001918F1597 against a previously issued basic ordering agreement (N00019-16-G-0001). This order procures non-recurring efforts associated with Engineering Change Proposal 6503 for the design, development, test and integration of the conformal fuel tank in support of the F/A-18. Work will be performed in El Segundo, California (41 percent); St. Louis, Missouri (40 percent); Patuxent River, Maryland (17 percent); and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (2 percent), and is expected to be completed in July 2022. Fiscal 2018 research, development, test and evaluation (Navy) funds in the amount of $18,986,916 are being obligated on this award, none of which will expire at the end of the current fiscal year. The Naval Air Systems Command, Patuxent River, Maryland, is the contracting activity.
The service took delivery of the final Block II Super Hornet, closing out a run of 322 one-seater F/A-18Es and 286 two-seated F/A-18Fs, on 17 April 2020. Block III delivery was just steps behind and the production lines won’t miss a beat, with the first two U.S. Navy Block III test jets delivering in the next two months, followed by delivery of 24 E/F aircraft over the next year for our international customer, Kuwait. The Navy will procure 72 Block III Super Hornet aircraft between fiscal years 2019 and 2021, while realizing more efficient production rates and providing the supporting industrial base with stability and advantages in production and spares planning.
Boeing is expected to deliver the Block III test jets to the Navy as early as late spring, where subsequent testing will commence at both NAS Patuxent River and Naval Air Weapons System (NAWS) China Lake. This latest version of the Super Hornet includes an advanced cockpit system; advanced network infrastructure; reduced radar cross-section; and a 10,000-flight hour lifespan.
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