NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.Boeing [BA] has initiated development work for an upgraded version of its aircraft carrier-based electronic warfare aircraft for the Navy that will include advanced sensors, increased computer power and an improved interface for the aircrew to better handle the additional data from the technology enhancements, a company official said on Tuesday.

The Block II configuration of the Navy’s EA-18G Growler aircraft will be done through retrofits of existing Growlers with the aim to deliver the new capability around 2025, Jennifer Tevo, director of Boeing’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet Block III program, told reporters here at the Navy League’s Sea-Air-Space exposition.

Boeing earlier this year received funding from the Navy to move into the System Functional Requirements phase later this year so that the Block II aircraft can be delivered on time, Tevo said at the company’s exhibit booth. The small amount of funding demonstrates the Navy’s interest in the program, she said, noting the program was just “rumblings” a year ago and now “is a real thing.”

A EA-18G Growler, XE 573 166857 of the VX-9 “Vampires” cruises over the desert during a mission. Shot 3/11/2009. Photo: Boeing

As of now, there aren’t any plans for new build Growlers but Boeing is in discussions with the Navy to understand what their future needs are, she said.

The enhancements included in the Block II Growler will depend on the trade studies the Navy does and will have to buy their way into the program, Tevo said, highlighting that the electronic attack sensors will be enhanced and the aircraft will come with more processing power and the improved crew interface.

“All of that is kind of accomplished through software defined radios that are enabled through a flexible and adaptable hardware architecture,” Tevo said. “That not only gives the Navy step function capability now but sets up the infrastructure and the architecture to allow us to continually to evolve capability as the threats are dynamic out there and they change. We don’t know what they are and the life of the Growler is very, very long and so we are setting this up for the Navy to be able to continue to add capability rapidly to the Growler.”

Conformal fuel tanks (CFTs) that were developed for the Block III F/A-18E/F Super Hornet are in the plan for the Growler as is the Advanced Cockpit System (ACS), she said. The CFTs will have to buy their way into the aircraft, Tevo said, but noted that the non-recurring engineering work has already been done and paid for for the Block III Super Hornets so it just comes down to the unit costs of the tanks for the Growler.

“The Growler is the only platform of its type so it makes sense that something that was designed in the ‘90s and enhance it to really be relevant for decades to come,” she said.

The ACS is a large touch screen display that is one of five key changes to the F/A-18E/F as part of the Block III. Tevo said that flight-testing using the ACS began several weeks ago aboard F-18s being developed for Kuwait and that so far three flights have been conducted.

The initial takeaways from the aircrews on the ACS in the test flights have “been really great” and that “it’s really easy to use, it’s intuition, they love the larger space,” she said. On the first flight there were no “major squawks,” she said, and as two Block III test jets are delivered to the Navy’s China Lake facility later this year, aircrews will become more “familiarized” with the system.

Development of the Block III test jets were accelerated by a year, mainly to get the ACS qualified for operations with aircraft carriers, Tevo said.

“So, really a success story there in accelerating development,” she said.

The CFTs are mounted above each wing on the shoulders of the aircraft. The tanks were developed for Boeing’s Advanced Super Hornet Concept in 2013 and flight-tests with CFTs were done this February and March to de-risk the program when it comes to installing them and designing them so they don’t interfere with how the Block III aircraft operates, Tevo said.

“So, we took them through a more expanded flight envelope than we did prior to when we just did the demo [Advanced Super Hornet] and got really good feedback that they were almost unnoticeable from a pilot perspective, and then flew some enhanced angle of attack profiles to get us some flight and aero data to feed back into our design process to really risk reduce going forward the design of those tanks,” Tevo said.

Boeing has also begun a Service Life Modification (SLM) program for its Block II F/A-18E/F Super Hornet that will boost the flight hours for the aircraft from 6,000 to 10,000. The Block II aircraft will also be converted to Block III aircraft during the SLM process, Bob Kornegay, Boeing’s F/A-18 Capture Team Lead, said during the media briefing.

So far, Boeing has inducted seven Block II aircraft into its facility in St. Louis and in June the first aircraft will arrive at a facility in San Antonio for its SLM production lines, Kornegay said. Eventually, Boeing will modify 40 Block II aircraft a year to extend their lives and upgrade to the Bock III configuration, he said.

The Navy currently has more than 500 Block II Super Hornets in its inventory.

The Navy in March awarded Boeing a multi-year contract for 78 Block III new build Super Hornets that will begin to come off the production line in late 2020. The service has included another 36 over three years in its Future Years Defense Plan.

Kornegay said that between the SLM effort and guaranteed new build Super Hornets that are part of the recent multi-year contract, Block III production will go through 2033. He noted that there’s no retirement date for the Super Hornet in the Navy’s inventory, so the aircraft will be around for “a long time.”