NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.–An upgraded version of the Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter that prime contractor Boeing [BA] is pitching to the service would be ready for delivery in the early 2020s and from the get go would have a service life of 9,000 flight hours versus 6,000 hours for current iterations of the aircraft, a company executive said on Tuesday.

The upgrades could also be incorporated into Block II versions of the Super Hornet that will begin to enter a Service Life Modification program in 2018, with these advanced variants also available in the early 2020s, Dan Gillian, Boeing’s vice president for F/A-18 and E/A-18 Growler programs, told reporters during a media briefing at the annual Navy League Sea Air Space exposition. He said if the Navy opted to upgrade the Block II Super Hornets to the proposed Block III configuration as part of the SLM, deliveries of these aircraft would follow new production Block IIIs by a couple of years.

A Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet.  Photo: Boeing.
A Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet. Photo: Boeing.

Between new production and the SLM project, Block III aircraft could be added to the carrier air wing “very quickly,” Gillian said.

The Block III Super Hornet is an evolution of the Advanced F/A-18 concept that Boeing has been proposing to the Navy for several years. The enhancements in the Block III proposal include a new computer and data pipe, which would make the aircraft a “smart node” in the battle network, similar to what Lockheed Martin [LMT] is doing for F-35 Joint Strike fighters it is developing and building for the Air Force, Marine Corps, Navy and allied partners.

The advanced computer and “big” data link upgrades Boeing plans for the Block III aircraft include the Distributed Processing Targeting Network (DTPN) and Tactical Targeting Network Technology (TTNT) respectively, Gillian said.

Boeing’s decision to make the Super Hornet a “smart node” in the Navy’s Integrated Fire Control Counter Air (NIFC-CA) and Counter Sea network is a “huge and significant change” in the evolution to the Block III from the Advanced Super Hornet proposed years ago, Gillian said.

“In the past, we talked about Super Hornet could be maybe just a dumb shooter up there with information passed to it,” Gillian said. “But, with all the information available fusion, local on the platform, and being a contributing part of the NIFC-CA network is really important. So, we do that by bringing over the DTPN and TTNT.” These additions would also allow the aircraft to pass data from the aircraft, he said.

Another change with the Block III is adding conformal fuel tanks, which would allow the aircraft to take in 3,500 more pounds of fuel, increasing the flight range by around 120 nautical miles and or time on station 20 to 30 minutes depending on the mission load out, he said.

The Block III aircraft would still have a “little” bit in the way of improved stealth, Gillian said, adding that the current aircraft is “very stealthy.” The additional stealth would come at “low cost,” he said.

Warfighting commitments of the U.S. for more than a decade have resulted in F/A-18 Super Hornets being flown more often than originally expected in that timeframe, the result being some aircraft are approaching there 6,000-hour service life. Delays in the F-35 program have also contributed to readiness challenges for the F/A-18s.

The SLM program for current Super Hornet will add another 3,000 hours to these aircraft, Gillian said. The Block III Super Hornets will have 9,000 hours built in, he said.

The Block III aircraft will also feature an advanced cockpit system with 10 by 19-inch large area displays. This “changes the user interface” for the “aircrew to the platform,” that coupled with improved computer and data pipe provide a lot of data, Gillian said.

The pod-mounted, long-range IRST on the Block II aircraft will also be included in the Block III aircraft. The air-to-air sensor provides counter-stealth capabilities because it detects heat signatures on other aircraft at long-ranges, Gillian said. This is a capability for the carrier air wing “that no one else has,” he said.

The enhanced Super Hornet would also include the advanced self-protection suite, he said. Other enhancements would include constant upgrades to the active electronically scanned array radar and software updates every two years, he said.

There are about 400 Block II Super Hornets, which would be eligible to go through the Block III upgrade during the SLM if the Navy agrees, Gillian said. The cost to add on the Block III package to Super Hornets going through the SLM program would be around $2 million per aircraft, he said.

Gillian said the Block III aircraft will be able to fight alongside F-35C through the full spectrum of warfare into the 2040s.