ST LOUIS—Boeing [BA] has unveiled an advanced version of the Navy’s F/A-18 Super Hornet with new capabilities the company believes will allow the aircraft to operate well into the 2030s.
The new capabilities were developed under the international road map plan the company designed for the Super Hornet program a few years ago and has evolved into the Advanced Super Hornet. Boeing executives said they have now shifted the focus of the market to the U.S. Navy.
|The Advanced Super Hornet with conformal fuel tanks adjacent to the cockpit and enclosed weapons pod below the fuselage. Photo by Boeing|
The new capabilities include conformal fuel tanks along the upper half of the fuselage intended to increase range while decreasing drag, and an enclosed weapons pod below the fuselage. Other improvements are an enhancement to General Electric‘s [GE] F414 engine, a next generation cockpit, reduced radar signature and adding an internal infrared track and search capabilities.
“The airplane was built to evolve by nature,” Paul Summers, Boeing’s program director for the F/A-18 and EA-18G innovation and capabilities, told a group of reporters. “Now we are migrating to what we have coined as the Advanced Super Hornet.”
The upgrades are meant to keep the aircraft effective in dealing with the anti-area access denial (A2AD) challenges posed by potential adversaries and identified by the Pentagon as key threat in the years and decades ahead.
Boeing began test flights earlier this month on a demonstrator aircraft to ensure the conformal tanks and weapons pods would not have a significant impact on aircraft’s performance. The tanks and pods subjected to the testing are not yet functional but are instead structural mock-ups to examine the aerodynamics. It plans to carry out more than 20 flights at its facilities in St. Louis and at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md.
The Navy is nearing completion of its planned buy of more than 600 F/A-18 Super Hornets and electronic attack EA-18G Growlers. The final planned purchase of the airframe proposed in the fiscal 2014 budget is currently in the congressional appropriations process.
Outstanding orders, including from Australia, will carry the production line to the end of 2015 or into early 2016. Without more purchases, however, Boeing may be faced with the prospect of closing the line. Summers said the company has detected some interest from the Navy for the upgraded aircraft, especially from the service’s electronic attack community in the conformal fuel tanks. Summer said using conformal fuel tanks instead of underneath centerline tanks would prevent obstructing the EA-18Gs vital jamming systems.
Mark Gammon, Boeing’s program manager for F/A-18 and EA-18 Growler advanced capabilities who helped develop the international road map plan, said the company changed its marketing approach when the Navy showed interest.
“We switched the name to Advanced Super Hornet because it fits the domestic market better right now,” Gammon said.
Mike Gibbons, the company’s vice president for the F/A-18 and EA-18 programs, said the company would prefer to sell new airframes with the upgraded menu of capabilities, but is also giving the Navy the option of adding the improvements to existing Super Hornets or Growlers.
Gibbons predicted the unit cost of the Advanced Super Hornets would be about $6 million more than the current $50 million price tag.