By Geoff Fein

The Block II F/A-18F active electronically scanned array (AESA)-equipped Super Hornets are providing a significant advancement in technology over legacy systems, according to a Navy official.

“The radar is unlike anything I have ever seen before,” Cmdr. Chris Chope, commanding officer VFA-22, told Defense Daily in a telephone interview earlier this week from aboard the USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76). “The difference in the technology and what it provides us is monumental. This radar affords us so many opportunities and capabilities that we did not have in previous aircraft.”

Boeing [BA] builds the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. Raytheon [RTN] manufactures AESA.

VFA-22, the first AESA-equipped Super Hornet squadron, is currently deployed in the Western Pacific aboard the Reagan.

Chope has been with VFA-22, also known as the Fighting Redcocks, for 19 months. When he arrived at the squadron, they were flying the single seat F/A-18E.

“I am a weapons system officer, so I was the first back-seater to come into this squadron,” he said.

The F/A-18Es were about five years old, Chope added. The Lot 29, Block II, F/A-18Fs were brand new. “We took the squadron from being a single seat F-18E squadron to a two-seat F-18F squadron over the course of the past 18 months.”

Initially the squadron received two AESA-equipped Super Hornets, but the transition to the new Block II variants with the advanced radar was put on hold as the Reagan received orders to go on a surge deployment from January 2007 to April 2007.

When VFA-22 returned home, they picked up right were they left off and began receiving Block IIs, Chope added.

“Of course, this was a single-seat squadron, so we only had pilots. We had to pick-up all of our weapons systems officers and integrate them into the aircraft operationally and learn to fight as a crew,” he said.

Training detachments were sent to Naval Air Station (NAS) Key West, Fla., NAS Fallon, Nev., and NAS Lemoore, Calif., where the bulk of the training took place, Chope said.

“I won’t tell you it wasn’t without some growing pains, but I will tell you the Navy does it right, the way we train our aircrews and maintainers and our squadrons and air wings to deploy,” he said. “I truly believe right now, that this squadron and this air wing represent the most capable air wing this Navy has to offer.”

VFA-22 has 12 Block II F/A-18F Super Hornets and 250 sailors, Chope said.

The squadron spends little time doing any operational test work, he added.

“But I will tell you, anecdotally, that we find we have much better situational awareness when we operate both in the air-to-air arena and in the air-to-ground arena. We find that we see things other aircraft are not able to see…better detection ranges,” Chope said. “But again, anecdotally speaking, I find that [AESA] has been a huge leap, and it certainly puts us on the cutting edge of the tactical employment for aircraft in this day and age.”

The squadron avionics technicians had to go through a good bit of training because APG-79 is a much different system, he added.

One of the high points of AESA is its maintainability, Chope said, which is much better than older generations of radars.

“I have an embedded technical representative from Raytheon on board the ship who works hand in hand with my maintainers, everyday, training them and helping troubleshoot [issues],” he said. “He is going to make the entire deployment with us. That gentleman is worth his weight in gold. Has been with us since we began to receive these first jets a year and a half ago and has been truly a member of my squadron.”

Chope added that the squadron has only begun to scratch the surface of the capability that AESA provides.

“I think there is so much yet to learn and so much more capability that’s going to be developed as the radar matures,” he said.

VFA-22 is operating much like any other F-18 squadron , Chope said. “The same kinds of tactics with enhanced situational awareness [that AESA] provides us. I will contend we are more lethal and more survivable because of this radar and weapon system. But, by and large, we are operating in the same kinds of ways we have traditionally.

“We use the mapping modes of the radar in the air-to-ground modes of the radar, and I find that that is a pretty darn big leap in technology over past capabilities,” Chope added.

Although Chope could not discuss the networking capabilities of AESA, he acknowledged that the radar has enhanced the squadron’s ability to link up with other aircraft and share information. “There is no doubt about it.”

“Folks like to have these airplanes up at the same time as they are because it enhances everybody’s situational awareness though the sharing of information. It’s a wonderful capability to have airborne and everybody wants us to be airborne,” he said. “I will tell you, different warfare commanders want to have a little piece of AESA operating within their bailiwicks so that they feel comfortable that they are seeing what they ought to be seeing and getting full fidelity information from us.”