By Geoff Fein

The Navy last month awarded Raytheon [RTN] a contract worth nearly $55 million to retrofit 135 Boeing [BA] F/A-18 Super Hornets with APG-79 Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar.

The first deliveries for 19 aircraft will begin in about 18 months, Dave Goold, director of business development F/A-18 programs, told Defense Daily earlier this week.

“This whole retrofit program has been part of the Navy’s plan since day one with the Super Hornet program, to go back and catch those Lot 26 and above Super Hornets built to receive the APG-79,” he said.

The Lot 26 and above F/A-18 Super Hornets were built to accept AESA, Goold added.

The retrofit falls under Aviation Procurement Navy (APN) ’05 dollars, he said.

“So it is the associated pot of money the Navy would expend for existing aircraft and upgrading or updating those aircraft,” he said. “[It’s] a little bit different contract vehicle.”

While there has been talk within Raytheon of upgrading Super Hornet Lots prior to Lot 26, Goold said the company has not yet discussed the idea with the Navy.

Goold noted that 135 retrofitted Super Hornets along with the current production aircraft are all flying with AESA. He added that there might be some interest on the Navy’s part to look at AESA for those earlier aircraft.

Raytheon is also seeing an uptick in foreign interest. Goold said the company along with the Navy are working on a response to India’s Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) request for proposal.

“I am in Japan now doing some follow-up meetings with the Japanese Air Self Defense Force. [They have] a program called FX, the next fighter aircraft,” he said. “Then, of course, [there is] a lot of interest in the Super Hornet because of its capabilities and the availability of the aircraft. So there has been a number of folks expressing interest. I think this will be a very busy year for the Navy to respond to a request for information on the Super Hornet.”

Currently, Raytheon is in the final portion of Low Rate Initial Production (LRIP). As of the end of December, the company delivered 32 of the 42 systems within LRIP 4. Full Rate Production (FRP) should start in the spring, Goold said.

Raytheon is looking at how many AESA systems it can deliver monthly, once FRP is underway, he added.

“We are looking at it as we get this retrofit and additional interest from international folks, and looking at the capabilities and capacity we would have to deliver APG-79,” Goold said. “On an average [we’re] looking at five to six [systems] a month.”

The original plan called for LRIP to run through end of September 2008, Goold said. “The fact we talk about going into FRP deliveries in the spring of ’08, that gives you an example of how we have been pacing the deliveries Boeing has requested to meet the customer’s demand.”

As for the ongoing retrofit work, Goold said the Navy will look at award dates at the end or start of every fiscal year.

“This year it was at the start of FY ’09. The plan calls for annual awards, [and] to do that anywhere between five to six years over the 135 [aircraft],” he said. “Obviously, we are looking at international customer demands, demands of the U.S. fleet, along with the retrofits to ensure we can be making all the delivery schedules.”

The next retrofit contract award will likely call for 20 to 23 systems and the number will increase annually, Goold said.

Goold also noted VFA-22, the Super Hornet squadron in Naval Air Station Lemore, Calif., will be the first AESA equipped F/A-18 to deploy. Goold said the squadron would deploy this year.

“The Navy did their look at what their requirements were, and VFA-22 is going to be the first squadron to deploy,” he said.