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The Navy’s F/A-18 Super Hornet aircraft will live to fight another day … or many days actually, as the first of 78 “new” Block III Super Hornets arrived at Naval Air Station Patuxent River.
It makes sense that the Navy and Boeing might engineer a newer, upgraded variant of the F/A-18 to build upon the years of successful upgrades and service life extensions which have already been performed on the 1980s jet.
“The next few Block III jets to leave the production line will head to VX-9, at Naval Air Weapons Station (NAWS) China Lake, California, to start training for operational testing, during which the aircraft will undergo evaluation in scenarios that mimic operational missions,” a Navy report said.
Plans as far back as ten years ago were focused upon sustaining the F/A-18 to fight and fly well into the 2040s and beyond. The idea was, at least in part, to help bridge the gap until larger numbers of the F-35C arrived. Overall, the Navy plans to acquire as many as 273 F-35Cs. Efforts to construct a new Block III Super Hornet, interestingly, might be likened to what is being attempted with Boeing F-15EX, an effort to essentially try to engineer a new generation of massively enhanced 4th-generation aircraft in position to supplement the U.S. 5th-generation fleet.
A Navy report says that the new Block III Super Hornets are being built with an “advanced cockpit with new, configurable displays, advanced networking and radar signature enhancements.” The new Block III is also being built to fly for a 10,000-hour service life.
Block III Upgrades
The construction of the Block III likely advances a number of upgrades Boeing and the Navy have been working on for years to surge the aircraft into a future threat environment.
The Block II F/A-18 Variant, for example, first deployed in 2008, a refined design intended to, among other things, reduce the radar signature. This included the addition of conformal fuel tanks blended into the side fuselage of the aircraft to both extend fuel capacity and also create radar signature reducing contours. Sure enough, Navy program managers said that Block III innovations will build upon, extend and improve previous efforts with Block II to a large extent as well as “retrofit” Block III components into the Block II fleet for sustainment.
Aerodynamically configured conformal fuel tanks are engineered to carry up to 3,500 pounds of fuel, Boeing officials said. In addition to helping to reduce the signature, the conformal fuel tank and external weapons pod are engineered to help make the aircraft able to fly further with more weapons without increasing signature or drag for the airplane, Navy officials said.
A Navy report on the now emerging Block III F/A-18 Super Hornet maintains that the upgraded 4th-generation aircraft incorporates some radar signature reducing attributes as well as a new generation of networking, targeting and avionics intended to propel the carrier-launched aircraft’s service life for decades to come.
The first of 78-planned F/A-18 Block IIIs has arrived, according to a Navy report. Sure enough, pictures published of the Block III in a Navy report do show what looks like a smoother, more rounded “stealthier” airframe than previous F/A-18 variants did.
Certainly lessons learned when it comes to lower-radar signatures likely go back many years. Earlier modernization efforts with the F/A-18 included efforts included the engineering and construction of smooth, rounded external weapons pods to decrease the amount of radar return-signal generating “hard points” edge or protruding structures such as weapons hanging under the wings on pylons. The intent is of course to go create a full “stealthy” aircraft as that would not be realistic, given the external structure of an F/A-18, but simply decrease the radar signature to better enable its ability to fight in a high-threat environment against a major adversary.
The external weapons pod -- as opposed to using pylons to carry the weapons -- could lead to greater use of air-to-air missiles as well as air-to-ground bombs. The enclosed, external aerodynamically engineered weapons pod is built to carry up to 2,500-pounds of weapons.
The Super Hornet is configured to fire the AIM 9X Sidewinder air-to-air missile, the AIM 120 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air missile air-to-air missile, or AMRAAM, the Joint Standoff Weapon, the Small Diameter Bomb and the Mk-84 general purpose bomb, among others.
Radar and Countermeasures
Some of the other enhancements built into Block II more than 10 years ago likely to influence Block III are things like Active Electronically Scanned Array, or AESA, radar, "jamming" decoys and an integrated electronic countermeasures system. The countermeasures system consists of three main components; it includes an on-board jammer, visually cued radar warning receiver and a decoy, according to Navy officials.
There is also an advanced upgrade to F/A-18s which has been underway now for many years to help the aircraft sustain functionality and targeting in an EW-challenged environment. This included the addition of a new generation of targeting technology called Infrared Search and Track, or IRST.
This upgrade, underway now for many years with Navy F/A-18s, enabled continued operational effectiveness in a “jamming environment,” meaning hardened targeting sensing and transmission signals are able to perform despite facing substantial EW threats. An ability to do this may pertain to things such as “frequency hopping” to discern and avoid jammed frequencies or other kinds of hardening technologies.
Prior F/A-18 Enhancements
Other previous F/A-18 enhancement included the addition of a Joint Helmet-Mounted Cueing System, which is a technology upgrade that engineers a viewing module providing a 20-degree field of view visor. Additional technologies for Super Hornets include Digital Communication System Radio, MIDS Joint Tactical Radio System, Digital Memory Device, Distributed Targeting System, Infrared Search and Track and continued advancement of the APG-79 Active Electronically Scanned Array Radar.
The Navy report specifies that the new F/A-18 Block III has already been integrated onto aircraft carrier flight decks.
“The new aircraft has successfully completed Carrier Suitability Testing, and a comprehensive evaluation of the new Block III mission system components is now underway,” said Bob David, the F/A-18 & EA-18G Program Office’s (PMA-265) Assistant Program Manager for Test and Evaluation.
This is a complex process likely to assess the degree to which stealth-like enhancements impact the maneuverability of the aircraft as well as its ability to successfully land on a carrier deck in various sea states and weather conditions.
VX-23, the Navy’s Test and Evaluation Squadron, “conducted shake, rattle and roll testing, which mimics the aircraft carrier environment to ensure the aircraft and each new system installed can withstand the intense forces of both a catapult-assisted launch and a ship-based arrested landing.”
Described as “risk reduction” combat preparation elements for the Block III, the Navy report refers to both hardware and software enhancements as well. One software enhancement called “Magic Carpet,” goes back nearly ten years as well. This is a software application intended to assist and smooth out carrier landings for F/A-18 pilots. This is not surprising, and it may even be an ambitious attempt to rival or try to come close to the F-35s “Delta Flight Path” software which uses computer automation and advanced software to ensure proper glide slope for the F-35C as well as vertical landing stability for the F-35B.
Boeing and the Navy are setting a fast-paced delivery schedule for its planned fleet of 78 Block III aircraft; Boeing is contracted to deliver two Block III aircraft, per month, through the end of calendar year 2024.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox