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Boeing's high hopes for the Super Hornet

Big B wants to keep its successful F/A-18E and F Super Hornets rolling off the line for as long as possible, and the company is dreaming up all sorts of enhancements to entice interest from foreign buyers and, who knows, maybe the U.S. Navy.

Company officials told our colleague John Reed this week that they're looking into ways a Super Hornet could launch its own unmanned aerial vehicle -- the company's ScanEagle -- which a Super Hornet's crew could then vector into an area of interest.

Plus there could be other changes in the works for Es and Fs, Boeing says; anything to press the opportunity for sales while rival Lockheed Martin's F-35 Lightning II takes longer than promised to materialize.

Wrote Reed:

Other potential upgrades to the Super Hornet could include the installation of a stealthy weapons pod; conformal fuel tanks along the upper fuselage that give the jet more than 3,500 gallons of additional fuel; enhanced General Electric engines that would provide increased fuel efficiency and up to 20 percent more thrust; and a bevy of avionics and sensor upgrades designed to improve the plane's ability to collect and share data as well as jam enemy sensors. All the information gathered by these sensors would be displayed in the cockpit on a giant, color touch screen resembling a large iPad.

While Boeing has no official contracts to install these features on any of its Super Hornets, it is conducting research and development work to ensure that it can do so, should a customer request them.

"As international customers buy Super Hornets, they can tailor it to their needs" as they evolve by taking advantage of the new features that Boeing is researching, said Chris Chadwick, head of Boeing's military aircraft division, during a June 7 meeting with reporters.

One key target is Brazil, as you've read here before. Boeing's sales pitch seems to be that it could make a batch of Super Hornets that would be to Brazil what the company's F-15SA Eagles are to Saudi Arabia -- a cutting edge expression of an old design, one that it hopes overshadows newer-model competitors. (And, aircraft that, for what it's worth, match or exceed those fielded by the U.S. military.)

Then there is the Super Hornet's best-known devotee: The United States Navy.

It plans to keep operating its fleet for years, even alongside Lockheed Martin's F-35C Lightning II. So each of Boeing's new high-tech enhancements, from the canister-launched UAV to range and C4ISR improvements, would probably be of great interest. Moreover, the company's pitch could grow to represent a fallback middle path between building more U.S. jets and building none. Its first choice would almost certainly be to continue building new airplanes. But if the company sold its UAV support, engine upgrades and other enhancements as bolt-on accessories, ones it could install on the Navy's existing fleet, that would still mean work for its Super Hornet business. Years from now, the Navy might be flying F/A-18H and I-model Super Duper Hornets.

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