Boeing Co. envisions future versions of the U.S. Navy's F/A-18E/F Super Hornet tracking stealth aircraft by their heat signatures.
That was among the upgrades outlined by Dan Gillian, manager of F/A-18 and EA-18 programs at the Chicago-based company, as part of a plan to keep the fourth-generation aircraft flying into the 2040s.
"It's a long-range, air-to-air counter-stealth sensor," Gillian said of the technology during a briefing with reporters this week at the Navy League's Sea-Air-Space conference in National Harbor, Maryland, outside Washington, D.C.
"Talk about complementary capabilities -- that's something that Super Hornet brings to the carrier that nobody else has," he added, in an apparent reference to the fifth-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter made competitor Lockheed Martin Corp.
Gillian outlined three efforts to assist the Navy in making its Super Hornet fighter jet and E/A-18 Growler electronic-attack fleets more potent in current and future missions: increased production, a potential maintenance program called service life modification, and so-called Block III upgrades to upgrade aircraft technology such as the new anti-stealth sensor.
Boeing is already building two new Super Hornets per month in St. Louis and could increase production, if the Navy or foreign governments such as Canada and Kuwait decide to buy more aircraft, Gillian said.
The Defense Department's supplemental budget request to Congress for fiscal 2017, which began Oct. 1, includes funding to buy 24 F/A-18E/F Super Hornet strike fighters, according to Pentagon budget documents. Congress has not yet voted on the request.
The Navy as of 2015 had 545 F/A-18E/F models in the inventory and planned to buy a total of 563 of the aircraft, according to information compiled by the Navy League. The service as of that year had another 114 EA-18G Growlers, with plans to buy a total of 153 of the aircraft.
The Canadian government in November announced it was in negotiations to buy 18 Super Hornet fighter jets, in a move that was seen as a blow to the F-35 program, which was originally envisioned to replace Canada's 30-plus-year-old CF-18 Hornet fleet.
Service Life Modification
A service-life modification could include engineering and sustainment improvements designed to increase the aircraft's operational life from 6,000 flight hours to 9,000 flight hours, Gillian said.
The F/A-18E/F fleet has been taxed in part by delays to the F-35 program coupled with an increased operational tempo resulting from missions against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
"Super Hornets have been flying hard, and doing a lot of the country's work, putting a lot of hours on the airplane that weren't planned to be burned up," Gillian said. On an aircraft carrier, roughly three out of four squadrons is a Super Hornet squadron, he said.
Mark Sears, Boeing's director of the service life modification program, said to keep Super Hornets flying into the 2040s as projected, the maintenance effort needs to happen.
Sears said the Navy has already returned to Boeing two of its F/A-18E/F aircraft to the St. Louis plant to be surveyed for the program. The company is optimistic the Navy will move forward with the effort, with a contract possibly in early 2018.
Block III Upgrades
The Block III upgrades could include the supplemental heat tracking and more. The proposals have shifted since 2013 when the company talked about making the Super Hornet stealthier.
Now, for example, a priority is to enhance the F/A-18E/F's tactical targeting technology in part by turning the plane into "a smart node" in the Navy's Integrated Fire Control Counter-Air (NIFC-CA) network, Gillian said.
"In the past we've talked about Super Hornet maybe could be just a dumb shooter with information passed to it," he said. "But with all the information available, with fusion, being [a contributor] to the network is really important."
Improving the aircraft's stealth technology isn't off the table.
"We think we do a little bit to the airplane to improve its stealth performance -- very simple, very low cost things we can do," Gillian said, but didn't elaborate.
As previously proposed, the modifications would include shoulder-mounted fuel tanks capable of carrying 3,500 lbs of gas to increase the aircraft's range by 120 nautical miles.
The enhancements would also include larger displays for an advanced cockpit system. The cockpit interface is designed to incorporate data from a "smart node" and the heat-seeking infrared search-and-track sensor. The Navy in 2015 approved the infrared search and track (IRST) system developed by Lockheed to enter low-rate initial production for the Super Hornet.
Finally, the Block III upgrades will include outfitting the electronic networks with cyber protections, Gillian said.
The company could start delivering its Block III-upgraded aircraft by the early 2020s, he said.