When first starting to cover the HX-program, I held the JAS 39E Gripen and F-35A Lightning II as the favourites, with the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet as the potential black horse. Since that, I have questioned the chances of the ‘Super Bug’, mainly based on two different issues.
The first has been the lack of a major road map or upgrade. The first Advanced Super Hornet-concept was displayed already in 2013 with a company-funded prototype. This was then gradually replaced by less ambitious proposals and talk about integrating only some of the features demonstrated by the Advanced Super Hornet. The US Navy, however, didn’t seem too interested in either the 2013 or the 2016 version of the concepts.
The other has been the seemingly low priority given to the Finnish program by Boeing. Compared to the Danish Kampfly-program where Boeing launched a serious marketing effort (and eventually took the whole thing to court), Boeing has been remarkably absent from the public spotlight in Finland.
Both of these changed last week, with the US Navy ordering the Block III-upgrade to the fleet’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornets and EA-18G Growlers, and Boeing making a high-profile appearance at two Finnish air shows in Helsinki on Friday and Seinäjoki on Saturday and Sunday. Not only did Boeing manage to bring two Super Hornets to Finland, but I also got the opportunity to have a chat with senior manager Bryan Crutchfield to get a better picture of the company’s effort to keep their position as Finland’s supplier of fighter aircraft.
The two fighters brought to Finland were a F/A-18F two-seater and a F/A-18E single-seater. While the single-seater was from the distinguished US Navy squadron VFA-143 Pukin’ Dogs of Vietnam MiG-killer fame, it was the two-seater that really got the heads turning. This was nothing less than the brightly-painted CAG-bird of VFA-103 Jolly Rogers, perhaps the most famous naval fighter aircraft in the world. Getting the opportunity to see both the F/A-18E and the F/A-18F in low-level formation was something many Finnish aviation enthusiasts were happy to experience.
Back on the ground, the F/A-18E spent Saturday as a Boeing demonstrator with temporary markings and mock-up conformal fuel tanks, before reverting back to a Block II F/A-18E for Sunday, and continuing on to Pirkkala AFB (Tampere) where they spent the early part of the week offering the Air Force an opportunity to study the aircraft closer. Pirkkala is home to Satakunta Air Command, responsible for the development of tactics and air doctrines as well as handling flight testing and playing a “pivotal role in the development and fielding of new systems”. This is something of a marketing victory for Boeing, as they are the first to offer the Air Force this kind of a chance to get to explore the aircraft on their home turf and according to their own wishes, guided by the company’s own test pilots.
While the Block III might be toned down when it comes to RCS reduction compared to the original Advanced Super Hornet, this is a calculated decision by Boeing. “The Super Hornet Block I reached initial operational capability back in 2001, when stealth was the hot stuff”, Bryan Crutchfield explains. “This means that the aircraft is designed with stealth features, but so are all the other contenders, so that’s nothing special.” Instead, Boeing likes to focus their energy on other measures, such as jamming. According to their view, jamming provides a flexibility that stealth does not, i.e. you are not restricted to a certain waveband, while at the same time avoiding compromises when it comes to aerodynamics and space restrictions. This means that while stealth might hold significant benefits today, the question whether it will in 2050 is far more uncertain given the current development of sensors with the specific goal of countering X-band stealth.
The US Navy also seems to be happy with this dual-pronged approach, as there are currently no plans to let the F-35 replace the Super Hornet. Instead, the two will keep operating side-by-side into the foreseeable future, with the F-35C replacing the ‘legacy’ F/A-18A through D Hornets currently sharing the carrier decks with the Super Hornet. Exactly how long this will last is anyone’s guess, as the US Navy only forecasts around 25 years into the future (contrary to many other air arms), and there’s currently no retirement date set. Boeing, however, expects the Super Hornet to continue in US Navy service to around 2060, in line with (and then some) the plans for HX. In part this is based on a forecasted need for 100+ new Super Hornets being bought by the Navy within then next five years, with these being expected to serve their full lifespan.
What does Block III then hold? The biggest external change is the conformal fuel tanks, which provide added fuel capacity at a lower drag and RCS compared to traditional external fuel tanks, and without occupying hardpoints that could be used for weapons or other pods. However, as is usually the case with these kinds of upgrades, the main changes are on the inside. One major improvement is the increase in bandwidth when transmitting and receiving data to and from other aircraft. This has become an increasingly important issue, as more and more sensor data and imagery are being transmitted between not only fighters, but other friendly units and installations as well.
Another important upgrade is the fitting of an IRST. IR-sensors are nothing new to US Navy fighters, having featured them on a number of occasions throughout history. However, it is only now they really start to come into their own as mature sensor systems. Part of this is because the sensors themselves have matured, but a part also comes from sensor fusion making it easier for the pilot to take in data not coming from the aircraft’s primary sensor.
And speaking of taking in data, a huge improvement is the new large area display replacing the earlier smaller multi-function displays. The display not only means more surface area on which to show information to the pilot, but also makes a higher degree of customisation possible, based on either individual preferences or the type of mission currently being flown. It is as an example possible to now have both the air-to-air and air-to-ground pictures up on the screen at the same time, thanks to the AN/APG-79 AESA radar and the huge screen area available.
The customisation also makes changes to the human-machine interface quicker, a key focus as the increasing number of sensors and data received from other platforms puts ever increasing demands on the pilots to be able to process large amounts of information. Boeing described how they run simulator tests with a group of around sixty active pilots who came in and tested an upcoming update. After having gathered their feedback, Boeing sent them out for lunch, and the software engineers started to make quick changes which allowed for a second run of testing by the same pilots the very same afternoon. Adaptability is the name of Boeing’s game, and they are increasingly moving away from bigger occasional updates to regular smaller ones.