WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy this month accepted the first two Block III F/A-18 Super Hornet jets from Boeing, the company announced Sept. 27, kicking off a process that will create a better networked and more lethal fighter fleet.
Boeing will build 78 total new aircraft in the Block III configuration, which includes an Advanced Cockpit System built around a touchscreen display; the Tactical Targeting Network Technology, or TTNT; and Distributed Targeting Processor-Networked, or DTP-N.
The network will help link all the sensors from aircraft and ships in the battlespace to create a better operational picture for smarter targeting decisions, and the new processor has 17 times the computing power of the precious mission computer, Jen Tebo, Boeing’s vice president of F/A-18 and EA-18G projects, told reporters Sept. 23. Tebo added that the new, open-design processor can take on yet-to-come upgrades and capabilities.
The Block III jets are also built for 10,000 flight hours compared to 6,000 hours for earlier jets, and they’ve been made stealthier and more survivable with additional treatments that reduce their radar cross section, Tebo explained.
“If you think about where the capabilities are going in the future, it’s certainly around the airframe, certainly around the survivability piece, stealth technology piece. But the meat and potatoes in the future are really going to be around the networking and the mission systems, and this sets up the Super Hornet to be the risk-reducer and the bridge to get to Next Gen Air Dominance,” she said, referring to the Navy’s next fighter program that’s in the early planning stages.
Boeing is to deliver the new aircraft at a pace of about two per month.
At the same time, the Navy is putting its Block II Super Hornets through a life-extension program, and all aircraft going through those upgrades — meant to fix wear and tear on the airframe and extend the jets from 6,000 to 10,000 hours of flight time — will receive upgrades to the Block III configuration. Tebo said that if the Navy puts all its Block II aircraft through the modification program, the service would have more than 500 total Block III aircraft — new and upgraded — that would continue trickling into the fleet well into the 2030s.
Boeing delivered two test aircraft to the Navy last year, and the service tested the new systems and conducted carrier suitability tests with the new cockpit, said Kevin McLaughlin, Boeing’s director of Navy tactical aircraft programs. With the delivery of these first two operational Block III jets, the Navy can send them to China Lake, California, to undergo developing tactics, techniques and procedures for the new capabilities, which will allow the pilots to receive more information than before and work in coordination with more troops in the area.
Additionally, he said, pilots from the first operational squadron to receive Block III jets will travel to St. Louis, Missouri, this fall to begin learning the new systems in simulators at Boeing’s facility there.
McLaughlin, a career Navy F-18 pilot himself, said the touchscreen cockpit system will be a particularly important improvement. Older jets have three small screens that only display certain information each; the new cockpit has one large touchscreen display that could be configured like the previous display, if pilots are more comfortable in the beginning looking at a familiar display, but they can also be reconfigured to highlight information that’s most important to a particular mission.
Tebo said the display will incorporate future capabilities such as artificial intelligence and decision aides. Earlier Super Hornets received upgrades about every other year, but the open-mission system on Block III will allow the Navy, Boeing or a third party to develop improvements or new capabilities.
By the end of the year, Tebo said, the Navy will have begun sending the jets coming off the production line to operational squadrons.
The Block III jets will be ready to accept the Infrared search and track sensor system that will come online around the same time the aircraft are ready for their first operational employment. The jets will also be ready to accept a conformal fuel tank — which Boeing originally pitched as part of the Block III design — if the Navy decides to finish designing the tanks and buy that capability, Tebo said.
Boeing’s approach to modernizing the Navy’s fleet stairsteps up the capability of the jets while buying down risk on the next step of modernization, Tebo added.
The EA-18G Growler electronic attack jet is undergoing a modernization effort that adds in TTNT, DTP-N and satellite communication, she said. Boeing will take those same upgrade kits and use them for the Super Hornet service life modification as well as the Block III upgrade effort, adding in the advanced cockpit and the materials needed to extend the airframe by 4,000 hours. Once that effort is proven, the Growlers will receive upgrades to a Block II configuration with the advanced cockpit, which Tebo said Boeing will know how to efficiently install thanks to the Super Hornet work.
“There’s a lot of learning that goes on between the two platforms,” she said, with all of the learning ultimately informing the company’s work on the Next Generation Air Dominance future fighter.
During the same event, Tebo also addressed foreign sales opportunities Boeing is pursuing. Switzerland chose the F-35 over the F-18 earlier this year, she said, but the company remains hopeful Canada or Finland will select the Super Hornet.
Canada, which would buy 88 jets, is an F-35 partner nation but already fields Super Hornets and is involved in the F-18 industrial base.
With Finland, the Growler is also part of Boeing’s offer, and Tebo said the EA-18G could be the differentiating factor that helps the company win a contract.
Additionally, Germany plans to buy Super Hornets and Growlers to replace its aging Tornado fighter-bombers as well as upgrade its multirole Eurofighters, but Tebo said the timing remains unclear. Boeing is continuing discussions with Germany until the country’s leadership is ready to sign a deal.
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.