Boeing is enhancing the latest variant of the venerable F/A-18 Hornet with a “next generation” computer, a new infrared search and tracking system (IRST) and other flight deck upgrades, intended to continue its role as the U.S. Navy’s frontline strike fighter into the next decade and possibly beyond. With recent and ongoing avionics upgrades, the Super Hornet should be able to fulfill both the air-to-air and air-to-ground missions it was designed for in the face of increasingly hostile enemy threats.
“As we move forward, we continue to support, maintain and advance the fleet. An important part of that advancement is continually fielding upgrades to our avionics components to provide our warfighters with the most up-to-date capabilities and equipment,” said Capt. Frank Morley, program manager for the F/A-18 and EA-18G Program Office (PMA-265) at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md.
Borrowing from the design of Northrop’s YF-17, the twin-engine F/A-18 has served the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps since 1983. The F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, with a 30 percent increase in capacity (it carries 33 percent more fuel, increasing mission range by 41 percent over the legacy Hornet) joined the fleet in 1999. It featured improved stealth features and refueling capability. (The Super Hornet’s missions include air superiority, day/night strike with precision -guided weapons, close air support, suppression of enemy air defenses, maritime strike and reconnaissance.)
Boeing has delivered a total of 509 Super Hornets to the fleet, including 24 for the Royal Australian Air Force. Deliveries under current contracts are continuing and the Navy currently plans to procure a total of 565 F/A-18E/Fs. (A further delay in the service debut of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter could see numbers rise.)
The EA-18G Growler, which became operational in 2009, is an airborne electronic attack (AEA) aircraft with targeting and self-defense capabilities derived from the F/A-18E/F. (To date 88 have been delivered out of 114 planned.) Boeing anticipates the two aircraft will be operating from carriers and land-based airfields through the year 2035.
“Here on the F-18 and Growler program, we’re coming up with evolutionary approaches, inserting technology into the platform. And we’re trying to minimize our risk and the risk shared by our customer, doing it in such a manner you have predictable costs,” said Kevin Fogarty, Boeing director of F/A-18E/F and EA-18G mission systems.
“The F-18 that you may have known from years ago isn’t the F-18 that is coming off our production line today. We’re committed in support of our customer’s desire to keep the F-18 relative and a main part of Naval aviation for the years to come,” Fogarty says. “If you look at the carrier deck, you are going to see the Super Hornets and Growlers for a long time.”
When Boeing delivered the Super Hornet, the major upgrade was the Raytheon APG-73 active electronically scanned radar (AESA), which had already been fitted to late versions of the F/A-18C. It also had a large LCD multipurpose flat panel display, in place of current (on F/A-18C/Ds) three head-down displays. Upgrades delivered in Block II configuration which became operational in 2007 included Raytheon’s AN/ASQ-228 advanced targeting forward-looking infrared (ATFLIR) system — the main electro-optical sensor and laser designator pod and the joint helmet-mounted cueing system (JHMCS). This system, provided by VSI, a joint venture of Elbit Systems, of Haifa, Israel, and Rockwell Collins, is flying on all current F/A-18 models and is now operational in both cockpits of the F and G models providing multi-purpose situational awareness, including cueing of the AIM-9X Sidewinder missile.
Later in Block II the radar system was upgraded to the APG-79, which enables the crew to execute simultaneous air-to-air and air-to-ground attacks and also provides high-resolution ground mapping at standoff ranges. The AESA radar can reportedly detect smaller targets, such as inbound missiles, and can track air targets beyond the range of the Hornet’s own air-to-air missiles. (The Navy plans to retrofit earlier Block II aircraft with the upgraded radar.)
The multi-functional information distribution system (MIDS) was upgraded with the MIDS-JTRS system to allow increased bandwidth and compatibility with the Joint Tactical Radio System standards. Fully integrated weapons systems and sensors were designed for reduced crew workload and increased capability.
Also in Block II, on the two-seat F/A-18F, Boeing “decoupled” the cockpit, whereby each crew member has the same displays and controls, Fogarty said. (The F/A-18E/F also has a quadruple digital fly-by wire flight control system, produced by BAE Electronic Systems.)
The new Type 4 advanced mission computer (AMC), intended as “baseline” for delivery to some international customers in 2014, has successfully completed flight testing at the Naval Air Weapons Station in China Lake, Calif. The computer, which Fogarty describes as “an enabler for our future capabilities,” has been internally funded by Boeing up to this point. Boeing cites potential new international customers in Denmark, Brazil and Malaysia and some customers in the Middle East. In addition, Canada is interested in looking at the Super Hornet, and Australia has requested information under its foreign military sales agreement with the United States for potential purchase of extra Super Hornets which could double its fleet of aircraft.
Fogarty says the U.S. Navy is very interested in the advanced computer, which offers increased processing capabilities, “especially when they start looking at the projected life of the aircraft to carry it out to 2030 and beyond. It provides the processing foundation you need to enable future upgrades.” At this point, their Navy customer has not decided on the production insertion points, he says. “We are providing them with opportunities, depending on what their resources look like in the future, to update their aircraft. “
The AMC “effectively does all the weapon system-level processing on the aircraft all the sensor merging and presentations that are associated with the navigation and other functions required to fly the aircraft and land it on a carrier,” Fogarty says. “The intention is trying to minimize any extra work the air crew has to do, so they can focus on whatever their mission of the day is.”
General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems is Boeing’s principal supplier for development of the Type 4 AMC. (Its predecessor, the Type 3 AMC, is in production and is currently deployed in fleet aircraft.) “We’ve been working with Boeing for the past four years developing and integrating the Type 4 system, working with the Navy to complete flight testing,” said John Fleming, senior program manager of Avionics Systems Development for the General Dynamics unit. “We developed our own core processor and display processing as part of the Type 4. But Boeing has paid for the majority of the development in total.” General Dynamics’s parts that were developed under its own commercial product line will be used for other platforms, he adds, “but the Type 4 as it stands is strictly for the F/A-18.”
As an upgrade, the AMC “increases overall performance, bringing twice the amount of processing power,” Fleming says. “We have integrated an internal gigabit Ethernet switch and that provides the internal backbone to the Type 4 computer’s processing elements as well as providing an interface to the rest of the systems in the F/A-18. It provides a higher-speed data network that allows data and images to be transferred at a higher bandwidth.” The computer software is a “high order language” allowing for advanced software tools, products and processes to be used when Boeing or the end user develops their applications, algorithms or software code needed for the aircraft, he adds.
Fleming says the computer is similar to the core mission computer on the Boeing KC-46A tanker aircraft. “We have consolidated mission processing and display processing into one mission computer; before these were two separate systems. It grabs input from multiple sensors on the platform and therefore we work with Boeing to provide mission critical intelligence for cockpit displays. “We leverage commercial operating systems built around a partitioning architecture to provide embedded systems with total reliability and guaranteed memory resources. The Hornet has a 20-year service life, so we use some patented solutions to make this commercial technology more rugged and able to withstand the harsh environment in which the F-18 operates,” he adds.
The AMC will support new systems being incorporated into the aircraft in what Boeing and the Navy call their “Flight Plan.” These include a Distributed Targeting System, a new high-definition touchscreen display, and an IRST system. Boeing is evaluating its new IRST system utilizing a King Air flying testbed. “This enables the IRST program to go beyond what lab simulation can achieve by actually flying the hardware,” said Jeff Brundt, flight test engineer for Boeing Test and Evaluation. “The King Air allows us to have a payload capability that allows us to carry test engineers and their equipment on board. We’re considered a rapid prototyping shop,” he adds.
The advanced IRST “really takes our air-to-air capability to the next level, so not only do we have the ability to track with our (AESA) radar, but it is augmented by this passive infrared sensor. So using the radar in conjunction with the IRST extends detection range, helps us see through jamming and allows us to engage and deploy weapons even if we are in a high-threat-jamming environment,” says Tim Adrian, Boeing IRST program manager.
Expected to achieve Initial Operating Capability (IOC) in 2016, the IRST “is going to give aircrews the ability to supplement their normal targets using radar, with a sensor that works in an entirely different spectrum. Where they (the enemy) may be able to electronically mask themselves, they can’t necessarily mask their heat signature,” said Matt Deringer, test conductor.
A software block upgrade for the Super Hornet and the Growler will allow for incremental additions of current and future sensors, including the distributed tracking system (DTS) hardware, and also provide air-to-ground correlation of on-board and off-board sensors, the Navy’s PMA-265 program office says. Display upgrades include a larger 9-by-11-inch touchscreen multifunction display, a “low profile” head-up display and integration of other displays, which are all part of what Fogarty calls “our advanced crew station which is a new look that will greatly increase the situational awareness provided to the flight crew.” Elbit is the supplier for both the large area display and the low-profile HUD.
Also, a new reference standby display is being developed for the aircraft, which will integrate four existing displays that are used for backup into one display, Fogarty says. That display, designed and built by L-3, was scheduled to begin delivery in Boeing’s Lot 35 aircraft last spring. L-3’s GH-4200 electronic standby instrument system (ESIS) “represents the next generation of standby technology for demanding high-performance military aircraft,” the avionics manufacturer said. Boeing’s contract to provide a reference standby display (RSD) instrument and a GH-4000 reference standby display repeater (SDR) for the Super Hornet, along with similar equipment for Boeing’s F-15 (Air Force) fighter “expands the presence of our next generation solid state equipment into the tactical aircraft market,” said Larry Riddle, vice president of business development for L-3 Avionics Systems.
The display repeater is built for dual cockpits, providing both pilots in the F/A-18E/F the same altitude, attitude and airspeed information (in event of a panel failure) in a layout that matches the aircraft’s primary system, along with optional interfaces for heading, slip/skid, vertical speed and navigation data. The GH-4200 contains internal altitude, air data and accelerometer sensors and is capable of receiving turn rate data as well as analog deviation data from a navigation receiver, the company says.
Other systems on the aircraft continue to perform according to expectations. Raytheon has delivered more than 350 APG-79 AESA systems to Boeing and the Royal Australian Air Force for F/A-18E/Fs and Growlers. Another Raytheon system on the Super Hornet the ATFLIR pod last year achieved more than 1 million hours of operational flight on the Super Hornet. Also Raytheon last year delivered its 600th ALR-67(V) radar warning receiver, part of the Hornet’s electronic warfare self-defense systems. The electronic countermeasures suite also includes the Northrop Grumman AN/ALQ-165 airborne self protection jammer replaced in newer Block II aircraft by BAE Systems AN/ALQ-214 integrated defensive countermeasures system consisting of internally mounted threat receivers and optional self-protection jammer; and the Raytheon AN/ALE-50 or BAE Systems AN/ALE-55 towed decoy.