ST. LOUIS, Mo. — Boeing is offering a line of upgrades for international variants of its F/A-18E/F Super Hornets and F-15C/Es that the U.S. military is likely to envy and may well adopt as defense budgets shrink.

Even without budget cuts, the U.S. is facing a strike fighter shortage. But if deficit cutting takes a 25% slice out of defense spending, the Pentagon could lose its ability to transfer aircraft to some faraway battlefield in time to deter military adventurism in Asia, Africa or the Middle East. That lack of nearby assets already kept U.S. F-22 units on the East Coast from participating in the Libyan campaign.

But stopgap measures could enable less stealthy, conventional aircraft such as the F-15, B-1, F/A-18E/F, F-16 and EA-18G to penetrate farther into a foe’s most lethal threat rings. To avoid making such a foray a suicide mission, those aircraft can combine reduced signatures, electronic attack, directed-energy weapons, cyberoperations and standoff missiles to increase their striking range and penetration capabilities without driving up risk.

Among Boeing’s upgrade options for the Super Hornet is a stealthy weapons bay that can be attached to the aircraft’s exterior, says Mike Gibbons, Boeing’s F/A-18 and EA-18 programs vice president. Historically, any exterior payload — fuel tanks, weapons or sensors — damaged the stealth signature of an aircraft. This stealthy, 17.5-ft.-long weapons pod does not, he says.

In fact, the uniquely shaped bay, hung under the aircraft between the engines, creates a trap that either deflects radar signals away from the enemy sensor or sends them bouncing around a series of treated surfaces on the nose, engine nacelles, belly and bay itself, according to stealth specialists. After as few as two bounces, the radar signals are rendered too weak to be useful.

The weapon bay doors can open at speeds up to Mach 1.6, which, combined with high altitude, provides an increase in standoff range of 70-80% for some weapons. The low-drag, low-radar-cross-section weapons pod can carry four Amraam air-to-air missiles; six Small Diameter Bombs and two Amraams; or two 500-lb. bombs and two Amraams. Future options include a 2,000-lb. Blu-109 hard-target penetrator fitted with an extended-range wing kit as well as other weapons. Some of the weapons are attached to the weapon pod’s doors, but the layout ensures that no weapon is blocked by any other.

The manually scanned radar dish on the initial Super Hornets created radar glints from the flat emitter face and movements of the radar. An active, electronically scanned array (AESA), long-range radar in the Block 2 Super Hornets eliminates both of those problems with an upward-slanting radar face and no moving parts, stealth specialists say.

Conformal fuel tanks attached over the wing roots add 110 nm of combat radius, says Mark Gammon, program manager for the Super Hornet International Roadmap. Wind tunnel testing shows that at cruise and loiter speeds there is no performance penalty for the conformal tanks, and at Mach 0.6-0.75 there is actually improvement over baseline performance, he says.

Yet another international option is General Electric’s enhanced-performance F414. A new compressor fan and core gives it 20% more thrust than the standard F404.