Boeing Completes Resurrection Of F/A-18E/F With First Block III Delivery

Credit: U.S. Navy

Boeing on June 17 delivered the first F/A-18E/F Block III to the U.S. Navy to launch a yearlong testing campaign on a new configuration with around a $60 million flyaway cost that is currently being offered to five foreign air forces. 

“The Navy is going to go through their test program with these two test assets over the next year, and then about this time next year is when we’ll start delivering the fully operational Block IIIs,” said Jennifer Tebo, Boeing’s director of development for F-18 programs. 

The delivery milestone completes an unexpected resurrection of the twin-engine, carrier-based fighter. Until the fiscal 2019 budget was released, the Navy planned to order no additional F/A-18E/Fs after the last of 608 Block II jets ordered in fiscal 2018, which Boeing delivered to the Navy on April 17. 

But the newly-inaugurated Trump administration had different plans for the 25-year-old design. Although the Navy previously showed no interest in a 2013 Boeing proposal to reduce the radar cross section by half, the Navy in 2017 started showing interest in a more modest improvement. Rather than attempt to remake the F/A-18E/F to operate alongside the more stealthy Lockheed Martin F-35C, Boeing made tweaks to allow the Super Hornet to shoulder the predominantly air-to-air fleet defense mission, while staying on-station longer, carrying more weapons and more tightly integrating into the Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air system. 

The result is an F/A-18E/F Block III configuration anchored by the addition of the Distributed Targeting Processor Network (DTP-N), a mission computer 17 times more powerful than the previous system and capable of fusing data from onboard and off-board sensors. Boeing also integrated the high-bandwidth Tactical Targeting Network Technology datalink for the aircraft to receive the off-board data. To complete the new capability, Boeing also installed the Advanced Cockpit System, with large format displays to present the fused situational awareness data to the pilot. 

The new upgrade also comes with a pair of dorsal-mounted conformal fuel tanks to extend the aircraft’s range. Meanwhile, the belly-mounted, centerline fuel tank is upgraded with an improved infrared search-and-track sensor, which is needed to help the F/A-18E/F acquire aerial targets without giving away its location by turning on its radar. Finally, Boeing also modified the structure to accommodate a 9,000-hr.-plus service life. 

The aircraft is also set to receive new kinetic capabilities, likely starting with the H18 Operational Flight Program scheduled for release in fiscal 2023. The H16 release planned next year adds most of the Block III enhancements. The H18 release adds a powerful new weapon with the Advanced Anti-Radiation Guided Missile-Extended Range. The U.S. Air Force has also said that the F/A-18E/F will receive the Lockheed Martin AIM-260 Joint Advanced Tactical Missile after fiscal 2022, which aligns with the H18 release. 

Finally, the Navy has not defined the service’s vision for manned/unmanned teaming, but the scheduled arrival of the Miniature Air-Launched Decoy-Navy (MALD-N) in fiscal 2023 adds an intriguing new capability, with a single-use decoy or munition capable of operating in swarms with other unmanned or manned assets. The Boeing MQ-25 unmanned tanker is also scheduled to enter service in fiscal 2024. 

“We’re obviously exploring that area, trying to determine what are the best use cases,” Tebo said. “So I see that start to become more and more a reality as you start to see things like MQ-25 on the carrier deck and then other unmanned vehicles such as MALD-N.”

The Navy decided this year to truncate new F/A-18E/F Block III production after fiscal 2021 and divert the funding to the Next Generation Air Dominance program. Boeing now plans to deliver 72 new F/A-18E/F Block IIIs over the next two years, then start delivering 364 Block II jets modified to the new standard. Canada, Finland, Germany, India and Switzerland are also considering additional orders, which could extend new production well beyond fiscal 2021. 

Steve Trimble

Steve covers military aviation, missiles and space for the Aviation Week Network, based in Washington DC.