Lockheed Martin has begun the second phase of a project to integrate an infrared search and track (IRST) sensor internally on the U.S. Navy’s Boeing F/A-18E/F fleet.                                                                       

Boeing awarded a $108 million contract to Lockheed to complete the development, testing and qualification of the IRST 21 Block II sensor.

The award comes a year after Lockheed received two contracts from Boeing worth up to $100 million to launch Phase 1 of the IRST 21 upgrade for the F/A-18E/F.

The Navy also awarded Boeing a $152 million contract in August to start working on the second phase of the IRST 21 Block II development program.

The second-generation IRST 21 is one of several upgrades that form the configuration for the Block III version of the F/A-18/E/F.

“The IRST 21 sensor system provides U.S. Navy F/A-18E/F operators with superior detection and survivability capabilities,” said Michael Williamson, vice president of Sensors and Global Sustainment for Lockheed’s Missiles and Fire Control business.

The two-seat Boeing-made fighter is expected to operate alongside the Lockheed Martin F-35C until 2040, when it will be replaced by the planned Next Generation Air Dominance fighter.

To keep the F/A-18E/F relevant over the next two decades, the Navy is adding several features to improve its performance in long-range air-to-air combat.

In addition to the IRST 21 Block II, the F/A-18E/F Block III will also carry a new advanced cockpit display to improve situational awareness and a Tactical Targeting Network Technology (TTNT) data link to enable sensor fusion among multiple aircraft. An IRST sensor can detect targets at long range by their heat signature, rather than risk exposing their position by using a radar.

The Navy launched the original IRST 21 upgrade for the F/A-18E/F fleet in 2011, but it entered operational service on the Block II version of the aircraft in the nose of a belly-mounted fuel tank.

The F/A-18E/F Block III is redesigning the aircraft to incorporate the IRST 21 Block II internally.