Seeking to fill the void now presented by the expected delay of the F-35 Lightning II strike fighting into United States naval service, Boeing has taken to a private venture to produce a "stealthified" version of its excellent carrier-based F/A-18E/F "Super Hornet" series under the project designation of "Advanced Super Hornet". The type will feature modular components retrofitted to the existing Super Hornet airframe in an attempt to lower its radar signature and overall profile while being a budget conscious solution to current USN needs. Key to the changes will be implementation of an enclosed weapons pod under the fuselage, use of Conformal Fuel Tanks (CFTs) and an all new "skin" coating along surfaces. On the whole, the airframe will remain largely the same and compatible with all current hardware and software systems in use. As such, it is expected that the Advanced Super Hornet will received some serious attention from the United States Navy and Super Hornet operators from around the world.
Considering that the USMC is expected to achieve operational levels with their F-35s not until 2015 with the USAF following in 2016, the USN - and its more complex requirements and arrangements - is pushing for full operational capability as far into the future as 2018 - leaving a noticeable gap between now and then. As it stands, the F/A-18 series is an experienced and proven flight system and simply modifying the type for modern service would seem a tempting choice for the USN while awaiting their more technology-laden airplane.
Boeing expects the revised Super Hornet to begin flight testing in the middle (or late) of 2013. The United States Navy is actively backing the Boeing initiative through its operations department (OPNAV) and has leased a USN Super Hornet production model to Boeing for the work. Initial flight evaluations with the conversion kits in place will take place at Boeing's St. Louis facility in Missouri and then, later, at the USN's Patuxent River NAS in Maryland. The test program is designed as a data-gathering effort to evaluate the feasibility of a "stealth" Super Hornet which would also extend the service life of this stalwart aircraft considerably (it is already expected to serve up until 2040). The base Super Hornet does field some inherent stealth capabilities though its external weapons loadout compromise further efforts - hence the development of a weapons pod to contain munitions until fired. The weapons pod will lay under the center fuselage and house up to four missiles (or similar stores). The conformal fuel tanks will not only retard the airframe's low already signature but also increase the base Super Hornet's combat radius from the standard 390 nautical miles to approximately 510 nautical miles. The cockpits will be slightly reworked to include increased-area touchscreen displays and projected engines will be uprated General Electric F414 turbofans.
The edits to the Super Hornet through the Advanced Super Hornet initiative may also be in contention for modifying the existing fleet of EA-18G Growler carrier-based Electronic Warfare Aircraft (EWA).
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Underfuselage centerline weapons pod housing 2 x AIM-120 AMRAAM medium range air-to-air missiles and 2 x AGM-154 Joint Standoff glide bombs, drop bombs, guided bombs or similar arrangement. Pod can be removed and all original eleven hardpoints can be used for up to 17,750lb of external ordnance.
F/A-18 "Super Hornet" - Base Series Designation; two-seat strike platform; based on the single-seat F/A-18 Hornet carrier-based strike fighter.
F/A-18E "Super Hornet" - Single-seat variant
F/A-18F "Super Hornet" - Twin-Seat Variant
F/A-18E/F "Advanced Super Hornet" - Project Designation for modified stealthy F/A-18E/F model; centerline weapons pod; conformal fuel tanks; revised cockpit intrumentation; conformal infrared Search-and-Track sensor equipment; retains all of the existing F/A-18E/F combat capabilities.
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