Boeing’s new tricked-out Advanced Super Hornet

Showing off its new conformal fuel tanks and the enclosed weapons pod, the Advanced Super Hornet prototype soars over Lambert-St. Louis airport. (Photo by Christopher P. Cavas)

You’re Boeing and you’re still making Super Hornet strike fighters, but the US market for new F/A-18 E and Fs and their EA-18G Growler cousins won’t last much longer. Those 600+ US Navy aircraft will be around for many years to come, however, and the export market is only beginning to be tapped. So how you do keep your tried-and-true aircraft on the cutting edge?

Boeing’s answer: a package of upgrades that can be bought together or separately, added on to existing aircraft or ordered in advance. Together, the package is known as the Advanced Super Hornet (ASH), a collection of system upgrades and add-ons intended to extend the Super Hornet’s performance envelope. 

The company and its top sub-primes, including Northrop Grumman, General Electric and Raytheon, are still developing all the features, but Boeing modified an assembly-line two-seat F/A-18F this summer for flight tests of two of the most visible enhancements – conformal fuel tanks and a new enclosed weapons pod, both part of an effort to reduce the aircraft’s radar cross section, particularly when viewed from head-on.

A group of reporters, Defense News among them, were flown by Boeing at company expense out to St. Louis, Mo., late in August to witness a flight demonstration of the prototype aircraft. Also in attendance were representatives from Denmark and Brazil, two countries holding fighter competitions that Boeing would dearly love to win.

Neither the fuel tanks nor the weapons pod were operational, as the primary goal of these initial flight tests was to gauge the flight characteristics of the mods and to measure their signatures. Boeing flew the aircraft out of its facility at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, then out to the Navy’s test field at Patuxent River, Md., where, according to a Boeing official, “the Navy will own all the test data.”

All the ASH upgrades are being developed at company expense; the Navy, which has no requirement for the addons, is watching “with interest,” according to an official.

Specific prices have yet to be calculated for the ASH package, but Boeing officials estimate a full suite would run about $6 million to $8 million for a new aircraft, around $9 million for upgrades to an existing plane.

Read our story for more on the Advanced Super Hornet.

Boeing test pilots perform final pre-flight checks before taking to the air. The conformal fuel tanks fitted atop the fuselage and inner wings are shaped to follow the area rule that allows for smooth supersonic flight. (Photo by Christopher P. Cavas)

The ASH upgrades are intended to dramatically reduce the Super Hornet's radar cross section, particularly when viewed head-on. (Photo by Christopher P. Cavas)

Boeing applied a fancy representation of a hornet's wings to the aircraft's tail fins. (Photo by Christopher P. Cavas)

Seen from behind, the conformal fuel tanks are barely noticeable. (Photo by Christopher P. Cavas)

The CFTs and weapons pod mean external fittings don't need to be hung from the wings. (Photo by Christopher P. Cavas)

Installation of the fuel tanks, made by Northrop Grumman, requires modifications to the aircraft's internal plumbing. While the tanks can be removed, the additional tubing would remain on an operational aircraft. (Photo by Christopher P. Cavas)

The area rule concept requires a sort of wavy shaping similar to that of an old-fashioned Coke bottle. The CFTs are faithful to the concept. (Photo by Christopher P. Cavas)

The enclosed weapons pod can carry a variety of missiles, rockets and bombs, mounted inside and on the inner doors. (Photo by Christopher P. Cavas)

External, enclosed weapons pods are not in current use by the US Navy. A classic US Air Force bomber of the 1950s, the Convair B-58 Hustler, used the idea -- on a much larger scale -- to carry a tactical nuclear weapon. (Photo by Christopher P. Cavas)

The aircraft banks to return to base. Boeing claims there are no maneuverability restrictions with the ASH upgrades, and says the conformal fuel tanks do not add drag. (Photo by Christopher P. Cavas)

A Boeing photo illustrates the aircraft's clean configuration.

The ASH prototype returns to the Boeing facility after a demonstration flight. (Photo by Christopher P. Cavas)

The fuel tanks and weapons pod fitted on the prototype are non-functioning, but have the same shape and weight as operational versions. (Photo by Christopher P. Cavas)

Along with reporters, representatives from Denmark and Brazil were on hand to witness the demonstration flight. The Super Hornet is a contender in each country's fighter competition. (Photo by Christopher P. Cavas)


Christopher P. Cavas
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Christopher P. Cavas

If it's on, over, under or around the water, I write about it. Ships and aircraft, units, tactics, leadership, strategies, acquisition, politics, industry. In the USA and around the world.
Christopher P. Cavas
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