PARIS --- Fifth- and sixth-generation aircraft have been grabbing headlines of late. But far from being yesterday’s news, fourth-generation fighters are being upgraded with new technology to keep them flying and operationally relevant for decades to come.
In March, the Navy awarded Boeing a three-year contract valued at approximately $4 billion for 78 new Block 3 F/A-18E/F Super Hornets. The company will also begin converting legacy Block 2 Super Hornets to Block 3 in the early 2020s.
The new configuration includes a number of upgrades. Some observers have described it as a “4.5-gen” aircraft to suggest that it will be superior to legacy fourth-generation planes.
“This is not an old capability,” Thom Breckenridge, Boeing’s vice president of international sales for strike, surveillance and mobility, said during a briefing at this year’s Paris Air Show. “The U.S. Navy is making these significant investments [and] making it a next-generation capability.”
Conformal fuel tanks are expected to extend the range of the plane about 120 nautical miles.
The use of conformal rather than external fuel tanks opens up space for additional weapons stations, he said. “There are lots of possibilities about what future things they can carry.”
The aircraft will have a lower radar cross section than previous configurations, making them less observable to enemy radar. It also features an advanced cockpit system, as well as a distributed targeting process network and an advanced tactical data link.
“This is the thing that’s allowing the data-sharing that’s becoming so important between the platform itself, other aircraft in the fleet as well as other assets … in the joint force that are operating together,” Breckenridge said.
Additionally, the fighter’s service life will be extended from 6,000 hours to 10,000 flight hours. The new configuration is expected to be a long-term business generator for Boeing.
“That combination of the new-build Super Hornet production line, as well as the upgradation of the existing fleet into Block 3s is going to take … our ability to deliver this capability into 2033,” Breckenridge said.
The company is in discussions with a number of foreign customers about the Block 3 platform, and it plans to compete for contracts in Canada, Finland, Germany, Switzerland, and with the Indian navy and air force, he said.
Boeing is also upgrading another older platform, the F-15. The new variant, known as the F-15EX, represents “a huge capability leap” from previous iterations, Boeing test pilot Matt “Phat” Giese told reporters. (end of excerpt)
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