Defining U.S. Navy TacAir Choices

By Bill Sweetman
Source: Aviation Week & Space Technology
June 24, 2013
Credit: JSF Program Office

The U.S. Navy faces a decision regarding its future aircraft fleet planning: How will it manage the transition of its tactical aircraft procurement from the current F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and EA-18G Growler to the F-35C Joint Strike Fighter while retaining the resources necessary to buy a new carrier-launched reconnaissance-strike UAV?

The service must also hedge against further delays with the F-35C, which has not yet demonstrated its ability to land on a carrier. Trials are now due for 2014, following two redesigns of the arrester hook. The Navy has not elected to declare initial operational capability (IOC) with interim Block 3I software and will wait for Block 3F, which is acknowledged to have higher schedule risk. It also plans to buy a minimal number of F-35B/Cs through 2015 (the 2017 delivery year) and then increase to 18 airframes in 2016 and 28 in 2017, attaining its sustained rate of 40 aircraft in 2018.

The service is not asking for any Super Hornets in 2014, but 21 EA-18Gs will keep the line moving. Any foreign military sales would further extend the production line—the likely Australian order for 12 EA-18Gs is the firmest, but the Super Hornet is active in competitions for orders in Brazil, Denmark and the United Arab Emirates. More orders will keep the Navy's options open until the F-35C's IOC date firms up.

A comparison of the F-35C and the Advanced Super Hornet, as proposed by Boeing and General Electric, shows that the aircraft are similar in many ways. The F-35's advantage is a higher degree of stealth, plus the ability to carry two rather than one 2,000-lb.-class bomb in “stealth mode,” but Boeing contends that its design is survivable, with reduced radar signature and electronic combat systems, while being less costly to acquire than the F-35C.

The F-35C has never been intended to replace the Super Hornet and Growler, and if the F-35C program proceeds as now planned, the F-35C will continue in full-rate production through 2032—which would be the earliest date at which an F/A-18 replacement could be delivered. The Navy is working on service-life extension programs that allow the Super Hornet and Growler to meet operational commitments through 2035. Today, the F/A-18E/F fleet “has flown approximately 30 percent of the available 6,000 total flight hours,” the Navy says, but the current life-extension program can deliver 9,000 hr. “at low risk.”

That lifetime could be extended by a possible major change in carrier operations, as a result of the automatic landing and flight guidance technology demonstrated under the X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstrator program (see page 42). Using the same basic principles as the Joint Precision Approach and Landing System (Jpals), which is to be fitted to all U.S. Navy carriers, an F/A-18 surrogate aircraft demonstrated the ability to land with 10-12-ft. longitudinal touchdown accuracy and 9-in. lateral accuracy.

Automatic landing is possible on any aircraft that has a sufficiently capable flight control system, with integrated auto-throttle, and in itself is not new to the U.S. Navy. Until now, the limiting factor is that the Navy's current auto-land system uses radar, which betrays the carrier's location and can handle only one aircraft at once. The GPS-based Jpals is silent other than a short-range, narrow-band data link.

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