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  • Rhino's Revenge
    Posted by Bill Sweetman 1:50 PM on Apr 22, 2011

    Boeing says that the Super Hornet improvement package quietly rolled out at Farnborough last year, and manifest in mock-up modifications attached to an F/A-18E at this week's 500th-aircraft rollout, is aimed at international customers. And it has the inoffensive name of "International Roadmap Options" -- it's not the Ultra Hornet, Silent Hornet or (heavens, no) the Block 3.

    (Someone asked Navy program manager Capt Mark Darrah in St Louis about comparisons with the F-35. He almost physically recoiled and refused point-blank to comment. I half expected him to pull out a crucifix and a squirt-gun and spray his questioner with holy water. Sensible guy.)

    Boeing's stated strategic goal -- to stretch Super Hornet/Growler production to 1,000 aircraft -- is also not aggressive. The program is already close to 700 aircraft, including 41 additional Navy aircraft announced earlier this year to mitigate the effect of JSF delays. Campaigns and expressions of interest in countries that are not on the JSF list -- India, Brazil and the Middle East -- could reach that figure.

    And yet, "a number of potential Joint Strike Fighter customers" have asked for information about the Super Hornet, according to Boeing Military Aircraft president Chris Chadwick. "We see customers trying to recapitalize their tactical fighter forces and balancing that with huge budget pressures, and trying to make the best decisions going forward." (That describes almost everybody.)

    The Super Hornet is already formally pitched against the JSF in Denmark and it looks as though things are headed the same way in Japan. Chadwick calls the aircraft a "low risk, low cost, known-time offering worldwide" and Boeing officials Wednesday repeatedly observed that Super Hornets are all being delivered "on cost and ahead of schedule" -- a not-so-subtle reference to delays and overruns that might possibly afflict other programs.

    Boeing's strategy, Chadwick says, is based on the idea that "what the customer wants is next-generation technology, when it's available and as soon as it can be incorporated. We have an approach that allows rapid integration of technology into the platform."

    Now look again at the improvement package, with the EPE engine, a weapon pod and conformal tanks. Basically, this gives you two options. One is just to take the power and conformals, improving the Rhino's high-end performance (its best friends will concede that as a good idea) and adding some range.

    The other is a clean configuration with two weapons in the pod and two tip-mounted missiles -- not unlike a JSF clean load-out. With the conformals, the 17500 pounds of fuel is not far short of an F-35A. (With the conformals and the pod, drag would be a little bit higher than a clean aircraft with a centerline tank.)

    Fuel fraction is not quite as good (the carrier-based F-18 is heavier than the A-model) but ten feet more wingspan won't hurt the cruise efficiency. And 10,000 pounds more thrust from the EPEs, versus the F135, will make a difference in acceleration and agility.

    What about stealth? There is some overlooked history here. A long time ago, after McDonnell Douglas had its wobbly bits handed to it by Lockheed and Northrop in the Advanced Tactical Fighter competition and was forced into a junior partnership with GD on the A-12, St Louis vowed that it would never happen again.

    A robust stealth group was established and has been sustained ever since, working both on reducing signatures of conventional designs and on highly-LO designs such as X-36 and Bird of Prey. Back in 2007, then-Phantom Works chief George Muellner said that the LO group had made important advances in managing signatures with
    external stores -- and four years later, what emerges?

    So the LO comparison between the new Hornet and the JSF might not be as cut-and-dried as one might think.

    Finally, consider the US Navy. The performance comparison between the Boeing proposal and the heavier F-35C will lean toward Boeing. The chin-mounted infrared search and track system (not quite the same as the IRST function in the JSF's targeting system) meets a Navy need. And while Lockheed Martin has claimed that the F-35A will cost about as much as a Super Hornet, nobody makes that claim for the F-35C.

    And by the way, an improved Super Hornet comes out of the box with all the weapons and functions developed (with a lot of time and money) for the current aircraft. The two-seater can be loaded with fuel tanks and flex into a forward air control mission. The conformals are a quick and useful range extension for the Growler (EPEs wouldn't hurt that aircraft either).

    If I was Boeing, these are all things I would be telling the US Navy. Just not in public.

    Tags: ar99, boeing, tacair

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