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The Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet was not supposed to live this long. But with the latest slippages in the Lockheed Martin Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program and aging fighter forces worldwide, Boeing talks about stretching production to 1,000 aircraft and keeping the line open to the end of the decade, despite the recent loss in India’s Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft competition. The program is close to 700 aircraft, including 41 additional U.S. Navy aircraft announced this year to mitigate JSF delays.
Active campaigns include Brazil and Denmark. A Middle Eastern customer—possibly Kuwait—has expressed interest. The Super Hornet is Boeing’s candidate for the next Japanese fighter order, competing with the Eurofighter Typhoon and JSF. The idea of another Super Hornet buy is being mooted in Australia, which could face a front-line fighter gap if the JSF slips further. Boeing says a number of JSF partners have asked for information on the Super Hornet.
Boeing’s strategy is not to initiate comparisons with JSF, although Boeing Military Aircraft President Chris Chadwick called Lockheed Martin on the mat in May for what he termed “fundamentally untrue” statements about the Super Hornet’s price. However, Boeing never talks about its product without pointing out that it offers “date and cost-certain” capabilities and that all Super Hornets and Growlers have been delivered on cost, and on or ahead of schedule. Recently, Chadwick suggested that the JSF “might become a niche fighter” on the international market because of its cost.
More details have emerged about the “international roadmap” features that have been disclosed piece-by-piece over the past year. The most visible are the conformal fuel tanks (CFT) above the body and the low-radar-cross-section (RCS) centerline weapons pod. Those are to be wind tunnel-tested this year, with a decision on a flight-test program to follow.
The CFTs carry 3,200 lb. of fuel. Boeing says they have no net drag at cruising speed, because they reduce trim drag enough to offset their added frontal area. As a result, a configuration with CFTs and a centerline tank delivers as much range as a three-tank configuration today. The weapon pod carries four AIM-120 missiles, a 2,000-lb. bomb or two 500-lb.-class weapons.
Transonic acceleration and specific excess power, particularly when temperatures at altitude are high, were criticized on the Super Hornet when it entered service. A roadmap option is an enhanced-performance engine (EPE) variant of the General Electric F414, offering up to a 20% thrust boost. That would take the EPE to 26,500 lb. of thrust, giving it the best thrust/weight ratio of any fighter engine—almost 11:1. It has a new core, based on demonstrations conducted with U.S. government funds in 2004 and 2006, and a redesigned fan and compressor. A third test engine was run in 2010.
GE says that it has developed 17 new or derivative engines successfully from the same technology readiness level. Unfortunately, India did not accept that argument.
Also on the roadmap menu is a spherical-coverage missile-approach warning system and an infrared search-and-track (IRST) system in a chin pod. Boeing and Lockheed Martin are working on a repackaged, updated version of the AAS-42 IRST (originally developed in the 1980s for the Grumman F-14D) for the Navy’s Hornet fleet, carried in a modified fuel tank. Boeing is open to other options for the international aircraft. (Japan, for instance, has its own domestic IRST technology on the F-15J Kai upgrade.)
Inside the cockpit, a new option is a big-screen display comprising an 11 X 19-in. panel, which could be flight-tested next year. Based on commercial technology, the panel is a hedge against obsolescence and a potential cost-saver as well as offering options for new display formats. A low-profile head-up display using digital LCD projection eliminates the big optical box that previously ruled out a panoramic display.
Boeing has been taking a working model of the big-screen cockpit to trade shows and bases worldwide, both to promote it and to get pilot reactions to conceptual display formats.
Although Boeing is careful to keep the “international” label attached to the new options, they are all designed for retrofit to Block 2 aircraft, all but 24 of which belong to the U.S. Navy. And while the modified aircraft will not directly match the F-35C in signatures, it closes the gap in RCS and range (with the CFTs), is lighter and more powerful, and current estimates say it will be less expensive to buy and operate.
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Upcoming national elections in Switzerland and Denmark could re-energize fighter competitions there, although the outcomes are far from certain.
The Danes will cast votes for their representatives in the fall, and industry officials believe the outcome could shape the fighter procurement process, which is unfolding slowly. Last year, Denmark delayed a decision on whether to buy the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, Boeing F/A-18E/F or Saab Gripen NG; but a U.S. industry official says the country’s involvement in NATO’s Libyan operations has put renewed focus on fighters and could lead to an acceleration of the program.
Less certain is whether the competitive landscape could change again. Copenhagen earlier opened the door to a new competitor, when it allowed the F/A-18E/F into the battle. Now Eurofighter Typhoon officials are ramping up efforts to jump back into the fray as well.
The situation in Switzerland is similarly fluid. Last year, the government decided to halt the F-5 replacement program to save money and effectively deferred introduction of a new aircraft to no earlier than the end of the decade. The move was a setback for Saab, Eurofighter and the Dassault Aviation Rafale, which were in the running and had undergone extensive trials; Boeing had earlier withdrawn its bid.
The Swiss defense ministry, meanwhile, has begun an assessment on whether the F-5s can be upgraded again to bridge any operational gap. At the same time, Bern is still devising financing plans on how to pay for the eventual Tiger replacement, with a report due by year-end.
But the two chambers of the Swiss parliament are raising objections to the decision by the Federal Council, or executive branch, to hold off on the fighter modernization effort. The National Council, the lower house of the Federal Assembly, has passed a motion to expedite the program, with the other chamber arguing that the replacement decision should come during the next legislative period during 2012-15. But there are differences between the motions passed by the two chambers, which are due to be reconciled in September.
Whether the competitive arena shifts again, or whether any accelerated modernization planning will open the door again to other players, remains uncertain. A European industry official believes a type selection could come late this year or early next, which would restrict the competition to the Gripen, Rafale and Typhoon. The bids put forward by Swiss industry remain valid until the end of the year.
Another element of uncertainty is how the Tiger replacement might be funded. The program to buy roughly 22 aircraft is expected to cost 4 billion Swiss francs ($4.7 billion). Options being studied include raising taxes, generating savings in other areas or selling infrastructure such as airports.
The stakes are high in both contests for all players. Saab, for instance, is eager to secure an export order in Europe for its Gripen, particularly in light of being eliminated from the Indian Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft program. Lockheed Martin is looking to Denmark to further expand its European footprint for the F-35. And for Eurofighter, completing deals in Switzerland and Denmark would bolster the company’s effort to secure more European air force orders while supporting its argument to new operators—in Eastern Europe, for example—that acquiring Typhoon offers huge interoperability potential and cooperation opportunities.
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Australia is pressing ahead with the acquisition of an air traffic management (ATM) and control system and Anzac frigate communications upgrade, but the government also restructured an F/A-18C/D upgrade project to reduce costs.
The work to refurbish the Boeing F/A-18s is expected to cost A$250-300 million ($246-296 million). The goal is to keep them flying until the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter arrives. The defense ministry says the deal saves A$500 million over an earlier approach that saw the program broken into parts.
The F-35 is due to reach initial operational capability in the 2017-18 or 2020-21 timeframe, says the government’s latest defense capability plan. The first Australian F-35s are due for delivery in 2014. A decision is due between 2015 and 2018 on whether to buy aircraft for a fourth squadron.
The cost for AIR 5431, the ATM effort, is estimated at A$650-900 million, with the initial phase to cost A$100-150 million. Further program reviews are expected in 2012-13 and 2014-15.
The frigate program, called SEA 1442 Phase 4, should increase the communications speed available to the ships and cost A$300-500 million.
The latest update to the capability plan, which charts project goals for the next 10 years, also highlights a Wedgetail fleet upgrade, with a go-ahead decision due in 2020-21 and fielding around 2026-27. The plan also states that the long-range maritime surveillance unmanned aircraft program is now due for approval around 2017-18, with fielding envisioned during 2024.
The document also reveals Australian plans to acquire a maritime strike missile for the F-35, with the weapon to become operational early in the next decade.