Advanced Super Hornet
Recently, Boeings Advanced Super Hornet performed a number of demonstration flights. These flights spoke to the hearts of critics and mouthbreathers alike. Aviation websites, forums, and blogs have been aflutter with comments such as ‘Now the Navy can ditch the F-35’, ‘JSF Program now doomed’, and my personal favorite comment ‘All de F35 salez belong 2 Boing’. Just so you know, yes, that is how they spelled sales and Boeing. This speaks ill of the current state of education in this country, but I digress.
While the Advanced Super Hornet appears to add benefit to an airframe in current service, I thought it wise to dig a bit deeper into Boeings media brief. Looking over this document, several things jumped out at me. I suspect this media brief was not perused by many of the less well spoke, or literate, JSF critics. Let’s examine a few things that stood out, and bring in a few other pieces of information relevant to the Advanced Super Hornet.
In the briefing packet, Boeing is very careful to point out that the Enclosed Weapons Pod (EWP) can be carried on centerline and inboard wing stations. The reason for that can be traced back to a Navy requirement for the JSF stating that carriage of two two thousand pound class weapons was nonnegotiable. Boeing’s workaround was simply to add EWP’s. That is problematic due to the drag these pods will generate. Aviation Week’s Bill Sweetman, a long time JSF critic, went the disingenuous route, and offered up top speed and acceleration numbers for a clean Super Hornet. The data Sweetman offered up is also lacks altitude, making the data absolutely worthless. The figures Sweetman provided also account for the Advanced Super Hornet being fitted with engines that have yet to fly as well. I could go on a bit more about the the amount of incorrect data Bill offered up, but I’ll save my rant. Well done Bill! This is the level of crap ‘journalism’ I have come to expect from you. While you sate your raging hate boner, at least make true apples to apples comparisons to keep the exercise intellectually honest.
Paul Summers, Boeing’s F/A-18E/F and EA-18G programme director has gone on record stating a single centerline EWP ‘will have roughly the same drag profile as a centerline drop tank’. Note, he was very careful to discuss only a single centerline EWP, and not use of a centerline EPW with two inboard wing station mounted EWP’s. Drag is going to be a massive factor for any Advanced Super Hornet mounting three EWP’s. To keep things honest, the F-35C will not suffer from this, as the F-35 in all variants makes use of internal weapons bays. Take note of the weapons carriage discrepancy that exists between an F-35C and the Advanced Super Hornet. Notice, the F-35C can carry a full ton of weaponry over the Advanced Super Hornet.
Drag is something to be avoided for all kinds of reasons. In terms of fuel burn and acceleration, drag is not your friend. That being said, I do like the concept of the EWP. I just don’t like it for the Super Hornet, due in large to the drag issue. Adding to the drag issue is weight. Each EWP weighs two thousand and fifty pounds. For an aircraft with acceleration issues, EWP’s will be problematic from a performance standpoint, and we all know how people love to howl about performance specs. You can put lipstick on a Rhino, but all you have is a Rhino wearing lipstick.
Moving on, we come to the Northrop Grumman designed Conformal Fuel Tanks (CFT). Range is an issue for carrier based aircraft, and the answer to that problem is increased fuel load. The addition of CFT’s would allow for an increase of thirty five hundred pounds of fuel. Thats great, but it poses a problem. The addition of the CFT’s adds not only weight from the CFT’s themselves (870 pounds), but also fuel weight. This weight, when added to the weight EWP’s, begins to add up quickly. Weight plays hell with the thrust to weight ratios that certain critics love to make much of.
This is not to say that all on the CFT front is doom and gloom. At subsonic cruise speeds up to Mach .84, the CFT’s produce no drag. At Mach .6, the CFT’s produce less drag than is found on a clean aircraft not fitted with CFT’s. Above Mach .84, drag does rise though. Boeing’s VP for the F/A-18 has stated that the drag level above supersonic speeds is comparable to that of a traditional four hundred and eighty gallon centerline drop tank.
The above graphic I found particularly interesting, and slightly amusing. Direct your attention to the upper righthand corner. There, you will see a box marked with a CFT designator. Below, you see speculated range increases for an Advanced Super Hornet. Take note, the range without CFT’s is less than that of an F-35C. The most interesting part of this information box is what is written beneath it; with enhanced engines.
The problem is, those ‘enhanced engines’ are not what Boeing is making them out to be. Making promises relying half truths is frankly insulting. The figure of a twenty percent increase in thrust has been tossed about liberally around the internet. Now, a version of the F414 engine, known as the Enhanced Performance Engine, was examined nearly a decade ago. A later version of the EPE was offered for the Super Hornet submission to India, which ended up losing to the Dassault Rafale.
What the US Navy, the single largest customer for the Super Hornet, and the target for the proposed Advanced Super Hornet, will most likely end up with the the Enhanced Durability Engine version of the F414. Politics have made the EDE a certainty for the US Navy. What Boeing is leaving unsaid, is that the EDE would be capable of an additional twenty percent thrust during wartime. This wartime thrust increase would come at the cost of durability.
Weight increases for the Advanced Super Hornet dictate additional thrust is needed, lest performance of the F/A-18 E/F decrease from where they currently stand. Boeing’s assumptions depend on this additional thrust. Lack of a thrust increase renders most of the Advanced Super Hornet concept unworkable. Is it likely the US Navy will throw caution to the wind, ignore the sought after enhanced durability, and run these engines at wartime settings during times of peace? The simple answer is no, they won’t.
Next we come to the matter of the Advanced Super Hornet’s level of stealth. As Sweetman and critics have opened the door for a direct comparison of stealth characteristics, lets examine the matter closer. What certain self proclaimed pundits on the internet fail to realize, is that stealth is not a solution which renders you magically invisible. What stealth does allow for is greatly decreased detection ranges.
A reduced radar cross section (RCS) is not something applied with a coat of paint. RCS reduction is achieved through design from the beginning. Internal design considerations must be taken, as external considerations must as well. Needless to say, manufacture of a Very Low Observable (VLO) requires forethought from design inception.
In Boeing’s media brief, much is made of the Advanced Super Hornet being ‘optimized for Day 1 low signature mission’. According to Mike Gibbons, Boeing VP for the F/A-18, the Advanced Super Hornet provides a fifty percent improvement of RCS reduction over the F/A-18 E/F. Gibbons stated these enhancements improve the Advanced Super Hornet’s frontal RCS, but he admits the Advanced Super Hornet is not an all aspect stealth design. Many F-35 critics wail over a perceived lack of all aspect stealth for the Joint Strike Fighter, which I have already show to be false.
Gibbons goes on to assert that this level of stealth will be ‘good enough’ for Navy missions in contested airspace. I find this to be a shocking claim. Lack of all aspect stealth places not only valuable aircraft, procured at great expense, in danger, but also far more valuable flight crew. Were he, or his son, going into contested airspace, over a nation with a modern integrated air defense system (IADS), would ‘good enough’ give him comfort? This does little to backup Boeing’s in brief claim of the Advanced Super Hornet being a ‘total survivability solution to counter emerging threats’.
You might be asking yourself what Boeing has done to bring about the claimed RCS reduction over the traditional Super Hornet. Shifting weapons stores into EWP’s was one large step. Moving to CFT’s from traditional drop tanks is another. From there, generous application of radar absorbent material (RAM) is a given. Also listed in the brief are prototype General Electric advanced engine inlet devices.
To give you a frame of reference, a MiG-29 has an RCS of 5 meters squared. The F/A-18 E/F has a frontal RCS of 0.1 meters squared. This RCS measurement means the Super Hornet just barely qualifies as a Low Observable (LO) platform, and not at all as a VLO platform. A fifty percent reduction in RCS for the Advanced Super Hornet gives us an RCS of .05 meters squared, assuming Boeing numbers are accurate. By comparison, the F-35 has an RCS of 0.0015 meters squared, as measured by the US Air Force. As these numbers were released to the public, it stands to reason that the F-35 RCS is actually lower. Sorry JSF critics, numbers don’t lie. The F-35 is several orders of magnitude stealthier than the Advanced Super Hornet, and comes with all aspect stealth. Luckily for critics, the F-35 and Super Hornet are not locked in some heated competition as certain critics love to pretend.
Left unmentioned by Boeing, are any planned efforts for IR reduction, emissions control, etc. When this oversight is pointed out, critics either outright ignore it, or make random gurgling noises before yelling ‘Squirrel!‘ and then continuing on with outlandish claims forecasting the impending demise of the F-35 program.
In the image above, you see the proposed cockpit upgrade Boeing hopes to place in both the Advanced Super Hornet, and the F-15. In comparison to the traditional three screen Super Hornet setup, I must admit that I like where they are going. Oddly similar to the cockpit for the F-35, isn’t it? Critics start to froth at the mouth when you point that out. This is an upgrade I think the US Navy would be wise to invest in. Such a fleet wide upgrade could prove cost prohibitive though.
Here we have the Infrared Search and Track (IRST) seeker. IRST is proving to be a capability air forces around the world are scrambling to integrate their aircraft. Some would say that the inclusion of an IRST on the Super Hornet or Advanced Super Hornet is a positive development, and I would agree. Where things go slightly sideways, is when certain critics see this, and loudly proclaim that this is another area where the F-35 has been matched, or even surpassed. I take issue with these claims. Notice, the IRST is oriented towards the aircraft front. This provides a limited field of view in comparison to the F-35’s Distributed Aperture System. A limited cone of view is far surpassed by three hundred and sixty degrees of view.
Would you feel safer with this view of your surroundings, or a limited field of view?
For the Advanced Super Hornet, no radar upgrade is proposed. This would mean retention of the current AN/APG-79 Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA). The APG-79 is a very capable radar. Some, outside of the defense industry, have claimed that the APG-79 is a superior radar suite to the F-35’s APG-81. While I admit that the APG-79 is a capable piece of hardware, it is intellectually dishonest of critics to overlook that the APG-81 is a generation ahead of the APG-79, and has a smaller emitter array. Hardware and software from the APG-81 has crossed over to the F-22 Raptor’s APG-77v1.
Realizing that sensor fusion is the development that will revolutionize warfare of the future, Boeing is following a trail already blazed. Thus far, the Boeing capability has yet to be demonstrated, but a demonstration is currently scheduled for sometime in 2014. Using a tactical datalink, the proposed Advanced Super Hornet would share tactical information with other platforms, to include the E-2D, forming a common operating picture.
This is a capability I fully hope the US Navy adopts on each Super Hornet and Growler in service. Networked warfare is how the US, and many other nations will fight moving forward. While critics see this capability on the Advanced Super Hornet as a revolutionary development, they are missing the fact that it is already being done, and done to a larger degree.
At this point, I could point out how the F-35 will one day be integrated into Aegis, but that might cause heads to explode. I can and will point out that in terms of integration and sophistication as it relates to sensor fusion, the F-35 is without equal. Critics can shout to the heavens that sensor fusion has arrived for the a platform other than the F-35, but it does not seem that sensor fusion has found its way aboard the Advanced Super Hornet in any form other than powerpoint. Fusing sensor data from multiple sensors is a software challenge. This is a challenge Boeing has not undertaken. A part of me hopes Boeing does undertake a major software development effort, so I can watch critics stutter while I remind them of their ridiculous claims that F-35 software would never come together. That day will be sweet!
On the topic of cost, and this is aimed squarely at critics, I think critics need to be honest with themselves. All of these proposed upgrades carry a cost. Even if these upgrades were applied to each Super Hornet currently in US Navy service, you are still looking at a low volume procurement program. Those are never cheap. If these upgrades are applied only to new build Super Hornets, foregoing the retrofit route, the total volume falls even further. Those who believe an Advanced Super Hornet can be procured for less than a full rate production F-35 are delusional. Come on critics, look at the filth you spewed about Lockheed Martin and their imagined profiteering. Would you make the same cries about Advanced Super Hornet cost overruns?
As for the Advanced Super Hornet representing a viable alternative to the Joint Strike Fighter program, that is an incredibly simpleminded belief. The US AIr Force is not a current Super Hornet operator. Remember that the Super Hornet traces its lineage to the YC-17, which the Air Force passed on in favor of the YF-16. The USMC could not make use of an Advanced Super Hornet aboard the multitude of amphibious ships currently in service. WIthout the F-35B, the USMC is relegated to nothing more than a predominately rotary wing force, with a smattering of carrier capable fixed wing squadrons. So you see, the Advances Super Hornet could never replace all variants of the F-35, and is not considered a replacement for the F-35C in particular. The peanut gallery will keep dreaming that dream though.
Now that we are bringing this post to its conclusion, I will reflect on a few thoughts. First, its ridiculous that certain ‘journalists’ attempt to turn a company funded development program into a winner take all contest between two aircraft that are not in competition. Shameful Bill, shameful. Many of the proposed upgrades for the Advanced Super Hornet I would like see integrated into US Navy Super Hornets and Growlers. However, I do not see several of these upgrades ever entering active service with the US Navy, or any other nation currently operating the Super Hornet, that means you Australia.
When you examine the comparison between the Advanced Super Hornet and F-35, in my eyes, the F-35 comes out as the clear winner. The Advances Super Hornet is a powerpoint, with a few nonfunctional demonstration pieces. The F-35 is here now. Costs continue to fall, as we inch closer to full rate production. The future, for the F-35 at least, is bright.