The January 17 print edition of Aviation week has an article featuring Boeing’s plan for an evolved Super Hornet. In it is a photo of an F-18E Super Hornet setup as a show-room floor engineering study to showcase a variety of future equipment.
It shows an odd looking IRST that hangs off the gun door (the avionics boxes for it being located somewhere else), a big center-line low observable weapons bay that could carry one 2000 or 1000 pound class JDAM, or two 500 pound class JDAMs or four AMRAAMs or four Small Diameter Bombs (SDB).
It also has the shoulder conformal fuel tanks which together are good for an extra 3000 pounds of gas.
The article goes on to show an advanced cockpit (not part of the mockup) that can only be what you would see if there was a Boeing F-32 Joint Strike Fighter.
Also mentioned are uprated engines. We have seen this offered for the Super Hornet before; either you get a little more thrust or you can get more reliability, but not both. Part of the motivation for the uprated motors was that the wheezing performance of an already under-powered design was an attempt to make Pudgy competitive for India. Stock motors may put out 22k of thrust on a test stand but not when installed on the aircraft.
The article makes claims of lots of range. I won’t say what the numbers are because they don’t sound all that believable. Boeing mentions improved range and even more with external tanks but doesn’t mention that unless they want to redesign the wing, those external stores along with their pylons will be pointing outward 4 degrees; a result of design inbreeding without thinking things through otherwise known as history. Early in the Super program, the design crew had to come up with a way to keep dropped stores from bashing into each other and the aircraft after trouble was discovered in the wind tunnel. The kludge of a fix–outward pointing pylons and stores–means that every time an admiral gets up in front of congress and reports that the Super Hornet has 40 percent more range than the classic; he doesn’t have a clue of what he is talking about.
So for Boeings range claims; they require a flying version of the mockup. They state (like F-16 tests have shown) that the conformal fuel tanks don’t hurt performance much. With that, I think the conformals are a good thing. They will give more range than stock Super Hornets.
The article teases us with part if its title “JSF Killer?”. To that I would say; “no”. So far the only thing that has killed the F-35 program is the F-35 program. There wouldn’t be 24 Super Hornets in Australian service if in 2006, the F-35 program didn’t spook the then Defence Minister, Mr. Nelson. The Navy would not be buying more Super Hornets if the F-35 program was composed of sound engineering practice. Instead, what the American public and Joint Strike Fighter Partner nations get are fairy tales of F-35 greatness; no superlative spared.
The evolved Super Hornet would be a great power-hitter for the U.S.; 12 years ago during Operation: ALLIED FORCE. This evolved design would be great if all your enemy had were legacy SAM systems and some half-broken down MiG-29s.
Today? Well this Boeing mockup can be looked at not only as a combined package but as a buffet. If you only added the conformal tanks to a Block II Super Hornet, the United States Marines would have just the kind of aircraft needed to support their ground troops. The Super Hornet will always be cheaper than an F-35 (until real evidence appears). It will always be more proven than an F-35 (until real evidence appears). It will always be more practical than an F-35 (until real evidence appears).
Neither the Super Hornet (in any form) or the F-35 can stand up to advanced air defense systems growing in the Pacific Rim, so any claim that the F-35 will help deal with this problem is a pure nonsense. The F-35–if it ever matures–like the Super Hornet, will always be a second-tier strike aircraft which will need the likes of the F-22 to make the airspace safe vs. hard threats.
It sucks to be Marine General Amos forced to sell the Just So Failed idea to anyone gullible enough to listen. If the USMC is seriously interested in sustaining their fighter flying club, they better come up with a plan-B.