As we’re all painfully aware, the F-35 has been in development for two decades and is still years away from front line service in any effective manner (notwithstanding the Marine Corps’ PR stunt proclaiming a fictional IOC). The danger with such a protracted development is that by the time the aircraft reaches squadron service, its technologies may be obsolete. Most of us recognize this danger and worriedly track Chinese and Russian aviation developments to see what capabilities they’ll have when the F-35 enters service. However, there is another F-35 “enemy” whose technological capabilities should have been vastly overmatched by the F-35 but are rapidly catching up and may surpass the F-35. Who is that enemy? It’s the F-18 Hornet. Yes, the lowly, basic, non-stealthy Hornet is rapidly gaining capabilities to rival or surpass the F-35.
We know about the Advanced Super Hornet with conformal fuel tanks that would add 260 miles to the combat radius according to flight testing, enhanced stealth with a 50% reduction in frontal RCS, longer range, advanced cockpit avionics, and an enclosed weapons pod. What else is being done to improve the Hornet? Well, here are a couple of new technologies.
Harris Corp., Government Communications Systems Division, has received a $29M contract for the procurement of 138 Distributed Targeting System (DTS) kits for F/A-18E/F and EA-18G (1). DTS provides enhanced targeting capability for the Super Hornet. It is part of the U.S. Navy’s F/A-18E/F Network Centric Warfare Upgrades program and the F/A-18E/F Flight Plan, which is intended to ensure that the Super Hornet remains ahead of emerging threats in coming decades.
DTS increases pilot and aircrew situational awareness and precision targeting when engaging air-to-ground targets, in part by using geo-registration technology. Geo-registration technology compares images taken from tactical sensors with an onboard imagery database to produce highly accurate target coordinates.
From a Flight Global website article (2),
"The distributed targeting system allows you to self-generate GPS-quality mensurated coordinates onboard the airplane autonomously," Morley [Captain Frank Morley, Program Manager for the F/A-18E/F and EA-18G] says.
“That means that the Super Hornet will be able to use coordinates generated by its sensors, for example its Raytheon APG-79 active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar or its Raytheon AN/ASQ-228 Advanced Targeting Forward-Looking Infrared (ATFLIR) pod, and compare that to a precise onboard imagery database to generate precise weapons quality coordinates.”
Now doesn’t that sound a lot like the F-35’s vaunted sensor fusion technology? The biggest difference is that the DTS is being produced today rather than being just a never-ending developmental project.
In addition to the DTS, the Hornet has an Infrared Search and Track (IRST) sensor in the works. IRST is a passive, long-range sensor that searches for and detects heat sources. The system can simultaneously track multiple targets and provides air-to-air targeting capability. Being a passive sensor, IRST does not give off radiation and is harder to detect as well as being immune to radar jamming.
“Meanwhile, the Boeing is about one year into a development program to field a new infrared search and track (IRST) pod that should be fielded on the Super Hornet fleet by late 2016, Morley says. Developed in conjunction with Lockheed Martin, the new sensor is an evolution of the Northrop Grumman F-14D Tomcat's AN/AAS-42 IRST camera. Boeing upgraded the Tomcat's camera technology for foreign F-15 sales, Morley says. The variant of the sensor that will be added to the Super Hornet is a further development of Boeing's F-15 developments.”
“For the Super Hornet, the USN opted for a podded-solution. A pod avoids retrofit costs, Morley says. An internal system would require modifications to the aircraft's outer mold-line and avionics hardware changes, which would require extensive testing. Nor does the USN need the pod for every mission, Morley says. The IRST is only required for air-to-air focused missions like fleet air defence or air superiority. As such, the USN will only buy about 170 pods, which it will use only as needed, Morley says.
One of the unique design features of the new IRST pod is that it is built into an external fuel tank. Because the aircraft's centerline station is the optimum position for the IRST pod, it has to take the place of the Super Hornet's ever-present drop-tank.
In order to preserve the Super Hornet's range, the USN opted to have the sensor built into the forward half of the fuel tank. That way, some two-thirds of the fuel is still available for use.” (2)
IRST completed its first flight aboard an F/A-18 Super Hornet in February.
Further planned upgrades also sound like the F-35 sensor fusion (2).
“…one of the most important planned capabilities will be better multi-sensor integration (MSI). The aircraft will eventually be able to correlate all of the disparate information generated by the radar, ATFLIR, electronic warfare systems and data-links into one clear tactical picture …”
A Global Aviation website report sums up the Hornet’s development (3),
“Other F/A-18E/F Super Hornet next-generation capabilities included in the flight plan are advanced fused sensors, Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) Radar, Counter Electronic Attack (CEA), Distributed Targeting System (DTS), Multi-sensor Integration (MSI), Anti-Surface Warfare (ASuW), IP-Based Linked Networks and advanced air-to-ground and air-to-air precision weapons operating on an open-architecture backplane.”
Again, the key difference between the F-35 and these Hornet technologies is that the Hornet’s are in production or nearly so and are being fitted to capable, combat ready aircraft. By the time the F-35 is ready, it may find itself struggling to keep up with the Hornet rather than the other way around.
(2)Flight Global Website, “USN developing new Super Hornet upgrades”, Dave Majumdar,
(3)Global Aviation Report, “Navy’s IRST System Successfully Completes First Flight Aboard F/A-18”,
February 19, 2014