Navy Details New Super Hornet Capabilities
Feb 25, 2007
By David A. Fulghum
The U.S. Navy's "Advanced Super Hornet" will tie together an electronic
attack system with a powerful new radar that would allow the aircraft to
find, deceive and, perhaps, disable sophisticated, radar-guided air-to-air,
surface-to-air and cruise missiles. Moreover, it could do so at ranges
greater than that of new U.S. air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons.
Silence about these key features of the Super Hornet's advanced radar and
integrated sensor package is being broken by U.S. Navy and aerospace
industry officials just as the President's budget faces scrutiny by
Supporters of the design say it will give the Block II
Boeing-built Navy aircraft a fifth-generation capability similar to that of
the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The Hornet's electronic
attack capability could become even more sophisticated with additional
modifications, says Capt. Donald Gaddis, F/A-18E/F Super Hornet program
Radar-guided, air-to-air missiles that worry U.S. planners are the Chinese
PL-12, which is on the brink of entering service; the Russian R-77 (AA-12
Adder); the R-27R/ER (AA-10 Alamo) family, and possibly the AA-10's R-27P/EP
passive receiver variants. In the world of antiship cruise missiles, the
Russians have developed RF-seeker-based antiship systems that include the
Novator 3M-54 (SS-N-27) family and NPO Mashinostroenia 3M-55 (SS-NX-26),
which is also the basis of the Russo-Indian Brahmos. The YJ-63 is a Chinese
antiship cruise missile; Iran has the RAAD, and North Korea has a system in
development known as KN-01 in U.S. intelligence circles.
Many Navy and industry planners hope that the merits of the F/A-18E/F's
advanced systems, which can detect, identify and attack new classes of very
small targets, will help it survive any congressional predilection to trim
upgrades that are crucial to the program. Moreover, the Super Hornet
equipped with a fifth-generation radar and integrated sensor suite is
expected to be a tough competitor for international fighter sales. The
advanced package has already resulted in a likely sale of 24 aircraft to
Australia and is being pitched for large fighter buys planned by Japan and
The newest version of the Boeing Super Hornet, equipped with an advanced,
Raytheon-built APG-79 active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, can
spot small targets--even stealthy cruise missiles--at ranges great enough to
allow an effective defense. Navy officials are loath to talk with any detail
about the metrics of electronic attacks and admit only to "extremely
significant tactical ranges" for EA effects against air-to-air and
surface-to-air radars, Gaddis says. However, other Pentagon and aerospace
industry officials say that while air-to-air missiles are struggling to
reach the 60-100-mi.-range mark, some sophisticated electronic attack
effects can reach well beyond that.
"That's at least 100 mi.," says a long-time Pentagon radar specialist.
"There are different forms of electronic attack, and they include putting
false targets or altered ranges, speeds and positions of real targets into
the enemy's radars. Those are effects that require less power than jamming
and therefore are effective at longer ranges."
An industry official with insight into AESA development says that the
ability to affect a foe is limited by the enemy radar's range because the
signal has to be captured, manipulated and returned. Therefore, long-range
ground-based radars and even AWACS radars could be electronically attacked
at ranges well over 100 mi. For air-to-air and surface-to-air missiles, the
techniques would be the same but the effective ranges would be shorter.
The U.S. Navy's first AESA-equipped squadron has been developing combat
procedures as the unit works up to its first deployment. VFA-213, flying all
two-seat F/A-18F models, already has been through training cycles at NAS
Fallon, Calif.'s "Strike U."
The Navy's concept of operations is to use combinations of EA-18 Growler
electronic attack and the advanced Block 2 F/A-18E/F strike aircraft to
offer self-protection, almost instantaneous location and identification of
targets, and a variety of forms of electronic and conventional missile
attack. That entity will be part of the advanced air wing in the Carrier
Strike Group of 2024.
The U.S. Air Force is considering a similar approach--subtle effects versus
brute power--in its next attempt at fielding a long-range, standoff jammer
to protect its stealth aircraft fleet (AW&ST Jan. 22, p. 47) It's expected
that advanced electronic warfare operations, including communications and
network invasion and exploitation, may eventually be part of the Air Force's
and Navy's capability. However, that's some years off and subject to budget
Critics from within the electronic warfare community are concerned that
jamming capabilities in fighter-size AESA radars have been over-sold on two
counts. First, they contend that the radar's frequency band is small, so the
target it affects would be limited. Second, concerns have been voiced that
liquid cooling of the arrays isn't sufficient for creating a sustained,
high-power jamming signal for more than a second without damaging the radar.
"The F-22's radar is already up against its duty cycle [sustained emission]
limits with just finding targets," says a senior Air Force official.
However, industry officials with knowledge of the Northrop Grumman radar say
overheating problems with early versions of the sensor have been overcome
with redesign of transmitter/receiver modules.
Critical for development of the "next generation," or Block II, Super Hornet
and the ability to keep it militarily relevant as a "first day of the war"
warplane beyond 2024 are a number of items in the President's budget now
before the U.S. Congress, Gaddis says.
Three years of warfighting analyses by the Navy have produced a system of
updates called "The Flight Plan," he says. Segments include upgrading the
aircraft with a distributed targeting processor, integrating the sensors,
and improving communication links for network-centric operations.
Once the AESA radar's operational evaluation is officially ended, the only
other system needing op eval will be the ALE-55 fiber-optic towed decoy.
Other systems are completed and in full-rate production, including the
ALQ-214 jammer, ALE-47 chaff/flare dispenser and the advanced crew station
in the cockpit's decoupled back seat. The weapon systems officer has the
mission of maintaining situational awareness in the battlespace with
user-friendly controls for the aircraft's advanced displays and sensors. The
next step for the Super Hornet program is to integrate those systems and
make the collected sensor information available to those in the battlespace
through a common operational tactical picture.
"For example, our ALR-67(v)3 radar warning receiver is going to be delivered
with a digitally cued receiver," Gaddis says. "We'll be able to pick up some
different waveforms that we've not been able to capture before." Industry
specialists say that means finding combinations of frequencies and pulse
structures that allow identification of specific radar and aircraft threats.
"More importantly, we're going to marry the digitally cued receiver to
single-ship geolocation algorithms [for precision location] and specific
emitter ID algorithms with the AESA radar," says Gaddis. Also, the radar
warning receiver and ALQ-214 jammers will be integrated to produce
"high-gain electronic attack and high-gain electronic surveillance
measures," he adds. "We would use them as a survivability upgrade against
advanced air-to-air and a certain spectrum of the surface-to-air threat.
"We're going to create a high-speed data bus so that [electronic attack]
techniques generated by the ALQ-214 will be sent through the AESA radar with
much more power and effect," Gaddis says. "Rather than wait for a threat to
develop some electronic countermeasure, we plan to attack him [at long
range] through the radar."
The associated long-range, high-resolution electronic surveillance
capability of the Super Hornet is making it popular with the intelligence
community. The real-time data make the aircraft important for updating the
electronic order of battle--what's emitting and from where.
"It's going to duplicate what the radars on the F-22 and F-35 can do in
integrating and analyzing what's happening in the battlespace," Gaddis says.
"It's all tied to advanced architectures and mission computers, open
architecture principles, high-order software languages and the way you
integrate all these sensors that give you a fifth-generation capability."
Cruise missile defense with conventional weapons is a primary task of the
Block II Super Hornet. "That is one of our assigned mission areas, and AESA
does that very well," Gaddis says.
Part of the secret of the radar's ability to spot small targets and track
them is a combination of power (for range and discrimination) and processing
speeds that permit better ways of using radar information. Early radar
designs could use a variety of waveforms with high, medium and low
pulse-repetition frequencies. High PRF offers unambiguous, nose-on speed
resolution and clutter rejection; medium PRF gives good low-speed resolution
but low detection range, and low PRF provides unambiguous target ranges but
poor clutter rejection.
"If you're looking for cruise missiles, often you have to pick them out of
clutter, at low altitude and often at high speed," says an Air Force pilot
with AESA radar experience. "With mechanically scanned radars, you would
have to take six sweeps looking in high PRF, six in medium and six in low to
cover different target sets. With an AESA radar, you can assign different
parts of the radar to do each function so you don't have any gaps in your
surveillance. If PRFs are suitably chosen, targets within a span of interest
can be kept continuously in the clear."
Changing PRF radically affects both the radar's signal processing
requirement and its performance. But a high-speed processor can
simultaneously extract the best information from each category of PRF
Operators of each aircraft type (F-22, F-35, F-15C, F/A-18E/F and EA-18G)
with AESA radars are so far independently developing their tactics,
techniques and procedures (TTPs) for how to fight cruise missiles.
"I would describe that as still in its nascent stages," Gaddis says. "If you
ask about interoperability between those platforms, I think that's under
development and will be driven by the combatant commanders. There's an acute
realization that [joint interoperability TTPs] are absolutely required."
There's also a lag in developing new missile variants and warheads to cope
with both subsonic and supersonic cruise and sea-skimming missiles.
"We have a very powerful radar that can detect cruise missiles," Gaddis
says. "Now we need a missile to kill them. There are programs in the Amraam
portfolio for taking out that target set."
Air Force researchers at Eglin AFB, Fla., and Raytheon engineers are working
on the AIM-120C-6, which has a warhead specialized for head-on attack of
small, slow-flying targets; the AIM-120C-7 that adds the ability to
anticipate a cruise missile's flight path for a more efficient intercept,
and the AIM-120D with longer range and the ability to maneuver vigorously at
the end of its flight (AW&ST Feb. 12, p. 24).
Gaddis, who flew F-14s carrying the Phoenix long-range, air-to-air missile,
helped develop tactics for shooting down air-to-surface cruise missiles.
"Some flew very high and very fast," he says. "If [your aircraft's nose]
wasn't within 10 degrees of the [cruise] missile, Phoenix wasn't going to
catch up. Now we have a different target set--Mach 3--but the principle is
the same. You've got to be right on the [cruise missile's] nose if you're
going to shoot down something like that."
Significant reductions can be made in the time it takes to locate and strike
a target. Navy officials plan to install a precision targeting-like
workstation on the F/A-18E/F called the distributed targeting processor. It
will take an AESA-generated synthetic aperture radar map, compare it with an
onboard SAR map that has every pixel geo-registered, then match the two
images to generate a mensurated target coordinate and transfer it to a
GPS-guided weapon, an anti-radiation missile or to direct an electronic
Nice article, AESA=
Jack of all trades, Master of none.
The Navy is lacking an air superiority fighter and it makes the baby Jesus cry...
Six AMRAAMs and two AIM-9x Sidewinders, that's alot of air to air firepower on those wings.
I sometimes worry that the NAVY is putting too many missions on a single airframe, but in general the Superhornet program is an example on how to run a development program, on budget, on time. That is a trick I wish we could have repeated on the F-22/F-35.
Navy contracted out the air superiority fighter to the USAF.
Great, I'm sure the Air Farce will do a bang up job protecting our best military assets.
Why are the AIM-120s canted outwards on the underwing stations? It seems odd that airflow would be such that the missles are canted that much. Anyone know?
They had separation problems with some ordnance so the clever, though ugly and draggy, solution was to cant the hell out of the pylons.