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The Super Hornet as a Stealth Killer?

by John Reed on December 30, 2011

That new crop of foreign stealth fighters that’s emerging; don’t worry, the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet can handle ‘em. That’s the interesting pitch that Boeing’s man in Tokyo for fighters gave me earlier this month while discussing Japan’s F-X fighter contest. I suspect that’s Boeing’s main pitch for many of it’s potential fighter customers

Basically, the Super Hornet’s active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar — and it’s ability to jam enemy radars and electronic countermeasures — combined with the jet’s infrared search and track (IRST) system will allow it to compete with low-observable jets, said Phil Mills, director of Boeing’s F-X program in an interview just days before Boeing lost that contest to Lockheed Martin’s stealthy F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

(IRST systems have been around for decades, they use an infrared sensor to allow a pilot to ID and lock onto a target’s heat signature rather than radar signature.)

Here’s his pitch as to why the newest versions of the Super Hornet will be a viable competitor to the latest stealth jets:

IRST expands our frequency spectrum of sensor coverage so that it gives us much better counter-stealth capability than we had with just AESA.

AESA’s much better [than older radars] as far as detecting small targets. But, AESA plus IRST gives you the capability of not worrying about targets with low radar cross sections, so you can see those targets and actually establish a weapons-quality track without the radar. You can also cue that AESA, that has two and-a-half to three-times the detection range of the old radar anyway, and it can see further than that if you cue it to look at a very small piece of the sky.

The Super Hornet is a proven design, with some stealthiness built in, that can be continuously upgraded to survive in 21st Century aerial combat, added Mills.

The F/A-18E/F is an example of “where Boeing has been really successful, not doing clean-sheet developments so much, but evolving proven designs and integrating new technology and putting in new capabilities on more an evolutionary basis as opposed to a revolutionary, let’s do a clean sheet, like F-35, and go through all the development pains of a new start,” said Mills.

Now, the IRST as a stealth killer could have been Mills’ be a last ditch argument to sell the Super Hornet to Japan. Modern stealth jets are designed to mask their heat signatures. After all, 21st Century stealth isn’t just about being invisible to radar. Truly stealthy designs limit the amount of heat, electronic signals and even noise emitted by the aircraft in an attempt to make them undetectable.

I’d like to see what happens when one of the new IRST-equipped Block II Super Hornets goes up against an F-22 Raptor or F-35. Remember, a Navy EA-18G Growler electronic attack jet did score a fake kill against a Raptor a couple of years ago.

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