Fourth-Generation Fighters Experiencing Rebirth

By Jon Harper
F/A-18 Super Hornet

Photo: Defense Dept.

PARIS — Fifth- and sixth-generation aircraft have been grabbing headlines of late. But far from being yesterday’s news, fourth-generation fighters are being upgraded with new technology to keep them flying and operationally relevant for decades to come.

In March, the Navy awarded Boeing a three-year contract valued at approximately $4 billion for 78 new Block 3

F/A-18E/F Super Hornets. The company will also begin converting legacy Block 2 Super Hornets to Block 3 in the early 2020s.

The new configuration includes a number of upgrades. Some observers have described it as a “4.5-gen” aircraft to suggest that it will be superior to legacy fourth-generation planes.

“This is not an old capability,” Thom Breckenridge, Boeing’s vice president of international sales for strike, surveillance and mobility, said during a briefing at this year’s Paris Air Show. “The U.S. Navy is making these significant investments [and] making it a next-generation capability.”

Conformal fuel tanks are expected to extend the range of the plane about 120 nautical miles.

The use of conformal rather than external fuel tanks opens up space for additional weapons stations, he said. “There are lots of possibilities about what future things they can carry.”

The aircraft will have a lower radar cross section than previous configurations, making them less observable to enemy radar.

It also features an advanced cockpit system, as well as a distributed targeting process network and an advanced tactical data link.

“This is the thing that’s allowing the data-sharing that’s becoming so important between the platform itself, other aircraft in the fleet as well as other assets … in the joint force that are operating together,” Breckenridge said.

Additionally, the fighter’s service life will be extended from 6,000 hours to 10,000 flight hours.

The new configuration is expected to be a long-term business generator for Boeing.

“That combination of the new-build Super Hornet production line, as well as the upgradation of the existing fleet into Block 3s is going to take … our ability to deliver this capability into 2033,” Breckenridge said.

The company is in discussions with a number of foreign customers about the Block 3 platform, and it plans to compete for contracts in Canada, Finland, Germany, Switzerland, and with the Indian navy and air force, he said.

Boeing is also upgrading another older platform, the F-15. The new variant, known as the F-15EX, represents “a huge capability leap” from previous iterations, Boeing test pilot Matt “Phat” Giese told reporters.

It includes an advanced radar and cockpit display, electronic warfare system and expanded weapons capacity. The platform can carry up to 22 air-to-air-missiles depending on the configuration, he added.

Boeing Vice President for Global Sales and Marketing Jeff Shockey said the platform was designed to be able to carry hypersonic weapons — cutting edge missiles that can travel at speeds of Mach 5 or faster and are highly maneuverable — once they are fielded.

Other enhancements include a digital fly-by-wire flight control system to aid pilots, and an advanced display core processor II mission computer which can process “billions and billions of instructions per second,” Giese said.

The aircraft’s service life will extend well beyond 10,000 flight hours, he noted.

Shockey said he would describe the F-15EX as “at least 4.75[-gen]” because of its advanced capabilities.

While the F-15EX won’t be stealthy like the fifth-generation F-35, it would still be useful in high-end fights against advanced adversaries, Giese said. “At the end of the day you have to service the targets, and you do that with precision-guided munitions” that could be launched from the platform.

The Pentagon intends to procure 80 F-15EXs over the next five years at an estimated procurement cost of about $7.9 billion, and a total of 144 aircraft over the long term.

Shockey said Boeing could deliver the first two units to the Air Force by late next year.

He declined to identify potential international customers, but noted that the F-15EX has “piqued people’s interest.”

“It’s a really attractive package when you look at the purchase price [and] sustainment,” he added.

Boeing isn’t the only U.S. aerospace giant enhancing fourth-generation fighters. Lockheed Martin is upgrading the F-16 Fighting Falcon.

Legacy platforms are being turned into F-16Vs, also referred to as a Viper upgrade.

“We’re doing that … right now for four countries [and are] in discussions with several more,” Randall Howard, Lockheed’s F-16 business development director, told National Defense. “We’ve got a little more than 400 of those on contract, and I can see another 400 or 500 more over the next five to seven [to] eight years.”

The U.S. Air Force is upgrading about 70 of its F-16s with Viper capabilities, and the intent is to eventually upgrade at least 300, he said.

The improvements include a new avionics suite and Northrop Grumman’s APG-83 scalable agile beam radar. The system shares almost 95 percent software commonality and about 70 percent hardware commonality with the radar on the Lockheed Martin-built F-35, he noted. It also has a new mission computer with higher speeds, more processing capability and a new data bus management system.

“We’re able to take fifth-gen technologies because we have them and, in many cases, roll those back into our fourth-generation aircraft,” Howard said.

New production units with F-16V capabilities are known as Block 70/72. “We call the new aircraft Block 70 or 72, but it shares the avionics infrastructure and systems with Viper, … so many of our customers call them both Vipers,” he explained.

The service life of the aircraft has been increased from 8,000 to 12,000-plus flight hours, he noted.

Bahrain is the initial overseas customer for the new-build units. Lockheed was awarded a $1.1 billion contract for 16 aircraft. “That program is off and running and we’ve opened up a new production facility in Greenville, South Carolina,” he said.

The State Department has approved the sale of 25 new F-16s to Morocco and 23 Viper upgrades with a total estimated value of $4.8 billion. Slovakia has signed an agreement for 14 new aircraft that could be worth up to $1.3 billion. Additionally, the State Department has approved the sale of eight F-16s to Bulgaria with an estimated value of $1.7 billion.

“We see an increased interest across Central and Eastern Europe because their former Soviet-era MiG aircraft are running out of serviceable life,” Hudson said. “That’s all happening at a very tense time from a national security perspective for each of those countries, and so there’s a great interest in replacing those aircraft with Western aircraft.”

On the other side of the globe, Lockheed is in discussions with several Southeast Asia nations, Howard said, which could lead to deals for another 100 or so new aircraft in the “very near term.” The company is also offering the platform to India.

Meanwhile, European countries are working on improvements to their own fourth-generation systems.

Saab’s Gripen E features a number of new capabilities, noted Jerker Ahlqvist, vice president of business area aeronautics.

“It’s an entirely new airframe and inside the airframe … we introduced a completely new avionics system and avionic structure,” he said in an interview. “We’ve managed to separate the flight critical systems from the tactical systems … which means that for the operator they don’t have to wait years and years before they have an increased capability on the aircraft. It can be done very quickly.”

The plane has enhanced range and weapons stations. To increase performance, the company put in a new engine, which gives the platform super-cruise capability.

The jet can operate from short runways, Ahlqvist noted, and only needs about 800 meters of space for takeoff and landing. Sweden has a requirement to be able to operate from public roadways in the event that enemy attacks on its airbases render their runways unusable, he explained.

The platform has a new active electronically scanned array radar, electronic warfare system and advanced data links to connect the platform with other military assets. The computer hardware can also be updated when improvements become available, he noted.

The avionics structure will be able to incorporate artificial intelligence capabilities in the future, Ahlqvist said.

“We’re looking to see how can we use AI in the aircraft … because we know that the battlefield in the future will be a very tough environment with a lot of information coming in which the pilot will not be able to handle himself,” he said.

Ahlqvist said he wouldn’t describe the aircraft as a fourth-generation fighter. “Because it’s so quick to upgrade, … [the concept of] generations doesn’t really apply to Gripen in that way.”

Saab was awarded a $6 billion contract in 2013 to develop the Gripen E. The company is under contract to provide 60 platforms to Sweden, with the first expected to be delivered later this year.

Brazil is on contract to buy 36 aircraft — including eight Gripen Fs, the dual-seat version of the Gripen E — for an estimated total value of about $4 billion. Delivery will begin in 2021, Ahlqvist said. Saab is also targeting Finland, India, Colombia, Switzerland and Canada as potential buyers.

Additionally, the company is pondering a maritime version of the Gripen E. “We’ve done the concept study, we know pretty much what it would be, but the full-blown design work … won’t start until we have a customer for it,” he said.

Elsewhere in Europe, the Eurofighter consortium — which includes the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain and Italy — plans to add a slew of new capabilities to its fourth-generation Typhoon beyond the current phased enhancements programs.

Eurofighter and Eurojet were recently awarded a $60 million contract via the NATO Eurofighter and Tornado Management Agency to conduct a long-term evolution study for the Typhoon. The 19-month review will result in a clear roadmap for introducing new capabilities, said Raffael Klaschka, head of marketing for Eurofighter Jagdflugzeug GmbH.

“It’s a very strong signal from our core partner nations of their confidence and commitment to further develop and enhance an already fantastic aircraft,” he said during a media briefing. “This would be the biggest and most ambitious capability upgrade” that the platform has undergone, he noted.

Enhanced engine performance, new adaptive power and cooling techniques, human-machine interfaces to include the cockpit and pilot helmet, and a new mission systems architecture with a high-speed data network and enhanced target data management, are some of the improvements to be examined.

An upgraded mission system architecture that enables greater processing power, more memory capacity and mission data options will be a “big game-changer,” Klaschka said.

“This will support the generation, transmission and utilization of the ever-increasing amounts of digital data both onboard via ... multi-spectral sensors and offboard via high performance discrete tactical data links.”

An electronic warfare suite that will enable the aircraft to operate in highly contested environments is a top priority, he said. The Typhoon is expected to possess a high level of “digital stealth.”

“Physical stealth is one way to allow this freedom of movement in a contested airspace, but that will become more challenging as the [enemy] sensors … develop,” Klaschka said. “Increasingly it is a digital environment that will play a part in how you can … hide or move.”

Systems that could enable digital stealth include towed decoys, flare and chaff dispensers, front and rear missile warning antenna, and wing tip-mounted electronic support measure/electronic countermeasures pods, according to Eurofighter presentation slides.

New technologies to be developed for the Typhoon are expected to feed into sixth-generation fighters that a number of European nations are pursuing, to include manned-unmanned teaming, Klaschka noted. Plans call for adding automation and machine learning capabilities to the platform.

“We’re paving the path to stay relevant for the next decades to come,” he said.

Topics: Air Power

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