RAAF BOEING F/A-18F SUPER HORNET & EA-18G GROWLER
The Super Hornet was initially acquired as a Bridging Air Combat Capability (BACC) through Project AIR 5439 after the RAAF determined that its General Dynamic F-111C strike capability wouldn’t be extended beyond 2010. The BACC came about after concerns the F-111 was becoming increasingly costly to operate and was experiencing some fatigue issues, while the replacement F-35 JSF program was experiencing developmental and programmatic delays.
Following a rapid study and plan conducted by the RAAF and Capability Development Group (CDG), the plan to acquire the Super Hornets was announced in September 2006 by then Defence Minister Dr Brendan Nelson, and was confirmed at the March 2007 Avalon Airshow.
A foreign military sale (FMS) contract with the US Navy for 24 Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornets was signed in 2007 which included an initial training package with the US Navy at NAS Lemoore in California. The second 12 of the 24 Super Hornets were pre-configured with the apertures, extra wiring harnesses, and structural changes required for a possible future upgrade to become EA-18G Growlers, and received the unique ‘F/A-18F+’ designation.
In early 2009, the initial cadre of RAAF personnel arrived at various locations in the US including Lemoore to prepare to take delivery of the first Super Hornets, and to establish the initial aircrew and maintenance training systems. The initial cadre of pilots and weapon systems operators (WSO) were drawn from the RAAF’s F-111 and ‘classic’ Hornet community, as were the lead maintenance team.
Despite sharing few common components, the Super Hornet shares a similar design philosophy with that of the F/A-18A/B classic Hornet, and both pilots and maintainers found it easy to transfer their skills to the newer jet with little more than a refresher course. Thus, the RAAF had a viable capability in the Super Hornet almost from day one.
The two squadrons and the wing headquarters, hangars, and maintenance facilities at RAAF Amberley near Brisbane that had formerly housed the F-111C squadrons required a substantial upgrade to accommodate the Super Hornet. Apart from being a different and newer aircraft, the F/A-18F has far more stringent security requirements, especially with its advanced radar and other sensors, weapons, communications, and its radar absorbent material (RAM) coatings.
The first Super Hornet arrived in Australia in 2010 and, by the end of 2011, all 24 jets had been delivered. The RAAF achieved an initial operational capability (IOC) for Super Hornet with the delivery of the 12th aircraft in December 2010, and a final operational capability (FOC) in December 2012.
With the delays in the JSF program continuing, it was decided in 2015 that the RAAF Super Hornet would no longer be a bridging capability and would instead serve a full life-of-type in service of at least 20 years to 2030 or beyond. Further, it was agreed that the RAAF would remain in lockstep with the US Navy’s spiral upgrade path, formerly called its ‘Flightplan’.
In the meantime, the RAAF’s Super Hornets were joined by 12 Boeing EA-18G Growlers. Instead of converting the 12 pre-configured F/A-18F+ aircraft, the decision to acquire the new-build Growlers under Project AIR 5439 Phase 3 was announced in May 2013. The first two Growlers arrived in Australia in February 2017, and the 12th jet was delivered just four months later in June. The EA-18Gs were assigned to 6SQN, while 1SQN took on all 24 F/A-18Fs.
The Growler shares a common airframe, engines, avionics, and primary systems with the Super Hornet. The main differences are the F/A-18F’s nose-mounted gun is deleted and replaced with electronics racks, the wingtip missile rails are deleted in favour of AN/ALQ-218 radar warning receivers, and there are additional rear fuselage, dorsal, and nose antennae apertures.
Because of the change from a bridging to longer-term capability, a life-of-type maintenance plan was implemented, with initially Boeing and later its Australian subsidiary taking the lead in supporting the capability through the company’s Air Combat & Electronic Attack Sustainment program. The company is now several months into a four-year contract extension that was awarded in 2020.
“Boeing’s role in the sustainment of Super Hornet and Growler is as a platform steward,” Air Combat & Electronic Attack Sustainment Program Manager at Boeing Defence Australia, Chris Gray told ADBR. “They’ve trusted us to be a steward for this capability. And what that means is, their sustainment concept is to look to Boeing to bring industry together, to support the platforms.
“We started off with the typical F/A-18 OEM companies like Raytheon and Northrop Grumman but, as we’ve matured, we’ve brought Australian industry into the fold,” Gray added. “Companies like Pacific Aerospace Consulting are doing some of the specialised IT, Airspeed in Adelaide with the Australian-unique cargo pods, and the contract with Martin-Baker Australia packing parachutes for us.”
Raytheon Australia – despite its parent being the OEM for many of the Super Hornet’s sensors and weapons – is actually providing off-aircraft maintenance support of avionics, CASS stations, mission equipment, and weapons racks and launchers for the ACEAS team.
Like the F-35, TAE Aerospace provides engine support for the Super Hornet and Growlers’ F414 engines at its new Ipswich facility near Amberley through a separate performance-based contract between the Commonwealth and engine OEM, General Electric.
One of the innovations Boeing has brought to the ACEAS is its digital sustainment approach. “Super Hornet was one of the lead programs for rolling out our Boeing Maintenance Workflow Analytics (BMWA) tools,” Boeing Defence Australia’s Director of Sustainment Operations, Amy List told us. “We use that to ensure we’re monitoring and controlling the structural health of the system.
“Within Chris’ team are a lot of very clever people who have the ability to reach into the Commonwealth’s systems, access data, do some analysis, and come up with some really great recommendations and decision-making points that enable the growth of the capability,” she added.
“With BMWA and other Data Analytics tools, we have created a sustainment ‘digital twin’. Boeing has used digital twins for development activities on systems like the Loyal Wingman, and the T-7A, but what we’re creating here is a digital twin of our logistics and sustainment model. We call it our integrated decision-making support environment, where we’re able to predict future outcomes and allow the Commonwealth to make the best decisions.”
List said Boeing used the system to provide modelling to the Commonwealth during the COVID-19 pandemic to predict what might happen to the capability’s maintenance burden if flying operations were to be suspended or if the sustainment workforce were to be affected by COVID. Fortunately, this wasn’t required.
The digital sustainment model also allows the ACEAS to accurately predict potential fatigue and corrosion issues with the jets, and thus to conduct preventative maintenance before the issues arise.
“We do our own structural modelling because we operate the aircraft differently to the way that the US Navy operates, and we’ve got a different data set,” List explained. “With our component lifing, we’re seeing in some cases it does line up with the US Navy, but in other cases our usage is different. So we’ve been able to go to the Commonwealth and say that we’re using this part differently.
“It might not be a fleet degrader at a US Navy perspective because of its scale, but it could really impact our fleet,” she added. “So we might need to create an Australian-specific approach to maintaining that item.”
Gray said the US Navy has shown interest in many of the Australian-specific and digital sustainment solutions being used at Amberley. “Through the Commonwealth and the FMS construct, we have an incredibly close working relationship with the Navy,” he said. “And they are very, very interested in the innovations that we find and put to use in Australia.
“We are unique because we are a fleet engineering solution all at the same base, and because of that we’ve got very good record keeping,” he added. “So the Navy uses us as almost like a quarantined testbed for a lot of the problem solving, and we have been able to contribute to helping the Navy with a range of issues.
“Simple things like, we were getting structural damage that the Navy was just continuing to repair. But we actually disassembled some components and found out what was causing it, and that has resulted in a design change to some of the supporting structure in the back-end of the aircraft.
“The Commonwealth has technical liaison officers (TLO) who are working right next to (the US Navy’s PMA-265) the PMA that looks after Super Hornet and Growler. And through the TLOs, we are able to pass and get information to and from the Navy for sustainment for our fleet. So it’s a really well-oiled machine when it comes to communication and free flow of data and information.”
While the Super Hornet’s design incorporated many lessons learned from earlier classic Hornet, the Super has a completely different structure than the classic. Therefore, many of the structural issues found on the classic such as those which affected the jet’s centre barrel – to which the aircraft’s wings, engines, forward fuselage, and main undercarriage are attached – will not be repeated on the Super and Growler.
While some US Navy jets have already flown past their forecast structural life of 6,000 hours without requiring major remedial work, that service is conducting a structural life assessment which will lead to a structural life extension plan (SLEP) to take their aircraft out to 10,000 flight hours.
By comparison, the RAAF’s fleet-leader likely has less than 3,000 logged to date – and many of those fatigue hours have been accumulated in different areas of the jet than those of the US Navy. The operational differences between the RAAF and US Navy mainly occur in the RAAF conducting longer missions, and not needing to make high-impact arrested landings and catapult-assisted takeoffs from aircraft carriers which puts enormous strain on the aircraft’s structure.
Therefore, depending on how long the RAAF intends to operate its F/A-18Fs, it may not be necessary for the RAAF to undertake a complete SLEP. Instead, Australia may use the results of an engineering analysis to just address potential fatigue ‘hot spots’ through just some of the numerous engineering change proposals (ECP) that make up the SLEP the US Navy will conduct.
The US Navy is also upgrading its Block II Super Hornets to a more advanced Block III configuration with new cockpit 10”x19” displays, and the Tactical Targeting Network Technology (TTNT) and Distributed Targeting Processor-Networked (DTP-N) which provides a core networking and processing capability similar to those of the F-22 and F-35.
There were also plans to integrate conformal fuel tanks (CFTs) on the aircraft’s upper fuselage and incorporate subtle radar cross-section (RCS) improvements. But despite offering about 20 per cent more range or freeing up wing stations for additional stores, the US Navy has elected not to proceed with the CFT option.
To date, the RAAF has ordered DTP-N kits for its 24 F/A-18F Super Hornets and 12 EA-18G Growlers as part of a larger US Navy buy, but is yet to formalise any arrangements to upgrade these jets to a full Block III configuration.
Chris Gray says, if the decision is taken to do this work, Boeing can conduct it in Australia. “The upgrades you are talking about now are part of the US Navy Spiral Development Program, for which the RAAF have, to date, implemented as soon as practical after it’s been released,” he explained.
“All of that work has been done in Australia, and all the work we foresee in Australia can be done in Australia.”
This article appeared in the Sep – Dec 2021 issue of ADBR.
In Part 1 we covered the RAAF’s Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II.