Boeing has released a video of the rollout of the first of two Block III F/A-18F Super Hornet test jets for the U.S. Navy. The service plans to use these aircraft, which do not feature the full set of upgrades, for various flight tests and to explore new concepts of operation ahead of the delivery of jets with the complete Block III package, which is set to begin later this year.
The Chicago-headquartered plane maker announced the final assembly of the first Block III Super Hornet testbed at its production facility in St. Louis, Missouri on May 8, 2020. The video offers views of the exterior of the jet, which remains largely unchanged from earlier Super Hornets. This particular aircraft does not have its conformal fuel tanks fitted, though that is a key piece of the full Block III upgrade. The video also highlights the customizable wide-area multi-function display in one of the F/A-18F's two cockpits, which is another important element of the Block III package.
In addition, the Block III jets will also receive new satellite communications systems and have the ability to use podded infrared search and track (IRST) sensors, which are being developed for the Block III and existing Block II Super Hornets. You can read more about all of these upgrades in these past War Zone pieces.
It's not yet clear when Boeing might deliver the second testbed aircraft. In January, the company had said that it hoped to have the first test jet finished and delivered to the Navy by the end of March. It had already been conducting flight tests of systems related to the Block III upgrade on jets ahead of the completion of the first test jet, as well.
"Block III delivery is just steps behind and the production lines won’t miss a beat, with the first two U.S. Navy Block III test jets delivering in the next two months," Navy Captain Jason Denney, the F/A-18 and EA-18G Program Manager for the service, had said in April. That month the Navy accepted delivery of the final Block II F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, finishing off that earlier upgrade program, which had begun in 2005.
In total, the service has received 322 single-seat F/A-18Es and 286 two-seated F/A-18Fs with the Block II modifications over the past 15 years. The Navy now plans to upgrade a significant number of its remaining 540 Super Hornets to the new Block III standard. A Block II upgrade effort for the service's EA-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft is also in the works and there are already discussions about additional Super Hornet improvements, such as enhanced performance engines.
Beyond the Navy, Boeing is now pitching advanced Super Hornets, with at least some of the Block III upgrades, to foreign customers and is already developing a new life-extension upgrade for the F/A-18E/Fs. Kuwait, which helped fund portion of the Block III program, already has 22 F/A-18Es and six F/A-18Fs on order that will be in a sort of hybrid configuration between Block II and Block III aircraft.
Germany also recently announced plans to acquire a mix of F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, as well as EA-18G Growlers, as part of its plans to replace its aging swing-wing Panavia Tornado combat jets. The German Tornado replacement effort is a saga that is separately tied to NATO nuclear weapons sharing agreements, which you can read about in more detail in this previous War Zone story.
Boeing has also pitched the F/A-18E/F for the Indian Air Force's long-troubled fighter jet tender and separate program by the Indian Navy to acquire new carrier-based fighters. The Super Hornet is taking part in a number of other fighter competitions elsewhere around the world, as well as, including those in Finland, Switzerland, and Canada.
"Though we’ve done tremendous work to meet readiness requirements, we know continual forward momentum is needed to sustain that readiness while maintaining our tactical advantage to be more lethal and survivable than our potential adversaries," Captain Denney, the Navy's Super Hornet and Growler program manager, had said in April. "The solid partnership with Boeing for the Block III production and modification programs ensures the Super Hornet will remain not only relevant, but ready to fight in today’s dynamic global environment and well into the future."
With the rollout of the first Block III test jet, the Navy is now even closer to getting its newest and most advanced Super Hornets later this year.
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