The Pentagon Hard Sell

By Sayan Majumdar 


New Delhi, 25 August 2005

The Pentagon’s Defence Cooperation Security Agency (DSCA) chief Lt General Jeffrey B. Kohler is expected to visit India during the first half of September 2005 (between September 5 and 9), to make a classified technical presentation on the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 Surface-to-Air Missile/Anti-Tactical Ballistic Missile (SAM/ATBM) system, as also F-16 and F/A-18E/F family of multi-role strike fighters. Accompanying Gen Kohler will be representatives from United States Aerospace Giants. In this context a great deal of additional information has recently flowed in about the F/A-18E/F ‘Super Hornet’ multi-role strike fighters, and we provide an update.

Super Hornets Stings

Special mention may be made of the Boeing developed F/A-18E/F Block 2 ‘Super Hornet’ multi-role strike fighter as United States have offered for the first time a predominantly strike oriented platform of potentially tremendous punch to India. Such platforms are usually offered with full weapons and sensors suite to staunchest allies alike Great Britain and Israel. Far from being a “knee jerk” move the United States administration may have presented the Super Hornet offer after a lot of calculations, if U.S. media snippets are taken into account.

The fighter will enter service in numbers around 2010–12 and serve as the sentinel up to at least 2030–35, it is thus important to choose a machine that has just entered service or is in middle of its development cycle to ensure significant further enhancements.

The growth potential of the F-18E/F Super Hornets will allow flexible employment and enhancement strategies in future years to enable it to remain a formidable weapons platform for a further two decades. United States administration also realises the fact that although the Indian Air Force (IAF) fighter acquisition program is being advertised as a replacement for ageing IAF fleet of MiG-21s, it is an open secret that a significant proportion of the acquisition will be tasked with the role of airborne nuclear deterrence under SFC (Strategic Forces Command). Thus, the Super Hornets can “naturally run” for such a critical IAF requirement, these medium-weight multi-role strike fighters are capable of operating on a significant portion of Asian topography from bases in and around India. Of all the fighters in contention the Super Hornets are blessed with maximum reach with internal fuel alone that can be further enhanced with in-flight refueling procedures and “combat-rated” drop tanks. 

The “strike oriented” multi-mission F/A-18E/F ‘Super Hornet’ strike fighter (F/A-18F variant is a two-seater) is an upgrade of the combat-proven night strike F/A-18C/D which provided the United States Navy (USN) with a platform that has range, endurance, and ordnance carriage capabilities comparable to the A-6 Intruder “heavy duty” strike platform and incorporates lower Radar Cross Section (RCS) technology and other survivability enhancements from outset. The F/A-18E/F aircraft are longer than earlier Hornets, have larger wing area, and carry more internal fuel which will effectively increase mission range by 41-percent and endurance by 50-percent. The aircraft can also carry the complete complement of "smart" air-to-ground weapons, including the newest joint weapons such as Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) and Joint Stand Off Weapon (JSOW). Two General Electric F414-GE-400 turbo-fan engines provide combined thrust of 44,000-pounds with afterburner. Its nine-to-one thrust-to-weight ratio is one of the highest of any modern fighter engine necessary to retain its air combat potential even with significant strike ordnances.

The United States Navy inducted the first operational F/A-18E/F Super Hornet squadron (VFA-115) in September 2001, with Super Hornets deployed on board the USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) in July 2002. “Baptism under fire” was quick as shortly thereafter, in November 2002, the aircraft made its combat entry, striking air defence installations in Southern Iraq with Global Positioning System (GPS) guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM). Subsequently the aircraft was also deployed as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom (Gulf War II) in March 2003.

For enhancements of strike potential, “Block 2” upgrade demand redesigned forward fuselage which has fewer parts and changes to the aircraft's nose to accommodate the Raytheon AN/APG-79 Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar. Incidentally Raytheon developed AN/APG-79 Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) fire control radar of the Super Hornet have been cleared for export sales to India while still undergoing development and offer pristine technology. AN/APG-79 AESA radar is projected to increase the F/A-18E/F's air-to-air target detection and tracking range and provide higher resolution Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) air-to-ground mapping at longer ranges. The radar will inherently be capable of interleaving air-to-air, air-to-ground and terrain following modes. The AN/APG-79 AESA entered low-rate initial production in September 2003 and is planned to replace the existing AN/APG-73 sets of USN from 2006.

For “silent nocturnal approach” to the targets the Raytheon AN/ASQ-228 ATFLIR (Advanced Targeting Forward-Looking Infra-Red) is deployed, and features both navigation and infrared targeting systems, in particular the "third generation" Mid-Wave (3-5 micron) Forward Looking Infra-Red (MWFLIR) for targeting purposes and incorporating staring focal plane array technology. Additional sensors in the “package” include a high-powered diode-pumped laser spot tracker, navigation FLIR and CCD TV camera. Meanwhile the AN/ALQ-124 Integrated Defensive Countermeasures system (IDECM) provides coordinated situation awareness and manages the on-board and off-board deception countermeasures, the expendable decoys, and signal and frequency control of emissions.

The Super Hornet has eleven weapon stations including two additional wing store stations to support 8,000-kg of external load. As previously stated aircraft carries the complete complement of "smart" air-to-ground weapons, including the newest precision GPS/inertial guided family of joint weapons such as Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) and Joint Stand Off Weapon (JSOW) and Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM). For anti-ship strike AGM-84 Harpoon is carried as also its land attack variants, the Stand-off Land Attack Missile (SLAM) and its extended range variant the SLAM-ER.

However it will be interesting to watch as how United States respond to appropriate modifications demanded or undertaken by India in course of proposed license manufacture to enable the Super Hornet platforms suitable for carriage and delivery of nuclear ordnances and up to what extent the U.S. will be cooperative in this regard.  An electronic attack version of the Super Hornet, the EA-18G ‘Growler‘, modified for escort and close-in jamming incorporating the Improved Capability III (ICAP III) suite developed for the EA-6B ‘Prowler’ is to commence development and is projected to replace the USN EA-6B around 2009. EA-18G will be an indispensable accomplice of F/A-18E/F in strike missions to deal with enemy air defence network & installations. If IAF do select the Super Hornet fighters the Growler platform should "accompany" them.

In terms of air-combat the Super Hornet remains a respectable adversary even with its air-to-ground ordnance load with even strike oriented platforms can carry a small combination of beyond visual range and close-combat missiles. It is almost sure to carry extended-ranged variants of AIM-120 AMRAAM Beyond Visual Range Air-to-Air Missiles (BVRAAM) in future and in any case the MBDA Meteor BVRAAM can be integrated if necessary to perform “outer-air battles” akin to F-14 Tomcat/AIM-54 Phoenix combination.

Close-combat potential is all set to increase significantly with the incorporation of Boeing developed Joint Helmet-Mounted Cueing System (JHMCS) and Raytheon AIM-9X next generation Sidewinder close-combat missile. The AIM-9X uses an extremely agile thrust-vector controlled airframe along with a mature staring focal plane array sensor to facilitate extremely high off-boresight acquisition and launch envelopes, greatly enhanced manoeuvrability and improved target acquisition ranges to provide a “first shot/first kill” advantage. In addition, the digital design architecture provides inherent growth capability. For “eyeball to eyeball confrontation” the gun system is General Dynamics M61A2, with a switch able firing rate of 4,000 or 6,000 shots per minute. The Super Hornet appears to be well capable of decimating its challengers those are able to sneak through the “top cover” provided by dedicated air superiority fighters. Moreover after successfully executing their strike formalities and alerting the enemy as the natural consequence, during “return trip” the Super Hornets are capable of becoming a “fighter swarm” in their own right and coordinating well with the associated air superiority types.  

Boeing, the United States Aerospace Giant has already secured the multi-billion dollar Indian civil airliner deal and perhaps in the position to offer their Super Hornets at favourable terms. With Indo–US cooperation after “9/11” at an all time high with all branches of the Armed Forces of both the nations striving hard to attain inter-operability and joint-cooperation on a grand scale, under such a backdrop a common inventory of Super Hornets may be highly desirable for both the nations. Moreover it was stated that the IAF had an immediate requirement for some 126 multi-role fighters, a vital need that may be best fulfilled by the American Aerospace production machinery in aspects that range from timely production through delivery, technology transfer, to high quality after-sales service all within a time-schedule. The Indians on their part should put the greatest stress on technology sharing and transfer especially in relation to the sensor package. Ultimately, it is perhaps the extent of transfer of technology and assembly lines will determine the choice of IAF which will naturally press for a “Deep License”. After all, India doubly needs to feed and sustain its indigenous aerospace developments.


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