by Michael Durao
February 11, 2011
The F/A-18IN Growth Hornet unveiled last week as Boeing's entry into India's MMRCA competition signifies a major advancement in the airframe's development, perhaps as great as the jump from the F/A-18C/D to the F/A-18E/F Block I.  Its airframe and avionics upgrades essentially put the Hornet on par with an F-16 Block 60 as an affordable and more cost-effective alternative to the F-35 for Western allies. 

     Most noticeable are the dorsal conformal fuel tanks adding range while creating enough lift to offset their weight according a Boeing test pilot (see video).  High-drag external fuel tanks used to mitigate the Hornet's mediocre range have always been among its worst attributes, and the CFTs address this issue well.

     The ventral IRST, meanwhile, adds much-desired WVR potency comparable to an F-16E or F-35's avionics package.  Details are scarce, but it likely adds target designation capabilities as well, akin to LANTRIN or Sniper XR pods.  The former would be meaningless without an increase in flight performance, and the new, higher-output F414 EPE variants installed should allow the highly-maneuverable airframe to reach its full potential with a greater thrust-weight ratio.  The dorsal warning array on the spine will also aid in WVR as well as BVR.  It's worth noting the centerline weapons pod, capable of carrying 4 AIM-120Cs and an unspecified AG payload; the AA stores at least are larger than the internal payload of an F-35.

     While the Hornet's BVR fleet defense capabilities remain subpar compared to the Tomcat that it replaced in USN service (at least pending deployment of the AIM-120D), the Growth Hornet is an excellent choice for foreign militaries reluctant to invest in F-35s.  As for the USN, this new Hornet should make the case for Block III acquisitions as they will surely build on the outstanding technologies already seen in the F/A-18IN. 

     UPDATE 2/12: Aviation Week cover story scans here.

Michael Durao is an Beowulf Associate who's analytical expertise is focused on aerospace platforms.  His particular concentration lies in the analysis of the capabilities and proliferation of Eastern air defense and air-to-air systems, defense acquisition reform, and the evolving paradigms of 21st Century warfighting.

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