The Chicago-based company had initially agreed with the US Navy to include Block 3 modifications in late 2020 for newly produced F/A-18 aircraft, but it now seeks to sway defense officials on going ahead with the upgrades on older jets much sooner.
With the used aircraft back in US facilities to be worked on anyway, there is "a great opportunity to insert [capabilities] like the Block 3 in a method that is least impactful to the fleet, so that when the aircraft is returned with an extended life it's got the right capabilities for the next decade," Mark Sears, F/A-18 service life modification program director at Boeing, told US Naval Institute News October 17.
Boeing has been selling the Navy on capability improvements, including conformal fuel tanks, which increase a plane's range, and secretive stealth upgrades or "low observable" enhancements, a component of the Block 3 upgrades.
Boeing could add LO "coating" to the airframe like the Pentagon has done with the F-22 Raptor, or, it could replace parts of the jet with radio-wave absorbent material pieces, Aviation Week reports. "There are various degrees of LO enhancement," Sears says, noting "we've played within that spectrum, but there's certainly an LO piece of Block 3."
Boeing will make life-extension tweaks on about 50 jets per year. There is one facility in St. Louis, Missouri, where planes can go, and another site in San Antonio is under construction, USNI News notes. The Navy currently plans for the F/A-18s to fly until 2040, when they will be eventually be phased out in favor of the service's F-35C, a variant of the plane designed specifically for aircraft carrier operations.
The base level modifications will increase the aircraft's life from 6,000 to 9,000 flight hours, Defense News reported Thursday, adding that the contract will be awarded in 2018.