Boeing F-18E/F Super Hornet Block III
Copyright: Stefano Monteleone

Switzerland Air2030: the Super Hornet candidate

The air and the ground testing of the five combat jets candidates for the Swiss Air2030 program are taking place at the Payerne air base from April to the end of June. On the Swiss military airfield, the aircrafts will be subject to stringent checks regarding their characteristics and performance.

From April to June 2019 Payerne will be the scene of an important and rigorous evaluation testing campaign in which the 5 competitors will be challenged through various phases of analysis and testing, to determine who will be the heir of the F/A-18  C or D Hornets and the F-5 Tiger II.

After the 2014 electoral referendum the financing of 22 Saab Gripen fighters was rejected with over of 50% of voters. the Swiss Air Force is now pressed by facing the urgency of technical demands, has decided to reiterate the experience. With the Hornets arriving now to the end of their operational life and the remaining F-5 Tigers that can only be used during the day with excellent weather conditions and who will be withdrawn from service this year, the Federal Council has authorized the DDPS on 8 November 2017 to plan the acquisition of new fighter planes and ground-to-air defense systems. This is called the Air 2030 Program (aircraft plus missile batteries) budgeted for 8 billion Swiss francs.

While on 23rd  March 2018 the DDPS had defined the requirements that the new weapon systems would have had to satisfy, on 25 January 2019 the five candidates presented their offers for new jets to Armasuisse: Eurofighter (Airbus, Germany), F/A-18 Super Hornet (Boeing, USA), Rafale (Dassault, France), F-35A (Lockheed-Martin, USA) and Gripen E (Saab, Sweden).

The race includes 10 weeks of overall testing carried out by Swiss pilots who have already trained on board the related aircraft simulators before. At the moment, Bern is planning to purchase some forty aircraft and has allocated 8 billion francs, compared to the 3.1  budgeted for the 22 Gripen excluding the air defense system five years ago.

The Swiss air defense today is centered on a network of sensors, radar stations, two dozen Oerlikon 35mm anti-aircraft guns, and a hundred FIM-92 Stinger launchers. In addition to these “terrestrial” systems there are the multi-role fighters McDonnell-Douglas (now Boeing) F/A-18 Hornet and the old light fighters Northop F-5E Tiger II in service since 1978 which have participated for the last time in the exercises of shooting of Axalp 2018, 40 years after its entry into service.

Because of their age, these aircraft can be used for the Air Policing service exclusively during the day and only in good weather conditions or excellent visibility. If they should deal with an opponent with a technologically more advanced weapon system, they would have no chance of success. For the ground-to-air defense systems then, there is a gap in long-range defense.

The availability of the aircraft of the Swiss Air Force F/A-18 fleet is currently reduced but the Parliament has approved the extension of the duration of use of the fleet from 5000 to 6000 hours for each individual aircraft in order to carry out the activity of protecting Swiss air space until 2030. As a result, today the Swiss Air Force has fewer aircrafts available. There are currently 10 of the total 30 F/A-18 available, and the goal is to have 12 of them by the end of the 2024. According to the Swiss Air Force, the available F/A-18 aircraft are sufficient to guarantee at any time the air police service as well as the operations for the protection of conferences and events.

The candidates’ test started in April and is carried out in alphabetical order based on the manufacturer’s name:

  • Airbus, Germany, Eurofighter: completed in weeks 15 and 16
  • Boeing, USA, F/A-18 Super Hornet: completed in weeks 17 and 18
  • Dassault, France, Rafale: in weeks 20 and 21
  • Lockheed Martin, USA, F-35A: in weeks 23 and 24
  • Saab, Sweden, Gripen E: in weeks 25 and 26

The winner of the competition should be announced next year while deliveries are scheduled to begin in 2025. Winning will not be the best fighter, but the one deemed most suitable for the needs of theswiss armed forces.

In the days made available to each of the 5 candidates, a total of 8 missions are planned, one of which is nightly (in any case before midnight), with one or two planes. Before the the air and ground tests an introductory flight will be performe, during which the pilots will be able to become familiar with Swiss airspace. On holidays and weekends, no flight activity will be performed.

In the tests, the performance characteristics of each competitor are verified, those of stability and control (quality of flight and quality of handling), the systems (avionics, sensors, armament …) and what is established in the various offers by the manufacturers.

For each of the participants the Swiss Air Forces, always in their great transparency, have organized a day dedicated to the media (in the morning) and to the spotters (in the afternoon) so that the aircraft can be photographed closely and in action.

The tests arranged in alphabetical order started on April 9th, with the tests of the Eurofighter Typhoon from Airbus Eurofighter consortium. For the occasion 2 EFAs of Tranche 3 (1 single-seater and 1 two-seater) of the Royal Air Force 41st Test and Evaluation Squadron arrived in Payerne air base. The day organized for media and spotters was held on April 12th, while on the 16th, the planes were hosted in Meiringen air base for access tests to the underground hangar.

The Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet Block III

On 30 April 2019 we participated at the press day organized for the presentation of the american Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet Block III aircraft of which two two-seater aircraft (169653/251 and 169654/250) arrived in Switzerland accompanied by a KDC-10 tanker from Omega Air Refueling. At the presentation were Dan Gillian vice president of the Boeing Super Hornet & Growler program and US Navy Strike Fighter Commander Wing Atlantic Captain Kevin McLaughlin (with more than 3700 flight hours and 875 landings on 10 different aircraft carriers) who has stated that the Super Hornet has already been tested in combat and is able to compete and win in any air-to-air scenario.

The presentation of Boeing, among the many capabilities of the Super Hornet, has highlighted above all the advantages that the Swiss Air Force would have in buying the “big brother” aircraft of the current legacy Hornet in service.

  • ease of transition of pilots and maintenance personnel
  • the achievement in a shorter time, compared to the competitors, of the Initial Operational Capability
  • the reuse of 60% of vehicles, materials and infrastructures already in use by the Swiss Air Force
  • the reuse of the same armament already in use with the legacy Hornet
  • minimum upgrade of existing infrastructure at low cost
  • 560 Super Hornet aircraft delivered
  • operating life of the planes increased from 6000 to 10000 hours
  • operating cost per hour of flight lower than all other us combat aircraft

Surely the Super Hornet has some remarkable cards to play in the Swiss race and the fact of being an upgrade of the aircraft already in use will be evaluated very positively not only for the performance but also as regards the costs of management.

Today and for the next decades the Super Hornet will be the backbone of the airborne groups of the United States Navy. Tested in combat, it offers new generation cutting-edge multi-role capabilities, being able to dominate current and emerging threats also in the future. Built by the industrial team of Boeing, Northrop Grumman, GE Aviation and Raytheon, the Super Hornet provides state-of-the-art fighting and technological capabilities. Its suite of integrated systems and networking offers greater interoperability and support for ground forces and to the commanders in operating theaters.

Two versions of the Super Hornet, the E single-seater model and the F two-seater model, are currently in production and in service around the world with the US Navy which has been using it since June 2001 in nine U.S. Navy Carrier Air Wings and thirty Squadrons. The Royal Australian Air Force currently operates 24 two-seater models Super Hornet and with 11 (on 12 ordered) EA-18G Growler, the derivative for electronic warfare and anti-radar missions, while the Kuwait Air Force has selected the Super Hornet and will operate in next future with 28 single-seat and two-seater aircraft.

In April 2005, Boeing delivered the first Block II Super Hornet, complete with the world’s first multimodal AESA tactical radar, which became fully operational in late 2007. In March 2019, the US Navy awarded Boeing a three-year contract supply for 78 Super Hornet Block III, extending production until 2023.

Both models are true multi-role aircraft, capable of performing every mission in the tactical spectrum, including air superiority, day and night attack with precision-guided weapons, air escort, close air support, suppression of enemy air defenses, sea strike, reconnaissance missions, forward air controlled and buddy/buddy refueling.

Boeing has worked closely with the US Navy to develop a Super Hornet update that has the capabilities to deal with and overcome future threats in the decades to come. To meet these needs, Boeing developed the Super Hornet Block III with features that will be incorporated into the new production aircraft and incorporated into existing aircraft during the Service Life Modification.

Key features of the Super Hornet Block III:

  • Advanced network infrastructure using a computer (DTP-N), a SATCOM satellite communications system, network throughput (TTNT) and an integration between sensors and platform, which allows the management and communication of large amounts of data with a greater ability to receive targeting information from platforms such as EA-18G and E-2D Hawkeye.
  • Better situational awareness thanks to a new Advanced Cockpit System. A new 10 x 19-inch touchscreen display gives the pilot the ability to see and track multiple long-range objectives generated by a common tactical image.
  • Increased radius of action thanks to the new CFTs – Conformal Fuel Tanks, compliant fuel tanks with low aerodynamic resistance. The tanks mounted on the fuselage can carry 3,500 pounds of fuel with very low aerodynamic resistance, allowing the aircraft to operate longer, go faster and/or carry a greater war load.
  • Long range radar detection capability with a new IRST – Infrared Search & Track. The long-range sensor is able to detect and manage threats regardless of distance, generating a tactical image common to several aircraft and allowing the Super Hornet to operate as a node, an intelligent sensor.
  • Reduction and improvement of the radar signature thanks to a low observable next-generation radar section for greater survival on the battlefield.
  • 10,000 hours of life to reduce operational life cycle costs thanks to design changes in production aircraft based on lessons learned through the “Service Life Analysis Program”.
  • 11 points for transporting the armaments.
  • an APG-79 AESA radar – Active Electronically Scanned Array integrated with an Advanced Targeting Forward Looking Infrared system, with the Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System and a Multifunctional Information Distribution System.
  • two highly reliable General Electric F414-GE-400 engines with a combined thrust of 44,000 pounds.
F/A-18F Block III con CFT @ Boeing

Surely the Super Hornet is a high performance combat aircraft perhaps even too high for the requirements for the Swiss Air Force but with so many advantages in terms of management and maintenance of the fleet. Pending the future decisions of the Swiss government we will wait for the tests of the remaining competitors, including the Gripen E which, in our opinion, remains always the candidate with the greatest chances of winning thanks to its ease of use and lower management costs for a country as Switzerland where the possibilities of training for air defense on its territory are limited by scarcely available and restricted spaces, by altitude and speed limits, by limited flight times, by a dense civil and commercial air traffic and by a high population density.

Article: Stefano Monteleone, Simone Ferrante
Photo credits: Stefano Monteleone