While US Navy Fleet F/A-18E/F Super Hornet squadrons are focused on readiness — getting more aircraft mission capable — the Navy’s test squadrons are capability-driven. The Navy may have rationalized down to having the Super Hornet and Growler as the two fast jets on the ‘big deck’ carriers, but it means they are receiving constant pulses of new technology, especially in an era that is re-focused on the high-end threat, writes Combat Aircraft Editor Jamie Hunter in the new June issue, on sale from today.
VX-31 ‘Dust Devils’ at NAWS China Lake is the centerpiece of this effort — it’s an air test and evaluation (VX) squadron. China Lake test is currently focused on the Super Hornet, ‘Legacy’ Hornet’, Growler and Harrier. The F-35B/C is still tied closely to the core Joint Strike Fighter program and navy test work on the west coast for these jets is concentrated at Edwards AFB with a VX-9 detachment — currently VX-31 has no involvement.
VX-31 is currently spinning up for the latest round of enhancements for the Super Hornet and Growler — known as H16 System Configuration Set (SCS). Squadron commander CDR Andrew Gephart says that H16 SCS is ‘very Growler-centric’, adding that new hardware is being added to the aircraft’s ‘turtleback’ — the spine behind the cockpit — to further improve emitter geo-location by the ALQ-218 pods on the wingtips. Testing of the Next-Generation Jammer (NGJ) is set for 2020 and also comes under H16, initially with the Raytheon AN/ALQ-249 mid-band pod, with initial operating capability aimed for 2022.
Anywhere you go in naval strike fighter aviation, ‘Dust Devils’ will have ‘touched’ pretty much every piece of equipment on the squadron. For example, the new AN/AAS-42 Infra-Red Search and Track (IRST) sensor for the Super Hornet is fresh out of operational test and is set to go out on a ‘WestPac’ cruise for an ‘early operational look’. Gephart says: ‘This is to help inform the next phase, which is the Block II IRST, which is going to have a new sensor package.’
To read the full story of the latest US Navy flight test developments, check out the new June edition of Combat Aircraft, on sale today.
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