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Replacing the CF-18: What does the home game require?

As the chief test pilot for Boeing F/A-18 programs, Ricardo Traven has a bias for the Super Hornet. But as someone who has flown both the NATO and NORAD missions of the Royal Canadian Air Force, he has a distinct vantage point on Canada’s acquisition of its next generation of fighter aircraft. Following an RCAF career that began in 416 Squadron flying the very first CF-18s and took him on NORAD operations over the Arctic and NATO missions in Europe – as well as a brief stint following in the footsteps of astronaut Chris Hatfield as Canadian exchange officer flying flight tests on the F/A-18 Hornets with the U.S. Navy in Patuxent River, Maryland – Traven landed a job as one of the first test pilots on the then McDonnell Douglas Super Hornet program. He has more than 3000 hours in all models of the F/A-18 family including the first flight in the EA-18G model and 1000 hours of Super Hornet experience.

The Canadian Forces often refers to the “home game” as being a “no fail mission.” That mission includes continental defence and obligations under NORAD. Based on your experience, particularly on NORAD operations, are there specific aircraft requirements to meet that mission?

I have not seen specifics of what Canada has defined as NORAD requirements, but as a test pilot and someone who has flown the mission, I have some strong considerations. The NORAD missions require operations off relatively small, remote, co-use airfields in the North that may not be regularly cleared or kept pristine like a fully operational air force base, and that translates into some particular airframe requirements. I’d want an airplane that can handle operations on less than desirable surfaces like snow, slush and ice; an airplane that can land at slow speeds so that it doesn’t use a lot of runway to stop; and an airplane that has a lot of endurance and range. When you fly missions from remote places like Inuvik, there is a point where you realize you are committed to landing there, so woe forbid if a storm moves in or the weather is worse than predicted. You are sometimes forced to deal with the situation and land on whatever Mother Nature is delivering you at that moment. I’ve literally waited airborne while they plowed a one-truck-wide length down the middle of the runway so I could land. You need endurance to do the mission, endurance to wait, the range to be able to go somewhere else if needed, as well as robust landing gear and a twin-engine design to handle these extreme conditions. The CF-18 has handled this mission exceptionally well but the Super Hornet will improve upon that capability in so many ways. A single-engine design that lands at high speed is a huge step in the wrong direction for Arctic ops – no doubt about it.

Are there other aspects to the NORAD mission that suggest specific requirements?

You no longer operate alone. It is an interoperable game where it’s important that the airplane work with whoever is on the ground or at sea whether it is the army, the navy, or the coast guard to fulfill the mission. The data link systems we have now and the amount and type of data that we are able to pass wasn’t even possible a decade ago. Interoperability has been a key piece of navy requirements and part of the Super Hornet design.

There has been some argument about what is interoperability: the interoperability that has to exist is a language among army, navy, air force and coast guard airplanes; it is not going to be dictated by a company. It will be dictated by the services that will agree on a common language. The protocols to share communications, data, imagery and radar information need to be common to everybody. So the notion that the JSF will be the only aircraft interoperable and others aren’t is ridiculous. Everyone from UAVs to navy ships, fighters and tankers will all be nodes on the net.

Switch to the expeditionary role. How does the Super Hornet measure up to near-term and projected competition?

Again, look at the U.S. Navy: they could end up anywhere in the world at any time in any conflict. If that is not a full time expeditionary role, I don’t know what is. So they need a Swiss army knife with wings that can do virtually every mission. The Super Hornet is a multi-mission, multi-role fighter that can operate virtually anywhere. I have heard from pilots who are flying the missions in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere that the Super Hornet is fulfilling all of the mission requirements. They are working with the army, with the navy or whomever is on the ground. They’re passing data and images and video. Pilots are taking off on missions only to learn 15 minutes later that the mission has changed. Without having to land, they’re getting video sent to the cockpit, connecting with different people on the ground, receiving a bombing assignment, annotating the picture and asking, “this window or that window?”, sending it back to the person on the ground, and then delivering a small bomb literally through a window of an enemy hiding place from a point where troops were hunkered down nearby.

For many reasons I have become a fan of the F-model two-seat Super Hornet because of stories where pilots are flying with a mixed load of weapons and their mission is changed or there is a delay and they’ve had to go get gas, and then while at the tanker they’ve received a new mission or a call for help on the ground. If you’re getting gas, that requires the pilot’s full attention. But the person in the back seat of the F model has been able to communicate with the people on the ground, trade images, circle targets, put in the coordinates, and seconds after the pilot disconnects the airplane is rolling in on a target. With a single seat, that process to “get back in the game” would take minutes or dozens of minutes.

There is so much information flowing through that airplane now. You’re a node in the network. The AESA radar is 10 times the radar I flew with in the CF-18. With the AESA radar, you can have the plane operate in air-to-air mode and air-to-ground mode at the same time. So if you are busy prosecuting air-to-air targets and also trying to draw a map on the ground and target enemy forces, it would be akin to talking on two cell phones at the same time while driving. Given the way things have evolved with technology and data and images, offloading some of that work to the rear-seat person has proven to be pretty effective with the navy. It’s not a surprise to me that Australia purchased all F models.

I think it is only a matter of time before more UAVs enter the space and we are interoperating with them as well. And now you’re maybe controlling UAVs from the back seat – talk about a force multiplier. People say the Super Hornet is old and it makes me laugh. The stuff I’ve been working on and the stuff the company is developing, like the Large Area Display where the cockpit displays and the displays in the back have turned into a monster iPad, is cutting edge. The things that we are working on for future mission computer updates are as revolutionary as anything out there.

Are those systems, though, designed for long-term upgrades? From a Canadian context, the CF is looking for aircraft that will operate into the 2060s and possibly beyond.

The original pillars of the Super Hornet for the navy were more range, more endurance, more weapons carriage capability, more survivability and more growth. Growth has been designed in since day one. When Canada first bought the CF-18, it was the coolest thing in the world. We had fly by wire, computers and everything else, right until the first smart bomb was invented and, all of sudden, we didn’t have the wiring, the plumbing or the computing power to put a smart weapon on a CF-18. Those lessons were learned early on. With computing power doubling every 18 months or so, right from the beginning all systems have a road map or growth plan for how they will integrate upgrades. The Super Hornet today is not the same one I flew when I started development testing about 10 years ago – it is all new and the systems are state of the art.

Tie that growth plan into the introduction of unmanned fighters, because they might be operational faster than some expect. How do they fit within the Super Hornet construct, if you will?

It goes to a bigger construct of what are we doing with manned fighters and future missions. You can probably ask five different people and get five different answers, but my feeling is that UAVs will have a solid place on the long, boring missions where you need persistence to put a camera over enemy territory and for high-threat, risky missions where you need to put a bomb on ground that is heavily protected. When you then start to talk about the need for stealth, there is now a grocery list of small-to-large stealthy UAVs that have all kinds of specialities that can be used, especially since there is no need to risk a manned fighter to do that job. Conversely, one would consider manned airplanes for the missions we’ve discussed, supporting troops on the ground where you have rapid change in the mission, situations where you need eyes-on like close air support, which by definition means friendlies within visual range of where you are dropping these bombs.

Stealth could be a capability that is created and then countered, and then advanced further and countered again, and so on. Is it being oversold in the context of next-gen fighters?

Most fire control radars today and in the past, because of size, operate in the X-band, so the stealth that we are talking about is X-band stealth. It’s not impossible for radars to see a stealth airplane, but it’s exceptionally difficult for X-band radars to see one. But everybody who wants to shoot down an airplane knows that there is a lot of money to be made by having a weapon system that can see them, and they need only operate in a different radar band. Those systems are coming fast and furious. The navy was aware of this and took a very pragmatic approach. They said, we want as much stealth as you can put into this airplane right up until you start manipulating the design because of stealth. If you are going to do that, we want to be part of the conversation. They were not going to sacrifice some must-have capabilities for the sake of stealth. There is an impact on flying quality, range, endurance, configuration – the whole shape is different.

The Super Hornet is far stealthier then people give it credit for. What is the purpose of stealth to begin with? It’s not an offensive tool, it’s a survivability tool. And survivability was one of the five tenets the Super Hornet was designed on. There are many ways to make an airplane more survivable, and stealth is just one in a whole shopping list. The Super Hornet has a towed decoy system and jammers, and redundancies like twin engines and multiple electrical systems and hydraulic systems which add tremendous survivability. A single-engine design can be made very stealthy, but it is also very vulnerable to the slightest damage and when radar systems operating far from X-band detect that plane, the sacrifices in the design to obtain that stealth will become a serious Achilles heel.

If I’m a young fighter pilot in the RCAF, what would I immediately notice about the Super Hornet?

To begin with, what they would notice is familiarity. The transition from a Hornet to a Super Hornet is super easy. The way the airplane is laid out, the way you start it and fly it – the man-machine interface part is almost exactly the same. I was on the program before there was a flight manual. I read some tech orders, started it up and went flying, having never been instructed. The transition for anybody qualified in the Hornet is minimal.

What they would experience when they got in the airplane is kind of shocking. The information coming through the displays and the sensors and the radar are unbelievable. They would also be able to fly much farther ranges because the airplane has more fuel and is more efficient. I threw some charts together once for Canada: I recall that we couldn’t fly from Cold Lake to Inuvik, for example, without stopping in Whitehorse. If you’re flying from Cold Lake to Bagotville and there’s a winter storm in Thunder Bay, you’re not going unless you have a tanker. Conversely, the Super Hornet can fly from base to base without any need to stop for fuel. It has great range and endurance.

Another capability is the ability to be a tanker and give gas to other fighters. The Super Hornet can carry a refueling pod that goes on the centreline tank. I cannot overstate the importance of having that capability today. So many times when I flew the CF-18 and we were called to do a mission, the first thing we would ask was, is a tanker available? And tankers in Canada come down to priority at a much higher level in the military. If a squadron commander in Cold Lake, for example, wants to deploy four Super Hornets to Inuvik in a snow storm and he is very concerned about range and endurance for obvious reasons, he can put the fuel pod on a fifth aircraft, which can fill everybody at a certain point and then return to Cold Lake, and everybody carries on with the mission. That is a hugely undersold capability of the airplane – the ability to act as an in-house tanker for your own squadron.

The other thing they’d find is that the airplane, though larger and heavier, lands slower. On approach speeds we are about 5-10 knots slower than the CF-18. On the heritage Hornet, once you get loaded up with weapons you start to feel it, the handling changes. In the Super Hornet, it feels the same whether it is loaded or not. One reason why I fly air shows fully loaded with weapons is to prove that there is a big difference in capability above the basic CF-18.

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