Sustaining the RMAF Hornet fleet to 2030 and Beyond

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Sustaining the RMAF Hornet fleet to 2030 and beyond

SHAH ALAM: THE first F/A-18D hornets for RMAF was flown in 1996. Since then the Hornet fleet is constantly upgraded with the support of US Navy NAVAIR. Currently the navigation system (GPS/INS), radar software updates, cockpit displays (colour MFDs), Helmet mounted displays (JHMCS), targeting and navigation pods (ATFLIR), new AAM’s (AIM-9X) have been procured for the Hornet, in addition to all the latest up to date airframe and engine repairs and upgrades as per the US Navy and USMC fleets. (These upgrades were supposed to be done a few years ago but delayed until now for unexplained reasons. Ed)

The plaque given to RMAF by Boeing for the successful integration of the 25X capability for its F/A-18D Hornet fleet,
The plaque given to RMAF by Boeing for the successful integration of the 25X capability for its F/A-18D Hornet fleet,

The Hornet airframe was designed for a useful life of 6000 hours, based on the rigours of aircraft carrier operations. Currently most of US Navy and USMC legacy Hornets have flown past the 6000 hours limit and some even still flying combat missions with at more than 8000 flight hours.

Aircraft flown past the 6000 hours flight limit, based on their fatigue rate are usually to have airframe strengthening/center barrel replacement plus (CBR+) programme (center barrel is what the US navy calls the fuselage section in the middle of the Hornet that connects to the wings) to enable the aircraft to be flown on normal maintenance procedures up till 8000 hours and beyond.

An F/A-18 Hornet aircraft based at RAAF Tindal during Exercise Aces North 2015, returns from a training mission. Australia MOD.
An F/A-18 Hornet aircraft based at RAAF Tindal during Exercise Aces North 2015, returns from a training mission. Australia MOD.

As an example, the Australian RAAF legacy Hornet fleet (based on Australian government audit report Sept 2012) up untill now has not exceeded the 6000 hours limit and with careful planning is expected to only reach that milestone in 2018, which nicely coincides with the planned phase out date for them.

Based on a conservative assumption of the RMAF aircraft flying around 180hours per annum, the current average flight hours of the service’s Hornets as of 2015 should be around 3500hours.

Avionics personnel from No. 75 Squadron RAAF work late into the night at their base in the Middle East to get an F/A-18A Hornet ready for its next mission over Iraq. Australian MOD
Avionics personnel from No. 75 Squadron RAAF work late into the night at their base in the Middle East to get an F/A-18A Hornet ready for its next mission over Iraq. Australian MOD

Using and maintaining the TUDM hornet fleet up till 2030 should not be a concern as the biggest user, the USA (USMC specifically) is currently also planning to fly its legacy hornets up till 2030. Other countries such as Finland and Switzerland has also voiced their intentions to fly their legacy hornets to 2030, so TUDM would not be alone if they intend to fly them up till then.

Whats next? 2015-2030

Based on the flight hours assumption (180 hours per annum), there should not be an issue for RMAF to exceed the base 6000 hours limit even up till 2030. So there should not be a need to have all of them go through the center barrel replacement plus program.

For the record, the cost of a CBR + programme is about US$6 million per aircraft, with about USD2 million in parts and USD4 million in working costs. A pair of new inboard wings cost USD1 million. A full refurbishment and upgrade should cost around US$10 million to US$15 million per plane, depending on what actually needs to be changed or repaired including strip down, new wiring etc etc (According to US GAO its closer to US$22 million per plane. ED)

AESA radar successfully tested on a legacy Hornet.
AESA radar successfully tested on a legacy Hornet.

Further upgrades should be done, piggybacking the USMC upgrades for their own Hornet sustainment programme. New AESA radars, new mission computers, new weapons could be bought, as and when the USMC does the same for their legacy Hornet fleet.

Additional Legacy Hornets for RMAF?

Legacy Hornet fleet is in quite a high demand, both by the US Navy, USMC and also the international Hornet community. RAAF would be phasing out their hornets for the F-35A Lightning starting from 2018. Currently their fleet consists of 55 F/A-18A+ single seaters and 16 F/A-18B+ twin seaters, all upgraded to latest C/D standards including JHMCS and APG-73 radars, which should be close in specification with RMAF hornets.

With most airframes to reach 6000 hours by the time of phase out, any plans to acquire the aircraft after being phased out by RAAF should take that into consideration. A full CBR+ modification and refurbishment should be done. An additional buy (or free transfer) of 8 RAAF twin seater post 2018 to add to the current fleet would get the current 18 Squadron aircraft quantity up to 16.

With the CBR+ modification and refurbishments, the airframe is probably good for a further 2000 hours, enough for about 10-11 more years of service (up till 2030). Other airframes should also be acquired from RAAF as spares resources, especially for their engines, and avionics.

With the CBR+ modification and refurbishments, the airframe is probably good for a further 2000 hours, enough for about 10-11 more years of service (up till 2030). Other airframes should also be acquired from RAAF as spares resources, especially for their engines, and avionics.

RMAF F/A-18D Hornet
RMAF F/A-18D Hornet

This past few weeks (especially during IDEX 2015 exhibition in UAE) there has been more and more news of Kuwait (along with neighbouring Qatar) finally going to make a decision within this year to get 18-24 new fighter planes to replace their 38++ Hornets.

There are rumours that either the Typhoon or Super Hornet is preferred in Kuwait. If that is the case, should Malaysia wait at least up till the end of the year to make a decision on the MRCA requirement (to see if the Kuwaiti hornets could be available?).

A formation containing a Malaysian F/A-18D Hornet, a MIG 29 and an Australian F/A 18 Hornet fly over the Penang region of Malaysia, the flight was organized as a prelude flight to Bersama Lima 2011.
A formation containing a Malaysian F/A-18D Hornet, a MIG 29 and an Australian F/A 18 Hornet fly over the Penang region of Malaysia, the flight was organised as a prelude flight to Bersama Lima 2011.

Would the buy of secondhand Kuwaiti Hornets (if available) be a better value to fulfill the near term MRCA requirements (along with the advantages of consolidating majority of the fighter fleet with legacy Hornet variants)? Would the Malaysian government even willing to consider used legacy Hornets if it would become available?

We have to wait and see during the forthcoming LIMA 2015 if there is any announcement by the Malaysian government on the MRCA issue. Would it be just about the release of an official MRCA tender requirements, or would it actually be an announcement of a MRCA contract? ( No – Ed)

— Malaysian Defence

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