The US Navy is testing out upgrades to improve the stealthiness of the already-operational F-18 Super Hornet. This can be seen as both a hedge against potential problems with the controversial F-35 Joint Strike Fighter as well as increasing the ability of the F-18 fleet to operate jointly with the F-35 aircraft.
There are some pretty severe limitations to how stealthy any after-market modifications — such as adding radar absorbent coating in some spots and making things like fuel tanks and weapons stick out less in others — can make the F-18 or any existing non-stealth fighter, however. The radar signature of a jet is driven heavily by the plane’s fundamental geometric shape.
Altering an existing plane dramatically enough to make significant inroads towards a reduced signature could necessitate an expensive complete redesign of the entire aircraft.
As a semi-stealthy counterpart to the F-35, a reduced-signature F-18 could be a critical part of the navy hi-lo mix strategy, which would seek to get around the even higher cost of the F-35 by operating the aircraft in conjunction with each other. However, previous Boeing experiences with stealth upgrades, such as with the F-15 in the Silent Eagle program, have met with limited commercial success, casting doubt on whether or not these old dogs really can learn new tricks.
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