Built on the United States’ first strike fighter, the F/A-18 Hornet, today’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet is an attack aircraft as well as a fighter through selected use of external equipment and advanced networking capabilities to accomplish specific missions.
This “force multiplier” capability gives the operational commander more flexibility in employing tactical aircraft in rapidly changing battle scenarios. In its fighter mode, it provides escort and fleet air defense. In the attack mode, it provides force projection, interdiction, and close and deep air support. Developed on cost and ahead of schedule, the Super Hornet achieved its initial operational capability in 2001. With 565 Super Hornets delivered by the end of 2015, the aircraft is expected to be in service beyond 2045. Open architecture design principles enhance future development capabilities. The Super Hornet provides aircrew the capability and performance necessary to face 21st century threats. In Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom and Inherent Resolve, it performed new combinations of varied and distinct missions - including air superiority, fighter escort, defense suppression, all-weather day/night precision strike, reconnaissance, and aerial refuelling.
In April 2005, Boeing delivered the first Block II Super Hornet, an upgraded Super Hornet with the world’s first tactical multimode active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar.
In 2008, the EA-18G Growler joined the Navy’s aircraft fleet. A Super Hornet derivative, the EA-18G provides tactical jamming and electronic protection for U.S. and allied forces, delivering full-spectrum airborne electronic attack capability along with the targeting and self-defense capabilities of the Super Hornet.
On April 22, 2010 — Earth Day— an unmodified, Boeing-built F/A-18F Super Hornet took off from Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., powered by a sustainable biofuel blend of 50 percent camelina and 50 percent JP-5 aviation fuel. Boeing had worked with the Navy on laboratory testing of fuel properties and engineering evaluations of fuel system compatibility. Nicknamed Green Hornet, the F/A Super Hornet has won seven consecutive awards for environmental excellence from the U.S. Navy.
In August 2013, Boeing and Northrop Grumman began flight tests with a prototype of an Advanced Super Hornet aircraft with conformal fuel tanks, an enclosed weapons pod and signature enhancements. This evolved into the Block III, in fact a new generation Super Hornet, which first flew in May 2020. Concerning the EA-18G Growler, it will receive the AN/ALQ-249 Next Generation Jammer-Mid-band (NGJ-MB), which is under develpment by Raytheon, and which will achieve early operacional capability (EOC) by late 2021, while the low-band version will follow two years later.
Rhino, the second generation
The Boeing F/A-18E and F/A-18F Super Hornet are twin-engine, carrier-capable, multirole fighter aircraft variants based on the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet. The F/A-18E single-seat and F/A-18F tandem-seat variants are larger and more advanced derivatives of the F/A-18C and D Hornet. The Super Hornet has an internal 20 mm M61 rotary cannon and can carry air-to-air missiles and air-to-surface weapons. Additional fuel can be carried in up to five external fuel tanks and the aircraft can be configured as an airborne tanker by adding an external air refueling system.
Designed and initially produced by McDonnell Douglas, the Super Hornet first flew in 1995. Low-rate production began in early 1997 with full-rate production starting in September 1997, after the merger of McDonnell Douglas and Boeing the previous month. The Super Hornet entered service with the United States Navy in 2001, replacing the Grumman F-14 Tomcat, which was retired in 2006; the Super Hornet serves alongside the original Hornet. The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), which has operated the F/A-18A as its main fighter since 1984, ordered the F/A-18F in 2007 to replace its aging F-111C fleet. RAAF Super Hornets entered service in December 2010. Also the Super Hornet has been ordered by Kuwait.
The Super Hornet is an evolutionary redesign of the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet. The Super Hornet’s unique wing and tail configuration can be traced back to an internal Northrop project P-530; this had started as a substantial rework of the lightweight F-5E with a larger wing, twin tail fins and a distinctive leading edge root extension (LERX). Later flying as the Northrop YF-17 “Cobra”, it competed in the United States Air Force’s Lightweight Fighter (LWF) program to produce a smaller and simpler fighter to complement the larger McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle; the YF-17 lost the competition to the YF-16.
The Navy directed that the YF-17 be redesigned into the larger F/A-18 Hornet to meet a requirement for a multi-role fighter to complement the larger and more expensive Grumman F-14 Tomcat serving in fleet defense interceptor and air superiority roles. The Hornet proved to be effective but limited in combat radius. The concept of an enlarged Hornet was first proposed in the 1980s, which was marketed by McDonnell Douglas as Hornet 2000. The Hornet 2000 concept was an advanced F/A-18 with a larger wing and a longer fuselage to carry more fuel and more powerful engines.
The end of the Cold War led to a period of military budget cuts and considerable restructuring. At the same time, U.S. Naval Aviation faced a number of problems. The McDonnell Douglas A-12 Avenger II was canceled in 1991 after the program ran into serious problems; it was intended to replace the obsolete Grumman A-6 Intruder and LTV A-7 Corsair II. The Navy considered updating an existing design as a more attractive approach to a clean-sheet program. As an alternative to the A-12, McDonnell Douglas proposed the “Super Hornet” (initially “Hornet II” in the 1980s), an improvement of the successful previous F/A-18 models, which could serve as an alternate replacement for the A-6 Intruder. The next-generation Hornet design proved more attractive than Grumman’s Quick Strike upgrade to the F-14 Tomcat, which was regarded as an insufficient technological leap over existing F-14s.
At the time, the Grumman F-14 Tomcat was the Navy’s primary air superiority fighter and fleet defense interceptor. Then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney described the F-14 as 1960s technology, and drastically cut back F-14D procurement in 1989 before cancelling production altogether in 1991, in favor of the updated F/A-18E/F. The decision to replace the Tomcat with an all-Hornet Carrier Air Wing was controversial; Vietnam War ace and Congressman Duke Cunningham criticized the Super Hornet as an unproven design that compromised air superiority. In 1992, the Navy canceled the Navy Advanced Tactical Fighter (NATF), which would have been a navalized variant of the Air Force’s Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor. As a cheaper alternative to NATF, Grumman proposed substantial improvements to the F-14 beyond Quick Strike, but Congress rejected them as too costly and reaffirmed its commitment to the less expensive F/A-18E/F.
Testing and production
The Super Hornet was first ordered by the U.S. Navy in 1992. The Navy retained the F/A-18 designation to help sell the program to Congress as a low-risk “derivative”, though the Super Hornet is largely a new aircraft. The Hornet and Super Hornet share many characteristics, including avionics, ejection seats, radar, armament, mission computer software, and maintenance/operating procedures. The initial F/A-18E/F retained most of the avionics systems from the F/A-18C/D’s configuration at the time. The design would be expanded in the Super Hornet with an empty weight slightly greater than the F-15C. The Super Hornet first flew on 29 November 1995. Initial production on the F/A-18E/F began in 1995. Flight testing started in 1996 with the F/A-18E/F’s first carrier landing in 1997. Low-rate production began in March 1997 with full production beginning in September 1997.Testing continued through 1999, finishing with sea trials and aerial refueling demonstrations. Testing involved 3,100 test flights covering 4,600 flight hours. The Super Hornet underwent U.S. Navy operational tests and evaluations in 1999 and was approved in February 2000.
With the retirement of the F-14 in 2006, all of the Navy’s combat jets have been Hornet variants until the F-35C Lightning II enters service. The F/A-18E single-seat and F/A-18F two-seat aircraft took the place of the F-14 Tomcat, A-6 Intruder, Lockheed S-3 Viking, and KA-6D aircraft. An electronic warfare variant, the EA-18G Growler, replaces the EA-6B Prowler. The Navy calls this reduction in aircraft types a “neck-down”. During the Vietnam War era, the Super Hornet’s roles were performed by a combination of the A-1/A-4/A-7 (light attack), A-6 (medium attack), F-8/F-4 (fighter), RA-5C (recon), KA-3/KA-6 (tanker), and EA-6 (electronic warfare). It was anticipated that $1 billion in fleetwide annual savings would result from replacing other types with the Super Hornet. The Navy considers the Super Hornet’s acquisition a success, meeting cost, schedule, and weight (400 lb, 181 kg below) requirements.
Improvements and changes
The Block II Super Hornet incorporates an improved active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, larger displays, the joint helmet mounted cueing system, and several other avionics replacements. Avionics and weapons systems that were under development for the prospective production version of the Boeing X-32 were used on the Block II Super Hornet. New-build aircraft received the APG-79 AESA radar beginning in 2005. In January 2008, it was announced that 135 earlier production aircraft were to be retrofitted with AESA radars.
In 2008, Boeing discussed the development of a Super Hornet Block III with the U.S. and Australian military, featuring additional stealth capabilities and extended range. In 2010, Boeing offered prospective Super Hornet customers the “International Roadmap”, which included conformal fuel tanks, enhanced engines, an enclosed weapons pod (EWP), a next-generation cockpit, a new missile warning system, and an internal infra-red search and track (IRST) system. The EWP has four internal stations for munitions, a single aircraft can carry a total of three EWPs, housing up to 12 AMRAAMs and two Sidewinders. The next-generation cockpit features a 19 x 11-inch touch-sensitive display. In 2011, Boeing received a US Navy contract to develop a new mission computer, as well as the full development of the Block III.
In 2007, Boeing stated that a passive Infrared Search and Track (IRST) sensor would be an available future option. The sensor, mounted in a modified centerline fuel tank, detects long wave IR emissions to spot and track targets such as aircraft; combat using the IRST and AIM-9X Sidewinder missiles is immune to radar jamming. In May 2009, Lockheed Martin announced its selection by Boeing for the IRST’s technology development phase, and a contract followed in November 2011. As of September 2013, a basic IRST would be fielded in 2016 and a longer-range version in 2019; sequestration cuts in 2013 caused two years of delays. An F/A-18F performed a flight equipped with the IRST system in February 2014, and Milestone C approval authorizing low-rate initial production (LRIP) was granted in December 2014.
Advanced Super Hornet
Boeing and Northrop Grumman self-funded a prototype of the Advanced Super Hornet. The prototype features a 50% reduction in frontal radar cross-section (RCS), conformal fuel tanks (CFT), and an enclosed weapons pod. Features could also be integrated onto the EA-18G Growler; using CFTs on the EA-18 fleet was speculated as useful to releasing underwing space and drag margin for the Next Generation Jammer. Flight tests of the Advanced Super Hornet began on 5 August 2013 and continued for three weeks, testing the performance of CFTs, the enclosed weapons pod (EWP), and signature enhancements. The U.S. Navy was reportedly pleased with the Advanced Super Hornet’s flight test results, and hopes it will provide future procurement options.
In March 2013, the U.S. Navy was considering the widespread adoption of conformal fuel tanks, which would allow the Super Hornet to carry 3,500 lb (1,600 kg) of additional fuel. Budgetary pressures from the F-35C Lightning II and Pacific region operations were cited as reasons supporting the use of CFTs. Flight testing demonstrated CFTs could slightly reduce drag while expanding the combat range by 260 nautical miles (300 mi; 480 km). The prototype CFT weighed 1,500 lb (680 kg), while production CFTs are expected to weigh 870 lb (390 kg). Boeing stated that the CFTs do not add any cruise drag but acknowledged a negative impact imposed on transonic acceleration due to increased wave drag. General Electric’s enhanced performance engine (EPE), increasing the F414-GE-400’s power output from 22,000 to 26,400 lbf (98 to 117 kN) of thrust per engine, was suggested as a mitigating measure. In 2009, development commenced on several engine improvements, including greater resistance to foreign object damage, reduced fuel burn rate, and potentially increased thrust of up to 20%.
In 2014, Boeing revealed a Super Hornet hybrid concept, equipped with the EA-18G Growler’s electronic signal detection capabilities to allow for targets engagement using the receiver; the concept did not include the ALQ-99 jamming pod. Growth capabilities could include the addition of a long-range infrared search and track sensor and new air-to-air tracking modes.
In September 2014, Boeing readied plans to close its St. Louis production lines for the Super Hornet and F-15 in 2017. Chris Chadwick, president of Boeing Defense, Space and Security, told the Wall Street Journal that, although “we’re still solidly behind them,” the company could have decided by April 2015 whether to shut down both assembly lines and close the factory, but chose to keep the Super Hornet line going. Due to various Pentagon contracts, Boeing had enough orders to keep things running into 2022 to give Boeing the opportunity to firm up more international orders.
The Hornet and Super Hornet share many characteristics, including avionics, ejection seats, radar, armament, mission computer software, and maintenance/operating procedures. The Super Hornet is largely a new aircraft at about 20% larger, 7,000 lb (3,200 kg) heavier empty weight, and 15,000 lb (6,800 kg) heavier maximum weight than the original Hornet. The Super Hornet carries 33% more internal fuel, increasing mission range by 41% and endurance by 50% over the “Legacy” Hornet. The empty weight of the Super Hornet is about 11,000 lb (5,000 kg) less than that of the F-14 Tomcat which it replaced, while approaching, but not matching, the F-14’s payload and range. As the Super Hornet is significantly heavier than the legacy Hornet, the catapult and arresting systems must be set differently. To aid safe flight operations and prevent confusion in radio calls, the Super Hornet is informally referred to as the “Rhino” to distinguish it from earlier Hornets. (The “Rhino” nickname was previously applied to the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, which was retired from the fleet in 1987).
The Super Hornet, unlike the previous Hornet, is designed to be equipped with an aerial refueling system (ARS) or “buddy store” for the refueling of other aircraft, filling the tactical airborne tanker role the Navy had lost with the retirement of the KA-6D and Lockheed S-3B Viking tankers. The ARS includes an external 330 US gal (1,200 L) tank with hose reel on the centerline, along with four external 480 US gal (1,800 L) tanks and internal tanks, for a total of 29,000 lb (13,000 kg) of fuel on the aircraft. On typical missions a fifth of the air wing is dedicated to the tanker role, which consumes aircraft fatigue life expectancy faster than other missions.
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