Meet the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet: America's Answer to Advanced Air Combat

The F/A-18E/F Super Hornet is a fighter and assault aircraft designed as the first all-weather platform for the United States military. It can perform conventional assault applications, such as interdiction and close air support, without sacrificing its fighter capabilities.

The F-18 Hornet platform has undergone consistent enhancements to increase its performance and capabilities over time. As a successor to the F-14 Tomcat, the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet entered service with the United States Navy in 1999.

The F-14 Tomcat, a two-seat, twin-engine fighter aircraft, served in the United States Navy from the 1970s until 2006. Its primary missions were air superiority and fleet defense.

The F/A-18E/F Super Hornet is the second iteration of the F/A-18 model, renowned for its high capability and versatility across various missions. It excels in a variety of duties, such as air superiority, fighter escort, reconnaissance, aerial refueling, air defense suppression, and day-night precision strikes.

The Argentine Navy withdraws its Super Etendard aircraft from service due to lack of spare parts.

The Super Hornet, manufactured by Boeing following its 1997 merger with McDonnell Douglas, is available in two distinct variants with a combined thrust of 44,000 lb. The air intakes have been enlarged to optimize ventilation into the engines. With the afterburners activated, the engines are capable of producing a maximum speed greater than Mach 1.8.

The first operational use of the F/A-18E was conducted by Strike Fighter Squadron 115, also known as the “Eagles,” operating from the USS Abraham Lincoln on July 24, 2002. In November of that same year, the aircraft saw its first combat action when the squadron enforced a “no-fly” zone in Iraq. In March 2003, it was also deployed as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The F/A-18E/F Super Hornet has earned a reputation as a competent and dependable aircraft through its performance in a variety of missions.

The Super Hornet is a multi-role attack aircraft that can execute various missions by utilizing various external equipment. It’s sophisticated networking capabilities and formidable armament make it a valuable “FORCE MULTIPLIER” for carrier-related challenges.

Versatility and Mission Capabilities

The Super Hornet has demonstrated a high degree of versatility as a result of its adaptability to specific missions utilizing a vast array of external armaments. This fighter jet’s eleven weapon stations, including two wing store stations, allow it to transport a variety of armaments to fulfill mission requirements.

F/A-18E/F Super Hornet Firepower and Internal Weapon:

 At the heart of the Super Hornet’s armament capabilities is the GE M61A2 20mm Gatling-style gun. This hydraulically-driven, six-barreled rotary action weapon delivers devastating firepower with an electric firing system capable of a selectable rate of fire of either 4,000 or 6,000 RPM. 

This high rate of fire enables the gun to engage targets rapidly at short range, making it essential for close air support and air-to-air combat situations. The Super Hornet is also armed with an internal weapon that packs a serious punch.

Meet the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet: America's Answer to Advanced Air Combat
US Navy F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighter.

Block II Super Hornet and Enhanced Capabilities: Since its introduction in 2001, the Block II Super Hornet, incorporating several technological enhancements, has become the backbone of the Navy’s carrier air wing. These enhancements further enhance the aircraft’s capabilities and contribute to its reputation as a formidable asset.

The Super Hornet has undergone significant upgrades with the development of Block II and Block III variants. These advancements aim to enhance air wing capabilities, explore new operational concepts, and improve cockpit systems, targeting capabilities, and radar signature reduction.

Block II Upgrades

The production of Block II aircraft was completed in April 2020, with the final 322 E and 286 F models being delivered. Following this, the Navy received the first pair of F/A-18 Block III test jets for carrier testing. Boeing designed Block III Super Hornets to complement current and future air wing capabilities.

Advancements of Block III: 

The first Block III aircraft introduced several advancements, including an advanced cockpit system featuring a 10X19 inch touchscreen, functioning like a large tablet. This system replaced traditional cockpit buttons and knobs, allowing pilots to track and target multiple long-range objects with improved precision. 

The Block III Super Hornets are also equipped with the Distributed Targeting Processor-Networked (DTP-N). This open-architecture system provides increased processing power and networking capability to the aircraft’s mission computer. The Tactical Targeting Network Technology (TTNT) data link is also incorporated.

Reduced Radar Signature and Additional Updates: To help reduce the jet’s radar signature, Block III Super Hornets feature certain design elements. Furthermore, the program includes two other updates that were originally planned for future Navy Super Hornets. 

These updates involve an improved satellite communications (SATCOM) system and the integration of a podded infrared search and track (IRST) system.

Meet the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet: America's Answer to Advanced Air Combat

The Block III upgrades for the Super Hornet aim to address key challenges and enhance the aircraft’s capabilities. These upgrades include integrating an Infrared Search and Track (IRST) system, extending the airframe life, and potentially adding conformal fuel tanks.

IRST System and “Stealth Equalizer”: The IRST system on the Block III Super Hornet serves as a “stealth equalizer,” enabling the aircraft to detect and counter stealthy adversaries passively. It can detect and engage advanced fifth-generation fighters such as Russia’s Su-57, China’s J-20, and FC-31.

Extending Airframe Life: The Navy prioritizes extending the airframe life to address the wear and tear on existing Super Hornets. While the F/A-18E/F has a service life of 6,000 hours, years of heavy usage in conflicts like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria have decreased readiness rates and reduced useful life in many Super Hornets. 

The new Block III Super Hornets are designed with an extended airframe service life of 10,000 hours. Additionally, Block II Super Hornets undergoing Block III modifications will gain an extra 4,000 hours of service life per jet.

Conformal Fuel Tanks (CFT): Initially planned for the Block III Super Hornets, shoulder-mounted conformal fuel tanks were intended to provide the ability to carry 3,500 pounds of additional fuel. 

These tanks would have reduced drag, allowing for extended range, higher speeds, or increased payload capacity. However, this option appears to have been dropped from the Block III upgrade plans.

Block III Upgrades Completed: Boeing’s Vice President of F/A-18 and EA-18G programs, Jen Tebo, announced the completion of hardware upgrades for the Block III Super Hornets. The focus now shifts toward maximizing open hardware and software and developing applications to stay ahead of future threats. The goal is to equip Navy pilots with the necessary tools for fast and informed decision-making.

Navy’s Next Generation Air Dominance Initiative: The Navy has initiated the development of its first new carrier-based fighter in almost 20 years. A new program office has been established, and initial discussions with the industry have occurred. 

NGAD: The USAF develops a powerful sixth-generation fighter
NGAD

The multi-billion-dollar effort aims to replace the Super Hornet starting in the 2030s. The objective is to extend the reach of the carrier air wing and enhance the relevance of the Navy’s nuclear-powered aircraft carriers.

Creation of the Next Generation Air Dominance Program Office: Naval Air Systems Command recently established the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program office, known as PMA-230.

Captain Al Mousseau initially served as the program manager but has since retired, with Captain John Dougherty taking over. The NGAD initiative aligns with the Pentagon’s focus on countering Russian and Chinese threats in the Indo-Pacific theater.

Continued Importance of the Super Hornet: While efforts are underway for a new fighter aircraft, the Super Hornet will remain critical to the Navy’s operations in the coming years. The F/A-18E/F Super Hornets will continue to serve as the primary strike power from U.S. carriers for the next decade, offering a versatile and reliable platform for a wide range of missions.