During a sunny afternoon bike ride atop the hills overlooking San Diego in December 1990, Navy test pilot Rob Niewoehner and a fellow Naval aviator paused to practice one of the privileges afforded members of the fighter pilot community—complaining. “We were both junior officers at the time,” Niewoehner recalls, “and the Navy had just canceled the F-23 fighter program, just weeks before I was scheduled to fly the prototype. I was not happy.”
Northrop’s experimental YF-23 and the McDonnell Douglas A-12 attack airplane project (canceled just weeks later) were advanced-technology stealth programs, so-called fifth-generation jets. The two were among the leading candidates to replace fourth-generation combat aircraft on the decks of Navy aircraft carriers. To Niewoehner, abandoning both programs meant the Navy was pulling the plug on the newest technology.
The Air Force would go on to get the latest and greatest in the stealthy Lockheed Martin F-22. The Navy would eventually be stuck with doing what it could to further modify and soup-up its Boeing F/A-18E (single-seat) and F/A-18F (two-seat) Super Hornets, themselves deeply redesigned derivatives of the original “legacy” Hornets (models A through D) that first flew in 1978.
“From a lieutenant’s perspective,” Niewoehner recalls, “we wanted to fly the shiny toy, as opposed to the commanders, captains, and admirals who had to pay the bills for that stuff. The conversation on our bike ride that day was, ‘What’s our leadership thinking? What are these guys doing with our future?’ ”
But that was then.
Now a U.S. Naval Academy professor grooming the next generations of ship-borne aviators at Annapolis, Maryland, Niewoehner says: “At the time, I was feeling like we’d been sold out. Now I look back and think, ‘Wow! Those guys were so wise. They saved naval aviation!’ ” It’s a message he drives home to his students when teaching what he considers one of the most significant eras in naval aviation history.
Leveraging the benefit of hindsight, Niewoehner explains: “Leadership decided to invest in small, steady, incremental improvements rather than taking the giant leap into costly stealth technology that so often comes in way late—and way over budget. The net result? A Super Hornet coming off the Boeing production line in St. Louis today is not at all like the Super Hornet I last flew in 1998.”
The venerable F/A-18 is today transformed into a “Generation 4.5” combat airplane. Fourth-generation airframes designed for 1970s battles were subsequently re-engined, reconfigured, and re-equipped to accommodate 21st century missions. They have significantly greater range, a larger weapons payload, and improved carrier-deck performance. With its larger wing and greater power, the Super Hornet can slam onto the deck with close to a full load of undropped bombs (known as “bringback”), giving fleet commanders far greater flexibility in planning missions.
And from the fiscal perspective, those decisions made three decades ago meant that the Navy would not only have highly capable multi-role fighters, it would have them in great numbers. The Navy would be buying the modernized Super Hornets for less than $70 million each. As of April 2020, Boeing had delivered 608 to the Navy, cementing the Super Hornet’s role as the “backbone of the fleet.”
Meanwhile, the F-35C carrier-capable variant of Lockheed Martin’s Joint Strike Fighter initially carried a sticker price closer to $109 million, since reduced to $94.4 million according to the manufacturer. While it has achieved initial operating capability, at press time, the Navy’s version had yet to qualify for combat.
But the difference in initial acquisition cost between these two aircraft pales compared with the Super Hornet’s much lower marginal operating costs. Fuel, maintenance, and other expenses calculated on a per-flight-hour basis average around $35,000 for the F-35C fleet. The Super Hornet comes in at around $10,500. Over the course of its 10,000-hour service life, that difference adds up to a lot of fiscal responsibility.
While they rarely capture the headlines or draw crowds at airshows like the marquis fifth-generation F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II, today’s Super Hornets are quietly, competently, and cost-effectively serving as the Navy’s hardest worker.
The Navy has been scaffolding improvements on Boeing’s Super Hornet production line in St. Louis over the past three decades. The latest iteration of that stepping-stone strategy is the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet Block III. Despite intentions for a 273-strong fleet of the fifth-generation F-35C, scheduled for its first operational cruise in 2021, the Navy also has 79 brand-new Super Hornets on the order books. And Boeing forecasts more sales from abroad.
Now undergoing testing at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, the Block III Super Hornet boasts some significant improvements over its immediate predecessors, and all Block II F/A-18s will be upgraded to a full or partial Block III configuration.
The Block III cockpit retains Raytheon’s APG‑79 radar, introduced on Block II aircraft, but adds a new computer processor and advanced data link. Put together, these upgrades enable the new Super Hornet to transmit and receive enormous amounts of data, which means it will be able to receive targeting information on distant adversaries and ground objectives without turning on its own radar—thus giving away its position—and will be able to share the data its radar picks up with stealthier platforms closer to the targets. The latest infrared search-and-track pod gives the Hornets a greater stand-off strike capability. They can detect their targets from far away via the heat those airplanes give off, again allowing the Hornet’s radar to stay off as it stalks its prey. The new Super Hornets also include 10-by-19-inch cockpit displays to make life easier for their pilots. Perhaps most importantly, a service life modernization extends airframe life to 10,000 flight-hours from 6,000.
But the most visible change in the Block III is the addition of “conformal” fuel tanks. The tanks blend aerodynamically onto the “shoulders” of the existing fuselage, a design that minimizes drag so that the extra 3,500 pounds of internal fuel can be used to extend the fighter’s range by 125 miles. It can strike from farther away or fight longer.
The Block III upgrade is itself being rolled out incrementally. A Critical Design Review is scheduled for next year, and once it’s completed, flight testing will start. Laboratory testing has already begun, and prototype conformal tanks have flown, though not on a Block III airframe.
R. Lee “Fanus” Watkins, one of the Block III test pilots at Patuxent River, reports his test-flight results with the conformal fuel tanks. “[Among] the distinct advantages of the Super Hornet are its carefree handling qualities in just about any configuration,” he says, even when it is heavily loaded with bombs or missiles. The computer-managed flight control system allows pilots to maneuver “to the very limits of the aircraft,” letting them concentrate on targeting and firing weapons. Those excellent flying qualities also mean the F/A-18 is rock-solid when approaching to land aboard an aircraft carrier, still among the most difficult routines in aviation.
Watkins also notes that he was able to confirm the differences in handling qualities that had been predicted because of the fuel-tank modification. “These small differences are planned to be corrected with slight adjustments to the control laws,” he writes.
Another vital element of the improved Block III Super Hornet is its advanced networking capability. Dan “Oddjob” Catlin completed two combat deployments flying F/A-18s during Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom with the Strike-Fighter Squadron 147 “Argonauts,” so he is well aware of the importance of cooperation in today’s aerial combat. He is currently the commanding officer of the VFA-106 “Gladiators.”
Catlin explains that the Block III Super Hornet is “designed to operate in and contribute to a network-enabled battlespace.” The newer avionics allow pilots to join a network with other aircraft in a strike package. With shared information, every airplane in the package has a better view of what’s going on around them—improved “situational awareness,” in fighter pilot-speak. They cooperate to eliminate enemy aircraft.
In Good Company
Other fourth-generation fighters are undergoing similar metamorphoses. The U.S. Air Force has ordered eight new-production F-15EX Strike Eagles to replace older models, which have aged so much that high-speed maneuvering could result in structural fatigue. (The Air Force has had to limit the speeds at which these older aircraft perform certain exercises.) Up to 144 new F-15s may be built. While awaiting retirement, however, the 1980s-vintage F-15s will be retrofitted with the F-15EX’s new Eagle Passive/Active Warning Survivability System (EPAWSS) to detect and counter threats from enemy radars and other sensors. EPAWSS “won’t make the F-15 an F-35 or an F-22,” General James Holmes, head of the U.S. Air Force Air Combat Command, told Air Force Magazine in a 2019 interview, “but it will make it a whole lot better.”
Similarly, the Air Force’s fleet of F-16 Fighting Falcons will receive $5.4 billion in upgrades to replace older mechanically scanned radars with much more effective Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radars, which the Super Hornets are also equipped with. The F-16s are also getting upgraded avionics and self-defense systems, and a life-extension program is planned to add 8,000 hours to each airframe’s service life.
Despite the availability—and popularity—of the exportable fifth-generation F-35, fourth-generation fighters are also undergoing a renaissance abroad. The Eurofighter consortium recently announced plans to retrofit existing airplanes with AESA radars, and build more Eurofighters for Germany, Kuwait, and Bahrain. India, Egypt, and Greece have just accepted batches of French Dassault Rafale fighters, and Brazil took delivery of the first of 36 Swedish-built Gripens it purchased.
Super Hornets are also popular among the world’s air forces. Kuwait closed a deal for 28 of the new airplanes to replace its legacy Hornets, and Germany appears set to buy 45 Super Hornets and derivative EA-18G Growler electronic warfare variants to replace its aging Tornadoes. Boeing has its eye on still more sales. According to Thom Breckenridge, Boeing’s vice president of international sales for the F/A-18, Boeing will compete to replace older Hornets in Canada, Switzerland, and Finland. A massive fighter contest in India is still shaping up.
New, Newer, Newest
This is not the first time the Hornet has been revitalized.
The legacy Hornet (originally designed by McDonnell Douglas and later acquired by Boeing) was for the Navy a return to past glory: It followed in the footsteps of the McDonnell F-4 Phantom, which excelled at both fighter and attack missions. Much of the reason it could handle both roles is its fly-by-wire control system, arguably the most significant advance among fourth-generation aircraft. With fly-by-wire, computer algorithms compensate for purposely built-in aerodynamic instability that would make the aircraft impossible to fly by hand. That instability provides much greater air combat maneuverability and mission flexibility. In fighter mode, the Hornet was an excitingly nimble aerobat. In attack mode, it was a rock-stable platform for delivering ordnance.
As one of the first fighters with fly-by-wire controls, the original F/A-18 was a favorite among pilots. Tammie Jo Shults, the former F/A-18 aviator who earned fame in 2018 by landing a crippled Southwest Airlines Boeing 737, recalls from her naval career: “Just walking up to preflight an F/A-18 was like getting ready to saddle a thoroughbred—one that could easily kick you in the backside if you didn’t keep ahead of it. The jet was stunning just to look at.”
She continues: “When you strapped on the Hornet, it handled like the A-4 [Skyhawk], not as sleek, maybe, but with four times the punch. Whatever you dreamed up, you could do.”
Now retired, Brenda Scheufele was one of the first women to fly in combat with the Navy, and worked as a test pilot on various weapons systems as well as flight-control developments to improve the handling of the legacy Hornet. On the subject of the multi-role strategy, she says: “One of the downsides to replacing four to five different aircraft with one—and there are many cost savings to reducing the number of aircraft models—is that, if something is discovered that is a critical flaw (which happened once on my watch), the whole fleet is grounded. It’s a known risk.” The critical flaw discovered was excessive wear on a part.
But it appears her team ultimately did an exceptional job making sure the Super Hornet would be consistently combat ready.
From 1983 to 2006, the F/A-18 flew side by side with the more famous Grumman F-14 Tomcat. When the Navy began looking for new multi-role fighters to replace the heavy swing-wing, two-crew Tomcat, the F/A-18 was front and center—but not the Hornet as Navy pilots knew it. Boeing effectively redesigned the airplane. Compared with the legacy Hornet models, the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet came in 20 percent larger, with 25 percent more wing area, upgraded F414 engines, and a 41-percent increase in mission range. The new Super Hornet carried enough fuel—with large-capacity “buddy tanks” slung underneath the wings—to become an air-to-air tanker. The first Super Hornets entered service in 1999. (Boeing and Northrop Grumman also developed an electronic-warfare version, the EA-18G Growler, which entered operation 10 years later.)
The Navy’s mandate in combining several combat roles in a single aircraft has been not to compromise the raison d’ être of a fighter—air combat maneuverability. Design improvements could not—and still cannot—come at the expense of the Super Hornet’s lethality in a dogfight. Though today’s combat missions lean toward attack, in the Super Hornet’s split F/A designation, the “F” comes first in the hearts of its designers—and its pilots.
During a close-air-support mission near the town of Ja’Din, Syria, on June 18, 2017, an F/A‑18E pilot scored the first U.S. air-to-air kill since 1999. Mike Tremel (call sign “Mob”), serving aboard the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush, shot down a Syrian Sukhoi Su-22 Fitter after it bombed U.S.-supported Syrian Democratic forces. The Syrian government pilot ignored radio threats and overhead passes before Tremel fired an AIM-120 air-to-air missile that exploded on contact with the Sukhoi’s tailpipe. The Syrian pilot ejected safely.
At the 2017 symposium held by the Tailhook Association, a private group dedicated to supporting U.S. Navy carrier aviation, Tremel and his wingman Jeff “JoJo” Krueger described the action. They were joined on the Tailhook panel by two F/A-18C pilots who had been in their “stack” that day. All four pilots were prepared for a strike; all the action in the area prior to their arrival had been on the ground. One of the F/A-18C pilots checked in with the Joint Terminal Air Controller, an airman on the ground who directs air attacks, and as they waited for his call, the Fitter showed up. Krueger offered his perspective on suddenly being in an air-to-air situation in the middle of a ground-support mission: “We hear it all the time. I remember being at Top Gun, and you hear the MiG killers, the guys from Vietnam, talk about the importance of [basic air combat maneuvering]. We may train that everything’s going to be 100 miles away. But out there—real time—it’s 100 percent fundamentals. Those can never fade away, no matter what the technology is.”
Another way to look at it is that stealth will get you only so far. Air-to-air encounters during attack missions may be unlikely, but as Mike Tremel and the three pilots with him in the air learned, you’d better be prepared for them. If you can win them, it doesn’t matter what generation your airplane is in.