Boeing F/A-18E "Super Hornet"
Boeing F/A-18E "Super Hornet" (BuNo 165905) at the MCAS Miramar Air Show, San Diego, California (Photos by John Shupek)
The Boeing F/A-18E/F "Super Hornet" is a carrier-based strike fighter aircraft. The F/A-18E single-seat variant and F/A-18F tandem-seat variant are larger and more advanced derivatives of the F/A-18C and D Hornet. The Super Hornet has an internal 20 mm gun and can carry various air-to-air missiles and air-to-surface weapons. Additional fuel can be carried with 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. Full-rate production began 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 1999, replacing the F-14 Tomcat since 2006, and serves alongside the original Hornet. In 2007, the Royal Australian Air Force ordered Super Hornets to replace its aging F-111 fleet.
The Super Hornet is a larger and more advanced variant of the F/A-18C/D Hornet. An early version was marketed by McDonnell Douglas as Hornet 2000 in the 1980s. The Hornet 2000 concept was an advanced version of the F/A-18 with a larger wing, longer fuselage to carry more fuel and more powerful engines.
US Naval Aviation faced a number of problems in the early 1990s. The A-12 Avenger II program, intended to replace the obsolete A-6 Intruders and A-7 Corsair IIs, had run into serious problems and was canceled. During this time the end of the Cold War resulted in military restructuring and budget cuts. With no clean-sheet program in the works, the Navy considered updating an existing design a more attractive approach. As an alternative to the A-12, McDonnell Douglas proposed the "Super Hornet" (initially "Hornet II" in the 1980s) to improve early F/A-18 models, and serve as an alternate replacement for the A-6 Intruder. At the same time, the Navy needed a fleet defense fighter to replace the canceled NATF, which was a proposed navalized variant of the F-22 Raptor.
Turning to the Super Hornet
The Super Hornet was first ordered by the U.S. Navy in 1992. The Navy would also direct that this fighter replace the aging F-14 Tomcat, essentially basing all naval combat jets on Hornet variants until the introduction of the F-35C Lightning II. 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 design and flight characteristics, including avionics, ejection seats, radar, armament, mission computer software, and maintenance/operating procedures. In particular the F/A-18E/F retained most of the avionics systems from the F/A-18C/D's then current configuration.
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.
Initial Operational Capability (IOC) was achieved in September 2001 with VFA-115 at Naval Air Station Lemoore, California. The Navy considers acquisition of the Super Hornet a success with it meeting cost, schedule and weight (400 lb, 181 kg below) requirements.
Despite having the same general layout and systems, the Super Hornet differs in many ways from the original F/A-18 Hornet. The Super Hornet is informally referred to as the "Rhino" to distinguish it from earlier model "legacy" Hornets and prevents confusion in radio calls. This aids safe flight operations, since the catapult and arresting systems must be set differently for the heavier Super Hornet. The "Rhino" nickname was earlier used by the F-4 Phantom II, retired from the fleet in 1987.
The U.S. Navy currently flies both the F/A-18E single-seater and F/A-18F two-seater in combat roles, taking the place of the retired F-14, A-6 Intruder, S-3 Viking, and KA-6D. An electronic warfare variant, the EA-18G Growler, will replace the aging EA-6B Prowler. The Navy calls this reduction in aircraft types a "neck-down". In the Vietnam War era, the Super Hornet's capabilities were covered by no less than 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 is anticipated that $1 billion in fleet wide annual savings will result from replacing other types with the Super Hornet.
In 2003, the Navy identified a flaw in the Super Hornet's under wing pylons, which could reduce the aircraft's service life unless repaired. The problem has been corrected on new airplanes and existing airplanes will be repaired starting in 2009.
In early 2008, Boeing discussed creating a Super Hornet Block III with the U.S. and Australian militaries. It would be a generation 4.75 upgrade with extra forward stealth capabilities and extended range, to be succeeded in 2024 by a sixth-generation fighter.
The Super Hornet is about 20% larger, 7,000 lb (3,000 kg) heavier empty, and 15,000 lb (6,800 kg) heavier at 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 that it replaced, while approaching, but not matching the payload / range of the larger plane.
The forward fuselage is unchanged but the remainder of the aircraft shares little with earlier F/A-18C/D models. The fuselage was stretched by 34 inches (0.86 m) to make room for fuel and future avionics upgrades and increased the wing area by 25%. However, the Super Hornet has 42% fewer structural parts than the original Hornet design. The General Electric F414 engine, developed from the Hornet's F404, has 35% more power. The Super Hornet can return to an aircraft carrier with a larger load of unspent fuel and munitions than the original Hornet. The term for this ability is known as "bringback." Bringback for the Super Hornet is in excess of 9,000 pounds (4,000 kg).
Other differences include rectangular intakes for the engines and two extra wing hard points for payload (for a total of 11). Among the most significant aerodynamic changes are the enlarged leading edge extensions (LEX) which provide improved vortex lifting characteristics in high angle of attack maneuvers, and reduce the static stability margin to enhance pitching characteristics. This results in pitch rates in excess of 40 degrees per second, and high resistance to departure from controlled flight.
Radar Signature Reduction Measures
Survivability is an important feature of the Super Hornet design. The US Navy took a "balanced approach" to survivability in its design. This means that it does not rely on low-observable technology, such as stealth systems, to the exclusion of other survivability factors. Instead, its design incorporates a combination of stealth, advanced electronic-warfare capabilities, reduced ballistic vulnerability, the use of standoff weapons, and innovative tactics that cumulatively and collectively enhance the safety of the fighter and crew.
The F/A-18E/F's radar cross section was reduced greatly from some aspects, mainly the front and rear. The design of the engine inlets reduces the aircraft's frontal radar cross section. The alignment of the leading edges of the engine inlets is designed to scatter radiation to the sides. Fixed fanlike reflecting structures in the inlet tunnel divert radar energy away from the rotating fan blades.
The Super Hornet also makes considerable use of panel joint serration and edge alignment. Considerable attention has been paid to the removal or filling of unnecessary surface join gaps and resonant cavities. Where the F/A-18A-D used grilles to cover various accessory exhaust and inlet ducts, the F/A-18E/F uses perforated panels that appear opaque to radar waves at the frequencies used. Careful attention has been paid to the alignment of many panel boundaries and edges, to scatter traveling waves away from the aircraft.
It is claimed that the Super Hornet employs the most extensive radar cross section reduction measures of any contemporary fighter, other than the F-22 and F-35. While the F/A-18E/F is not a true stealth fighter like the F-22, it will have a frontal RCS an order of magnitude smaller than prior generation fighters.
The Super Hornet's original avionics and software have a 90% commonality with then current F/A-18C/D's. The Super Hornet features a new touch-sensitive, up-front control display; a larger, liquid crystal multipurpose color display; and a new engine fuel display. The Super Hornet has a quadruplex digital fly-by-wire system, as well as a digital flight-control system that detects and corrects for battle damage. Initial production models used the APG-73 radar, later replaced by the APG-79 AESA.
The AN/ASQ-228 ATFLIR (Advanced Targeting Forward Looking InfraRed), is the main electro-optical sensor and laser designator pod for the Super Hornet. Defensive systems are coordinated through the Integrated Defensive Countermeasures system (IDECM). The IDECM system includes the ALE-47 countermeasures dispenser, the ALE-50 towed decoy, the AN/ALR-67(V)3 radar warning receiver, the ALQ-165 Airborne Self-Protect Jammer (ASPJ), and AN/AAR-47, an Infra-Red and Ultra-Violet Missile Approach Warning System (MAWS). Aircrew have the ability to use night vision goggles (NVG) for Super Hornet operations which means the aircraft interior and exterior lighting are NVG compatible.
The Super Hornet, unlike the previous Hornet, can 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 S-3B Viking tankers. The ARS includes an external 330 US gallon (1,200 L) tank with hose reel on the centerline along with four external 480 US gallon (1,800 L) tanks and internal tanks for a total of 29,000 pounds (13,000 kg) of fuel on the aircraft.
Beginning in 2005, new build aircraft received the APG-79 AESA radar. Earlier production aircraft will have their APG-73 replaced with the APG-79. As of January 2008, 135 earlier production aircraft are to receive AESA radar retrofits. VFA-213 "Black Lions" and VFA-106 "Gladiators" based at Oceana Naval Air Station were the first two squadrons to fly the AESA-equipped Super Hornets.
The new APG-79 AESA offers several advantages for the Super Hornet. The new radar enables the aircrew to execute simultaneous air-to-air and air-to-ground attacks. The APG-79 also provides higher quality high-resolution ground mapping at long standoff ranges. The AESA radar can also detect smaller targets, such as inbound missiles. VFA-213 became "safe for flight" (independently fly and maintain the F/A-18F) on 27 October 2006 and is the first Super Hornet squadron to fly AESA-equipped Super Hornets.
The AN/ALE-55 Fiber-Optic Towed Decoy will replace the ALE-50. The improved AN/ALQ-214 jammer was added on Super Hornet Block II.
The first Super Hornet upgraded with an aft cockpit Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System (JHMCS) was delivered to VFA-213 on 18 May 2007. VFA-213 is the first squadron to receive the Dual-Cockpit Cueing System for both pilot and Weapon systems officer. The JHMCS provides multi-purpose aircrew situational awareness including high-off-bore-sight cueing of the AIM-9X Sidewinder missile. Shared Reconnaissance Pod (SHARP) is a high-resolution, digital tactical air reconnaissance system that features advanced day/night and all-weather capability.
In the future, air-to-air target detection using Infrared Search and Track (IRST) in the form of a passive, long range sensor that detects long wave IR emissions will be an option with a unique solution. This new device will be a sensor built into the front of a centerline external fuel tank. Operational capability of this device is expected in 2013.
United States Navy
The first unit to bring their F/A-18 Super Hornets to combat was VFA-115. On 6 November 2002, two F/A-18E's conducted a "Response Option" strike in support of Operation Southern Watch on two surface-to-air missile launchers at Al Kut and an air defense command and control bunker at Tallil Air Base. One of the pilots, Lieutenant John Turner, dropped 2,000 lb (900 kg) JDAM bombs for the first time from the F/A-18E in wartime.
In support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, VFA-14, VFA-41 and VFA-115 flew Close Air Support, strike, escort, SEAD and aerial refueling sorties. Two F/A-18E's from VFA-14 and two F/A-18Fs from VFA-41 were forward deployed to the USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72). The VFA-14 jets flew mostly as aerial refuelers and the VFA-41 jets as Forward Air Controller (Airborne) or FAC(A)s.
On 6 April 2005, VFA-154 and VFA-147 (the latter squadron then still operating "Legacy" F/A-18C) dropped two 500-pound laser-guided bombs on enemy insurgent location east of Baghdad.
On 8 September 2006, VFA-211 F/A-18F Super Hornet expended GBU-12 and GBU-38 bombs against Taliban fighters and Taliban fortifications west and northwest of Kandahar. This was the first time the unit was in combat with the Super Hornet.
During the 2006-2007 cruise with USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, VFA-103 and VFA-143 supported Operations Iraqi Freedom, Enduring Freedom and operations off the Somali coast, and alongside "Legacy Hornet" squadrons VFA-131 and VFA-83, they dropped 140 precision guided weapons and performed nearly 70 strafing runs.
In 2007 Boeing proposed additional F/A-18E/Fs to the US Navy in a multiyear contract. In 2008, it was reported that the Navy was considering buying additional F/A-18 Super Hornets to bridge a "strike-fighter" gap. As of October 2008, Boeing has delivered 367 Super Hornets to the US Navy. On April 6th, 2009 Defense Secretary Gates announced that the Department of Defence intends to acquire further 31 F/A-18E/F in FY2010.
Royal Australian Air Force
On 3 May 2007, the Australian Government signed a contract to acquire 24 F/A-18Fs for the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), at a cost of A$2.9 billion, as an interim replacement for the aging F-111's. The total cost with training and support over 10 years is A$6 billion (US$4.6 billion). The Super Hornet order has resulted from concern that the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) will not be operational by the time the F-111's are retired. RAAF pilots and air combat officers will begin training in the USA in 2009, with No. 1 Squadron and No. 6 Squadron planned to become fully operational with the F/A-18F in 2010.
The order has proved to be controversial, with the critics including some retired senior RAAF officers. Air Vice Marshal (ret.) Peter Criss, a former Air Commander Australia, said he was "absolutely astounded" that the Australian government would spend A$6 billion on an interim aircraft. Criss has also cited evidence given before the US Senate Armed Services Committee that the F/A-18F is inferior to the MiG-29 and Su-30, which are already operated, or have been ordered, by air forces in South East Asia. Air Commodore (ret.) Ted Bushell stated that the F/A-18F could not perform the role that the Australian government had given it, and the F-111 airframe design would remain suitable for the strategic deterrent/strike role until at least 2020. Some critics have claimed that the decision to buy the F/A-18F merely serves to ease the sale of additional Super Hornets to Australia, should the F-35 program "encounter more problems".
The initial package offered to the RAAF will include:
On 31 December 2007, the new Australian Labor government announced that it would review the purchase as part of a wider review of the RAAF's fighter procurement plans, with the possibility of the order for F/A-18Fs being either reduced or canceled. The main reasons given were concerns over operational suitability, the lack of a proper review process, and internal beliefs that an interim fighter was not required.
On 17 March 2008, the Government announced that it would proceed with plans to acquire all 24 F/A-18Fs. Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon said that, based on advice from the review team, the Government had concluded that it was necessary to purchase the Super Hornets, though they remained critical of the previous government's air power planning. He said no other suitable aircraft could be produced to meet the 2010 deadline for the retirement of the F-111 set by the former government and it was no longer possible to keep the F-111's in service past this date. The Government has also sought US export approval for EA-18G Growlers. On 27 February 2009 Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon announced that 12 of the 24 Super Hornets would be wired on the production line for future modification as EA-18Gs. The additional wiring would cost $35 million. The final decision on conversion to EA-18Gs, at a cost of $300 million, would be made in 2012.
Assembly of the first of RAAF's Super Hornets began on 9 December 2008 at Boeing's factory in St. Louis, Missouri.
Boeing offered Malaysia the Super Hornets as part of a buy-back package for its existing F/A-18 Hornets in 2002. However, the Super Hornet procurement was halted after the government decided to purchase the Sukhoi Su-30MKM instead in 2007. But RMAF Chief Gen. Datuk Nik Ismail Nik Mohamaed indicated that the RMAF had not planned to end procurement of the Super Hornets, instead saying that the air force needed such fighters.
Boeing has delivered Super Hornet proposals to the Danish and Brazilian governments in 2008. The Super Hornet is one of three fighter aircraft in a Danish competition to replace 48 F-16's. In October 2008, it was reported the Super Hornet was selected as one of three finalists in Brazil's fighter competition. Brazil has put forward an initial requirement for 36 planes, with a potential total purchase of 120.
Boeing submitted a proposal for India's Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) competition on 24 April 2008. The Super Hornet variant being offered to India is named F/A-18IN. It will include Raytheon's APG-79 AESA radar. In August 2008, Boeing submitted an industrial participation proposal to India describing partnerships with companies in India.
On 10 March 2009, Boeing offered the Super Hornet for Greece's Next-Generation Fighter Program.
Each squadron has a standard unit establishment of 12 aircraft. The F/A-18E/F transition is still in progress as of early 2007.
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