The 'Super' Plane That Could Replace the F-35 Stealth Fighter
President-elect Donald Trump’s tweet on Dec. 22—where he stated that he had asked Boeing to “price out a comparable F-18 Super Hornet” because of the sheer expense of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter—was met with derision by journalists and Washington’s political elite.
While it is true that no version of the F/A-18E/F will ever be able to offer an exact analogue of the F-35’s capabilities, the reaction inside the Beltway was typically biased. Trump’s statement cannot be interpreted exactly literally. More likely, the President-elect was suggesting that a variant of the Super Hornet airframe could meet many of the capabilities that the F-35 offers at a more reasonable price.
For the U.S. Navy, there is a strong argument to be made that an Advanced Super Hornet derivative could offer an 80 percent solution for a lower price than the F-35C. And while such an F/A-18 derivative would not precisely meet all of the U.S. Air Force’s requirements as embodied in the F-35A, the Super Hornet is a perfectly capable shore-based strike fighter as the Royal Australian Air Force demonstrates on a daily basis. Only the U.S. Marine Corps—with its insistence on the short takeoff/vertical landing capability found on the F-35B—would have to completely revamp its air arm in the exceedingly unlikely event that Trump were to cancel the Joint Strike Fighter program. That being said, all three flying branches would have to give up on the notion of penetrating strike and rely on standoff weapons—the F/A-18E/F is not and will never be a stealth aircraft.
The one area where no version of the Super Hornet can compete with the F-35 is stealth. Stealth more or less has to be baked into an airframe design right from the outset—no ifs or buts. However, Boeing has tested a version of the Super Hornet with a significantly reduced radar cross-section—particularly in the frontal sector. The company has also tested conformal fuel tanks that can carry 3500lbs of additional fuel and an enclosed low-observable (LO) weapons pod that can carry 2500lbs of ordnance onboard the Super Hornet that would allow the jet to fly without bulky external fuel tanks or external stores during the first day of a conflict. Those features would greatly reduce the F/A-18E/F’s visibility on radar, however, even with those enhancements, the Super Hornet will never be a true stealth aircraft comparable to the F-35. It just is not physically possible.
But the question that remains is if stealth will remain the end all and be all of survivability as Lockheed Martin and the Air Force publicly contend. The Russians and the Chinese are developing low-frequency radars that can track fighter-sized stealth aircraft that are—just by the laws of physics—optimized to defeat radars in the fire control bands (Ku, X, C and part of S). Electronic warfare will become increasingly necessary to support stealth aircraft as time goes on and as low frequency radars proliferate. “[Stealth] is needed for what we have in the future for at least ten years out there and there is nothing magic about that decade,” then chief of naval operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert said at the U.S. Naval Institute annual meeting in Washington, D.C, in 2014. “But I think we need to look beyond that. So to me, I think it’s a combination of having aircraft that have stealth but also aircraft that can suppress other forms of radio frequency electromagnetic emissions so that we can get in.”
The U.S. Air Force—despite its public rhetoric—recognizes that electronic warfare will be increasingly important as enemy capabilities continue to improve. At least a dozen Air Force pilots with experience flying stealth platforms have told me that stealth aircraft don’t go into a high threat area alone and unafraid. That trend will continue to accelerate as low frequency radars proliferate and fire control radars start moving to lower bands. “Stealth and electronic attack (EA) always have a synergistic relationship—detection is all about the signal to noise ratio. LO lowers the signal, EA increases the noise,” one Air Force official told me. “Any big picture plan looking forward to deal with emerging A2/AD threats will address both sides of that equation.”
Indeed, the F-35 does have formidable electronic attack capabilities resident within its Northrop Grumman AN/APG-81 active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar. However, while the APG-81 is capable of acting as a high-gain electronic support measures antenna and as a formidable jammer, it can only do so within its own operating frequencies within the X-band. Meanwhile, the Super Hornet and its EA-18G electronic warfare variant are also equipped with an AESA radar—the Raytheon AN/APG-79. The Raytheon-built radar has much of the same potential capabilities as the APG-81, however the Navy has not yet taken full advantage of the APG-79’s potential. But the Navy will exploit more of the radar’s potential electronic warfare capabilities in the coming years.