One of the advantages of an advanced fourth-generation design is that unlike stealth aircraft, designers don’t have to worry about stray transmissions compromising the aircraft’s position. The F-35 is equipped with the omnidirectional standard Link-16 data-link for permissive environments and the highly directional low probability of intercept Multifunction Advanced Datalink for high threat environments. The problem is that neither datalink offers enough throughput to transmit as much information as the F-35’s sensors generate—something the Navy is currently grappling with. Meanwhile, the Navy is investing in the very high data rate Tactical Targeting Network Technology (TTNT) datalink for the EA-18G Growler version of the F/A-18, which could easily be adopted by the rest of the Super Hornet fleet—especially as the Naval Integrated Fire Control – Counter Air network comes online.
The bottom line is that while the F/A-18E/F will never be a stealth aircraft, it could offer a less costly 80 percent solution for the U.S. Navy’s requirements. Once developed to its full potential, the Advanced Super Hornet could perform most of the missions envisioned for the F-35C except penetrating strike—it would have to rely on stand-off weapons for that mission. The U.S. Air Force wouldn’t be particularly happy, but if forced to make due with an Advanced Super Hornet, it would have to adapt however grudgingly. The Marines would simply be out of luck since a short takeoff/vertical landing variant of the Super Hornet is simply a physical impossibility. In any case, Trump’s motivation was likely to spur competition between Boeing and Lockheed Martin in an attempt to reduce the cost burden on the long-suffering American taxpayer. It probably was not a serious proposal.
Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.