The U.S. Navy has signaled its intent to wind down production and delivery of older F/A-18E-F Super Hornet models, but Boeing’s prolific strike and air superiority fighter remain a core pillar of American naval aviation.
The F/A-18E-F Super Hornet is an advanced iteration of the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet, a twin-engine fighter and attack (F/A) aircraft. The Super Hornet is slightly larger than its predecessor but contains significantly less structural parts. It also carries 33% more internal fuel and supports aerial refueling. The Super Hornet enjoys a vastly higher range and maximum payload capacity over its predecessor, a major boon to the tactical flexibility of the carrier strike groups with which they are deployed.
The Super Hornet comes in two primary variants: the two-seat F/A-18/F and the single-seat F/A-18/E. These two variants are distinguished only by a second seat, which opens additional opportunities for testing or training scenarios and can be crucial in certain high-intensity missions; the second Super Hornet seat is typically used by a Weapons Systems Officer (WSO), primarily responsible for manning the aircraft’s armaments suite.
The Super Hornet carries on the McDonnell Douglas Hornet’s legacy with a design concept centered on tactical versatility. To this end, the F/A-18E-F boasts a whopping 11 hardpoints with a maximum payload of just under 18,000 pounds. The Super Hornet’s notable air-to-air weapons AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles, AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles, and AIM-7 Sparrow missiles. It also supports Maverick air-to-ground missiles, Harpoon anti-ship missiles, and several categories of guided and unguided bombs. As with the newer F-35, the Super Hornet’s hardpoints allow the mixing and matching of air-to-air and ground-to-ground weapons to ensure an optimal payload configuration across different battlefield scenarios.
The Super Hornet’s precise avionics package depends on the specific Block revision; the first entry introduced digital controls, a fly-by-wire system, and new targeting sensors. The Block II revision added AN/APG-79 active electronically scanned array (AESA)-- which was also retroactively applied to some Block I models-- as well as a more comprehensive defensive countermeasures system, targeting aids, and a more robust communications suite. With this vast diversity in variants and loadouts, the Super Hornet is suited to run a wide range of missions in low and high-intensity environments: these include, but are not limited to, fighter escorts, forward reconnaissance, air superiority operations, and support roles.
There are just under 600 Super Hornets currently in service, with no concrete retirement date. With Blocks I and II now finally off the assembly line, Boeing recently signed a $4 billion dollar contract with the Navy for 78 new Block 3 F/A-18E/F Super Hornets. As covered by USNI News, the Block III upgrade includes integrated digital cockpit controls, vastly increased fuel capacity to make the Super Hornet’s range proportional to much of the rest of the carrier air wing, a significant lifespan improvement at roughly 10,000 flight hours, an improved radar cross-section (RCS) to reduce visibility, and a more streamlined targeting system.
The Navy additionally plans to upgrade large swathes of its current Super Hornet inventory to the Block III standard. The 78 new Block III models are scheduled to be delivered by April 2024, with conversions of older models to last through 2030.
Mark Episkopos is the new national security reporter for the National Interest.
Image: GULF OF OMAN (Jan 31, 2009) An F/A-18 Super Hornet assigned to the "Golden Warriors" of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 87 is directed to a catapult during flight operations aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71). Theodore Roosevelt and embarked Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 8 are operating in the 5th Fleet area of responsibility. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jonathan Snyder/Released).