After decades of service, multiple upgrades, and service life extension plans, the Navy’s classic F/A-18s may be headed to the boneyard given the meteoric rise of the Air Force and Navy Next Generation Air Dominance 6th-Generation stealth fighter aircraft.
The combat-tested F/A-18s have served admirably for decades and have already extended or outlived initial service life expectations, due in large measure to a series of upgrades and sustainment efforts. In fact, F/A-18s may have initially been thought of as flying as many as 6,000 mission hours. However, sustainment upgrades have extended that beyond 8,000 and moved the jets toward a previously unexpected 10,000 flight hours.
How was this accomplished? Navy developers years ago told The National Interest that the service and its industry partners made modifications to the center barrel section and extended the life of the Nacelles to preserve the airframe structure.
These upgrades were driven in large measure by the successful performance of the F/A-18 as well as a consistent demand for more in recent years. Budget requests as far back as ten years ago from the Navy regularly asked for much greater numbers of F/A-18s to fill a deficit caused by F-14 retirement and waiting for the arrival of the F-35C. The Navy’s 2017 budget request, for example, asked for twenty-one new Super Hornets to be added through 2021 and put fourteen more Super Hornets on the “unfunded requirements” list to Congress, as part of a clear effort to “bridge a gap” until the F-35C arrived. These requests, which at times were considered urgent given the demand from global combatant commanders, were also driven at a time when the arrival of a 6th-Generation aircraft was nowhere on the horizon anytime soon. That circumstance has changed, as budget dollars are quickly shifting to the NGAD effort, for obvious reasons. Now, the F-35C is here and in demand, and a 6th-Generation aircraft has already taken to the sky.
Of course, this does not mean there is an immediate death sentence for the F/A-18, especially given the massive extent to which technological upgrades have improved performance. Much has been done to the 1980s-era jet in recent years, to include new avionics, Infrared Search and Track target radar, quasi-stealthy conformal fuel tanks and even a special glide-slope flight enhancing software called “Magic Carpet” intend to help pilots optimize approaches onto a carrier deck.
The F/A-18 also received a Joint Helmet-Mounted Cueing System, or JHMCS, is a technology upgrade that engineers a viewing module proving a 20-degree field of view visor. Additional technologies for Super Hornets include Digital Communication System Radio, MIDS—Joint Tactical Radio System, Digital Memory Device, Distributed Targeting System, Infrared Search and Track (IRST) and continued advancement of the APG-79 Active Electronically Scanned Array Radar, Navy officials told The National Interest years ago.
What this means, most likely, is that the F/A-18 will fly for many years to come as F-35Cs and, ultimately, 6th-Generation aircraft arrive. The Navy just may not wish to acquire new ones or continue to upgrade existing planes.
Kris Osborn is the Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.