Developed as the U.S. military’s first all-weather fighter and attack aircraft, the F/A-18 Hornet could take on traditional strike applications including interdiction and close air without compromising its fighter capabilities. Over the years, the platform has been steadily improved and in 1999 the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet entered service with the U.S. Navy as replacement for the F-14 Tomcat.
This second model upgrade proved highly capable across the full mission spectrum and could fill the role of air superiority, fighter escort, reconnaissance, aerial refueling, close air support, air defense suppression and day/night precision strike aircraft. The F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet, which is now manufactured by Boeing following its merger with McDonnell Douglas in 1997, has been produced in two distinct versions including the single-seat F/A-18/E and the dual-seat F/A-18/F.
As the final variants of the original multirole F/A-18 aircraft, the model offered a 20 percent larger airframe, while the Super Hornet could carry an additional 33 percent more internal fuel, which increased its mission range by 41 percent while its endurance was increased by 50 percent over the earlier aircraft. Yet, despite being super-sized, the F/A-18E/F actually has 42 percent fewer parts than its predecessor the F/A-18C/D variant.
It has also proven to be a capable and reliable aircraft.
The Super Hornet has performed as a multirole attack aircraft via the use of different external equipment, while the fighter jet’s advanced networking capabilities has allowed it to accomplish very specific missions. In this way it has been utilized as a “force multiplier” where it has been deployed to meet the various challenges that a carrier might face. In its fighter mode it has served as an escort and provided fleet air defenses from enemy aircraft and other threats, while in its attack mode it has provided force projection, interdiction and close and deep air support.
The Super Hornet has eleven weapons stations, including two wing store stations, which has allowed it to carry a range of armaments that include AIM-9 Sidewinder, AIM-7 Sparrow and AIM-120 AMRAAM air-to-air missiles, guided air-to-ground weapons such as Harpoon, SLAM/SLAM-ER, GBU-10, GBU-51, HARM and Maverick; and free-fall air-to-ground bombs, Mk-76, BDU-48, Mk-82LD, Mk-82HD and Mk-84.
The aircraft was also equipped with a General Dynamics M61A2 20mm Gatling-style gun, a hydraulically-driven six-barreled rotary action, air-cooled, electrically-fired weapon that offers selectable rates of either 4,000 or 6,000 rounds per minute.
The first operational use of the F/A-18/E was with Strike Fighter Squadron 115 (VFA-115), known as the “Eagles,” which was operating from the USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) on July 24, 2002, and the aircraft saw its first combat action on November 6 of the same year when the squadron took part in enforcing a “no fly” zone in Iraq. The F/A-18E/F was also used deployed as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003.
Improving on a Good Thing
The F/A-18E/F Block II Super Hornet, which incorporated a number of capabilities-enhancing technologies, has been in service since 2001 and has earned a reputation as the backbone of the Navy’s carrier air wing. The final Block II production II aircraft was delivered in April 2020, which closed out a run of 322 Es and 286 Fs. Those aircraft went from the production line and headed straight to Strike Fighter Squadron 34.
A month later, the first pair F/A-18 Block III test jets headed to the Navy, where they have been used in carrier testing. Boeing developed the Block III Super Hornet to complement existing and future air wing capabilities, while the Navy said it would use aircraft to test and explore new concepts of operation.
The first of the Block III aircraft featured a number of advancements, and this included a new advanced cockpit system’s 10×19-inch touchscreen display that is similar to a large tablet. It replaced many of the cockpit’s traditional buttons and knobs, while has enabled pilots to see, track and target multiple long-range targets.
The Block III jets have also been upgraded with a new satellite communications system that provided the ability to utilize podded infrared search and track (IRST) sensors. The aircraft have also been equipped with enhanced network capabilities, now have a longer range and reduced radar signature. The Block III Super Hornet have been equipped with a shoulder-mounted conformal fuel tanks, which could carry 3,500 pounds of additional fuel while reducing drag, which allows the aircraft to operate longer, go faster and carry additional weapons.
The U.S. Navy awarded Chicago-headquartered Boeing a $4 billion contract in March of 2019 for the multi-year procurement of 78 F/A-18 Block III Super Hornets, including sixty-one single-seat Es and seventeen two-seat Fs, which will be delivered through 2024.
End of the Line for the Super Hornet
Despite its history with the U.S. Navy, all good things do come to an end and the final two dozen of the tactical aircraft scheduled for delivery next year will likely be the last in the program. Instead, the U.S. Navy will ramp up its efforts to develop a replacement for the Super Hornet, and in August 2020 announced that it would cut production to accelerate the development of the next-generation carrier-based fighter program.
That would end the F/A-18 program that began in the 1970s with the development of the McDonnell Douglas-designed twin-engine F-18 fighter and attack aircraft. Yet, the Super Hornet isn’t flying off in the sunset just yet. The F/A-18E/F will remain the primary strike power from U.S. carriers for the next decade.
The Navy also announced its plans to upgrade a significant number of its remaining 540 Super Hornets to the Block III standard. Boeing started converted existing Block II Super Hornets to Block III earlier this year, which will extend the fighter’s life from 6,000 hours to 10,000 hours.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.