The Super Hornet

March 1, 1998

The F/A-18 Hornet is the new centerpiece of naval aviation. Carrier air wings today are made up mostly of F/A-18s, and within a decade only Hornet variants will be flying combat missions from America’s flattops. A large new model, called Super Hornet, currently is in flight test and is expected to achieve initial operational capability in 2001.

However, the new Super Hornet is a compromise design, shaped to a large extent by budget pressures, major missteps in other earlier fighter programs, and the need to have something ready in time to replace large numbers of carrier-based strike and fleet-defense aircraft that will have to retire in the next decade.

No one—certainly not the Navy—considers the Super Hornet to be a low-observable, or “stealthy,” fighter; it has only a small degree of bolt-on stealthiness. Moreover it offers no advantage in speed, turning, or acceleration over today’s standard Hornet. The revisions that it offers can be itemized: an extra weapon station on each wing, room for more fuel, somewhat more range, and more room for improvement than can be found in the current F/A-18C/D version. That Hornet model, in the words of the Navy’s top aviator, is “maxed out.”

The Navy is well aware of the Super Hornet’s limitations, but it has built a new carrier strategy around it, insisting that the “state of the art” in modern combat aircraft design—that is, stealth—isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.


The service has published numerous brochures, white papers, and analyses promoting the Super Hornet—the single-seat version is called the F/A-18E and the two-seat version the F/A-18F. It argues that the new fighter has a “balanced” design that doesn’t rely on stealth because stealth is “perishable.” By that, the Navy means that aeronautic engineers eventually will come up with a countermeasure that will negate the LO advantage.

The Navy says that part of the reason it needs a larger version of the F/A-18 is to get the additional room it needs for systems that carry out defensive electronic countermeasures—jamming—as well as the attendant power and cooling requirements such systems require.

Nevertheless, the Navy has sought to buy as much stealthiness as possible for the Super Hornet. Canopy coatings, special materials and treatment for leading edges, and an F-22–style engine air intake have all helped produce a modest reduction in the Super Hornet’s frontal radar cross section.

However, the new inlets do not mask the fighter’s engine fan blades, a big reflector of radar energy. Nothing at all has been done to reduce the airplane’s considerable infrared signature or its radar signature from the side or rear. Super Hornet will still carry weapons externally, a practice that greatly magnifies the aircraft’s signature.

Making the airplane any stealthier would have forced the Navy to put the Hornet through a costly and unacceptably lengthy redesign, and the Navy decided against it.

The Navy promotes the Super Hornet as an aircraft able to best any fighter it might encounter on tomorrow’s battlefields. The service maintains that “with the AMRAAM missile, enhanced radar, and advanced onboard sensor fusion capability, there is not a threat fighter in the world today—or projected to exist in the next 20 years—that Super Hornet cannot decisively defeat and totally dominate in combat.”

Many have challenged the Navy to state the basis for such claims, given the fact that modern competing aircraft such as the French Rafale and multinational Eurofighter 2000 not only are far more agile and stealthy but also boast up-to-date avionics which are at least on par with those of the Super Hornet. When asked, the service’s director of air warfare supplies the small print: These threats can be defeated by the Super Hornet “with improvements.”

Rear Adm. Dennis V. McGinn agrees that the Super Hornet most likely won’t win against some other modern aircraft using “brute force.” He explained, “If I get into a turning fight” with the E/F against these other aircraft, “then I’ve made a big mistake.”

He explained that, in the Navy’s view, “things like … thrust-to-weight ratios, turn radius, and climb performance [and] acceleration … are still important, but they are not important in the same way as they were … as recently as five years ago.”

McGinn maintained that the advent of features such as a helmet-mounted cuing system, AIM-9X short-range dogfight missile, electronically scanned array radar, and ever-improving AMRAAM radar-guided missile means “the air-to-air mission is becoming more and more dependent upon parameters [such as] … electronics and the weapon system and less on brute force.”

However, many of those features are not present in the initial version of the Super Hornet. The AIM-9X missile is still in early development. The improved radar system would be an expensive add-on to the Super Hornet because it is not funded and included in the baseline cost of the airplane.

“Best … We Can Get”

The new F/A-18 can catch up to the threat “with continual improvements … as we have [made] with every airplane we’ve ever built,” McGinn asserted. The Navy’s approach with Super Hornet has been to “shoot for … the best capability we can get” at the stage of IOC, “based on technology and affordability [and] on the threat that you project at that time. We never, ever design to the end point of performance.”

McGinn maintained that the Super Hornet will be better than its overseas competitors “overall,” taking into account the factors working to its advantage. The reduced radar signature, modest increase in range and payload, and improvement in self-defense avionics, coupled with better tactics to stay clear of enemy defenses, improved access to US intelligence and surveillance data, new standoff weapons, better crew training, and, eventually, an upgraded radar will make the E/F “world class,” said McGinn.

The Navy also needs the Super Hornet in order to avoid wasting valuable munitions, he added. Because of landing load restrictions, the F/A-18C/D model must frequently jettison fuel and unexpended ordnance before landing on a carrier; during a rough “trap,” such weight might rip off a fighter’s wings.

The E/F model, however, has stronger wings, a factor that increases the fighter’s “bringback” capability, reducing the need to throw away bombs or missiles before landing. This is becoming particularly important, McGinn said, in operations like Bosnia, where an airplane will take off with a full load of ordnance but usually does not use it before the end of the mission.

Critics of the Super Hornet, though, contend that there’s not enough improvement to justify such a big production effort. The General Accounting Office, for instance, claimed that the existing F/A-18C/D Hornet could perform as well as or better than the Super Hornet if the Navy would equip it with larger external fuel tanks and an a la carte selection of some components planned for Super Hornet.

McGinn acknowledged that the march of microminiaturization and the new concept of relying on offboard sensors and jammers could, conceivably, take care of the room-for-growth problem that currently bedevils the C/D version.

He argued, though, that the Super Hornet will perform vital service as a “technology maturation” platform for some of the systems that may go on the new Joint Strike Fighter and that some new avionics require conformal antennas and arrays that must be built into the structure and skin of the airplane.

The JSF will be able to gain leverage from some of the new technologies that shake out of the Super Hornet, McGinn said, and this will reduce risk in the forthcoming airplane.

McGinn emphasized that, while the Navy is “very, very happy” with the progress of its version of the JSF, there is no guarantee the program will succeed. If it were to fail, the Navy would have the Super Hornet as a fallback system, a “flexible” platform that could be adapted to new missions and threats.

McGinn also noted that the threat originally anticipated for the early 21st century—”multiple divisions of fifth-generation [Soviet] fighters and the ground carpeted with double-digit SAMs” has not materialized, a development that has made a less capable airplane acceptable as well as “affordable.” However, he added, “We cannot be complacent. … We need a platform with balanced survivability.”

An Earlier View of Stealth

The Super Hornet is not the airplane the Navy originally had in mind for the role of carrier-borne deep-strike airplane in the early 21st century. Until recently, Navy plans for carrier aviation ascribed a far more significant role to stealth. Ten years ago, in fact, the service insisted to Congress that the highest priority of naval aviation was fielding both a stealthy medium bomber to replace the venerable A-6 Intruder and a stealthy fleet defense interceptor to replace the aging F-14 Tomcat.

The A-6—the Navy’s main airstrike platform and a Vietnam veteran—was by the late 1970s an aging design and no match for the sophisticated air defenses foreseen for the 1990s and beyond. Faced with advanced Soviet-made SAMs and associated radar, the A-6 was rapidly losing the capacity to win through to the target and return in one piece. If the deterioration of naval strike aviation continued, naval analysts agreed, carriers as America’s “big stick” would lose credibility, and the Navy might have a hard time justifying buying any more at a cost of some $5 billion apiece.

A new, stealthy aircraft, the A-12 Avenger II, was to have been the Navy’s way of getting “back in the game” of deep strike. This stealthy flying wing, designed to carry a large internal load of weapons and fuel, would have expanded the carrier’s power to reach into defended enemy territory. The A-12, by skirting hostile radars and presenting a tiny target to enemy missiles, was to allow carriers to strike with impunity against even the most heavily defended objectives.

Congress gave the Navy authorization to pursue the highly secret A-12 project. Moreover, the Navy was to pursue the Naval Advanced Tactical Fighter, to be a variant of whatever airplane USAF chose as its F-15 replacement—eventually, the F-22.

However, the Navy and its contractors bungled the A-12. In January 1991, then–Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney canceled the project because of technical problems, cost overruns, and long delays in schedule. Exactly who was most to blame is still being argued in the courts seven years later. The most recent rulings in favor of the contractors suggest the Navy may still have to pay more than a billion dollars to put the debacle to rest—money the service simply doesn’t have on hand.

After the cancellation, it became immediately clear that the Navy had put all its eggs in the A-12 basket. Without it, the Navy had no modern stealth aircraft for its attack mission.

Son of A-12

The service hurriedly cobbled together an effort to produce a replacement aircraft, which was called A-X. Soon, however, this project collapsed because of projected high costs and the feeling inside the Navy that procurement of a single-mission airplane would not go over well with a cost-conscious Congress. Based on experience with the F/A-18—predominantly a fighter but with some attack capabilities—the Navy shifted gears and began a program called the A/F-X. Plans called for the new fighter to put emphasis on attack but have some fighter capabilities.

The arrival of the Clinton Administration in early 1993, however, signaled the end of the A/F-X and a parallel Air Force effort called the Multirole Fighter, intended to yield a replacement for the F-16 fighter.

Clinton defense officials, to promote economy, merged the two projects and their seemingly dissimilar requirements into a Joint effort that would satisfy the Navy’s need for a medium stealth bomber as well as the Air Force’s requirement for a cheap, low-end stablemate for the F-22. [See “Strike Fighter,” October 1996, p. 22.]

The result was the Joint Strike Fighter program. The naval version of the JSF is expected to see initial service around 2010. It will be equipped with wings that are larger than those on Air Force and Marine Corps models, and it will be able to carry two 2000-pound bombs internally. The Navy says it will have a combat radius of about 600 nautical miles, or about 100 nautical miles less than the planned combat radius of the defunct A-12 and A-X aircraft.

McGinn explained that the Navy fully understood that the JSF must meet an affordability requirement and that it was willing to “trade off” the additional range the service would have liked to have had in the new airplane for other benefits. However, the Navy’s stealth requirement for its JSF is much more stringent than that of the Air Force or Marine Corps for their own variants. This suggests that the Navy actually puts more stock in the value of stealth than it publicly admits. The Marines, for their part, have opted out of the Super Hornet program altogether, preferring to wait for the JSF.

Out of this situation, the Super Hornet emerged as the gap-filler that would help the Navy carry on until it could get its true first-day-of-the-war penetrating fighter. This critical aircraft was originally conceived as Hornet 2000, with a much more radically altered planform featuring canards, more stealth, and conformal carriage of weapons. The concept was scaled back considerably in order to control costs and free up money that the Navy could put toward building the stealth aircraft of the future.

Out of the 1970s

The Pentagon shopped the Hornet 2000 concept around to European Allies in the late 1980s with promises of sharing its development and production costs and benefits. The effort was aimed at saving Alliance money as well as heading off development of European designs which could be sold without consulting the United States. The Europeans declined to join in the Hornet 2000 effort and proceeded with their own projects. They offered the tart observation that the proposed American aircraft was “dressed up” 1970s technology.

Now, the Super Hornet is intended to bridge the gap until the JSF arrives in about 12 years. Of the 50 airplanes that constitute the Navy’s current striking power aboard each carrier, 36 are F/A-18C/Ds and 14 are F-14 Tomcats, many of which have been given precision-strike capability with the addition of modified LANTIRN night-vision and targeting pods. The Super Hornet first will replace the F-14 and then gradually the F/A-18C/D.

“We’ll be out of the F-14A in 2003,” McGinn said, “and by 2007 we’ll be out of the F-14D” and fielding an all–F/A-18 force aboard carriers. As the F/A-18C/Ds start to phase out, they’ll be replaced by the JSF, but the plan is for the bulk of carrier strike power to reside in the Super Hornet. The objective air wing of 2015 is about 36 Super Hornets and 14 JSFs.

McGinn asserted that the Super Hornet will be “better than the F-14” in speed, agility, and maneuverability and have a more sophisticated air-to-ground suite than the Tomcat was ever intended to.

Initially, the Navy envisioned a Navy–Marine Corps production run of 1,000 Super Hornets, but that number has fallen considerably. First, the Marine Corps, which had established an unofficial requirement for 248, pulled out of the program some years ago. Then, the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review in 1997 recommended that the Navy further reduce the program to 548 aircraft and move more rapidly to deploy the Joint Strike Fighter. “The total program cost of the E/F is right around $43 billion,” McGinn said. “Recurring unit flyaway cost is about $44 million.” Thanks to new initiatives and technologies in manufacturing, the cost of the Super Hornet “continues to come down,” McGinn asserted.

During testing, the Super Hornet program has been hampered by the discovery of a problem known as “wing drop.” This is a design glitch that results in an uncommanded wing dip, or wobble, during certain types of flight maneuvers in certain areas of the flight envelope. If left uncorrected, the problem could cause potentially dangerous distractions and complications during combat.

The Navy believes it has found an adequate solution that will reduce to acceptable levels—but not altogether eliminate—the problem of wing drop. This would include the addition of devices such as stall strips to the wings, which could increase drag and affect range. By early 1998, though, the Navy was still struggling to define a cost estimate for its proposed fixes.


To accommodate itself to the Super Hornet’s limited penetrating ability, the Navy has designed a “rollback” air campaign that it claims could gradually reduce the surface-to-air threat without unduly putting its attack force at risk. “It’s all about mission effectiveness, not about stealth,” McGinn said of the Navy’s concept of operations.

“Stealth plays a part in mission effectiveness,” McGinn acknowledged, defining the term as “the combination of lethality to carry out your air campaign objectives and survivability … in our concept of operations, operating ‘Forward, … From the Sea.’ It is the entire capability of the battle group.”

Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles, fired from surface warships or submarines, would be the first salvo in a battle group attack, McGinn said, and would be launched against “key nodes of an integrated air defense system.” The TLAMs would be followed by “standoff, outside area defense weapons” such as the Standoff Land Attack Missile–Expanded Response, or SLAM–ER, and Joint Standoff Weapon, both carried by the Hornet or Super Hornet.

Finally, with defenses beaten down, “we get to what we call level-of-effort weapons, such as [Joint Direct Attack Munition] or the [Guided Bomb Unit] family,” McGinn concluded. He added that these would be used “in conjunction with other means of enhancing survivability,” such as the AGM-88 High-speed Anti-Radiation Missile and jamming by the EA-6B Prowler.

“You achieve survivability through a combination of Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses, lethal target suppression, reduction of signature, onboard ECM, and tactics,” McGinn said. “It’s not any one of those things. … It’s the combination of factors.”

The radar cross section reduction in the Super Hornet “enhances the effectiveness of the other things we do, such as standoff jamming and standoff weapons and lethal SEAD,” he added.

However, McGinn is resolute in his conviction about the “perishability” of stealth. “If you try to place your mission effectiveness too much in one specific area, you can get yourself in a situation where, if the enemy comes up with a countermeasure … you really have to spend a lot of money and really make some compromises in how you employ your forces,” he maintained.

The admiral went on, “We’ve seen it a lot in electronic warfare.” For every measure, “there is a countermeasure [and a] counter-countermeasure. It has to do with physics.” The Super Hornet offers “the flexibility in design to shift your strategy … more toward electronics, or more toward missile performance, or more toward onboard or offboard sensor components. That’s the key to staying two steps ahead of potential adversaries.”

He observed that “the threat never is quite what you expect. … Sometimes it’s less, sometimes it’s worse, sometimes it’s just different.” The Super Hornet is “the thing we think will work the best that meets our affordability [requirements].”

Super Hornet


1987: Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger launches study of naval air requirements.

June 1992: Navy awards McDonnell Douglas a $3.1 billion contract to conduct F/A-18E/F engineering and manufacturing development.

May 1995: McDonnell Douglas begins final assembly of F/A-18E1. GE delivers first production F414 engines.

September 1995: F/A-18E1 rolls out at McDonnell Douglas plant in St. Louis.

November 1995: F/A-18E1 makes first flight.

January 1996: Naval Air Warfare Center at Patuxent River, Md., begins three-year flight test program.

April 1996: F/A-18E1 conducts supersonic test flights, achieving Mach 1.1 on April 2 and Mach 1.52 on April 13.

August 1996: F/A-18F1 performs first catapult launches at Patuxent River.

January 1997: F/A-18F1 completes initial sea trials aboard USS John C. Stennis.

March 1997: DoD approves initial production of 12 aircraft.

April 1997: F/A-18F2 fires first missile (an AIM-9) in the flight test program.

January 1999: First production Super Hornets to enter service.

May 1999: Navy to begin operational testing.

2001: Planned IOC of first squadron.

Source: Boeing

Super Hornet


Primary Function: Multirole fighter and attack aircraft

Contractor: McDonnell Douglas, now Boeing

Propulsion: Two F414-GE-400 turbofan engines

Thrust: 22,000 pounds per engine

Length: 60.3 feet

Height: 16 feet

Wingspan: 44.9 feet

Ceiling: 50,000+ feet

Speed: Mach 1.8+

Combat Radius: 370 miles (attack); 540 miles (fighter) (both vary with the mission profile)

Max Takeoff Gross Weight: 66,000 pounds

Models: 2, the E and F

Crew: 1 for E model, 2 for F model

Armament: 1 20 mm MK-61A1 Vulcan cannon

Munitions capability: AIM-9 Sidewinder, AIM-7 Sparrow, AIM-120 AMRAAM, Harpoon, HARM, Shrike, SLAM, SLAM–ER, Walleye, and Maverick missiles; JSOW; JDAM; various general purpose bombs, mines, and rockets.

Source: US Navy