With the world’s air forces scrambling to fill anticipated gaps in their fighter inventories, is it possible that the fighter of the future may be the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet?
Responding to a question from reporters about China’s new Chengdu J-20 fighter, Boeing’s Dennis Muilenburg said that air forces in Asia and the Pacific “are interested in being able to field the most advanced technologies and to do this cost effectively.” Muilenburg said the F/A-18E/F deploys “the most advanced technologies available today.” Terms like “fourth generation” and “fifth generation,” he said, are not helpful in determining how different fighters stack up against one another.
The CEO of Boeing’s defense business believes the F/A-18E/F has “real potential” among likely overseas users. He also says the planemaker can supply more Super Hornets to U.S. forces. With the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) under constant scrutiny for delays, technical glitches and cost increases, Boeing is ready to offer more Super Hornets to the U.S. Navy – and even to the Marine Corps – if JSF falters.
Second in size, fighter sales, and export earnings to Lockheed Martin, Boeing owns the only other fighter assembly line in the United States. It’s in St. Louis, Mo., and was home to the legendary fighter team created by the McDonnell Aircraft Company in the 1940s and operated until 1996. The facility assembles F/A-18E/Fs for the U.S. Navy and overseas buyers plus export versions of the F-15 Eagle. For much of the past decade, Boeing appeared to shun publicity for its St. Louis fighter shop, not wanting to appear to be competing with the F-22 Raptor– a Lockheed Martin product but one in which Boeing has about a 40 percent stake. Now, production of the Raptor is ending. Boeing, with no ties to JSF, is again promoting fighters of its own design aggressively. The results appear to be promising for the Super Hornet.
Gone, from the pitch made by Boeing sales teams, is the idea that “fifth generation” is anything but a marketing tool devised by Lockheed Martin. The F-22, F-35, J-20 and Russian PAK-FA supposedly qualify as “fifth generation” jet warplanes based on their stealth properties and other qualities, but Super Hornet proponents say the F/A-18E/F offers some stealth and more may not be worth the price. Stealth can mean pesky maintenance headaches. Former Pentagon analyst Pierre Sprey said in an interview that in a modern battle between peer adversaries no one would turn on his radar anyway. Sprey compared the situation to a gunfight between two men in a dark room. “The guy who switches on his flashlight is dead,” Sprey said.
The foremost customer for the F/A-18F is the U.S. Navy, which has 437 Super Hornets in inventory now and recently increased its “program of record” from 493 airframes to 515 by the end of fiscal year (FY) 2013, and to 565 altogether. Like many JSF program participants, the Navy views the Super Hornet as an insurance policy for the fleet if JSF should falter. Now, even the Marine Corps – which until now has avoided the F/A-18E/F in order to focus on JSF – is being discussed as a possible customer.
The 29 squadrons totaling 628 Navy and Marine Corps “legacy” F/A-18A/B/C/D Hornets comprise more than half of the Navy’s strike fighter inventory. Heavily pressed by operations in Afghanistan, the F/A-18A-D fleet is pushing a ceiling of 8,600 flight hours for those airframes that have not yet been updated under the Service Life Management Program (SLMP). That program is in the process of raising the limit to 10,000 hours, but the Marines will still have a fighter gap even if JSF survives being on “probation” and becomes the Marine fighter of the future.
If no one purchases any more Super Hornets, production line shutdown will begin in FY 2014 and will become final in FY 2016. A new Service Life Assessment Program (SLAP), overlapping with other upgrades, will increase the F/A-18E/F flight-hour ceiling from 6,000 to 9,000 hours.
But what if the Marine Corps were to do the unthinkable and acquire some Super Hornets of its own? Commandant Gen. James Amos, a fighter pilot, has downplayed the idea. But a “new build” F/A-18E/F is currently the only alternative if JSF is further delayed or is canceled. The Marines, along with likely overseas purchasers, could give the Super Hornet assembly plant new life.
With export of the F-22 banned by technology-transfer legislation and with several countries growing skittish about JSF, the not-so-new F/A-18E/F – first flight November 29, 1995 – could indeed surprise analysts by becoming the fighter of the future.
In Australia, the Super Hornet will be the big winner if plans to buy 100 JSFs don’t work out. The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) has already bought 24 two-seat F/A-18Fs (twelve of them wired for later conversion to EA-18G Growler electronic warfare configuration) because of earlier delays in the JSF program. The last four of these are scheduled for delivery by year’s end. “Judgments in relation to whether alternate arrangements are required to ensure that there is no gap in our capability will be made next year,” an RAAF spokesman told the Canberra Times. The RAAF has had good results with its inventory of 71 “legacy” Hornets in four squadrons, but intends to retire them at the end of this decade.
Japan announced in September that it is proceeding on schedule with its F-X fighter competition despite the large economic impact of the recent earthquake and tsunami, and a recent government reshuffle. Barred from purchasing its first choice, the F-22, Japan is thought to favor JSF but will face a strong sales pitch for the Super Hornet. Boeing says the F/A-18F/F is the most cost-effective F-X choice, a powerful factor given Japan’s current economic environment. Enhanced features that Boeing proposes for export versions should appeal to Japan, including conformal weapons carriage for reduced radar cross-section, and an internal infrared search and track system (IRST).
Will we be seeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornets with new and different color schemes and markings? Will production in St. Louis continue beyond this decade? Is the Super Hornet the fighter of the future?
Time will tell.