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Is the US Navy’s F/A-18 Super Hornet Doomed?

F/A-18 Super Hornet
F/A-18 Super Hornet. Image: Creative Commons.

The U.S. Navy is laying the groundwork for its newest fighter, but it won’t get rid of the F/A-18 Super Hornet anytime soon.

Navy Aviation Vision 2030-2035, published in late October, explains how the Navy’s older airframes will fly with state-of-the-art platforms.

A single image of a proposed F/A-XX in the Navy publication shows what the new fighter could look like in general terms. Unfortunately, the two-dimensional rendering doesn’t reveal much, though the Navy explained that the fighter would act as a “quarterback,” able to command and control unmanned and attritable air assets.

Though information on the new F/A-XX is undoubtedly one of the most significant aspects of Navy Aviation Vision 2030-2035, the teaming between the new fighter and one of the Navy’s oldest carrier fighters is also intriguing.

F/A-18 Super Hornets

Despite their status as the Navy’s oldest fighters, the F/A-18 Super Hornets still have a role to play in carrier air wings. Though the F/A-XX will undoubtedly be considerably stealthier than its F-35 predecessor, the new airplane will not simply replace that airframe, nor will it force the venerable Super Hornet variants into retirement.

On the contrary, the Navy’s future carrier air wings will feature a mix of airframes, including the new F/A-XX, the F-35 Lightning II, as well as the F/A-18E/F Block IIIRather than flying off into the sunset, the newest Block III Super Hornets will form “the backbone of the CVW through 2035.”

Compared to its predecessors, the Block III Super Hornets will have improved computing capabilities, a reduced radar signature thanks to radar-absorbent coatings, larger multi-function displays, an improved Infrared Search and Track (IRST) package, and satellite communication system. The Navy has also toyed with the idea of outfitting Super Hornets with conformal fuel tanks to expand their range. However, it is unclear if those fuel tanks can withstand the rigors of carrier operations, and the Navy may not integrate them into Block III Super Hornets.

Furthermore, F-35s and F/A-18 will work together, allowing the older fighter design “to be a more survivable and lethal platform [by] leveraging the F-35C’s stealth and passive detection abilities to shape the overall air picture.”

Still, by 2035 the Navy’s Super Hornet will be a 34-year-old design despite steady improvements. Once retired, “a combination of F-35C and F/A-XX will provide Navy tactical fighter aircraft capability and capacity within the CVW. The advanced carrier-based power projection capabilities resident in F/A-XX will maintain CVN [Carrier Air Wing] relevance in advanced threat environments.”

Thanks to a slew of upgrades, the Navy has managed to keep the original Hornet combat-effective, albeit in a significantly upgraded Super Hornet form. Thanks in part to up-to-date computing power and advanced stealth coatings, it looks like the Navy’s Super Hornets will continue to fly for at least another 15 years.

Caleb Larson is a multimedia journalist and Defense Writer with the National Interest. He lives in Berlin and covers the intersection of conflict, security, and technology, focusing on American foreign policy, European security, and German society. 

Written By

Caleb Larson, a defense journalist based in Europe and holds a Master of Public Policy degree from the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy. He lives in Berlin and writes on U.S. and Russian foreign and defense policy, German politics and culture.

12 Comments

12 Comments

  1. Duane

    November 15, 2021 at 7:11 am

    The Navy should stop all further purchases of Super Hornets immediately, because they are already obsolete, but the US Navy is infamous for hanging on too long to obsoleted systems, ships and aircraft, long after their “use by dates”.

    Additionally, there is no rationale for the Navy’s supposed air dominance fighter as currently claimed in the media. It literally does nothing at all that the F-35C does not already do better than any other fighter on the planet. It is also highly doubtful that the new fighter is significantly more stealthy than F-35. At some point you really can’t significantly reduce an aircraft’s “radar cross section”, which is only one part of stealthiness. The F-35’s RCS is “reported” – but nobody who is not a design expert with full security clearance on F-35 – to be akin to the size of a golf ball or thereabouts (again, who knows?) .. making it the size of a gnat may sound impressive, but it is only the tiniest bit smaller than what we already have. We are in the realm of diminishing returns when it comes to RCS – but there is always a lot more to do to improve sensors, computing power, battle management systems, comms, EW, and ECM.

    On the other hand, the F-35 is designed to be perpetually upgraded with new electronics without having to redesign or rebuild the bird, so any advances in sensors, battle management systems, EW and ECM, comms, etc are easily and quickly adapted to the F-35.

    If the Navy brass had any brains – which seems doubtful – they would stop working on this new super duper fighter and greatly expand their purchases of F-35Cs (and Bs too!), and much sooner than 2035 use them to replace the obsolete Super Hornets.

  2. Brian Reilly

    November 15, 2021 at 8:31 am

    As long as defense contractors can wring cash out of this airfame or that support system, rest assured that those airframes and systems will continue to be a part of the US “Defense” industry. We need to assure that washed up Representatives and timed-out 0-6s have a place to find a rice bowl. Where this or that system works or makes any contribution to the defense of the old Republic, the States and people stopped being important a long time ago. FAA-18? Sure! F-35? Bring it on!! Hell, bring back the F-14, and run it on refined fry oil!! Whatever, it is someone else money, right?

    Imagine how much fun it will be to see Lockheed-Martin hire the first tranche of retired tranny officers to meet their diversity requirements! Bring popcorn! Not, not Joe’s friend.

  3. Doyle

    November 15, 2021 at 10:15 am

    The F-35 is not invisible and is not much of a dogfighter unlike the F-22 i.e an air superiority fighter. So tell me of its vaunted superiority…..sad little man.

  4. Doyle

    November 15, 2021 at 10:20 am

    There was an article a week or so back about the then proposed upgraded and also the super upgraded F14 that was proposed while it was still relevant. The world is playing catch up to 5th gen aircraft and some are desperately trying to leap frog to 6th gen. You need to prepare for the war you might fight today not some fantasy tomorrow and as of today 4th gen is still relevant like it or not.

  5. Brian Foley

    November 15, 2021 at 11:06 am

    ….Some dimwit wrote that the F-35 and I quote “…and is not much of a dogfighter”. This dimwit has no experience in an F-35 or an F-35 in a dogfight, nor doe this dimwit have experience in any aircraft in a dogfight with an F-35….hence he’s a lying dimwit. He’s a liar because he makes statements he can’t back up and he’s a dimwit for making the statement in the first place.

  6. Christopher Crowley

    November 15, 2021 at 12:04 pm

    Airplanes are so last generation when discussing air/space dominance. The first to realize this will win the next war. I believe USA will be the first country with the capability to put 150tons into low earth orbit, but probably not the first to capitalize on those implications. Tell me about the RCS of a stealth aircraft if you are at 200,000 feet?

  7. Richard A Diego

    November 15, 2021 at 2:45 pm

    Too many undefined abbreviations in article. The author should remember the public not Navy buffs are reading the article.

  8. Johnathan Galt

    November 15, 2021 at 3:48 pm

    Lots of strong opinions here, lots of armchair quarterbacks. My bet is none of you flew fighters of any generation, let alone latest generation. I’m older generation (F-4E/G). I know my limitations. I also know that GENERAL knowledge about tech and tactics does not drastically change.

    The Navy has exactly the same problem with the F-35 that the Air Force has – it can’t buy them as fast as aircraft are aging out. Thus, the ability of the new Super Hornets to “talk to” the F-35s.

    The handwriting is on the wall, folks. New Super Hornets will be relegated to the role of missile mule in any front-line war, just like the F-15EX for the Air Force. In lower intensity conflicts, they will use the less expensive planes more frequently than the precious F-35s (who will get SOME sorties, just to get experience, but not enough to risk high attrition rates). Someday, the same will be the fate of the F-35 – unless space borne lasers and particle beams make them all unsurvivable…

  9. Dan

    November 15, 2021 at 4:49 pm

    The F/A-18E/F was developed when the F-14 had to retire. The F/A-18A/B/C/D were there to replace the A-6 and A-7 light attack.

    In the early 90’s the Navy was told, “Don’t build your own fighter. The new joint fighter is right around the corner!!” Right.

    That was in 1994, with the JAST program, that eventually turned into the JSF and finally the F-35.

    The Navy didn’t declare its *first* F-35C squadron with IOC (initial operational capability) until FEBRUARY 2019.

    2019. It took 15 years for the first F-35s to arrive.

    The Super Hornet had first flight in 1995 after a remarkably short design and mfg effort, with IOC in 2001.

    If the Navy had not taken the initiative and developed the Super Hornet it’s highly unlikely there would be functioning naval aviation today.

    The Navy cannot keep aged F/A-18A/B/C/D, or A-7s or A-6s forever. Just like they could not keep the F-14. They wear out physically and technologically.

    608 E/F Super Hornets have been built and gone to war in the ensuing 15 years.

    They Navy is wise to develop their own aircraft, like they did the F/A-18E/F/G. For one thing, they work.

    Jury’s still out on the F-35. Can it carry out the light attack role?

  10. Legacy Driver

    November 15, 2021 at 7:15 pm

    Super Hornets with CFT and EPE (for thrust not durability) are not a bad plan. But let’s not lie to ourselves. Neither the Joint Strike Failure nor the Super Hornet are tier one air superiority platforms.

    They’re A-7s with limited dogfighting capability. And I’m not convinced the Hornet isn’t the more agile of the two.

  11. Legacy Driver

    November 15, 2021 at 7:17 pm

    Oh, and un-cant the pylons! Talk about a stupid “fix” to stores clearance.

  12. Andy Poulton

    November 16, 2021 at 1:36 pm

    For those saying that the F35 doesn’t need to be replaced, just upgraded I disagree.

    It has insufficient combat radius to do anything meaningful whilst keeping the carrier out of range of missile attack and has a woefully small bomb/weapon load whilst remaining stealthy.

    And once the bomb bay is open, there goes your stealth

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