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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

Block III Super Hornet: The U.S. Navy’s Best Fighter That Isn’t F-35?

Block III Super Hornet
Block III Super Hornet. A U.S. Navy F/A-18F Super Hornet aircraft assigned to Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 102 flies past the aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN 73) in the Philippine Sea Aug. 21, 2013. The George Washington was underway in the U.S. 7th Fleet area of responsibility supporting maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts.

The F/A-18 Hornet is admittedly nowhere near as popular or glamorous as the F-14 Tomcat that preceded her in both real-world aircraft carrier combat operations and cinematic immortality. Nonetheless, the Hornet has certainly more than proven herself in combat via the aviators of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps as well as the Canadian Forces, in addition to garnering her own fair share of Hollywood movie audience attention, thanks to the boffo box office of Top Gun: Maverick. Now that I’ve written an article for 19FortyFive specifically discussing the EA-18 Growler electronic warfare variant, I reckon it’s way past time I did a write-up on the air-to-air fighting Hornet. We’ll focus specifically on the Block III Super Hornet.

Hornet History

The original F/A-18 Hornet was developed by McDonnell Douglas – now part of Boeing – and Northrup – now one-half of Northrup Grumman – as both a fighter and a ground attack aircraft, hence the “F/A” designation. Accordingly, this jack of all trades ended up replacing not one, not two, but three previous USN/USMC warbirds: the aforementioned Tomcat, as well as the A-6 Intruder and the A-7 Corsair II. She made her maiden flight on November 18, 1978, and entered operational status on January 7, 1983. That original Hornet quickly established an excellent reputation for combat performance in Operation El Dorado Canyon over Libya in 1986 and would be built upon that combat record via Operation Desert Storm in 1991. For good measure, the original Hornet became the plane of choice for the Blue Angels

Not content to rest on their laurels, the McDonnell Douglas/Boeing folks came out with the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet on November 29, 1995; this variant entered fleet service with the USN in 1999 and was then ordered by the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) in 2007 to replace the Aussies’ aging fleet of F-111C Aardvarks.

Yet the fine folks on Boeing’s R&D team were still not content to rest on their laurels, which now brings us to the subject of the Block III Super Hornet.

Super Hornet = Hardcore Hornet

The Artist rendering of a B-21 Raider concept in a hangar at Dyess, Air Force Base, Texas, one of the future bases to host the new airframe. (Courtesy photo by Northrop Grumman) made her own maiden flight in May 2020; no mere mortal COVID-19 was going to stop this super warbird from embarking on her first mission! As proudly stated by Boeing’s official info page, “Block III gives the Navy the most networked and survivable F/A-18 built with a technology insertion plan that will outpace future threats.” Whether that “future threats” bit amounts to being able to mix it up with adversarial 5th-generation stealth aircraft like the Sukhoi Su-57 “Bandit” remains strictly conjectural at this point, but for what it’s worth, the Block 3 upgrades exceed those of other 4th-generation fighters, which presumably, at least now, places the Super Hornet in the 4.5 generation category. 

Block III Super Hornet

PACIFIC OCEAN (Feb. 26, 2017) An F/A-18E Super Hornet assigned to the “Eagles” of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 115 conducts aerial refueling operations with a U.S. Air Force KC-10A Extender. VFA-115 is traveling from Naval Air Facility Atsugi, Japan, to Naval Air Station Fallon, Nevada, to complete the strike fighter advanced readiness program. (U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Chris Pagenkopf/Released)170226-N-CF980-006

Among these upgrades being touted by Boeing: Advanced Cockpit System with a 10-inch-by-19-inch touch screen display, Advanced Network Infrastructure; open mission systems; Block II Infrared Search and Track (IRST) that can detect threats without having to depend on jammable radar; reduced radar cross section (RCS); so-called “conformal” fuel tanks with a 3,500-lb. capacity that provides lower drag and longer range; and an airframe with a 10,000-hour service life. By contrast, the Block II was only rated for 6,000 flight hours.

Last September, Boeing delivered the first of 78 contracted Block III airframes to the USN. A contemporaneous article by Naval News founder and Editor-in-Chief Xavier Vavasseur quoted Capt. Jason “Stuf” Denney, U.S. Navy F/A-18 and EA-18G program manager thusly: “The fleet needs capabilities to keep its edge. Getting the first operational Block III in our hands is a great step forward in supporting our capability and readiness goals.” Vavasseur then went on to quote Jen Tebo, Boeing vice president of F/A-18 and EA-18G programs: “We invested in Block III technology and developed the capabilities in partnership with the U.S. Navy to meet its emerging requirements. The hardware upgrades are complete. Today we are maximizing the open hardware and software and developing the apps to keep Block III ahead of future threats. We are giving Navy pilots the tools to make the fastest and most informed decisions possible now and in the future.”

What My Colleagues Say

My fellow 19FortyFive Senior Defense Editor and fellow U.S. Air Force veteran is pretty enthusiastic about the Block III bird: “Three iterations of the jet have been released, each one better than the last … indeed, the Block III Hornet is capable of every mission in the tactical spectrum … the Block III Super Hornet was designed with China in mind; the Block III will have the range to conduct missions against Chinese targets, while staying beyond the range of China’s hypersonic anti-ship missiles.”

Block III F/A-18 Super Hornet

ARABIAN GULF (Sept. 11, 2014) Sailors direct an F/A-18E Super Hornet attached to the Tomcatters of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 31 on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77). George H.W. Bush is supporting maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Joshua Card/Released) 140911-N-CZ979-008
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Until the teething issues with our 5th-generation fighters have been worked out, it looks like it’s going to be up to warbirds like the Block III Super Hornet and her intrepid crews to hold the line against our adversaries. 

Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force Security Forces officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security. Last but not least, he is a Companion of the Order of the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS). In his spare time, he enjoys shooting, dining out, cigars, Irish and British pubs, travel, USC Trojans college football, and Washington DC professional sports.

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Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon).

3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Ghost Tomahawk

    August 23, 2022 at 1:42 pm

    5th gen fighters are expensive niche airframes. They are too costly to produce in large numbers and to expensive to maintain. Few countries have them. Maintaining a robust 4th gen fleet is more than enough. Near peer militaries are far behind the US in realistic capabilities of 5th gen planes.By the time they catch up itll be time for something else.

  2. Ken

    August 24, 2022 at 4:23 pm

    The conformal fuel tanks were cancelled. Update your article.

  3. Jim Jam

    August 25, 2022 at 12:36 pm

    It actually replaced four former USMC/USN aircraft. The USMC took on the original Hornets to replace their F4 Phantoms which were in front line squadrons until the late 80’s.

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