Advanced Super Hornet Revealed
Nov 15, 2013

Upgraded fighter offers potential alternative
In early September the Boeing aerospace company offered the Canadian government a ­proposal to provide a fleet of 65 of its new F/A-18 Advanced Super Hornet fighters. The company claims its fleet would cost some $1.7 billion less than the same number of Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II fifth generation stealth fighters that the Harper government was planning to purchase until negative reports resulted in a temporary hold on the project to replace the CF-18 fighter jets. Escalating costs and questions about the selection process have stirred controversy in Canada and encouraged competitors to speak up.

Developed from the “legacy” F-18 Hornet, the enlarged and more powerful F/A-18 Super Hornet has been in service with the U.S. Navy since 1999, and the Royal Australian Air Force since December 2010. Some 500 of the aircraft are in service world-wide. And now, an even more advanced version of the Hornet has been unveiled.

In late August, aviation journalists were invited to Boeing’s production facility in St. Louis, Missouri for briefings and a chance to “kick the tires” of their shiny new F/A-18 Advanced Super Hornet prototype. A short demonstration flight followed.
Advanced options to be offered on the latest version will include:

  • Signature Enhancements – a 50% reduction in frontal radar signature to enhance stealth capability.
  • Conformal Fuel Tanks (CFTs) – aerodynamically designed form-fitting tanks mounted above the leading edge extensions and wings for an additional 130 nautical mile (nm) radius of operations for a total 730 nm radius.
  • Enclosed Weapons Pod (EWP) – An underbelly-mounted pod to carry a 2,500 lb mix-and-match of weapons and stores in an aerodynamically-clean housing.
  • Enhanced Engines with 20% more thrust than the previous Hornets.
  • Next Generation Cockpit – A large iPod-style touch screen to replace earlier instrumentation.
  • Internal Infrared Search and Track (IRST) to identify threats.

Of significance though, is that these im­provements are still in the developmental or prototype stages and the expected time frame to operational status will be measured in years, not months. For example, at present, the conformal tanks and the weapons pod are still empty shells that are being air tested for aerodynamic drag and radar cross signature. No internal plumbing or weapons racks have yet been installed.

The F/A-18 Advanced Super Hornet prototype at Boeing’s Missouri production facility. The upper wing conformal fuel tanks and underbelly enclosed weapons pod are clearly visible.

During his briefing to reporters, Paul Summers, director of Super Hornet and EA-18G Growler programs at Boeing in St. Louis, said that during tests the new ­aircraft performed better than expected, particularly in its low-drag and stealth requirements.

The history of the CF-18 legacy Hornet in Canadian service is long and distinguished, and the aircraft is one of the most successful jet fighters in modern military history. Introduced to Canada’s Air Force in 1982, 98 CF-18A single-seat versions, and 40 CF-18B duals were initially purchased. Since then the fighters have given stellar performance in Europe as Canada’s participation in the NATO Alliance, in NORAD protecting Canadian and North American sovereignty, in the Persian Gulf during the 1991 Gulf War, the 1999 Kosovo War and the 2011 Libyan no-fly zone operations. Although the CF-18 has undergone several upgrades during its service life the aircraft is nearing the end of its “best before” date.

With a fly-away sticker price of about $51 million per copy (including both engines) the Super Hornet will be priced lower than the projected $85 million price tag on the Lockheed Martin F-35A. “The Super Hornet has many attributes that the RCAF is already accustomed to, especially in the types of environments where it operates its fighters,” said Ricardo Traven, Boeing’s chief pilot on the Super Hornet programs in St. Louis and a former Canadian Forces fighter pilot for 16 years. “Canada could then upgrade its fleet of Super Hornets into the Advanced Super Hornet at a very affordable cost to Canadian taxpayers, as the upgrades become available in 2020.” But if the U.S. Navy doesn’t buy into the advanced program, the entire project could be in jeopardy. So far the navy has been noncommittal.

Much has been discussed about the dual-engine/single engine features of the Super Hornet versus the Lightning II, particularly when operating in Canada’s unforgiving Northern regions and far offshore. But many proponents of the F-35 cite the reliability of modern jet engines to counter the negative comments. Not long ago, four engines were mandatory on airliners for trans-oceanic flight. Today, two suffice. And history shows that most of the highly successful combat aircraft of the last century were single-engine fighters going back to the Sopwith Camel and German Albatros of WWI, the Spitfire, Mustang and Japanese Zero of WWII, the F-86 Sabre and MiG-19 of the Korean War, up to the F-104 Starfighter and Mig-21 of the Cold War era, to mention just a few. So it’s a tough call.

It is no small challenge to make an objective comparison between competing aircraft in such a high-stakes, no-holds-barred game of military procurement when the fine details of both the F-35 and Super Hornet programs remain classified Top Secret. Sources note that even the RCAF top brass have yet to receive a Top Secret briefing on the capabilities of the Advanced Super Hornet. Therefore one certainty is that most of what one hears or reads about the capabilities of any aircraft involved in a military procurement competition are half-truths, untruths or spin – perhaps all three – perpetrated by the manufacturers, the competition, the media, the military, and even the government. And once these aircraft become fully operational, many of their capabilities will still remain highly classified, much like the F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter and the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber which preceded them. And that, of course, is as it should be. Once Canada’s fighter needs have been identified, verified and quantified, only those with top security clearances can truly determine which solutions best fits military needs as specified by the Government of Canada

The challenge facing decision makers is whether to rely on a proven design with an exceptional record of service, or to opt for a brand-new fighter built around cutting-edge technology. The selected aircraft will serve for decades into the future.

Vic Johnson, formerly the Editor of AirForce magazine, is an Ottawa-based photojournalist.
© FrontLine Defence 2013