Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet: “The Naval Fighter of the 21st Century
In 1991, Grumman announced that it was halting research and development on its A-12 Avenger II stealth attack wing. This state-of-the-art aircraft was to replace the first-generation F/A-18A/B Hornet in service with the U.S. Navy by the end of the 1990s. This left the Pentagon in a serious situation, with no modern attack aircraft available.
Two manufacturers proposed to the US Navy to develop improved versions of existing aircraft. Lockheed-Martin proposed to navalize its F-117 Nighthawk stealth attack fighter, while McDonnell Douglas announced that it wanted to improve its F/A-18 Hornet. The two companies studied the possibilities and it soon became clear that the Lockheed-Martin aircraft could never carry air-to-air weapons other than the small AIM-9 Sidewinder self-defense missiles. On December 7, 1992, the Department of Defense (DoD) signed a memorandum of understanding with McDonnell Douglas to develop a larger, modernized version of the Hornet, but with a certain percentage of parts and systems common to the versions in service in the US.
Approximately 25% heavier, the new fighter was designated F/A-18E (single-seat version) and F/A-18F (two-seat version) and named Super Hornet by the manufacturer. Externally, the Super Hornet differs from the Hornet by its rectangular air intakes compared to the oval ones of the first versions of the American attack fighter. The engine has also been revised by McDonnell Douglas. The F/A-18C’s F404-GE-400 turbojet engine has been replaced by the brand new F414-GE-400. The new aircraft gains 30% more power. The first F/A-18E was presented to the public during its first sortie on September 18, 1995. A few weeks later, on November 29 of the same year, the Super Hornet made its first flight.
Regarding the training of future pilots and the transformation of those who used to fly the Hornet, the cockpit of the E and F versions has 90% common parts with the older versions. In February 1995, the US Navy estimated its need for 1,000 new aircraft, but in July of the same year the market was re-evaluated at 448 machines. These aircraft were acquired for the US Navy and the US Marine Corps. Deliveries began in October 1998.
The terrorist attack committed on September 11, 2001 by Al Qaeda fundamentalists led the United States and its British and French allies to launch an operation against the Taliban in Afghanistan. A handful of Super Hornets joined the American aircraft carriers cruising in the Gulf, the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. Some of these aircraft belonged to Squadron VX-9, the Navy’s famous test unit.
During this deployment, the Super Hornets had the opportunity to peacefully “test” themselves against another state-of-the-art naval fighter: the Dassault Rafale. The Rafales serving on the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier participated in simulated combat against the Super Hornets. The results were mainly in favor of the French aircraft.
Since 2003, the Super Hornets have been flying air superiority and ground attack missions over Iraqi territory. These aircraft carry the US Navy colors. On October 19th 2005, an F/A-18F landed at Andrews-AFB. This aircraft, which came from the United Arab Emirates, was carrying the commander in chief of the US Navy’s air units in the rear seat. This admiral, a former Douglas A-4 Skyhawk pilot, will comment a few hours later on the remarkable qualities of the aircraft.
Starting in 2007, the Super Hornet received an AN/APG-76 radar in place of the old AN/APG-73. Regarding the airframe modifications, Boeing (the manufacturer’s new name) decided to team up with Northrop Grumman to study and develop a version capable of replacing the Grumman EA-6B Prowler electronic warfare and anti-radar systems by 2012. The new aircraft is designated F/A-18G Growler.
In 2006, the Super Hornet definitively replaced the F-14 Tomcat, Grumman’s legendary variable geometry fighter, aboard US Navy aircraft carriers. To date, no F/A-18E/F has been ordered for export.
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