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Know Your Hornets: The F-18 and You

Tom Lohr is a 24-year navy veteran. He enjoys traveling and writing about his experiences.



Hornets, Super Hornets, Advanced Super Hornets

The decks of aircraft carriers used to be a mishmash of various types of fighter and attack planes, each with its own attributes and drawbacks. Supersonic F-14 Tomcats would provide fighter cover or interceptor duties, while the A-6 Intruder and A-7 Corsair delivered munitions, and Intruders configured as tanker aircraft kept the thirsty jets satiated. It was a happy symbiotic relationship that helped win the Cold War.

Then it happened; the clock kept ticking and the aircraft began to show their age. With hours on airframes ballooning and budgets shrinking, the navy needed a solution to keep the tip of the spear sharp while cutting costs and simplifying operations. Enter the F-18 Hornet. It was chosen by the Navy to not only replace the A-7 and A-6 but, out of necessity, the F-14. Today, the Hornet is the combat-proven mainstay of naval air power.

Designed in the 1970s, it has demonstrated its ability to be a chameleon airframe that, through updates, has remained relevant. And during the previous presidential campaign, candidates mentioned the Super Hornet on numerous occasions as a possible replacement for the costly and troubled naval variant of the F-35 Lightening. The Hornet's manufacturer even offered up an Advanced Super Hornet for consideration. Despite being an aged aircraft, the Hornet has never seen as much press as it has in the past year.

But Hornets, Super Hornets, Advanced Super Hornets (and don't forget the Growlers)? It can be confusing for anyone not in military circles. Why do we need more of an older aircraft? What is the difference between a regular and super Hornet, and what the heck is a Growler? With all of those Hornets buzzing around it is no wonder people have no idea what politicians are talking about when discussing the future of our armed forces. It is time for us to get our Hornets in a row and arm ourselves with enough fighter aircraft information to ward off any military/political doublespeak lobbed our way.

Legacy Hornets

Thanks to advances in avionics and cockpit displays, when placed into service the Hornet was designated as the F/A-18. With the simple flip of a switch, cockpit screens changed from fighter mode to attack mode enabling the Hornet to be a true multirole aircraft. This innovation eventually allowed it to replace all fighter and attack airplanes deployed on aircraft carriers. And the common airframe to perform the duties of three different types of aircraft considerably reduced logistical headaches as well as saved critical funds.

Several models of the F/A-18 were produced. The A and B variants first entered service in 1983, with the A version having a single seat and the B type two seats for use in training and specialized missions that required a backseat crewman. In 1992 some A models received a radar upgrade and are referred to as F/A-18A+.

In 1987 newer Hornets received a major upgrade in radar, avionics, weapons stores, a self-protection jammer and other improvements to be designated the F/A-18C/D. The C version has one seat, and the D model two. The D airframes served mainly with the United States Marine Corps (who also operate off of Navy aircraft carriers). The last of the legacy Hornets, an F-18D, was produced in 2000.

Typical legacy Hornet launching from an aircraft  carrier

Typical legacy Hornet launching from an aircraft carrier

Super Hornets

Despite its advanced design, one of the shortcomings of the legacy Hornet was its short-range and light payload. Rather than design an entirely new aircraft to replace the retired A-6 Intruder and F-14 Tomcat (both with exceptional range) the producers of the Hornet offered an enlarged aircraft that was about 20% bigger than its predecessor. The navy bought it and the Super Hornet was born. The larger size gives the Super Hornet 33% more internal fuel thereby increasing its range by 41%.

The Super Hornet also boasts improved avionics, an advanced radar and radar cross-section reduction. Despite all of this, it has over 40% fewer structural parts, saving the navy a boatload of money. And while it may only look like a larger legacy Hornet, it really is a much different aircraft.

Like the legacy model, the Super Hornet is available in the single or twin-seat version and is designated the F/A-18E and F/A-18F respectively. While it improved fleet capabilities in delivering ordnance, the Super Hornet also did something else no one thought it could do; it replaced three additional types of aircraft.

Most attack sorties are assisted by electronic warfare support aircraft. These planes are laden with emitters and jammers designed to dupe or blind enemy air defenses. For decades this function was performed by a modified A-6 Intruder dubbed the EA-6 Prowler. The airframes on these venerable planes finally gave out and the navy was faced with a glaring hole in their strike support capability. Producers of the Super Hornet gave the fleet a replacement that would be ready in minimal time with little logistic change. The EA-18G Growler has 90% compatibility with the Super Hornet, but it is usually outfitted with up to 5 jamming pods and a pair of radar killing missiles to protect the strike package.

Another vital function of striking targets from an aircraft carrier is the ability to refuel combat aircraft in the air. Air-to-air refueling greatly extends the range of any mission. Previously, another version of the A-6, called the KA-6, tanked the navy's planes. When the KA-6s started to retire, the cargo-carrying/sub-hunting S-3 Viking was converted into a tanker. When the Viking was slated for retirement, the navy had yet another mission logistics problem. Outfitting a Super Hornet with an aerial refueling system (ARS) so it can refuel other Hornets solved the dilemma. In addition to the centerline ARS pod that houses both gas and a refueling drogue, an F-18E/F hangs four fuel tanks under its wing in what is called the “five wet” configuration. In a typical mission, a fifth of the carrier's Super Hornets is allocated for refueling duties.

Four Super Hornets. Note the jet intakes. Rectangular and larger than the legacy Hornet. The surest way to tell the difference between the two.

Four Super Hornets. Note the jet intakes. Rectangular and larger than the legacy Hornet. The surest way to tell the difference between the two.

Advanced Super Hornet

The legacy Hornets are due to be replaced by the beleaguered F-35C. Touted as an aeronautical wonder, the F-35C is far behind schedule and over cost. The Super Hornet's manufacturer saw an opportunity and self-funded an alternative to the F-35C. Much about the Advanced Super Hornet is classified, and it may never actually see service, but as problems with the F-35C mount, replacing at least a portion of them with a proven airframe looks more and more lucrative.

While not a stealth aircraft like the F-35C, the Advanced Super Hornet does have a 50% reduction in frontal radar cross-section, making it harder to detect than other Hornets. It also adds shoulder-mounted conformal fuel tanks. This removes the requirement to hang fuel tanks under the wings for an extended range. The only external store it does carry is a centerline pod that is filled with either bombs, missiles or a combination of both. The pod itself is stealthy and delivers munitions by opening small bomb bay-like doors and pushing out the weapons. With no tanks or weaponry hanging off of the aircraft, the Advanced Super Hornet cruises in a “clean” configuration that reduces drag and radar cross-section and increases range.

An Advanced Super Hornet. Note the shoulder mounted conformal fuel tanks.

An Advanced Super Hornet. Note the shoulder mounted conformal fuel tanks.

One Super Horner refuels another using the ARS.

One Super Horner refuels another using the ARS.

Comeback Coming Soon?

There you have it, a rundown of the Hornets in our lives. Currently, the navy has just over 300 of each type of Hornet, but after years of lengthy deployments, their airframe hours are running out quickly. The navy seems committed to replacing the legacy Hornets with the costly F-35C, but don't count the Hornet out yet. With each bad press release for the F-35C and dwindling fiscal resources, the Hornet production line, which is slated to close, may get a new lease on life.