What the F/A-18E/F is - and what it is not - is best understood within the context of the programme's history, as the Super Hornet is the survivor of one of the most confused periods in US naval aviation planning.

A decade ago, the carrier air wing envisaged for 2010 was very different to that foreseen today. Then, carrier decks in the first decades of the new century were to be populated by new Naval Advanced Tactical Fighters (NATFs), stealthy Boeing A-12 attack aircraft and upgraded F/A-18s. But the A-12 and NATF were terminated in 1991, and the A/F-X follow-on was cancelled in 1993, leaving the E/F to become the navy's lead fighter and attack aircraft.

The E/F is the culmination of upgrade efforts that began almost as soon as the F/A-18 entered service in 1983. Fleet deliveries of the improved F/A-18C/D began in 1987, followed in 1989 by the night strike C/D, and upgrades have continued. The engines, avionics and systems of the latest C/D have been enhanced well beyond those in the original A/B - but the airframe remains essentially unchanged.

Range and growth have been concerns since the aircraft's introduction - a consequence, in part, of the navy's decision to base its new air combat fighter on the YF-17, Northrop's contender in the USAir Force's lightweight fighter competition. From the outset, the space available for fuel and growth has been limited by the F/A-18's geometry. As the aircraft has evolved, that space has been filled, weight has increased and performance has degraded.


The E/F's origins were in a July 1987 Department of Defense (DoD) directive ordering the air force and navy to DoD F-16 and F/A-18 derivatives to fill the gap until the Advanced Tactical Fighter (F-22) and Advanced Tactical Aircraft (A-12) became available.

In response, the navy launched the Hornet 2000 study, the aim of which, Steidle says, was to determine "...how to keep the growth going". The study evaluated a range of upgrade possibilities, the most ambitious of which was the so-called "Configuration IV" - a highly modified F/A-18 with delta/canard layout.

The aircraft that emerged from the Hornet 2000 study was a more modest upgrade, with larger wing, longer fuselage and higher thrust. This configuration addressed the F/A-18's main deficiencies, and promised to be more affordable at a time when the navy planned also to develop the A-12 and the NATF.

The work was put on the shelf until 1990, when the navy launched studies into alternative fighter and attack aircraft. These encompassed the Hornet 2000, as well as the NATF and A-12 and upgrades to the Grumman F-14 and A-6. "The E/F came out well in the fighter and attack alternative studies because of its mix of affordability and capability," says Steidle.

When the Pentagon axe fell on naval aviation in early 1991, only the E/F survived. The navy's plan had been to replace the F-14 with the F-22-derived NATF and the A-6 with the flying-wing A-12. By the time both programmes were terminated in 1991, the DoD had already halted production of the upgraded F-14D and cancelled development of the improved A-6F. Only the F/A-18 remained in production. The navy therefore conceived a new air wing, built around the E/F and an attack aircraft dubbed the A-X.


Intended to replace the A-6, the A-X was planned to be a less ambitious follow-on to the A-12. In 1992, it became the A/F-X when the USAF joined the programme and the USN shifted its requirements towards a multi-mission aircraft. By then F/A-18E/F development was under way.

The DoD had introduced funding for the upgraded F/A-18 in its 1991 budget request, sparking a "What is the E/F?" briefing cycle, Steidle recalls. Several months of configuration and programme definition work followed. Affordability had emerged as the driving force, and the navy was directed to also look at alternative upgrades to the basic C/D - a task it has had to perform several times during development of the E/F.

Then, as on subsequent occasions, the USN concluded that upgrading the C/D to overcome its deficiencies would, in effect, produce the E/F. Stretching the fuselage to increase fuel capacity would require a larger wing to allow carrier landings and bigger engines to maintain performance.

By late 1991, the navy was ready to seek DoD approval for the E/F. "We had solidified the configuration, schedule, cost and performance that we are still on today," says Steidle.

Approval was given and E/F engineering and manufacturing development (EMD) began in June 1992.ÊAlmost immediately the programme was in trouble, Steidle recalls. "At the first programme review, the contractor told us that the aircraft was overweight, performance was below target and cost was above target."

This sparked an intensive design review, with affordability the major issue. The result was a decision to revert to the basic C/D avionics and to rescope the cockpit, eliminating the large displays originally planned. "This put the aircraft back in the affordability and capability box," Steidle says. The definitive EMD contract was signed in December 1992.

By 1993, US tactical fighter plans were caught up in the Pentagon's Bottom-Up Review (BUR) - the first major restructuring of US military forces since the end of the Cold War. It was clear that the DoD could not afford all of the planned fighter programmes. The USAF and USN put their respective weights behind the F-22 and F/A-18E/F, by then both in development.


The BUR decided that the A/F-X and the air force's Multi-Role Fighter, intended to replace the F-16, were unaffordable. Both were cancelled and replaced by the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) - a tri-service fighter/attack aircraft aimed to replace USAF F-16s, USN A-6s and F/A-18s and Marine Corps McDonnell Douglas AV-8Bs and F/A-18s early in the next century.

The USN conceived a new carrier air wing, built around F/A-18E/Fs and JSFs - with the latter performing the "first day of war" attack mission envisaged for the A-12. The BUR had endorsed the E/F's affordability, but it was not to fare so well four years later, in the DoD's Quadrennial Defence Review (QDR).

In 1997, the QDR cut navy E/F procurement from a planned 1,000 aircraft to a minimum of 548, and boosted JSF to 480. The DoD introduced an element of competition by allowing the navy to buy up to 748 E/Fs - if the JSF is not available as planned in 2008.

Cancellation of the stealthy A-12 (inset) boosted the multi-role F/A-18E/F Super Hornet to prominence on US Navy aircraft carrier decks.

Source: Flight International