During the 16 years it has been in US Navy service, the Boeing F/A-18 Hornet has, on average, "grown" by more than a kilogramme a week. Most of that growth has been through improvements - new systems and capabilities - but there have been performance penalties to pay.

By 2001, the growth capacity of the original F/A-18 design will have been exhausted, the navy believes, and it will be time to restart the growth cycle. That is when it plans to field the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, an upgraded aircraft intended to have performance and growth capacity sufficient to ensure that the design has "warfighting relevance" beyond 2020.

Mike Sears, president of Boeing Military Aircraft and Missile Systems Group, says: "The E/F is the USA's best buy - a weapon system that will have the necessary effectiveness for the next 20 years. It will have the lowest life-cycle costs of any such weapon system, will have been developed successfully for under $5 billion, and will have a balanced set of features not available in any other aircraft today."

The navy is counting on Boeing delivering on its promises. The embarrassing cancellation of the A-12 programme in 1991, and the subsequent scrapping of ambitious plans for new fighter and attack aircraft, has made the multi-role F/A-18 the most important asset on US aircraft carrier decks - a position it will hold well into the next century.

"That is the beauty of this aircraft," says Rear Admiral Craig Steidle, vice-commander of Naval Air Systems Command. "The navy needed a management success, needed growth capability and needed an affordable aircraft - and it all worked," he says. With development nearing completion, both the navy and Boeing say the E/F is on schedule, on cost and meeting or exceeding its performance goals.

This is a different story to that of the original F/A-18A/B, which entered service in 1983 over budget and under specification, McDonnell Douglas having encountered design problems during development. Lessons learned from that programme - and from cancellation of the over budget, behind schedule and overweight A-12 - helped shape the E/F programme.

"We put a management structure in place to handle problems, to allow cost and schedule variance to be tracked in real time," says Steidle. Sears concurs: "We track cost and performance on a real-time basis, which we have never done before; we have a management process to handle cost, schedule and weight at the same time as doing design; and we no longer have a 'performance at any cost' mentality."

The E/F programme was about affordability before the term became fashionable, but Sears says: "The upgrade was part of the plan, not just what the navy could afford. It was intended to tackle problems with F/A-18C/D growth, range, signature, etc."

Steidle says that "-affordability was an issue" following the A-12 cancellation. "Since 1990, the navy has established a definitive plan for naval aviation, centred on the F/A-18E/F and the Joint Strike Fighter . It is a neck-down policy, and the E/F fits into the budget shape."

In 1992, McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing) and engine supplier General Electric received separate engineering and manufacturing development (EMD) contracts totalling $4.88 billion. Boeing's share was worth $3.71 billion. "It is a cost-plus contract, but we have treated it as fixed price," says Sears.

The development programme has involved seven flight-test aircraft. Flight testing had to be extended because of the need to resolve a manoeuvre wing-drop problem, and is now due to end in April. Operational evaluation (Opeval) by the navy is to begin in May, and the first of the low-rate initial production (LRIP) E/Fs was delivered in December.

"LRIP is in its early stages, but it's ahead of schedule and under cost. The first 62 aircraft are looking good," says Pat Finneran, Boeing vice-president, F/A-18 programmes. "There are technical issues to tackle before Opeval begins in May, but we intend to deliver a fully 'spec-compliant' aircraft meeting the key performance requirements."

Work continues on cleaning up transonic drag and fine tuning handling qualities. "The E/F will be the finest transonic strike fighter in the world," says Capt James Godwin, navy F/A-18 programme manager. "But the E/F is not a C/D," he cautions. "It is a different aircraft tactically and we will develop new tactics around its capabilities."

Steidle says that campaign analyses in support of the JSF programme, using the carrier air wing planned for 2010, have "-vividly shown the increased capability of the E/F. It changes the whole use of the air wing." Such analyses "-allow us to see the E/F's worth in totality; its fighter, strike and tanker capability," he says.

Reducing the aircraft's cost remains a critical requirement. Says Finneran: "Congress has mandated that the E/F price must be less than 125% of the normalised cost of the C/D; the latest navy calculation is 113%. That's good, but we ought to be able to do better." The navy hope to win approval for cost-saving multiyear procurement beginning with the first year of full-rate production in fiscal year 2000.

International sales will help, but the price must be in the "low $40 million range" for the E/F to be competitive in the export market, Finneran believes. "Our internal goal is to get an international sale by FY05. That gives us five years to work on cost reductions."

The first priority is to get the aircraft into US navy service. Initial operational capability is set for 2001 and the first operational cruise will be in 2002. The USN is already looking at a block upgrade around 2005.

The F/A-18E/F, in the final analysis, is all about providing growth capability affordably. "When the technology allows, and when the need is there, we will ensure that the aircraft stays up with the times," promises Sears.

Source: Flight International