Operational evaluation confirms the Boeing F/A-18E/F as the best carrier-based fighter the US Navy can afford - but it's not perfect

Graham Warwick/WASHINGTON DC

Development and operational testing are two different disciplines. So it was with trepidation that the US Navy awaited the results of operational evaluation (Opeval) of the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.

The results were crucial, as the navy plans to reshape its carrier air wings around this one, much scrutinised, aircraft. Development was completed on schedule and within budget, but not without highly publicised problems that left the navy nervous about Opeval.

Finally delivered last month, the Opeval report is classified, but the navy made sure the message got out: the F/A-18E/F is "operationally effective and operationally suitable" and is recommended for introduction into the fleet.

Unclassified details of the report have yet to be released, but Capt Robert Rutherford, commanding officer of the VX-9 test squadron which conducted Opeval, stresses it was "not a whitewash". Operational testers identified 38 enhancing features in the E/F, but also 27 major and 93 minor deficiencies. "In the aggregate, weighed together, this is an enormously survivable, lethal and flexible aircraft," he says.

Opeval is an independent assessment with two main aims: to determine whether the aircraft meets its design specification and to decide whether it is operationally usable. The F/A-18E/F Opeval lasted for almost six months, involved seven aircraft and included sea trials on the carrier USS John C Stennis.

Going into Opeval, Boeing and the US Navy were confident the E/F would meet its performance targets. Previous operational tests had indicated the aircraft would be judged effective. But Opeval was the first chance for warfighters to explore the E/F's capabilities.

The Super Hornet structural upgrade was developed to increase the range, payload, survivability and growth capacity of the F/A-18. The aircraft is 25% larger than the F/A-18A/B/C/D Hornet, which has been short on range since it entered service in 1981.

Rutherford says testing verified the E/F meets its performance targets. "It passed every range and endurance test." he says. Even the F, which sacrifices fuel for a second seat, beat its combat radius specification by a small margin.

The real test came when VX-9 began to explore the aircraft's capability. Rutherford says the additional internal fuel capacity and extra underwing weapon stations increase mission flexibility, but other characteristics will require development of new tactics.

The F/A-18E carries almost 6,700kg (15,000lb) of fuel internally, 1,800kg more than the C. Whereas the C cannot fit into the navy's 1.5h deck cycle without carrying two external tanks, he says, "the E can". With two tanks, the C has only two underwing stations left for weapons. During Opeval, the E operated with one centreline tank, leaving all six underwing pylons free for weapons.

Importantly, Opeval confirmed the E can return to the carrier with up to 4,100kg of fuel and weapons, whereas the C may have to drop unexpended ordnance before it can land back on the deck.

In Red Flag exercises, VX-9 found the E could perform the same strike sorties as US Marine Corps F/A-18Ds without the pre-mission aerial refuelling required by the current aircraft, Rutherford says. The extra range allowed VX-9 to plan routes avoiding threats, increasing survivability.

A powerful payoff from the extra fuel capacity is the Super Hornet's ability to act as an organic tanker. With five external tanks, Rutherford says, the E can leave the deck with over 13,000kg of fuel, transfer up to 6,800kg, then perform an air-to-air mission. "And it can bring the gas back if necessary."

But the E/F's extra capability does not come without penalty, VX-9 found. Compared with the C/D, "the aircraft has a lower maximum velocity, particularly through the transonic zone," says Rutherford. In air combat, this means the aircraft lacks the ability to escape a dogfight.

"In a visual one-versus-one engagement the pilot has no choice but to kill his opponent or run him out of gas," he says, but adds: "Modern tactics are not to get into that fight." The navy believes the E/F will be able to stay out of close combat because it can carry twice as many medium-range air-to-air missiles as the C/D.

And if the Super Hornet still finds itself in a dogfight? "It can hold its own in a high-alpha [angle-of-attack], slow-speed fight with any modern fighter," Rutherford says. While Hornet pilots must stay within placarded limits or risk departing controlled flight, the E/F has "rock-solid stability and can out-alpha an adversary".

Low top speed has been highlighted as an issue on strike missions, with the risk the E/F can be "run down" while leaving the target. Rutherford says escape ranges "are not materially different for the C and the E-and the E can defend itself against any air-to-air threat". Nonetheless, Opeval endorsed navy plans to develop longer-range, higher-resolution sensors to increase the E/F's stand-off capability. "Strike warfare in the 21st century will be oriented towards stand-off," Rutherford argues.

Source: Flight International