The Super Hornet Is a Winner

By Riley Mixson

Bridges to future technologies, as dictated by the threat, were included in the strategy. For naval aviation strike forces, these include the Joint Strike Fighter.

To date, the F/A-18E/F program has an enviable cost and performance record. Contrary to General Accounting Office and Congressional Budget Office criticism, the aircraft's cost has remained stable and constant since contract initiation. The official development cost of $4.9 billion, published only after system requirements had been determined, has not varied a single penny upward since the contract was signed; the cost includes ten aircraft for test and development—seven for flight test and three for ground test. The $3.5 billion development cost figure often seized on by critics to decry cost growth was a rough order-of-magnitude figure submitted prior to final Navy definition of the aircraft. This is in stark contrast to the $14-billion (plus) F-22 development program, which provides only two aircraft.

In addition, the Navy buy of 1,000 aircraft—the total program requirement for the Navy—has remained constant. A Marine Corps purchase of 340 aircraft, if approved, would be additive, further reducing aircraft recurring flyaway cost.

Tests at Patuxent River are proving that the E/F flight performance exceeds that of the C/D—but the real raison d’être for the E/F is its significant improvement in combat effectiveness. Strikes in excess of 600-nautical-mile combat radius (without a U.S. Air Force tanking assist) are back in the Navy warfighting equation; buddy tanking, a capability lost when the last A-6E left active duty in December, 1996, will return with the EIF and extend these ranges even farther.

With 35% across-the-board improvements in range, endurance, and ordnance capability, the E/F can provide, like no other aircraft in the inventory—including the F-22, F-117, and JSF—sustained over-the-battlefield support for ground forces. It also will bring improved capabilities for supporting small units (the Defense Science Board's prognosis for a majority of scenarios), whose very survival depends on direct and indirect fire support at the exact time needed. The highly effective C/D aircraft have absolutely no growth capability remaining. The E/F, in contrast, can accommodate the most advanced systems; the aircraft have more than 9,000 pounds of carrier bring-back plus 17 cubic feet of growth capability in the design.

The Navy's multimission requirements favor a more cost-effective approach to survivability than dependence on total stealth. The Navy's balanced approach incorporates:

  • Front-end [head-on] "affordable" stealth
  • More economical deception devices such as towed decoys
  • Destruction/suppression of enemy surface-to-air missiles using High-Speed Anti-radiation Missiles (HARMs), as done in Operation Desert Storm
  • Standoff weapons such as the Standoff Land-Attack Missile, Joint Standoff Weapon, and Tomahawk
  • Tactics chosen for each scenario

All-aspect stealth is expensive and difficult to maintain, as seen in land-based F-117 and B-2 stealth rework programs. It would be especially expensive to maintain such a capability on board ship.

The laws of physics have thus far proved irrefutable, in that stealth aircraft are invisible neither to the human eye nor to early-warning radars—which makes today's stealthy subsonic aircraft survivable only during darkness, which exists for less than 50% of any 24-hour period. To be fully effective, stealth aircraft still require support or distractions by other aircraft—again, as the world witnessed during Desert Storm. The bottom line is that all-aspect stealth is extremely expensive (seven B-2 aircraft equate in cost to one aircraft carrier and her embarked air wing), difficult to maintain, and limited in combat utility. While all-aspect stealth may have a place in the Air Force strategic bombing arsenal, it is neither affordable nor needed [nor desirable] for the naval service.

Navy recapitalization and neck-down to two tactical strike fighters is proceeding well. Laser targeting has transformed the F-14, already a superb fighter, into a formidable strike aircraft as well. The Tomcat fleet is aging, however, and most of the inventory is based on analog rather than digital technology, which is more difficult and more expensive to maintain and operate. Designed primarily for over-water defense of the battle group, it does not have the combat survivability enhancements designed into current tactical aircraft. The F-14 is a 30-year old aircraft that eventually will be replaced by the two-seat F/A-18F. Interestingly, the Tomcat was designed as the first true strike fighter incorporating the A-7E air-to-ground system, but the concept was rejected in the 1960s. What a powerful combination we would have had in Desert Storm, had that capability been pursued.

Each service fills a niche in the context of likely expeditionary operations and joint warfighting. For limited strike operations in support of a short-notice contingency, historically initiated during the hours of darkness, a combination of B-2, F-17, and Navy-Marine Corps F/A-18s with standoff weapons, supported by cruise missiles, probably will suffice. The Joint Strike Fighter may be a major player. Large-scale, theater-wide operations always will require the complete spectrum of military forces.

Our goal, however, is to prevent large-scale conflicts by increasing use of expeditionary forces. This strategy explicitly calls for increased on-demand use of forward-deployed Navy and Marine expeditionary forces. "…From the Sea," embedded in the Navy's recapitalization plan, procures just the right mix of forces to operate with impunity in the littorals while projecting power not only against fixed targets, but also in support of ground elements ashore.

Naval forces provide an "in-your-face" presence not attainable with any other military force—the kind of presence that immediately quieted the Taiwan Strait crisis. It mandates 24-hour, around-the-clock airborne presence and makes the true multi-mission Super Hornet the most affordable choice—a decision repeatedly supported by Navy leadership.

Rear Admiral Mixson is the President of R.D.M. Associates, Aerospace Product Planning and Marketing. He commanded Carrier Group Two in the Red Sea during Operation Desert Storm and served as Deputy Assistant Chief of Naval Operations, Air Warfare, prior to his retirement in February 1994.


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