Super Hornet Is the Bridge

By Admiral Leon A Edney, U.S. Navy (Retired)

Carrier aviation and the F/A- BE/F are inextricably tied to the effectiveness of naval forward presence and power projection from the sea, well into the 21st century.

The Aircraft Carrier in U.S. Military Strategy

During the Cold War, the Soviet threat was focused on the central front of Europe. This enabled us to anchor our land-based.air and ground military posture on a network of garrisoned overseas positions within the NATO structure. Supporting this successful strategy of containment, naval forces applied pressure to NATO's flanks on the Kola Peninsula and the Mediterranean, and on the Soviet Pacific bastions at Vladivostok and Petropavlosk. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has withdrawn from a large number of its overseas bases, with the major exception of Korea. Consequently, our ability to exercise flexible and mobile military forward presence and global regional power-projection forces depends on a combination of naval power and rapid power projection from the United States.

In the complex post-Cold War multipolar world, where the majority of major population centers lie within 200 miles of access to the open ocean, naval forces are increasingly relevant and able to help shape regional stability. The fact that this can be done with little or no land based footprint and with no host-nation strings attached gives us a great advantage in pursuing our foreign policy interests. The independence, staying power, sustainability, and controllable security environment of naval forces often make them the force of choice for our national security interests. Protecting the sea lines of communication for a global, free-market economy, reinforcing and supporting U.S. embassies, and executing noncombatant evacuations of U.S. citizens overseas are among the missions ideally suited to our forward-deployed naval forces. This fact-of-life requirement for forward naval presence has been demonstrated recently in the Taiwan Strait, the Persian Gulf, Somalia, Albania, the Central African Republic, Liberia, Zaire, and Sierra Leone.

The United States is a maritime nation, dependent on the seas for its economic prosperity and security. There was good reason why our founding fathers determined the need for the nation to maintain naval forces and to raise an army to the size required for the national security situation facing the nation. We occasionally should remind ourselves of this reality, because it is the geopolitics and not the geography of the world that has changed.

Many who seek to reduce the role-and therefore the number-of aircraft carriers to buy more B-2 bombers claim that advances in space systems and missile technology increase the carrier's vulnerability to ballistic and cruise missiles, as well as to submarine attacks. Certainly, advanced technology has increased the threat posed by these systems, but far less than the threat of terrorism and missile attack against fixed, land-based forces. Any would-be adversary trying to attack a carrier battle group (CVBG) must coordinate sophisticated, long-range targeting solutions on a target that can move 30 nautical miles in any direction in one hour and can change its location by 700 miles in any 24-hour period. This is not an easy target. When we combine that mobility with sophisticated CVBG electronic-warfare deception packages, radar blip enhancers, target decoys, and the air defenses provided by the battle group's Aegis Ticonderoga (CG-47)class cruisers and Arleigh Burke (DDG-51)-class destroyers-as well as the Nimitz (CVN-68)-class, nuclear powered aircraft carrier's own tactical aircraft-the vulnerability becomes quite manageable. Nevertheless, it is a fact of life that the most urgent requirement for any large-scale military operation is an effective, integrated theater ballistic and cruise missile defense of the entire theater of operations for both land and sea forces. Survivability is much greater in operations from a mobile bastion at sea.

Because today's challenge is to get the highest return for our limited defense dollars, it is significant to note that we have not lost any carriers to enemy action or geopolitical changes since World War II. This cannot be said of our overseas land bases. In such countries as Iran, Libya, Vietnam, and the Philippines-to name a few-we not only lost airfields we had paid for, but also lost the costly infrastructure to support maintenance, flight operations, and quality of life, which we also had paid for with billions of defense dollars. It is also a fact of life that we pay a high monetary price and often an unacceptable political cost for even restricted access to foreign military land and air bases. Even after Operation Desert Storm, with Saddam Hussein recently having threatened peace in that area, the United States was not allowed to place its desired number of Air Force aircraft in Saudi Arabia, where U.S. presence already was established. In addition to its inherent mission flexibility, the aircraft carrier has a 45-year service life and remains free from overseas entanglements. As China emerges as the next world economic and potential military superpower competitor, the value of carriers in attaining U.S. foreign policy goals will increase dramatically.

Air Superiority

One of the unchallenged realities of modern warfare is that no one can win any conflict on the ground or at sea without air and space superiority. In this era of highly sophisticated precision weapons (including cruise and ballistic missiles with precise navigation), this is the medium that enables our land and sea forces to operate within acceptable risk levels. Air superiority is even more essential for forward-deployed forces, which are shaping the environment, trying to create stability and to prevent conflict through forward presence.

In more and more cases, this flexible presence will be provided by forward-deployed naval carrier battle groups and amphibious ready groups. Thus, the Secretary of Defense's continuing commitment to 12 carrier battle groups and 12 amphibious ready groups is appropriate and reassuring. Maintaining stability in a forward deployed, crisis-prevention role requires controlling airspace out to 800 miles. In this environment, the multimission capability, range, endurance, and return carriage of ordnance of carrier-based aircraft are extremely important in determining the right mix of aircraft in the forward-presence mission. If our naval forces are left only with the option of responding to fast-moving blips on a radar screen with surface-to-air missiles, in times of increasing tension, they might generate instability rather than stability.

F/A-18E/F Essential to Maritime Air Superiority

The QDR position of restricting the Navy's buy of F/A-18E/Fs, while stretching the program to complete the final 300 or so aircraft with a yet-to-be-developed JSF aircraft, should give the National Command Authorities considerable concern. Naval aviation already has suffered from the loss of the P-7, A-6F, A-12, and AX programs, intended to meet the needs of the future. All of these programs, which were pushing technology, had serious cost overruns. All new aircraft in the paper stage of development tend to cost less and outperform the current models. There are significant challenges to the vertical/short takeoff or landing (V/STOL) engine and carrier all-aspect-stealth requirements of the JSF program that make the ultimate cost as well as capabilities unpredictable at best. To stay on the leading edge of technology, we know that we must upgrade frontline aircraft every 15-20 years. Because of the lost programs mentioned, carrier aviation has not kept pace with this requirement. Today, we are living with the shortsightedness of having failed to upgrade the F-14B to F-14Ds in sufficient numbers. If we accept the call to continue procurement of the F/A-18C/D, we will keep moving down the same path. In 2008, the F/A-18C/D technology will be more than 30 years old, and a carrier-based tactical air component of mostly F/A-18C/Ds would be approaching obsolescence.

Comparison of F/A-18E/F to CID

The alternative to the F/A-18E/F-suggested by such critics as the Government Accounting Office and others looking for additional defense savings-is continued production of the C/D. The E/F does cost more than the CID, so there would indeed be distinct budgetary differences between the two. The inference is that the additional capabilities offered by the E/F are small compared to the increased costs, estimated at $10-14 million, in fiscal year 1997 recurring unit flyaway costs. The E/F advantages over the CID-in survivability, growth capability, significant tactical advantage provided by increased range, ordnance/fuel bring-back weight, mission payload, and the flexibility provided by the addition of the mission tanker capability-make the E/F the only choice if the effectiveness of the carrier battle group is to be maintained.

The F/A-18E/F is not your father's F/A-l BC/D upgraded; it represents a new generation of advanced technology and survivability. Survivability and growth capacity are the most important reasons to proceed with the E/F, rapidly and in large numbers. Our pilots will have a five-times-better chance of returning from their missions safely in F/Al 18-E/Fs than in F/A-lBC/Ds. It is also a common misconception that the planes that dominated the Gulf War were basically the same planes originally delivered to their services 10-20 years earlier. They may bear the same model designation, but they are far superior to the original models, owing to a continuous stream of technology upgrades. In almost all cases, this continued growth capability requires additional space, with increased air flow and liquid cooling, as well as additional computer and electrical power. Capacity for further growth has virtually been exhausted in the Hornet C/D. Lacking growth capacity, the C/D will rapidly become noncompetitive against both newer model planes and against older models that continue to receive upgrades. Less-capable airplanes become targets in a shooting crisis.

Another little-understood but critically important issue is "bring-back weight"-the weight of fuel, weapons, and stores (e.g., forward-looking infrared radar [FLIR] pods, laser designators) that can be returned to the carrier safely. In peacetime forward presence, crisis response, and wartime situations, the high cost of precision-guided munitions makes jettisoning ordnance to reach safe landing weight an unacceptable option. Taking into account reserve fuel and defensive weapons (e.g., Sidewinder missiles) on both planes, the Super Hornet E/F can return with roughly three times the weight of the C/D. In addition to avoiding waste in jettisoned ordnance and fuel, it represents significant savings in weapons-procurement dollars, and, most important, means more operational flexibility and significantly greater combat effectiveness in our carrier battle groups.

From a pilot's combat-effectiveness perspective, the most important advantages of the Super Hornet E/F over the C/D are in the combination of survivability, increased range, mission endurance, and payload. In-depth technical and threat analysis shows that the E/F has an 87% survivability advantage over the CID. This is achieved through reduced radar cross sections, carriage of more "consumables" (chaff, flares, decoys), an improved defense-electronics capability, an improved towed decoy, and design improvements that reduce the plane's vulnerability to battle damage. This equates to more mission successes and fewer pilot losses. The research-and-development expenditures to bring this increased capability to our carrier aviators already have been made, and the operating costs of the E/F should be significantly lower than those of the CID, because the Super Hornet has 42% fewer parts.

The F/A-18E/F program is on schedule and on budget, and has demonstrated the most successful flight test program in the history of naval aviation. It would be unconscionable not to make this additional combat effectiveness available in adequate numbers to make a difference for those naval aviators defending their country for the next 15 years and beyond. To slow the E/F buy significantly as an unnecessary bridge between the CID and the Joint Strike Fighter is just plain flawed thinking and a high-risk gamble with regard to our future defense needs. The JSF is a first-of-its-kind, joint triservice aircraft development. As such, it is a very-high-risk program, with significant engine and platform development costs yet to be defined. What can be predicted with aircraft development programs of this complexity, based on historical data, are substantial cost increases, program slippage, and multimission capability/performance compromises. In all probability, some form of JSF will be built, but the Navy version appears to require more stealth and range than either the Air Force's or Marine Corps'. These are among the most demanding (costly) design aspects of the JSF, making it a risky gamble for the nation without a sizable F/A-18E/F inventory in its Navy.

If the current inventory of carrier-based tactical aircraft is not replaced with F/A-18E/Fs, naval aviation will not be strong enough in 2008 to meet what is likely to be an increasingly dangerous world environment, particularly in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, where land bases are few and far between. A more logical long-range program for carrier aviation is to keep the F/A-18E/F procurement on track and establish the Navy requirement for the first 2436 all-aspect stealth JSF aircraft in 2010. These aircraft would be shore based and collocated with the Air Force F-117s (or the JSF version F-117 replacement). These silver-bullet aircraft and crews would train to the same mission as their collocated Air Force counterparts, representing true jointness. Ten to 15 of the Navy JSF crews would remain fully combat proficient, day and night carrier and in-flight-refueling qualified, to be ready for deployment on 24-hours notice. When a crisis arises, these aircraft would be flown to the carrier on station or en route to station, being free of any political base-operating negotiations or restrictions. They would act as a visible indication of U.S. resolve, providing an additional level of deterrence and conflict prevention. If conflict resulted, they would be available for the first hours of conflict against tough, heavily defended targets of great value to the air campaign and U.S. interests. Such targets would include destruction of missile threats, nuclear/chemical and biological weapons sites, and key communications and headquarters complexes.

Under this concept, once air superiority was attained, ten of the carrier-based, all-aspect stealth JSFs would return to their base and remain in a ready status to respond to later crises. Five of the all-aspect-stealth JSF would remain with the carrier for cleanup targeting in the ongoing crisis, but they would not be used for level-of-effort bombing missions. In this scenario, ten additional F/A-18E/Fs could be flown on board to increase the level of effort of the ongoing crisis. Under this concept we have a two-regional-contingency capability when we most likely may need it. If at the point of initial operating capability (2010), the all-aspect-stealth, carrier-capable JSF really is cheaper than the F/A-18E/F still in production, then and only then-stop the F/A-18E/F production and go with the lower-cost, newer technology JSF to fill out the carrier decks. In the projected threat environment, we will not have to fill every deploying carrier with an all aspect-stealth capability; we will need just enough to fly them out in times of increased tensions. At this juncture, we must not slow excessively the rate at which we fill our carrier decks with today's leading-edge technology, as represented in the F/A-18E/F. Economies of scale available through optimum F/A-18E/F procurement rates should be taken advantage of, rather than jeopardizing the program through such low production rates that the cost differential becomes an additional false argument for cancellation.

Bottom Line

Buying F/A-18E/Fs to the programmed numbers of 8001,000 aircraft is a sound naval aviation plan that fulfills current and projected capability shortfalls with leading edge technology, while properly leveraging our nation's investment in forward naval presence. If JSF is produced on time (initial operating capability 2008) and within current budget estimates, thus providing more capability for equivalent dollars, then and only then should the F/A-18E/F buy be truncated in favor of the JSF. If JSF slips or is significantly more expensive or less capable than now predicted, the Navy should buy limited numbers of all-aspect-stealth JSFs, which combined with the Hornet E/F in large numbers provides an assured advanced capability air wing with long-term growth potential. On the other hand, if we build additional Hornet C/Ds instead of E/Fs and the JSF does not meet requirements or cost expectations, we will be left with a fleet of aged and noncompetitive aircraft with a 10-15 year gap before the problem can be fixed. This would be a colossal error, and is a risk we must avoid.

In this case, an excellent plane in the hand is worth more than three on the drawing board.


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