The U.S. Navy’s legacy fleet of F/A-18 Hornets concluded their final voyage aboard an American aircraft carrier earlier this week. These jets have served as the Navy’s workhorse fighter since first becoming operational in 1983, and will continue their service lives in other capacities as the Navy makes room for Block III Super Hornet variants and the forthcoming F-35C.
Despite sharing a name and designation with the F/A-18 Super Hornet, the legacy Hornets employed by the U.S. Navy have trouble keeping pace with their more technologically advanced siblings. The Block II upgrades that saw many Hornets refit into Super Hornets could almost be characterized as the development of an entirely new aircraft, as their similarities in many systems run only skin deep.
Boeing pitched the idea of an upgrade to the Hornet platform as a more economical way to field an advanced fighter without developing an entirely new airframe. By reusing components from the Hornet where they could, they reduced inventory requirements for maintenance and repair on ship, reduced the cost associated with developing new systems, and did away with the significant expenditure developing a new air frame would require.
Instead, the Super Hornet saw the implementation of digitally controlled, and more powerful, engine platforms, a larger internal and external fuel capacity, improvement in avionics systems and two more munitions hard points. It also saw the addition of radar absorbing coatings intended to delay how quickly enemy aircraft or ground based radar installations might spot an inbound sortie.
Now, with those Block II Super Hornets slated for yet another significant upgrade, coming in the form of Block III systems, and Lockheed Martin’s F-35C nearing operational status, there simply isn’t room on the flight decks of America’s Nimitz and Ford class carriers for the aging Hornet platform.
However, that doesn’t spell the end for the legendary Hornet. Still widely considered to be a highly capable fighter, thanks to a top speed that exceeds Mach 1 and an operational range that can exceed a thousand miles in the best of circumstances, the Hornet will continue to serve in “aggressor squadrons” that represent opposing forces in air-to-air combat training. There’s also a high likelihood that some of the platforms could be passed on the Marine Corps, who also still employs legacy Hornets.
The first of the Super Hornets that are slated to remain on America’s carriers will begin their transition into Block III configurations in the coming month. The scheduled upgrades include “advanced cockpit system with a large-area display for improved user interface, a more powerful computer called the distributed targeting processor network, a bigger data pipe for passing information called Tactical Targeting Network Technology,” according to the Navy. It has also been reported that it will see additional coatings of radar absorbing materials, intended to slightly improve its radar cross-section.
Perhaps most importantly, the Block III Hornets will also see the addition of external conformal fuel tanks, aiming to extend the range of the aircraft throughout the more than a decade of extended service life the upgrades are expected to guarantee. These Block III Super Hornets (affectionately nicknamed Super Duper Hornets by some) will enter service in 2020, and are expected to represent a full half of the Navy’s Hornet fleet by 2027.
Images courtesy of the U.S. Navy