There is no debate that America’s fifth generation fighters, the F-22 and F-35, tend to garner the most publicity, but in terms of operational aircraft, all of the functional Raptors and Joint Strike Fighters employed by the entire U.S. military wouldn’t even add up to a sizeable chunk of the number of F/A-18 Hornets and Super Hornets in use by the Navy and Marine Corps. Of course, that’s not the aircraft’s only claim to fame when compared to its more advanced successors. According to Boeing, the F/A-18 is also “the most cost-effective aircraft in the U.S. tactical aviation fleet, costing less per flight hour than any other tactical aircraft in U.S. forces inventory.”

It’s little surprise, then, that the Department of Defense has awarded Boeing $73 million to begin work upgrading the Block II Super Hornets to a new Block III configuration, aiming to keep the F/A-18 flying combat operations for at least another decade.

Super Hornet refueling a Hornet. (US Navy)

“The initial focus of this program will extend the life of the fleet from 6,000 to 9,000 flight hours,” said Mark Sears, SLM program director. “But SLM will expand to include Block II to Block III conversion, systems grooming and reset and O-level maintenance tasks designed to deliver a more maintainable aircraft with an extended life and more capability. Each of these jets will fly another 10 to 15 years, so making them next-generation aircraft is critical.”

The Navy’s massive fleet of 568 Super Hornets will take some time to update, so the contract hasn’t specified a delivery date for the total overhaul. For now, the changeover from Block II to Block III configuration will begin with just four Super Hornets at Boeing’s St. Louis production center. In the coming years, more production lines will be stood up to expedite the upgrade schedule, however.