new centerpiece of Naval aviation, The
Thompson, Loren B
F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet: Major Performance Gains at a Reasonable Price
When U.S. and allied forces executed the most devastatingly successflu air campaign in a generation during OPeration Desert Storm they benefited tremendously formthe availability of numerous nearby air bases. Coaliton forces used 23 different air bases, many of them modern and very well– equipped facilities in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, But when U.S. military palnners contemplated a reprise of the 1991 air campaign earler this year to punish Iran for blocking the efforts of U.N. arms inspectors, they found that most of those bases were no longer available. Several regional allies, including the Saudis were sicidedly uncomforable about providing U.S. ground-based air units with access to their facilities at least for the purpose of attcking a neighboring country even a hostile neighbor such as Iraq.
That experience provides telling evidence of why the burden of providing air power for future overseas conflicts in which, U.S. forces are involved is likely to shift increasingly to the Navy in the years ahead. Throughout the Eurasian littoral where America’s higest political, encnomic. and military interests have been repeatedly challenged in this century, long-standing former U.S. basing arrangements are being rewritten. The United States already has withdrawn its forces from most of the overseas air and ground bases they operated from at the height of the Cold War and, inmany areas where the United States retains access, political considerations preclude unfettered use.
In some instances those “considerations” are trivial and temporary, as when Italy’s government , to protest its exclusion from a key role in Bosnian peacekeeping activities, recently put limits on the use of its Aviano air base by U.S. tactical aircraft. In other instances the problems are deeper and longer-lasting–e.g., the surge in nationalism that compelled the U.S. Air Force to abandon its biggest base in Southeast Asia, Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, and the U.S. Navy to withdraw from Subic Bay. Whatever the particulars, though, the long-term trend is clear: The uncertainty of access to overseas bases will force naval aviation-more specifically, the Navy’s forward-deployed carrier battle groups (CVBGs)-to provide a greater share of U.S. air power in future overseas conflicts.
The question is whether naval aviation is up to the job. Although Navy and Marine Corps aircraft flew 28,986 sorties during the Desert Storm air campaign, their operational performance was frequently diminished by limited range, poor survivability, the lack of precision munitions, and other factors. Partially because of those problems, the Navy’s aviation community has taken the lead in studying, and then seriously applying, the lessons of Operation Desert Storm. It has rethought its tactics, reengineered many of its sensors and communications systems, and embarked on an ambitious effort to recapitalize its aircraft.
Evolution on a Fast Track
The centerpiece of this institutional transformation is the F/A-ISE/F Super Hornet, an enhancement of the Navy’s current multirole tactical aircraft that will largely define naval aviation in the next decade and beyond.
Navy leaders are careful to describe the Super Hornet as an “evolutionary upgrade” rather than a new aircraft, because it is a modification of the existing F/A-18C/D Hornet airframe with 90 percent commonality in electronics and avionics. But if this is evolution, it is evolution on a fast track. The Super Hornet will have 20 percent more weapons-carrying capacity, a 40 percent greater unrefueled combat radius, and 80 percent more time on station during a typical combat air patrol.
It also will be three to five times more survivable than the Hornet in aerial combat, and will be able to bring three times as much unexpended munitions back to its carrier. It will have 25 percent more wing surface than an F/A– 18C/D, and 33 percent more internal fuel-carrying space-but, somewhat surprisingly for an aircraft with so much greater capability, will have 42 percent fewer parts. In certain respects, the only way in which the Super Hornet really seems like an upgrade rather than a next-generation aircraft is that it has been developed for a fraction of the cost of a new-design aircraft.
When these sorts of performance and configuration gains are achieved in a development program that has consistently stayed on schedule and under budget, it is reasonable to assume that there would be some fairly positive public discussion of the program’s achievements. Reasonable perhaps, but not realistic. Despite strong support from the Navy, the Department of Defense, and the White House, the Super Hornet has been dogged in recent months by numerous media reports about the so-called “wing drop” problem. The problem was easily, and expeditiously, fixed, but the sometimes– exaggerated media reports contributed to negative public perceptions.
A flawed GAO (General Accounting Office) report issued in 1996, “F/A– 18E/F Will Provide Marginal Operational Improvement at High Cost,” also was wide of the mark-but reinforced the impression of yet another high-cost defense acquisition program gone awry.
Origins of the Super Hornet
Because the F/A-18E/F is so essential to the future warfighting effectiveness of naval aviation, Navy and DOD officials, and F/A-18E/F supporters in Congress, know how important it is to correct the misperceptions that have developed. The place they begin is by explaining how the requirement for an upgraded Hornet first emerged.
The F/A-18 traces its origins to 1976, when the Navy selected the team of McDonnell Douglas and Northrop to develop a lightweight, multirole combat aircraft that could complement the already operational F-14 air-superiority Tomcat fighter and A-6 Intruder attack plane. Originally conceived as two different airframes sharing many parts and components, the two Hornet variants originally envisioned were merged into the design for a single “strike fighter” aircraft that would have sufficient versatility to carry out a wider range of missions than either the F-14 or A-6 could.
Delivery of the initial F/A-18s-in both a single-seat “A” version and a two-seat “B” version-began in 1980 and continued until 1987, when an improved “C/D” Hornet was introduced. The F/A-18C/D incorporated more advanced avionics and later was equipped with an upgraded radar and the systems needed for a night-operations capability.
In approximately the same time frame, the Defense Department was developing plans to replace the F-14 with a naval version of the Air Force’s Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF-now the F-22), and to replace the A-6 with a stealthy “Advanced Tactical Aircraft,” later designated the A- 12.
Filling the Void
However, the A-12 and the naval version of the F-22 both were terminated (because of cost and technical problems). By the time the Gulf War started, therefore, the modernization flight path for naval aviation had become distinctly cloudy. Although some interim steps-such as equipping the F-14 with the weapons and systems needed to give it a surface-attack capability-could temporarily ease the Navy’s mounting problems with its air arm, it was apparent that bolder steps soon would be necessary.
A long-term solution eventually appeared in the form of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), a low-cost, low– observable, multimission, multiservice aircraft that, at least in its conceptual phase, promised to be all things to all services. But Navy planners recognized in the early 1990s that no new-design aircraft was likely to be operational in large numbers for a generation, especially one incorporating the revolutionary design features anticipated for the JSE Something had to be done in the near term, therefore, to fill the void created by the A-12 termination, cancellation of the naval F-22, and the impending deactivation of the A-6s (the last of which was retired in late 1996).
The answer-which was based upon a series of so-called “Hornet 2000” studies that had been commissioned in 1987-was to design and develop an evolutionary upgrade of the F/A– 18C/D. The basic idea behind the upgrade, soon dubbed Super Hornet, was to retain most of the electronic and avionics systems with which the CID already was equipped while radically redesigning the plane’s airframe to permit greater range, lethality, survivability, and versatility. In early 1991, the Defense Department announced plans to buy 1,000 Super Hornets.
Six years later, that goal was cut back by the Quadrennial Defense Review to 548-785 planes-primarily to accommodate the planned introduction of the Joint Strike Fighter early in the 21 st century. However, the JSF is a complex program that imposes very demanding price and performance goals on the contractors producing it, so might never be built in the numbers or configurations presently planned-and, even if it is, the production schedule may be stretched out several years longer than currently planned. For at least the next 10 years, therefore, and perhaps much longer, the centerpiece of naval aviation will be the F/A- 1 BE/F Super Hornet.
Key Performance Features
The Super Hornet incorporates literally dozens of specific technological improvements, but in terms of its design requirements the upgrades can be grouped under five “umbrella” categories: longer range and endurance, enhanced weapons carriage, improved survivability, more growth potential, and lower support costs. Reconciling these competing goals in a unified design is no easy feat, but prime contractor Boeing-which absorbed McDonnell Douglas in 1997-has managed to keep the program not only on schedule but also under budget. The initial Super Hornets have met all performance specifications while, remarkably, remaining under the maximum weight permitted in Boeing’s contract with the Navy.
Perhaps the most important performance goal has been to significantly increase the range and endurance of the C/D variant, an objective that has been met primarily by modifying the airframe to carry 33 percent more fuel internally. Depending on mission characteristics, the Super Hornet can fly an unrefueled combat radius up to 40 percent longer than that of the F/A- BC/D, vastly increasing its operational reach. This capability will be particularly important in the future if, as expected, naval air is assigned to carry out deep– strike missions in areas of the world where Air Force assets might not be readily available.
In an optimal “high/high” flight profile, a Super Hornet can carry four precision-guided 1,000-pound JDAMs (joint direct attack munitions) to an unrefueled combat radius of 665 nautical miles, a range that puts most of the world’s key economic and military targets well within the reach of the Navy’s forward-deployed CVBGs. Because all Super Hornets have an aerial refueling capability and can be configured to serve as tankers, it is possible-by assigning a tanker to each strike aircraft and refueling the latter aircraft 300 nautical miles into its mission-to extend the combat radius to 841nm.
Coming Back With a Lethal Load
Increased range and endurance are both important to the Super Hornet’s combat capabilities across the full spectrum of potential missions it might be assigned-from air superiority to deep strike to fighter escort to tactical reconnaissance to close air support. But its effectiveness in most of these missions also is driven by: (a) the size and diversity of the weapons load it can carry; and (b) its flexibility in allowing the return of unused weapons to its carrier. In the latter respect, the Super Hornet will be truly impressive. Its 11 weapon stations (two more than on the C/D) can carry over eight tons of air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions, including all major munitions in the Navy’s current inventory. The Super Hornet’s ability to carry the latest precision-guided air-to– ground weapons, such as the JDAM and the JSOW (joint standoff weapon), enable it to destroy several high-value targets in a single sortie.
The Navy expects that, by the time developmental testing is concluded late this year or in early 1999, the Super Hornet will have been cleared for more than two dozen different weapon configurations. That number probably will more than double before the plane becomes operational in 2001. No other tactical aircraft operational anywhere in the world at that time will be able to match the Super Hornet’s combination of mission flexibility and weapons– carrying versatility.
Another important cost factor: The F/A- BE/F also will be able to bring up to 5,000 pounds of unexpended munitions back to its carrier, a three-fold increase over the C/D. Considering the price tag of today’s advanced munitions, it is evident that this increased “bring-back” capability is an important cost-reduction feature appreciated by force planners and logisticians alike.
Harder Times Three
Survivability is another key feature of the Super Hornet design. Because it is an upgrade of a preexisting airframe, the F/A-18E/F reflects what the Navy calls a “balanced approach” to survivability, meaning that it does not rely on low-observables technology-i.e., stealth systems-to the exclusion of other survivability factors. Instead, its design incorporates stealth, advanced electronic-warfare capabilities, reduced ballistic vulnerability, the use of standoff weapons, and innovative tactics that cumulatively and collectively enhance the safety of the plane and crew.
Almost all of the aircraft’s stealth features are concentrated within 60 degrees of the nose-to reduce the radar cross-section of the Super Hornet’s forward aspect. When these features are combined with other survivability improvements, the result, in the words of one Navy publication, is an aircraft that is “harder to find, harder to hit, and harder to disable.” The Navy estimates that, in typical Gulf War-type combat scenarios of the future, the Super Hornet will be three to five times more survivable than its predecessor.
It also will have considerably more growth potential. The current F/A18C/D is so crammed with equipment that the amount of internal space available for new systems is only about 0.2 cubic feet. The Super Hornet fuselage, nearly three feet longer than that of the C/D, provides 17 cubic feet of growth space. That is more than enough to facilitate the introduction of additional avionics or to be used to develop new variants of the basic airframe. One possibility being evaluated is to use the Super Hornet as a replacement for the Navy’s venerable EA-6B Prowler electronic jamming aircraft.
The Bottom Line: A Bargain for U.S. Taxpayers
A final important feature of the Super Hornet will be the moderate life-cycle costs resulting from designing an aircraft that is easy to operate and economical to support. One example: The F-14s that the Super Hornet will replace cost over $12,000 per flight hour to operate, when all ground support costs are included, whereas the corresponding cost for the F/A-18E/F will be less than half that amount.
It also will take considerably less time to change the E/F engines and/or reload the aircraft’s weapons; these seemingly modest differences will allow a Super Hornet squadron to fly more than twice as many sorties in a day as an F-14 squadron could. Moreover, because the Super Hornet squadron will require nearly a hundred fewer maintenance personnel than an F-14 squadron, its introduction into the active fleet will save the Navy about $30 million annually in support costs. Not surprisingly, the Navy has decided, to take full advantage of the new plane’s economics, to accelerate retirement of the F-14s now in the active inventory.
There are other indirect savings associated with transitioning to the Super Hornet. For example, by replacing three different tactical aircraft-the F-14, A-6, and F/A-18A/B-with a plane that has 42 percent fewer parts than its immediate predecessor, the Navy will significantly reduce its outlays for spare parts and other logistics support. And, by introducing a plane with precisionattack capabilities both at night and in adverse weather, the service also can reduce the costs of mission planning and execution. According to aerospace expert Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group, “capturing all of those indirect savings in a consolidated statement is nearly impossible, but the cumulative economies should be impressiveespecially since support costs typically are much bigger than acquisition costs over the 20-30 year service life of a carrier-based tactical aircraft.”
The actual production cost of the Super Hornet was capped by Congress, which has mandated that the E/F could not exceed 125 percent of the constantdollar cost of an F/A-18C/D when it reaches the mid-point in its production run. Boeing currently estimates that the constant-dollar flyaway cost of the Super Hornet will be 110-120 percent that of a C/D. Thus, for 10-20 percent more than the unit cost of the existing Hornet, the Navy will receive an aircraft with significantly greater range, weapons capacity and versatility, survivability, and growth potential. Moreover, the savings in support costs resulting from the reduced number of different airframes on the Navy’s carriers will far exceed the higher initial procurement cost of the Super Hornet.
It is unlikely, in short, that any other tactical aircraft will come close to matching the performance features of the F/A18E/F at a comparable price until the Joint Strike Fighter is introduced in another decade or so. Until then, the face that American air power presents to the world will increasingly resemble that of the Super Hornet, which is probably good news not only for the nation’s warfighters but also for U.S. taxpayersand extremely bad news for America’s potential enemies.
Loren B. Thompson directs the defense studies program of the Lexington Institute and teaches iri the National Security Studies Program in Georgetown University.
Copyright Navy League of the United States Jun 1998
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