Maintaining the capability of deployed forces is key to the joint force commanders as they support U.S. foreign policy. When the Navy deploys a carrier battle group, the joint commander expects the air wing to have its maximum capability. In the battle group, the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet is now the key strike element and also a critical part of any air defense operation. As the Navy F-35C enters the fleet, the F/A-18 will continue to be the majority aircraft in the air wing now and into the planned future.
Without new Super Hornets in the upcoming budget, the fleet may lose as many as three full squadrons it originally planned for, equipped with the most capable Block III F/A-18 now in production. That decision to curtail the Super Hornet program for the Navy will exacerbate the shortfall in its strike fighter inventory, limiting the Navy’s ability to project power across the world.
The F/A-18 has the capability to employ all strike and air-to-air weapons in the Navy’s inventory. As the F-35C enters the fleet inventory, its ability to employ the full inventory of weapons will gradually increase as more weapons are certified for carriage. The F-35C integration will be slowed by the necessity to modify the Navy’s aircraft carriers to support the aircraft. Major modifications required include the jet blast deflectors, aircraft electrical power stations and internal space changes to meet security requirements.
The Block III Super Hornet is the newest, most advanced aircraft in the F/A-18 family. One of the key Block III upgrades includes a 40 percent increase in service life. This is essential because the high-operational tempo of the last 10-15 years of “peacetime” have strained the service life of most air wing aircraft.
Super Hornets are reaching the end of their service lives much faster than anticipated, which is why structural modifications to new aircraft to allow them to fly longer is critical. The Block III also has a lower radar signature to enhance survivability, stronger computing networks to increase communication capability, and advanced sensors to detect and target adversaries at greater distances.
History shows that the probability of lower-intensity conflicts is significantly greater than a high-intensity conflict. As such, the air wing needs a complement of Day 1 operations that the F-35C can provide and the greater strike capability of the Super Hornet. The air wing of the future will be incomplete without the best mix, which is why the Navy’s decision to prematurely end production of the Block III Super Hornets is the wrong one. Aircraft configurations will be more similar than high-threat, Day 1 operations.
Production of the planned Block III Hornets ensures pilots, naval commanders and the joint force have the best performance available to meet tasking from deterrence operations to high-intensity combat. The Super Hornet is a cost-effective and reliable program now at its peak capability, and it should be continued.
Bill Mulholland is retired U.S. Navy pilot. He previously worked for McDonnell Douglas and subsequently Boeing, as well as Whitney Bradley and Brown, where he served as a member of several analysis of alternatives efforts for naval programs. He currently has no association with F/A-18 manufactures.