The Super Hornet as a Stealth Killer?

That new crop of foreign stealth fighters that’s emerging; don’t worry, the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet can handle ’em. That’s the interesting pitch that Boeing’s man in Tokyo for fighters gave me earlier this month while discussing Japan’s F-X fighter contest. I suspect that’s Boeing’s main pitch for many of it’s potential fighter customers

Basically, the Super Hornet’s active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar — and it’s ability to jam enemy radars and electronic countermeasures — combined with the jet’s infrared search and track (IRST) system will allow it to compete with low-observable jets, said Phil Mills, director of Boeing’s F-X program in an interview just days before Boeing lost that contest to Lockheed Martin’s stealthy F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

(IRST systems have been around for decades, they use an infrared sensor to allow a pilot to ID and lock onto a target’s heat signature rather than radar signature.)

Here’s his pitch as to why the newest versions of the Super Hornet will be a viable competitor to the latest stealth jets:

IRST expands our frequency spectrum of sensor coverage so that it gives us much better counter-stealth capability than we had with just AESA.

AESA’s much better [than older radars] as far as detecting small targets. But, AESA plus IRST gives you the capability of not worrying about targets with low radar cross sections, so you can see those targets and actually establish a weapons-quality track without the radar. You can also cue that AESA, that has two and-a-half to three-times the detection range of the old radar anyway, and it can see further than that if you cue it to look at a very small piece of the sky.

The Super Hornet is a proven design, with some stealthiness built in, that can be continuously upgraded to survive in 21st Century aerial combat, added Mills.

The F/A-18E/F is an example of “where Boeing has been really successful, not doing clean-sheet developments so much, but evolving proven designs and integrating new technology and putting in new capabilities on more an evolutionary basis as opposed to a revolutionary, let’s do a clean sheet, like F-35, and go through all the development pains of a new start,” said Mills.

Now, the IRST as a stealth killer could have been Mills’ be a last ditch argument to sell the Super Hornet to Japan. Modern stealth jets are designed to mask their heat signatures. After all, 21st Century stealth isn’t just about being invisible to radar. Truly stealthy designs limit the amount of heat, electronic signals and even noise emitted by the aircraft in an attempt to make them undetectable.

I’d like to see what happens when one of the new IRST-equipped Block II Super Hornets goes up against an F-22 Raptor or F-35. Remember, a Navy EA-18G Growler electronic attack jet did score a fake kill against a Raptor a couple of years ago.

  • tribulationtime

    I belive Mith of stealth planes will be only smoke with avionics advances. Grandfather´s Talle: i was at Britain Battle.

  • Raoul Popov

    Combination of IRST + advanced ESM (Spectra) + IR mid range missile (IR MICA) + networking already proved to be be a very lethal silent killer on the Rafale. Ask F22.

  • Mastro

    Do we really have to have a post and 40+ responses to some salesman’s spiel?

    Everyone knows a 4th generation jet can shoot down a stealth- it all comes down to effectiveness.

  • Everything else being equal, including AESA and IRST, you would probably expect a stealthily designed aircraft to have the edge over another regular aircraft, even one with a few stealthy features. Of course, you can just rely on the continued supremacy of your electronic systems.

    A Growler killing a Raptor. Like they say, one swallow doesn’t make a summer. One kill in unknown circumstances is not that impressive. Do it again and again in various scenarios, and then you can brag.

  • Portions of the Block II Super tech is what would have been in their version of the Joint Strike Fighter had they won that contract: including the APG-79 AESA.

    The APG-79 is a very good radar. The problem with that is that the sweet-spot of stealth designs is right around X-Band, the same band that aircraft radars are in.

    The idea that the APG-79 (or any other X-band radar) is good against stealth is wishful thinking.

    So is the idea of fighter aircraft AESA radars to be used as jammers. This was proven not to be so because of power output duration and heat build up. Australia states they are pretty happy with their new Super Hornet Block II’s. One thing they did mention that was gross over-optimism on the show-room floor was using the APG-79 as a jammer. It was also disproved in the F-22 program.

    The other thing the Boeing guy doesn’t mention is the obvious: the Super has less speed in the heart of the combat maneuver envelop than a classic Hornet.

    An F-22 (now the reference threat because of the PAK-FA) and other existing aircraft designs can run down the Super and kill it.

    Then there is the single point of failure AMRAAM. A good missile but again not so good against stealth aircraft because of the frequency band.

    HOBS and AIM-9X: good.

    And consider, with all of the F-35 technical problems, it has no proof that it can cue weapons. Buffet and helmet cueing is hard. Worse with a faulty helmet system.

    At least everyone else has a HUD.

    But back to Boeing: I understand the concept that Boeing is trying to sell something.

    And, at least the Super actually works with knowns as a second-tier strike fighter.

  • Kotch

    Even in a perfect world where it can use IRST and AESA to pierce the veil of stealth the stealthy aircraft can still see the unstealthy hornet at a much greater range and work on avoiding or setting up a shot on it.

  • crackedlenses

    Just wait till Black Owl hears this…..

  • Nick

    It all comes down to what is practical.Since the F22 can’t be sold o/s and the f35 is about 5-10 years from becoming operational the practical need to put something on the tarmac comes first.Australia bought the super hornet on this basis.It’s good enough considering what might it go up against {mig 29?}and what it might be asked to plink a taliban utility vehicle

  • JE McKellar

    Boeing and Lockheed should just stage a fighter tournament, F-22 and F-35 on one side, and F/A-18E, F and Growler on the other, with an E-2D for backup. Maybe even let them throw in an F-15SE mockup.

    Winner gets a tanker contract, a half-dozen LCS, and a head start on the next space shuttle.

  • TH1

    I’ve never been in the military, so I am no where near as educated about these topics as most of you are. (I just LOVE military stuff!) Your comments here are more informative for me than the original articles are. So to all of you vets out there:

    1. THANK YOU for your service to your country! (I’m American, so mega huge thanks to the American vets!!!!)

    2. Thank you again for your insights, it’s a pure joy to read them all each day in between my guitar playing :)

    I’m very grateful to you all!

  • Tri-ring

    One of the dis-advantages of the F/A-18E/F is that it is a carrier based design meaning it has excess weight such as strengthen landing gears and airframe not necessary for most global military since they do not possess a CATOBAR aircraft carrier.

  • Black Owl

    I think everyone’s waiting for me to comment on this. I’m just going to let you guys know that I am quietly sitting here with a smile.

  • J Hughes

    Boeing has proposed a “Silent Hornet” F/A-18 with an enclosed weapons pod that is carried on the underbelly of the aircraft and some other jazz. There is a video from earlier this year or maybe last year on youtube. Its called the international roadmap f/a-18 or something like that. They were over in India I think showing it off.

  • J Hughes

    If you honestly dont think that while we were developing stealth technology, that we were at the same time learning/figuring how to detect it, then you are seriously naive.

  • WHAT

    Boeing’s just in denial (sour-graping) mode after losing next generation fighter contracts to the F-35. It would be better if they just shut up and start developing their own stealth fighter to give some real competition to Lockmart. I’m pretty confident Boeing can come up with a good stealth plane if they put their minds into it.

  • Lance

    I can say 100% the f-15C E and SE would be the same way. USAF aggressors using F-15s successful engaged and faked killed F-22s at red Flag and was more than enough to kill MiG-29s and SU-27s in exercises in NATO and friendship exercises in Russia. The F-15 can out run (Mach 2.5 vs mach 1.8) and out claim both the F-22 and F-18E/F in combat and had shot down over 300+ planes in US and allied history without one lose in air to air combat. The F-15SE will dominate most fighters well into this century. The USAF will upgraded old Cs to newer standard which passed threw the 2012 budget.

    The F-14 was better than the crappy Super Hornet politics killed that plane the Proposed F-14F would have been awesome but Dick Cheney killed in congress while Boeing and former MacDonald Douglas paid his campaigns for that.

    USAF rules Navy drools in the fighter field always been that way since the 1990s.

  • Sanem

    on old aircraft with new technology:

    Boeing has the right idea, upgrade exisisting aircraft with better technology. designing aircraft from scratch takes much too long and they become outdated way too fast

    for example the F-22 is outmatched by the F-35’s sensors and systems, while the F-35 will be outmatched by the T-50’s L-band radars and probably any AESA radar that is introduced from 2020 onwards

    which is why the Typhoon is the best solution: excellent flight performance and just upgrade its technology as new stuff becomes available

    on IRST:

    I’m more for optical technology, as it’s completely unaffected by stealth. the Python 5 and the F-35’s EOTS are excellent examples of this, anything in range can be detected, identified, tracked and thus destroyed, regardless of stealth, ECM or flares

    on fighter technology:

    the concept is outdated, UAVs are the future

    in Korea the Chinese swarmed the superior Western forces through sheer numbers

    in WW2 France and the UK had better and more tanks, but the Germans used superior tactics

    stick missiles on a UAV and they’ll defeat any manned fighters through sheer expendable numbers, and superior stealth in the case of UCAVs

    the West and Japan need to realise this, because China certainly will

  • J Hughes

    Why oh why dont they install IRST in the F-22

  • It would be interesting to see a proper contest between Super Hornet and Lightning II. See what the billions of dollars invested is actually worth.

    I expect we’ll unlikely see a face-off, or if we did it would be engineered to give whatever outcome the DoD wants.

  • C-Low

    OK so lets just take him at his word and say in a air to air battle F-18 will near match F-35 by AESA and IRST.

    Ok now considering the fact I can count the air to air battles the US has been involved in post Vietnam with my hands lets consider the primary role of the F-35 and F-18 air to ground attack and penetration. The F-18 will not be able to penetrate our oppositions primary SAMs without high risk.

    Stealth’s advantage shines in penetration air to ground not air to air.

  • C-Low

    Also consider that most ofor forces will be fighting defensive were being able to hide from ground based SAM systems is a mute issue. The US since what 1812 have made a doctrine of making our fights away from home usually on the offensive side were SAM systems is a high priority concern.

    I see no scenario were US air is fighting defensive over top our SAM’s but I do see many were US air is fighting offensively over enemy SAM’s were the reduced radar detection bubble for enemy SAM’s give our forces ever growing pockets and corridors to fight & penetrate through.

    Stealth is a penetration offensive side advantage.

  • Monochrome

    So you are posting a press release?

  • tiger

    All of this is nice academic discussion. But what we really are talking about is buying Cold War weapons in a Al Quedia/ terrorist world. The days of Mig Alley jet fights or Air to air over Hanoi need to meet the reality of who your really fighting today. China & Russia are not it.

    • crackedlenses

      Leave them out of the equation and we’ll see how fast they become a reality….

    • blight

      Why should we innovate in tanks, it’ll be an infantryman’s fight tomorrow as it was yesterday!
      ~1920’s warfighting theory

      I imagine this kind of thinking will be tempting to any military with the planes already bought and paid for; and interested in new avionics to extend their viability a little longer. Not sure if IRST will have the range to detect F-22’s at long range, though AvWeek had that image of a B-2 imaged at 70km away with a Eurofighter’s IRST system. As long as your IRST allows you to quickly scan and acquire a target outside the range of the target’s missiles, you gain the advantage.

      Others have posted that the F-22 should be able to acquire target locks without total compromising (but using AWACS to see for you is not an option, since it means the enemy will take a shot at a much more expensive aircraft and take fifteen or twenty airmen on before the F-22’s.

      The alternative opponents may consider is developing and deploying parasite aircraft controllable by a rear seat operator to extend detection range against stealth opponents, but that’s a long term move that requires opponents who haven’t even made ventures into UAV-land to suddenly make the development, or waiting for Europe to make that move. It’ll be another five to ten years from the prototype stage, and we’re not even there yet.

    • citanon

      Would you rather face Al Qaeda and rag tag insurgents or a large, well armed, well trained and well led conventional force?

      During Operation Overlord the Allied forces suffered over 200,000 casualties. During the Battle of Iwo Jima Allied forces lost ~7000 killed and 20,000 wounded. In the Vietnam War the US had over 50000 dead. How many casualties has Al Qaeda, Taliban and the Iraqi Insurgents managed to inflict in 10 years of fighting?

      We are in an Al Qaeda world because we’ve become too hard to beat in conventional fights, and we are very fortunate to be in that position. Slack off even a little bit, and we’ll go back to the bad old days of conventional warfare right quick.


    War is much too complex to be trying to figure this all out. They’re still trying to figure out what happened with all the other wars! One thing for certain: If you’ve got 187 Raptors and they have 2000 Sukhoi’s, you’re going to run out of weapons and the rest are getting through! Numbers count; just ask the Russkies in WW!!!

  • Shail

    One thing too many folks overlook about foreign weapons like these latest adversarial stealth jets (PAK FA, and that chinese thing):
    we only have THEIR sales pitches as, ahem, “proof” that their aircraft are truly stealthy.
    Until we have multiple instances of confrontations between these aircraft and the latest western types, it’s all sale pitches and hype, FROM BOTH SIDES.

    Going into Desert Shield/Desert Storm, there was fear of Saddam’s latest Russian tanks could be tolerant to 105mm US tank guns, so all those 120mm-armed got priority shipping to the Gulf.
    Turns out, 105mm DU “Silver Bullets” walked right thru every Russian T-72 they encountered. So there again, foreign sales pitch hype turned out to be…more hype and little substance.
    Multiple foreign systems have been acquired by the US to truly test what said possible adversaries can achieve. Often, things just don’t measure up to the hype. But then again, we underestimated the North VietNamese,…
    Time will tell how effective these foreign stealth jets are. Problem is, no fight-ready F-35s are anywhere near deployment ready, and so far, the US has been too afraid to send the troubled F-22s into harm’s way.

  • James Kreider

    If you are a pilot, An airplane engineer, or a use to be a pilot. Stand down and drink a big cuP of STFU. HAPPY NEW YEAR!

  • I think best way stealth air craft with IRST and AESA, better technology. Unlike non stealth air craft with IRST and AESA.

  • Matt

    My bet is that a Super Hornet would be able to kill a foreign fighter like the J-20 or PAKFA which hasnt place as much emphasis on stealth as cost effectiveness. But in a war game between American pilots in Super Hornets vs ones flying Raptors, Raptor would sweep.
    Certainly though the combined, networked might of America’s fighters (large order of F35s, high performance F22s, carriers to launch from, tankers and AWACS support) would dominate an opposing air power in the end.

  • Shail

    Most, but not all.
    And before you go criticizing who read what, consider which units those post-Desert Storm authors interviewed for much of their material.
    We were taking down T-55 knock offs with LAV 25s. What were you doing in 1991?
    Part of an assessment team at all?

    • jhm

      lav 25s armed with TOWs i think

      • blight

        Only the LAV-AT had TOWs, and only 16 apiece. The majority would have had the Bushmaster. Not a whole lot of TOWs to go ’round. If I recall correctly, a forward unit of Marine LAVs (mixed -25/-AT force) had to give ground against a much larger Iraqi tank unit since TOWs are standoff but aren’t exactly a counter-shock unit.

        • Riceball

          That’s probably true, LAV’s weren’t designed to be anti-tank units nor did the Corps employ ever really employ them as such. Their job was to serve as recon units and to screen ahead for the main body of a Marine force and sometimes to serve as a taxi for Recon and Force Recon units. I believe the idea was that LAV’s would take on anything that wasn’t a match for its Bushmaster like other IFV’s and light infantry, if it ran into anything too heavy for its 25mm they would then run and report back what it found for the main body to take care of.

  • StrumPanzer

    Totally off subject but I would love to see what would happen of you put a pair of Saturn 117S engines in to a hornet.

  • Randall J. Marlowe

    You have to remember that the original F-18 was desiged by Northrup but so overbuilt by Boeing /MDD that the Navy rejected it due to it’s weight. Rebuilt , upgraded and with the weight problem solved it returned to be the great Aircraft that Northrup Designed. It is not to be grounded yet as it is much cheaper than the F-22 or F-35 that have been overpriced by Lockheed Randall J. Marlowe, Buenos Aires

  • John

    lets all pray that we never find out if these Stealth systems work or even needed, war kills people not aircraft. Thank God we have the best equipment and best trained men and women not only flying but maintaining them and lets pray they never have to find out just how good our stuff really is


    No matter how many changes they make to the F-18E/F Super Hornet, you’ve got to wonder whether the effort is nothing more than lipstick on a pig because the Russian and Chinese stealth fighters are supposedly designed from the beginning as 5th Generation fighters and may have the upper hand in shooting first; additionally, if the T-50 or J-20 have features of the F-22 Raptor like supercruise and thrust vectoring engine exhaust, they may be able to stay in the air longer and faster as well as more maneuverable than the F-18E/F Super Hornet.

  • Tenn Slim

    Excellent article.
    F18 Avionics essentially vs F22 Avionics. The old ECM game.
    One can speculate to doomsday on the best of the best etal.
    Only the guy in the front (or the back) can make these avionics work as advetised.
    One Chip, one loose connection, one corroded WRA connection, and the whole ball game is a toss up.
    We love to play the Avionics what if games, but the lonely tech buried in his test equipment/maintenance shed is the key. W/O real excellent techs, and thier equipment, the whole air battle is lost.
    Semper FI

  • Chico

    Oh come on guys, enough of this senseless bickering! Being a Vietnam Veteran myself, I can state with a fair degree of confidence that a well-equipped Phantom could do just as much damage as these newer aircraft, not to mention being able to track better in some cases with its “antiquated radar”. And with a few Tomcats at the Phantom’s side, well you know…the sky’s the limit.

  • Chico

    By the way fellow military buddies, newer DOES NOT always mean better!

  • Zenpistolero

    OMG – newer doesn’t mean better was never demonstrated as well to me as when I was in White Sands. I was privileged to watch a F-117 try to dogfight a Phantom. It was almost like the Phantom was on a string being towed behind the stealth “fighter”. So many bones in the F-117 came from the F-15 (I think the landing gear is a bolt-in perfect swap) that I had expected a better showing… I guess the skin mattered too much.

    We need to not get as caught up in the tech side of it as the human side. F-15s have taken down much newer aircraft successfully thanks to an abundance of pilot skill, thrust, and guns.

    Murphy is an avionics engineer.

  • Mark

    TH1, you’re welcome. It’s thanks like that from the citizens that make it all the more worthwhile. May God Bless you and our country.

  • Rick

    I say bring back the F-14 and build more updated f-15’s stealth doesnt really work since we have the technology to now pick it up.its a waste of money.we have 4 great jets now just update them and keep them more pilot friendly.I still believe in a good pilot is still better than a computer.

    • Vladimir


  • Hoosgon

    When you get thru all the bells, whistles and Bravo Sierra, it comes down to cost, reliability and pilot capability. This country has an impressive record of rehabing and upgrading dependable platforms (think B52) and saving gazillions in the process. Sure, doesn’t make the glitz crazy 4 stars happy but keeps dependable stuff in play.
    The F22 and F35 are budget cutters bullseyes, and you all see the results. Bottom line is cost and effectiveness. And the best damn pilots in the world.

  • a cedrone, jr

    With the certain upcoming budget cuts the services are going to have to work with the manufacturers to upgrade present air fleets instead of replacing them. This can and must be done to remain within present and future budget. The B-52’s maiden flight was in 1952 and entered active service in 1955. The Air Force intends to retain B-52s until 2045 even though the next generation bombers meant to replace the B-52 are already in existence. Who is going to challenge us in the next 10-15 years – China or Iran? I doubt it. Anything we have in our arsenal is better than anyone else will have ( that is unless secrets are ‘lost’ or sold ) for a long time. Upgrading is the way to go.

  • Mario

    The super hornet international road map is the way of the future, affordable, sustainable, good enough to do the job at the right price.
    After the navy sends the tomahawks or the USAF the B-2, if there still a neccesity of an air to air battle,They can work as a team with the growlers, with 12 Ammrams internaly in the stealth external pods, plus 2 Aim-9x externally… (14 Air-to air missiles) each.
    They can share the information and make a triangle with the UAVs to track and destroy anything.
    After that, you need a real truck to deliver tons of bombs during the war, also to do CAS, for months, even years. The F-35 is coming too late, small UAVS are changing the rules.

  • godzillajet

    f-22 has like the b-2 cooled engines that makes them harder totrack and to lock, f-22 will get IRST in block 40 upgrade.

  • kush singh

    These types of technology should be sold to Indian Air Force, in almost 500 number’s , in order to counter & control China’s rogue build-up.

  • AV79

    “Now, the IRST as a stealth killer could have been Mills’ be a last ditch argument to sell the Super Hornet to Japan.”

    Grumman tried the same argument to save the F-14D. The F-14D was supposedly the best conventional fighter to counter stealth technology with its passive sensors (IRST and TCS) as well as its super powerful radar back in the early 90s. Now Boeing is saying the F/A-18 with a weaker radar and an IRST can do the same thing… They sound like used car salesmen…

  • idahoguy101

    It’s reasonable to assume that a Nation can afford twice as many Super Hornets compared to Generation 5 Fleet. Since quantity has it’s own quality a less high performance Fleet in greater numbers can defeat a smaller force of superior aircraft. In WW2 the Me 262 fighter was defeated this way. If there are not enough aircraft in your inventory then you’ll be defeated by attrition.
    Stealth along with Jammers has an offensive role in SEAD against SAM’s and Interceptors until your Enemy’s Air Defenses are a depleted force capable of only local defense.

  • Javier

    The F-14D would’ve been a hell of a lot better at detecting stealthy targets. That was early 90’s technology. Just think of what capabilities the F-14 could have today. Too bad SecDef Cheney had an axe to grind.

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