Upgraded F/A-18 to begin test flights; offer Navy alternative to F-35C

Boeing Co. as early as this summer will fly for the first time an upgraded version of the F/A-18 Super Hornet that it’s pitching to the U.S. Navy as an alternative to the Lockheed Martin Corp.-made F-35, a Boeing vice president said.

A Super Hornet outfitted with a weapons pod on its belly, an avionics system in the cockpit featuring a touch-screen pad, and other modifications will begin test flights in late summer or early fall from St. Louis and then from Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Md., according to Mike Gibbons, vice president of F/A-18 programs at Chicago-based Boeing.

The improvements, to include new engines made by General Electric Co., are part of a company investment designed to provide the service with an alternative to the F-35 Lightning II during a period of tightening defense budgets, Gibbons said today at the Sea-Air-Space exhibition, a three-day conference at National Harbor, Maryland, organized by the Navy League.

“We’re not trying to replace the F-35,” he said in an interview after a media briefing. “We’re just trying to give the Navy solutions as they look at that fleet mix and figure out what works best.”

The F-35 program, known as the Joint Strike Fighter, is the Defense Department’s most expensive acquisition effort, estimated to cost almost $400 billion for a total of 2,443 aircraft. The Navy plans to buy about 260 of the Navy variant of the plane known as F-35C, designed to take off from and land on aircraft carriers.

Even the Navy’s top officer has questioned the need for a stealth naval aircraft such as the F-35 given advances in radar technology. In an editorial last year in “Proceedings,” a monthly magazine published by the U.S. Naval Institute, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations, argued that “we need to move from ‘luxury-car’ platforms — with their built-in capabilities — toward dependable ‘trucks’ that can handle a changing payload selection.”

During a speech this morning, Greenert defended the F-35. “I need the fifth-generation strike fighter,” he said. “We’re all in, but it has to perform.”

Regardless, Boeing wants the F/A-18 to be that cheaper workhorse for the Navy.

“Everybody needs defense dollars to stretch further,” Gibbons said. “That’s why the Super Hornet looks good right now.”

The Defense Department faces $1 trillion in cuts over the next decade under deficit-reduction legislation passed in 2011. Half of that, about $500 billion, will come from automatic, across-the-board cuts — unless Congress and the White House agree to an alternative spending plan.

About the Author

Brendan McGarry
Brendan McGarry is the managing editor of Military.com. He can be reached at brendan.mcgarry@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.
  • chris

    I see the USN’s force structure shaping up to be much like the USAFs… A handfull of F-35C squadrons for blue-water ops (They wouldn’t even necessarily need one per carrier as they will no doubt be augmented with USMC 35 squadrons) and mostly Super Hornets replacing the aging legacy hornet fleet. The EA-18G is here to stay, and I don’t see why the platform in general won’t be either.

  • Roy Smith

    What is the upgrade officially called? Is it a block upgrade,will the upgraded F/A-18 be a F/A-18H/I? This article seems vague to me on designation of the new “upgraded” FA-18.

  • Lance

    Both are not a real solution. We need a fleet defender fighter like the F-14 again with longer range than any F-18 can have. I think both F-18H or F-35C would be inferior to this. So the navy keeps putting a band aid to a giant opening hole solution. to this. We need a fleet defender.

  • Josh

    Just make it semi-stealth, and I’m in on the idea of it replacing the F-35 entirely. I have always loved the F-18.

    • Prodozul
    • Brandon

      The Super Hornet already has some stealth incorporated. I dont have the proper terminology but the engine ducts/inlets are the most notable. The fans are supposedly more stealthy as well and the rest of the stuff is minor. I am unsure if they use any RAM in the paint scheme. The weapons pod would add a huge degree of stealth when putting a loaded Super Hornet next to one with all its weapons in a weapons pot.

  • BlackOwl18E

    Quick message to all of those who argued against me on this issue: BOO YAH SUCKERS! KISS MY @$$!

  • At least the super can trap and doesn’t have a hook placement based on faulty assumptions. Oh yeah, then there is that weight thing. http://is.gd/sShzCh

  • STemplar

    Boy, does Greenert smoothly say he doesn’t like the F35 or what?

  • SlapStick

    Are those the Conformal Fuel Tanks that have been rumored? That would require more powerful engines for sure. That however would hurt F18’s transonic acceleration even more. Might be worth it.

  • Nick

    Lets think about this for a minute, it can trap, it’s has longer range, it can dog fight, it’s way way cheaper, it’s proven, well folks sounds like a no brainer. Boeing you’re a day late and a dollar short with a way better product than that over price, worthless, POS that the pentagon has crammed up there asses. Typical.

  • Hunter76

    A desperate attempt to maintain manned aircraft.

  • Nadnerbus

    I recommend the video link that Ben posted above, more information in that three minute video than this article, really, so I’ll repost it:

    My biggest question is, what exactly is the range extension? Does this give the bug anything near the range of the A6 or Bombcat? Any benefit for the tanker role that the Hornet has been pressed into?

    There is something to be said about the known quantity when dollars are tight. I would like to see more variety and specialization on the decks of the carriers, but refining the Hornet is probably the best idea for our current situation, militarily and financially.

  • William_C1

    BlackOwl, I think you’re getting a bit too excited by this. Boeing sees a business opportunity, they won’t admit publicly, but they’d love if the Navy dropped the F-35C, bought more Super Hornets, and then went to them as the natural choice for the F/A-XX.

    Chances are the Navy won’t buy new airframes, however they may well upgrade existing aircraft with new engines, avionics, and CFTs while not abandoning their commitment to the F-35C. The EA-18G is a very appealing candidate for most of these upgrades, while the F/A-18E and F/A-18F will continue to be the main workhorse of the Navy for another two decades at least. Even presuming our country gets back on track, our next fighter after the F-35 (currently F/A-XX) won’t enter production until 2025 at the earliest.

    The Navy is pretty much committed to buying some number of F-35Cs. Beyond that the final number will depend on how well the aircraft is received by pilots and what increase in capability it provides. The Navy is still rather hesitant about stealth aircraft due to the spectacular failure of the A-12 program, yet once they get an aircraft with such capabilities that will probably change.

  • M Peterson

    As far as foreign-military aid, I think the Super Hornet is a good product for the next future decades as a delivery platform aircraft of standard roles in allies around the world.

    It seems to deliver more than any upgraded F-15 Eagle platform in offering Electronics/Bomber/Fighter roles in either land/sea based militaries. I’d rather see that being given to someone like Egypt rather than F-35’s that could possibly penetrate Israeli airspace without so much as a how-do-you-do…

  • Tony C.

    F-18C’s had a very tough time against former East German MIG-29K’s in aerial combat wargames. The MIG-29 can out climb and out run the F-18C. The F-18C is more manuverable at low altitude than the MIG-29, so the only way to defeat a MIG-29 is to keep it low and slow. The MIG’s employ the same hit and run tactics that the old F-4 Phantom pilots did in Viet Nam to defeat the F-18. The F-18E is larger and carries more ordnance, but less manuverable than the F-18C. The F-18E/F are the work horse, but will sustain heavy losses against the MIG-29, SU-27, SU-33, and MIG-35.
    The F-35C was expected to mitigate these losses by giving a first shot advantage, but the F-35 is not an air superiority fighter. That means the US Navy had better keep F-18 reserve squadrons trained and ready in the event of an actual shooting war with an advanced adversary. There is no real solution to the problem until the US Navy perfects the UCAV. The UCAV will be the game changer.

  • TJRedneck

    Funny how you read about all the drawbacks of both the F-35 and F-18s. No matter how they upgrade them, they still don’t cut it. But you never heard these complaints about the F-14 Super Tomcat. What we really need is a 5th Generation F-14. In the meantime, Boeing needs to make the F-18 more like the F-15SE and give it some F119 engines.

  • d. kellogg

    Too funny…

    “We’re not trying to replace the F-35,…”

    Any more than the “Interim” Stryker (and the associated “Interim” Brigade Combat Teams) was not going to replace the FCS, but rather supplement them?

    If anything, let this be a wake up call to LM that they’ve had ample time to drag this moneymasker (F-35) out long enough with minimal delivery of promised project.
    Time to tool up, get heads out of @sses, and get reliable F-35s built, or start losing numbers because Boeing’s Super Hornet offering can just as well do probably 80% or better what the F-35s can (only things SH can’t do are the STOVL and over-the-target first-day-of-war strikes…the second of which really would rely on PGMs anyway, not Desert-Storm-esque F-117-like overflights right into the heart of enemy airspace, which seems to be something F-35 proponents think it should be doing).

    • Super Rhinoceront

      “We’re not trying to replace the F-35,…” that’s true.

      In fact, the F-35C is trying to replace the Super Hornet with little succes untill now.

  • d. kellogg

    On another note, if indeed the Super Hornets are supposed to supplement the F-35s, on grounds of commonality, it would be interesting to see if the SH can mount the 5-barrel GAU-12 (or even 4-barrel GAU-22) in place of the M61.
    As I recall, USMC has always had praise for the 25mm cannon fire when deployed from Harriers…
    With the fact that USMC LAVs carry the 25mm gun, I’m surprised they elected to keep the 20mm in the latest Cobras (AH-1Z) and that the Navy has stuck with the Phalanx in 20mm for as long as they have.

  • w dan

    sequester the F-35 totally…major waste of assets…it is mostly a make-work program for LM and hundreds of other companies, but NOT a good deal for America!!!

  • Upset


  • Infidel4LIFE

    Boeing must be very busy. F-15SE, now more Super Hornets. F-14 was a monster and we don’t have that for CAP any longer. Is this SH the 2 seat version?

  • Roland

    IIt does look it needed a lot of test. Check if it can carry the load before placing it on action.

  • The Old Bear

    Please see this link to a possible future: http://www.flightglobal.com/news/articles/boeing-

  • Tiger

    Sorry, but I’m not overwhelmed by yet another F/A-18 trip to the Plastic surgeon. A botox shot, Liposuction & nose job And presto The Black Owl is jumping for joy. In any case, Lockmart or Boeing I’d worry that one day they both will be made useless by a lucky Sub driver. Both are not worth a damn without a deck to land on.

  • Steven

    I only think the Super Hornet only NEEDS The upgrade but the Conformal Fuel Tanks won’t be necessary. Just think about it it will Decrease its top speed to Mach 1.6-1.0. Really? I think if you just add the EPE ENGINES without the CTF it would have greater speed about Mach 2.15. But it would be useful for its range increase. Also STOP SAYING BAD STUFF TO THIS PLANE REALLY? “If it doesn’t work with the CTF then they would go for the rest of the upgrade with the EPE ENGINE . But overall it would make it a BETTER A2A and A2G Aircraft. Anyways “Go F/A-18F BABY”

    (“Did you Know” ) The F/A-18E/F and Rafale have the same top speeds? Mach 1.8

  • Jffourquet

    Now give it thrust vectoring and super cruise.

    • Restore Palestine



  • External Affairs

    Let’s depart from a US/USN-centric view of things for just a moment (difficult as that may be).

    These notional enhancements to the SH may also have been conceived because Boeing has foreign sales in mind. There are many who would like to buy the F-35, but may not be able to do so on cost grounds, or becasue the -35 is going to take longfer to mature and some countries can’t wait that long to replace their again fighter fleets. So maybe Boeing thinks it can steal the march on LM and repreat some of the marketing success enjoyed by the F-16.

    As to the enhancements, it would be interesting to see how much it will cost to outfit the SH with CFTs, new engines, an integral FLIR system, new cockpit displays, etc., etc. Is there a chance that this will eliminate the price differential with the F-35? One suposes that the buyer could conceivably take the new engines and shun the other enhancements. Might be necesary to counter Russian-built SU-35s and PRC J-11s, to say nothing of their respective stealth designs.

  • External Affairs

    There is already some concern over the kinematic performance of the SH versus the F-15SE as well as its European rivals – that latter of which will all eventually receive the Meteor BVR missile. How does the SH compete with that match-up? For a non-US buyer, the SH may be a bird-in-the hand, but it lacks the power of the F-15, the stealth of the -35, the super-manoueverability of the Typhoon and Rafale, and, for the financially-challenged, the cost-effectiveness of the Gripen E.

    India was the first to be offered the SH with an ‘international roadmap’ for enhanced capability (i.e. Block III version with CFTs, etc.). Delhi has chosen the Rafale instead – partially becasue the French indicated their willingness to hand over the software codes and build some of the planes locally. But the IAF sure liked the Rafale’s performance and apporeciated their long-standing relatiaonship with Dassault. The SH was likely cheaper, but there were other factors at play. The lesson here is that cut-throat competition rules in the international market.

    Good luck with your ‘new’ design, Boeing. You’ll need it.

  • Diente Negro

    The F-14 really didn’t have much on the Hornet as a dogfighter. F-18s consistently waxed the big turkey in ACM. F-14 was big, fast, and had plenty of gas, making it a good fleet defender. As a WVR fighter it had a lot of flaws.

  • ec98

    Both f-35 and f-18e/f/h, they all suck. I’ll let the f-18G slide because something a little faster and more updated than the ea-6 was badly needed for navair EW. The A-12 boondogle wasn’t nearly as bad as the f-35 is turning out to be. The AFX-(swingwing f/a-22) should have been pushed for right away. Well first the Navy should have stood in the way of and killed off JSF back in 1994 using MacNamara’s universal fighter fiasco to remind everyone how JSF was a bad idea from the get go. Than the navy could have focused on the AFX with the engines, power, range and manuverability of the F-22 but also a payload and range bettering the lousy f-35! Bassically the Navy agreeing to JSF in the 90s was the start of a dark time for NavAir. Yes the great depression of the 21st century is also a factor, but AFX would’ve given the navy an F22 fleet defense fighter with maybe even better manuverabilty than stock F-22; it’d have f-15e leve or better attack avionics, and almost equal to A-6 bomb load and range! Now the Navy’s in the doldrums! I don’t know whether to be angry with LM for the mismanagement of the F-35 or feel sorry for them for winning the cursed JSF compitition!

  • Tovon

    Pretty sad. Sweden can produce a better and cheaper plan than we can. Pehaps we should scrap the F-35 and buy some more F-22s instead as long as so much money is going into this anyway..


      It would be WAY to expensive to scrap the almost Trillion dollar F-35, and it will cost BILLIONS more to start up the F-22 factory line. Yes, I agree, we should have bought more F-22s, but the pentagonal-shaped building in Arlington, the house that is painted white, and the building with a large dome have all decided to stop making the F-22 at the 180 or so mark. Instead, we rather stupidly put all our chips into the F-35. Now, I can only imagine that you are talking about the Gripen. I think its important to note that the Gripen uses American technology. Yes, it is mostly their idea, but the engines and many systems on board are American built, so naturally it will be cheaper as they didn’t have to come up with these systems in the first place.

  • bigchief

    Still no arrested landings, over weight and slow. In concept JFS was a good idea, but we seem to always come up short, and the taxpayers get taken to the cleaners.

  • Ryan

    Is that R2D2 on the turtleback?

  • Brian B Mulholland

    It’s fine to see that an advanced IR capacity is available, but wouldn’t it be better to delete the M-61 and stuff the IR pod’s guts inside the aircraft? How many air-to-air gun kills has the Navy or Marine Corps had to make in recent years, anyway? Yes, I’m quite well aware of the mixed history that AA missiles had in Vietnam, but I can’t imagine that big pod not being both anti-stealth and a huge source of drag. Given the proliferation of SU-30 variants, as well as other aircraft, would it be such a bad idea to spend some money on cleaning up the airframe and putting new engines in it? There are no announced plans to buy Meteor missiles, which might permit the use of that big IR pod in contested air to some good purpose. There are announced plans for an AIM-9X block III, to try and duplicate the capacity of the UK ASRAAM (why not re-invent an easily available wheel), which is a concession that we’re not where we want and need to be for air-air. …. put the gun in the pod, and might as well make it that 25 mm weapon.

  • Dakota

    Well of course it has to have stealth to even think about calling it a Fifth-Gen fighter. It’s just we need to action IF we want to compete with Russia and China. I totally agree with the next version of the F/A-18 super hornet series they are very classy jets. I know just feel bad for Lockheed Martin at the moment first the F-22 had to be stopped now the F-35 may be too. They are excellent Fighter Jets and are ahead of their time. They actually beat Russia and China to the Fifth-Generation. But our government doesn’t seem to side with future fighter pilots now do they? Well i just hope we get a decent shipment of worthy jets in our military.

  • Al-Schneider

    Not sure if people will value my opine but here goes: I grew up Grumman, my dad was an air frame engineer for Grumman for 25 of his 30 years..the bug took out the cat purely by politics not because it was a better build….Hats off to Boeing but its time to let someone else have a shot. – the best of luck 35 the 18 had its day and its fading……

  • Upgrade the F-18E/F NOW PLEASEEE!

  • Peter

    I’m well aware that my knowledge seems to be very limited compared to most posters on here, but with that in mind, what bothers me is that all the emphasis seems to be on the carriers strike abilities and completely ignoring it’s defence. Neither the F-35 or any upgrade to the F-18 is looking like it adresses this aspect.
    So, strike abilities are impressive with stealth and all the rest of it. But what happens when a carrier is lost? Does that immediately trigger a nuclear reaction or what? I would say you need a modernised F-14. Long range, long time on station and inpressive air-to-air and air-to-(sub)surface capabilities. Or, just maybe, several UK D type destroyers and Astute class subs accompanying each carrier group?
    If you can’t reliably defend the carriers then the whole argument becomes pointless.

  • Blachinator

    I think both companies aren’t listening to military, from what the Admiral has stated. Honestly, we need a new fighter, this is true. Why not an interchangeable fighter?
    A fighter aircraft that with swapping parts it swaps roles. a Set for Stealth, for Air Superiority, for Ground Support, and Recon? Almost like A Real Life LEGO set.

  • mike

    check out this if you want to know what the new f-18 has http://www.boeing.com/AeroIndia2011/pdf/Aero_Indi

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  • dogiit

    I just read a web page That said the Soviet union’s flanker more or less Will out maneuver the FA 18 in a dogfight.as far as the F35 Goes i do not like the single engine concept For aircraft fighter