Hornets nest. Why is the US buying F / A-18s instead of additional F-35Cs?

Pay for the third or second!

Last year, the US Navy finally said goodbye to the F / A-18C Hornet, but the story of its younger brother, the Super Hornet, is far from over. Firstly, this machine is actively “wooed” for export, and secondly (and this is perhaps even more important) it will be actively exploited by the Americans themselves. And, probably, more than a dozen years: the aircraft is actively developing, acquiring new capabilities. Recall that this spring, the US Navy received the last F / A-18 Block II Super Hornet fighter. It was produced for no less than fifteen years, since 2005 (the very first Super Hornets began to operate in 2000).

Soon a fundamentally new version of the combat vehicle will say its weighty word, the capabilities of which will bring it closer to the fifth generation. As a reminder, Boeing rolled out the first two Super Hornet versions of Block III in May this year. More recently, the first F / A-18 Block III Super Hornet test aircraft made its maiden flight at Boeing’s plant in St. Louis, Missouri.

At first glance, the new car is almost indistinguishable from any of the earlier Super Hornets. What is the peculiarity of the aircraft? The one that will allow him to stand on a par with the best modern fourth-generation fighters. The car that took off the day before is, in a broad sense, a prototype. She, like the second such fighter, only partially has Block III signs and will be used to test technologies. To answer the main questions, you need to look at the production aircraft, which we will soon be able to see.

The main differences

The new machines will differ from Block II in a number of systems and subsystems. The main differences are:

Conformal fuel tanks. The most important visual difference that can be used to identify the combatant Block III is the conformal fuel tanks. The prototype is devoid of them. These tanks will take more fuel and have less airflow resistance than the outboard models seen on the Super Hornets. According to Boeing itself, the conformal tanks will hold more than 1,500 kilograms of additional fuel. The “regular” Super Hornet has a fuel mass of 6,780 kilograms without external fuel tanks. The increase in the combat radius, it must be assumed, will be more than significant: according to a number of sources, it will be equal to approximately 300 kilometers.

IRST Block II sensor. The Americans are systematically building up the Super Hornet’s ability to detect stealth aircraft. Back in January, the US Navy tested the F / A-18 Super Hornet fighter with the Infrared Search and Track (IRST) Block II suspended infrared container, capable (at least in theory) of effectively detecting stealth, even at a relatively long distance. A definite plus is that the operation of a passive sensor cannot be detected, in contrast to the operation of a radar station. At the same time, you need to understand that IRST Block II will never be a full-fledged replacement for radar and was never thought of as such. Overall, it can be considered the second most important improvement in the new Super Hornet.

New display. Another notable improvement is the new 10 “x 19” in-cab display. To understand how important this improvement is, just look at the old “miniature” displays of the earlier Super Hornets, which look archaic even against the backdrop of the displays of the Russian Su-35S, not to mention the F-35. With the new solution, the Hornet pilots will approach the fifth generation fighter pilots in terms of situational awareness. They will come close, but will not turn into them overnight. Do not forget that the F-35 is, in principle, much more advanced in this respect than any other combat aircraft in existence.

Other innovations are a new on-board computer and a data exchange system that allows you to more efficiently exchange data with other combat units. In addition, the developers promise to extend the life of the aircraft to 9000+ flight hours. 3,000 additional hours were gained through design changes to the production aircraft based on lessons learned from operating experience with the F-18. It is also worth noting that a number of improvements are classified as “trade secrets”. And it’s not a fact that we’ll even hear about them in the next few years.

Defender of the Penguins?

There is a point of view that the Super Hornet will defend the “clumsy” F-35, popularly called the “penguin”, which is not too flattering for a fighter. In fact, this position is incorrect. To begin with, it should be noted that the F-35 has quite satisfactory flight performance. At least by the standards of the fourth generation, except perhaps the Dassault Rafale and a couple of other cars of the 4 + (+) generation. The fifth generation fighter carries in its internal compartments a solid arsenal of four AIM-120 medium-range air-to-air missiles, and in the future it will carry six such products. At the same time, the weight of the F / A-18 Block III Super Hornet will increase even more significantly against the background of the early F / A-18s, which cannot but affect its maneuverability. That is, before the F-35, he will no longer be able to boast of anything significant.

This does not mean that Block III is a “bad” fighter-bomber. The increased combat range and good combat load make the F / A-18 Block III Super Hornet an almost ideal solution for a situation in which you need to “finish off” a weakened enemy, devoid of fighter cover and air defense. Another feature of Block III is anti-ship. Recall that last year the AGM-158C LRASM anti-ship missiles entered service with the F / A-18E / F aircraft of the United States Navy: one Super Hornet can carry up to four LRASM missiles. Given the long range of the missile (presumably 900+ kilometers), the lack of full-fledged stealth in the F / A-18 Block III does not look as critical as if it were an air confrontation.

Thus, the F / A-18 Block III Super Hornet is not the bodyguard of the F-35C, not a replacement for it, or a demonstration of the failure of the fifth generation. The new aircraft will be something like a carrier-based attack aircraft (of course, calling the F / A-18 an “attack aircraft” is not entirely correct). Not being a stealth, the car will be significantly inferior in terms of the sum of the qualities of the F-35, but it will be able to surpass the latter in terms of price / efficiency ratio if we are talking about an enemy that does not have a large military potential against the background of the United States (and most countries of the world belong to such).

In addition, the Block III aircraft has a good export potential. In particular, he may emerge as the winner of the continuation of the long-suffering Indian Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) competition, which now involves the purchase of 114 multi-role fighters. Success in this field can significantly strengthen Boeing’s recently shaken position.

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