Friday, 28 December 2012

What about the Super Hornet?

A proposed Super Hornet with conformal fuel tanks and enhanced sensors.
The answer seems simple, doesn't it?  Canada has been using the McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing) CF-18 Hornet since the early 80's.  Why not just upgrade Canada's fleet to the new and improved F-18E/F Super Hornet?  In theory, this seems like the most sensible solution.  The Super Hornet is combat proven, and since it is based on Canada's current CF-18 airframe, it should be an easy switch for our pilots and ground crew.  Better yet, Boeing has been marketing the current Super Hornet model to other countries for the rather bargain cost of between $55-90 million a piece (accurate sticker prices on jet fighters being near mythical).  The Super Hornet seems to offer a budget price, easy transition, and a way to keep on friendly terms with our neighbours to the south after backing out of the F-35.

However, on closer look, the Super Hornet is in fact a 40 year old design that, while an excellent airframe in and of itself, doesn't offer much of an upgrade to Canada's current CF-18 fleet.

  • A (not so) little history:

The YF-17 "Cobra" prototype.
The Super Hornet, obviously, is based on the the F-18 Hornet, which first flew in 1978.  It was chosen by the U.S. Navy as a lightweight fighter to complement the heavier and more expensive F-14 Tomcat interceptor.  The Hornet's origins go back further than this however.

In the late 60's, the U.S. Air Force was looking for a light, inexpensive fighter to supplement the F-15.  Additionally, it was hoped that the allied air forces would choose the fighter as well.  Two prototypes were studied, the General Dynamics YF-16 Fighting Falcon and the Northrop YF-17 Cobra, which first flew in 1974.

The YF-17 (top) and the YF-16 (bottom).
Ultimately, the YF-16 was declared the winner of the competition and became the hugely successful F-16 strike fighter used worldwide.  It has proven to be immensely popular to both pilots and governments thanks to its low costs and high performance.  The YF-17's story did not end there however.

Unhappy with the F-16's single engine layout, the U.S. Navy deemed a proposed carrier version unacceptable, and looked elsewhere for fighter to replace its soon to retire F-4s, A-7s, and A-4s.  Preferring the YF-17s twin engine layout, the U.S. Navy asked Northrop and McDonnell Douglas, which had far more experience designing carrier based aircraft, to develop a "beefier" version of the YF-17, with more emphasis on a ground attack role.  This led to the F/A-18 Hornet, which had its first flight in 1978, a mere 4 years after the YF-17.

Canada's choice, the CF-18.
Marketed as a competitor to the F-16, the F/A-18 didn't quite meet the same sales success as the F-16.  Its "beefier" airframe meant for more of an attack role meant it didn't quite match the F-16 in power-to-weight ratios, and it was a more expensive fighter both to purchase and operate.  It also made little sense to buy a carrier based aircraft when its buyer had no aircraft carriers.  The F/A-18 did offer the advantage of two-engine safety, making it an attractive buy for both Canada, Australia and others.

An artist's rendering of the A-12 Avenger II
After the purchase of the F/A-18, the U.S. Navy now needed a dedicated stealthy attack aircraft to replace the A-6 Intruder.  This resulted in the disastrous A-12 "Avenger II" program which was ultimately cancelled due to cost overruns and mismanagement.  With no aircraft ready to replace aging A-6s, the U.S. Navy needed an aircraft, sooner rather than later.  Hence the Super Hornet.

Bigger and beefier than the Hornet, which was beefier than the Cobra.
Already proposed as an alternative to the A-12, the Super Hornet proved to be an easy sell.  Despite being an almost entirely new aircraft (only its forward fuselage and a few other parts are carried over) its perceived commonality with the F/A-18 already in service allowed it to receive government approval easily.  Since then, it has proven itself in combat seeing service over Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia.  

Although it has been heavily marketed by Boeing, so far the Super Hornet has only seen a single buyer outside the U.S. Navy:  The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF).  

A RAAF Super Hornet (above) and its predecessor, the FB-111 "Aardvark".
The RAAF's purchase of the Super Hornet has been controversial.  Intended to replace the FB-111 bomber, the Super Hornet is incapable of matching its predecessor's speed, range, or payload.  There was also issue with the fact that the FB-111 wasn't at the end of its service life, but were simply too expensive to fly anymore.  The decision was made without tender, at the cost of $6 billion (Australian) for 24 aircraft.  Also, if the Australian ordered F-35 is delayed further, it plans to possibly acquire an additional 24 aircraft.

[Note:  Much about the RAAF's, current situation, as well as plenty of other topics, can be found at the ausairpower website.  This website is a source of much controversy itself, but it remains highly researched and thought out, if opinionated.]

So why not the Super Hornet?  
  • Its airframe design predates most of the pilots that will fly it.
Boeing's concept of a potential Super Hornet replacement.

The YF-17 saw its origins in the late 60s, and the prototype flew over 40 years ago.  Since then, the design has been beefed up into the F/A-18A/B Hornet, then beefed up again to the F-18E/F Super Hornet.

No one can deny the Hornet's successful years in service, and it has earned plenty of fans and accolades over the years, but it is still a 40 year old design that is being considered for future replacement.

There is simply no point in buying a fleet of aircraft that is already near the end of its shelf life.  Yes, the new airframes would last us well until 2050, but design itself would be antiquated.  

  • It is simply not that cheap to procure, nor to operate.

Jane's cost per flight hour estimates.
As stated earlier, Australia's cost for 24 Super Hornets was $6 billion.  Given that Canada's dollar value is close to the Australian dollar's value, one must assume that our cost would be similar.  Further Australian Super Hornet purchases are pegged at over $100 million per plane.  With a total cost of $8.5 to $9 billion for 48 Super Hornets.  Canada's RCAF has stated the need for at least 65 jets, so our cost would undoubtedly be higher still for greater numbers.

Also, as you can see above, the F-18E/F Super Hornet is estimated to cost $11,000 per flight hour.  Although this compares quite favourably to the Rafale, F-35, and (adjusted) Eurofighter Typhoon costs, it is more than twice that of the Gripen and significantly higher than the ubiquitous F-16.  

Since the Super Hornet shares so few parts with the legacy Hornet, any perceived cost savings have to be deemed suspect.  Although the two are similar in appearance, they do in fact, mount different engines, avionics, and share few body panels.  

  • The Super Hornet is a carrier based, ground attack plane.  Not a dogfighter, not an interceptor.
Maverick's choice:  The F-14 Tomcat (foreground) and the F-18E Super Hornet.

The original Hornet was intended to be "bomb truck".  Hence the "A" (for attack) in F/A-18.  Air superiority was the realm of the F-14 Tomcat, with the F/A-18 only needing enough of an edge to defend itself if needed.  With the retirement of the A-6 Intruder, and the cancellation of the A-12 Avenger II, the U.S. Navy needed a bigger attack plane.  Hence the larger Super Hornet.  Along the way, the F-14's planned successor, the a swing-wing version of the F-22 Raptor, was cancelled for budget reasons.  It was decided that the US carrier fleet would use strictly F-18s for air-to-air combat.  this hasn't been the most popular decision.

Buying an aircraft designed and known more for its ground attack abilities doesn't seem the best choice for Canada, given our need for a good interceptor and the political implications of taking on an "attack" role in a coalition force.

  • The Super Hornet does not offer better flight characteristics than the legacy Hornet.
The Swiss decided to replace its F-5s (bottom right) with the Gripen (middle) rather than the Typhoon (left) or the Rafale (top right).

The Super Hornet's main advantages over the regular Hornet is its more highly advance AESA radar and increased payload.  What the Super Hornet doesn't offer, however, is any major improvement in speed, range, or manoeuvrability.  Indeed, the Super Hornet's thrust to weight ratio is slightly less than the Hornet.

How do the other contemporary fighters compare?  The Saab Gripen E/F, Dassault Rafale, and Eurofighter Typhoon all offer the ability go supersonic without afterburner, or super cruise.  All are faster (although the Rafale is just barely) with after burner.  All three offer superior wing loading numbers than the Hornets, suggesting better agility.  All three offer similar or better combat ranges as well.

An aircraft that offers little improvement over the current model does not seem the best use of Canada's defence budget.  Indeed, the Super Hornet has seen little export sales so far, with the Gripen and  Typhoon being more successful and the Rafale hot off a 108 aircraft deal with India.  By contrast, the RAAF is the only export buyer of the Super Hornet so far with 24 aircraft.

  • Okay...  Maybe we can make a partial exception...
Maybe a few of these...  At most.
It seems rather pointless to replace Canada's current fleet of CF-18s with a slightly beefed up version of the same fighter that offers little improvement over the current model.  This is an airframe that is expected to last us another 30-40 years, after all.  There is one aspect of the Super Hornet, however that  warrants attention...

I admit, I was skeptical when I first read this article suggesting Canada acquire a Super Hornet variant.  Over the F-35.  But it won me over, to a point.

Canada's close relationship with the U.S.A. enable us to be one of the few countries that would be able to receive permission to purchase a variant of the Super Hornet known as the EF-18G "Growler" electronic warfare aircraft.  This variant deletes the nose-mounted 20mm cannon in favour of electronic attack equipment that allow it jam enemy radar and communications.  These craft are often in high demand in the battlefield and the RAAF has announced that 12 of its Super Hornets will undergo conversion to the EF-18G standard, making it the first, and so far only, non-US country to do so.

Now, replacing Canada's entire fleet of CF-18s to "Growlers" would be foolish.  They are simply too specialized a platform to operate as our sole jet fighter.  But a small number, say 6-12, would make us an invaluable addition to any coalition force.

Running a small force of Growlers alongside a larger force of Gripens may seem odd, but they are both compatible with most of the same weapons as well as using the same engine.  Also, the Growler's specialized nature would defer it from needing as many flight hours as a regular "workhorse" fighter. This would help to mitigate the cost of running two separate airframes somewhat.  

What do you say?  The RCAF, flying a combination of Gripens, Growlers, and Global Hawks rather than F-35s.  I believe we can field a much more versatile air force, for less money.


  1. hi, im new to your blog site. would like to commend you for your objectivity.

    but something is amiss here in your article that you somehow must have forgotten to include with the super hornet's 36% fuel load increase: that it also brought farther a 40% increase in combat radius vis a vis legacy hornet.

    all in all, im with you in your argument for a cost-effective, great value for money gripen ng.

    keep up, doug.

    1. Thanks or your comment!

      Indeed, the Super Hornet does improve on the legacy Hornet's range and endurance. I will make a change to reflect this fact.

      Given that the current Hornet's range has been considered "good enough" for the last 30 years, and that all the fighters under consideration either match or exceed the current CF-18's range, I don't consider range as a very contentious issue.

      I will mention, however that the Super Hornet's improved range is due to the simple fact that it is a larger fighter with more room for internal fuel storage. Of course, this makes for a heavier fighter that burns more fuel as well.

      I'm attempting to find more information regarding the operating cost of Canada's current CF-18 to compare it with its potential replacements. I have a feeling it may be rather eye-opening.