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.  Even though Super Hornets are made using more modern construction materials and advanced avionics and sensors, it is still based on a design that predates the personal computer.  Aerodynamically, it does not use the same "relaxed stability" as the Gripen, Typhoon, and Rafale.  In fact, scaling the design up actually resulted in a few compromises, like canting the weapon pylons outward to allow proper weapon separation at the cost of additional drag.

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.  Regrettably, the Gripen, Rafale, and Typhoon are still 20 year old designs, having been developed in the late 80s-to-early 90s, but that is still far better than an aircraft designed in the 70s.  Yes, the Hornet has seen considerable upgrades to the point where it is pretty much a different aircraft, but the same goes for the Gripen E/F models.  An update of a 90s era design is preferable to an update-of-an-update of a 70s design.  In this context, just think of of the Gripen NG (E/F) models as a "Super Gripen".  Ideally, there would be a compelling 21st century fighter design, but that only leaves the F-35.

  • 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. 'A combination of Gripens, Growlers, and Global Hawks'.

    An excellent and well researched argument leading to an intelligent and rational conclusion.

    This Gripen NG/SuperHornet/Growler combination is exactly the format the RAAF should be following instead of going down the folly of the F-35 JSF path.

    All these aircraft are already in production and proven concepts, which are in marked contrast to the purported mythical abilities offered by the JSF circus.

    The older Hornet was chosen in part over the F-16 due to having twin engine safety, which was favoured when flying over the vast arid spaces of the Australian interior. The success of single engine combat aircraft over tha last 20 years has pretty much laid this argument to rest with U.S built engines offering vastly inreased levels of reliability and longevity.

    Keep articles like this coming.brilliant.

    1. Thanks for the kind words!

      I discuss the "single-engine deathtrap" fallacy on the "Myths and Misconceptions" page. In a way, its quite understandable given Canada's experience with the CF-104 Starfighter. That was, of course, decades ago and it didn't help that the F-104's original intent was to be used as an defensive interceptor, not a low-level bomber.

      As for future articles... Stay tuned!

  2. un F-18 no puede modernizarse a superhornet, en todo caso seria substituirlos por el superhornet

  3. OK, one thing to consider. If Canada bought the F-18 SH the spare parts and service tech is only a short distance away. Why not ask Boeing to upgrade the F-18 SH a bit? With modern avionics and weapons systems a fighter no longer needs to be the agile dogfighter of old. Modern missiles and helmet mounted sights can fire 45 degrees off the nose. There are videos of this on Utube. The F-18 SH offer about the same amount of frontal stealth as the F-35. With conformal tanks the F-18's range could be greatly extended. What does Canada need with a 5th generation jet? Where is your direct threat? What about asking Boeing to allow the building of the F-18 in Canada under license? That could kick start the Canadian aircraft industry again and some day perhaps they could build their own aircraft. Being an American I see the F-35 as a bad option for everyone.

    1. Canada already built its own aircraft in the 50's. It was called the Avrow Arrow. And the project was killed as a requested by the President of the United States in exchange for a perimiter defense system. As a result all the Canadian Engineers moved to the US to develop the US's aircraft industry.

  4. i appreciated reading your comments. the technical depth gives good jumping off points for research so that people can do some independent assessment of the various technologies on offer. the existing weapon systems are outdated and something needs to be done.

    what i think needs to be done is a different sort of assessment. a 3500 meter view if you will.

    what is the current tactical status of the homeland security of canada? easily we can say:

    - vulnerability to terrorism, internal and external
    - territorial encroachment by foreign submarine fleets and fishing vessels and pirates
    - problems arising from malicious deployment of malware on public infrastructure
    - social destabilization caused transnational illegal and legal drug empires.

    now the thought experiment - over the lifetime of a gripen or boeing jet acquisition program, how many of these threats will likely be encountered and defeated by any of these weapons?

    the answer is going to be fairly few, if any, judging from history - say the historical period from present back to the first acquisition of f-18 jets by the canadian armed forces.

    these weapons aren't needed to protect our country. so why then do we need them?

  5. The choice is an obvious one; A 'Canadian made' solution. Canada currently designs and manufactures its own armored vehicles, and warships, and building a Canadian made fighter is no different. The idea was publicly brought forward on the C.B.C. by Gen. MacKenzie; The ‘Arrow.’
    However, a new, 21st century Arrow is currently being developed; ‘The Super-Arrow.’ The airframe has been rated at an airspeed in the area of Mach 5.1.

  6. The fighter of the future will not depend either on speed or maneuverability. It will depend on payload. Why? Because the U.S. has already developed an anti missile ....anti fighter laser which can knock 5 AA missiles out within a few seconds. Because it is not a kinetic weapon it has as much ammunition as the plane has fuel to keep it airborne. As well, the larger the airframe, the greater the power of the radar it can carry as well as over the horizon missile systems.

    1. Directed energy weapons (DEW) like you describe are still quite a ways off. Current version being tested are massive in size, take a very large amount of power to work, and are quite limited in their usefulness.

      Missiles aren't going away anytime soon.

  7. I don't think Gripen is a serious possibility unless Canada no longer wants to participate in coalition air campaigns. Saab won't have the political clout or economic advantages that Boeing or Lockheed can offer.

    It will either be the F35 or the Superhornet, or very possibly both with a limited Superhornet buy in the near future. The author brings up the Growler but 6 Growlers isn't going to keep the production line running, so it would have to be coupled with another order. There is an argument to be made for the line being continued until the new bomber enters production, likely in the Boeing plant.

  8. I like to apply the 20/80 principle. What's the real need ? How can we meet it for 20% of the cost (money and politics) of an f-35 ? Any ideas ?

  9. Gday
    All I can do is tell you the Australian story. We also signed up for the F35 with othe option of getting out. We also fly the F18 as an air superiorty fighter and the mighty f-111 as a high speed interceptor and precession ground attack, designed with landing gear for an aircraft carrier. It was all so good, until the f111 reached the end of it's lifetime. The f35 was not ready so we got the the super hornet to replace the f111 and a bunch of ne refuelers and awacs, but that wasn't enough so we got a bunch of super hornets in "growler" electronic warfare aswell to complement the f111 ravens we lost. All I would say to you as an ally, go for the super hornet. As many as you can for as cheap as you can. I hope my government will do the same and replace our 80 remaining f18s as quickly as possible and use the extra cash for training, weapons and buddy stores....

  10. Mathew

    I am a big fan of the F-18. I mean I Love the CF-18! I grew up going to Airshows and have often seen the CF-18’s flying around my home town on many occasion. I think it has served Canada well over the years.

    Sadly I don't believe we should purchase the new F-18. If Boeing improved the Airframe to allow longer range and supercruise I would say it was the right aircraft for Canada. So I guess that is what they mean by "old airframe" no supercruise, poor stealth, poor range? If they modified the Advanced Super Hornets to give it supercruise it would be an obvious contender.

    I believe we should not get too hung up on the idea of "old vs new" airframes. Best is to look at what aircraft can do vs the artificial names like 4th and 5th generation assigned by marketing executives. The physics of flight do not change over time.

    That being said it is very interesting that a slow aircraft like the Sea Harrier was a war winging machine in the Falklands! They achieved air superiority against supersonic Mirages! The reason for the success of the Sea Harrier - Reliability, superior missiles, superior pilots, flexibility of the airframe, maneuverability. Sea Harriers served as fleet defense and ground attack in poor weather at sea day and night!

    This lends to an idea, “don't get hung too up on the idea of having the absolute best wiz-bang technologically best aircraft”. Don't forget reliability and flexibility and weapons. An expensive unreliable jet sitting on the ground is useless. I believe the Meteor missile is the result of the lessons learned by the RAF in the Falklands. We would do well if we were to obtain this weapons system.

    So that being said... the Super Hornet or the Advanced Super Hornet will not be useless in future battlefields. In a real battle stealth aircraft will end up sitting on the ground due to poor reliability and high maintenance requirements. More reliable less expensive “4th generation” aircraft will more than likely be the workhouse of future engagements.

  11. I like the Grippen, in principle, but I liked the F-20 better, and the F-5G even better than that.
    The last single engine ultra-hi performance fighter for Canada was the CF-104. It suffered
    an appalling loss rate particuarly in European operations.
    These conditions are readily simulated in practice at Goose Bay Labrador.
    Grippen, fast reacting, agile dog fighter, small visual, IR and radar profile,
    affordable and economical to operate, and a great point interceptor.
    Grippen has a lot going for it, BUT, it's a single engine bird.
    Mix the fleet, you'll split the bulk cost advantages, with acquisition cost issues, spares, training and maintenance complications. There is no easy solution, but for sure, the F-35, is wrong, wrong, wrong !

  12. If we didn't buy the single-engined cheap F-20s in the past, we sure aren't going to buy the single-engined cheap Gripens (same engine) now. Considering the vast distances of the country, the need to get there fast and stay for a long time, the best option would be...the Sukhoi Su-34. Twin-engine, very fast, multirole, two people on board side-by-side that can move around (being up there for hours, efficiency and being rested counts). Not going to happen though. So either get F/A-18E/F or Rafale.

  13. Under the leadership of Uncle Hellen several years ago, the New Zealanders got rid of their fleet of A-4 skyhawk fighter jets, and they have no plans to replace them. Perhaps we should do the same as the kiwis. We should go further than that and specialize our armed forces in order to meet the threat posed on the modern day battle field instead of the one posed during years gone by.

    Given the obscene costs (that's being kind) associated with every aspect of their being, the CF-18s have only been used, during their 30 year tenure, in a handful of actual missions and interceptions of Russian Bears. Is this really the best bang for the hundreds of billions of bucks that we can hope to receive? There must be another way. The way of specialization. Given the asymetrical nature of warfare on todays battlefields, perhaps we should grow our special forces unit (JTF2) from its membership of 600 soldiers to 10,000 soldiers, and cut the fighter jet program entirely. Whilst we're at it, get rid of those 4 bloody ridiculous submarines and sail them back to the UK and park them on the Thames River and sink them in front of the British Parliament.

  14. Canada should do similar to RAAF and purchase 24 superhornets with 12 prewired for growler conversion. Training and support is mostly there already. Once (if) the bugs are worked out then purchase 35-45 JSF F-35's and convert 12 SuperHornets to growlers. We need compatibility and operability with our southern friends for both North American Defence and NATO roles.