Staff Writer (Updated: 4/25/2016):
Origins of the Super Hornet began in the 1980s as a design study undertaken by McDonnell Douglas for an improved F/A-18 even before the original Hornet had entered service. The product gained considerable steam with the USN's loss of the other McDonnell Douglas product - the A-12 "Avenger II", a triangle-shaped, carrier-based stealth bomber - which languished in development and ballooned into an unforgivable monster for the service (its related legal issues were not officially resolved until 2014). Additionally, the expensive and complicated Grumman F-14 Tomcats in use were primarily for fleet defense and did not receive their ground attack capabilities until late in their service careers. The new McDonnell Douglas initiative took the existing F/A-18 airframe and extended its wing mainplanes while lengthening the fuselage for additional internal fuel stores and more advanced flight and combat systems. The nine hardpoints of the original design were now increased to eleven in the new - retaining the original's wingtip rail launchers and underfuselage positions. By and large, the external profile of the F/A-18 Super Hornet mimicked much of the established lines of the original McDonnell Douglas offering just in a larger, heavier, and more advanced package. A key defining physical feature of the Super Hornet is in the redesigned air intakes which are rectangular compared to the original's oval-shaped openings.
Convinced of the merits of this evolved, in-budget "off-the-shelf" solution, the USN contracted for development and ultimate serial production of the Super Hornet in 1992 to which the U.S. Congress approved. First flight of a prototype was on November 29th, 1995 and serial production then followed in 1995 with testing ongoing into 1997. During that year, McDonnell Douglas and Boeing completed a merger which saw Boeing come out on top, with the McDonnell Douglas name held onto as a subsidiary. Therefore, the Boeing brand label is commonly associated with the Super Hornet product today. Service introduction of the F/A-18E/F formally began in 1999.
The F/A-18 Super Hornet today operates on U.S. Navy carriers alongside its original F/A-18 Hornet single-seat and two-seat forms - the A-4 Skyhawks, A-7 Corsairs, A-6 Intruders, F-4 Phantom IIs, and F-14 Tomcats are long-gone and, as a multirole fighter design, the Super Hornet fulfills their myriad of combat roles including all-weather day/night strike, fleet defense, air defense suppression, interception, reconnaissance, Close-Air Support (CAS), and precision strike. Additionally, the Super Hornet has gone on to replace special mission aircraft such as the S-3 Viking and EA-6B Prowler. The Super Hornet - like the Hornet before it - has appeared in two distinct forms - the F/A-18E variant is the single-seat model while the F/A-18F features a crew of two. The "Block II" initiative has added an Active, Electronically-Scanned Array (AESA) radar suite, helmet-mounted targeting, and a revised cockpit instrument panel to promote broader, more modern battlefield usefulness.