The McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 "Hornet" carrier-borne fighter line of the United States Navy (USN) proved a largely successful replacement for the Vietnam War-era strike fighters and attack platforms when it was introduced in 1983. Both single-seat and twin-seat variants emerged as well as improved variants a short time later. However, the system was not devoid of limitations for its common criticisms included limited operational ranges and limited ordnance-carrying capabilities. This gave rise to an evolution of the mark which became the definitive F/A-18 "Super Hornet" series, a model different enough from the original to be considered a largely new, stand-alone multi-role aircraft. The familiar "F/A-18" designation was retained to help push the product through the American bureaucratic circles.
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.
Currently there are only two operators of the Super Hornet - the United States Navy and the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). Australian mounts entered service during 2010 and replaced the outgoing stock of Cold War-era General Dynamics F-111 "Aardvark" long-range strike fighters. To date (2014), approximately 500 Super Hornets have been produced for both parties though the production lines are set to be closed by Boeing sometime in 2014.
The Boeing EA-18G "Growler" series is a Super Hornet-related, special mission variant for the Electronic Warfare Aircraft (EWA) role. It is based on the F/A-18F two-seat model and entered service in 2009 as a successor to the four-seat Northrop Grumman EA-6B "Prowler" series, this based on the Vietnam War-era A-6 "Intruder" strike platform. The "Advanced Super Hornet" is another (Boeing) initiative to interest future Lockheed F-35 "Lightning II" customers in an advanced 4.5th Generation Fighter serving to bridge the gap between existing 4th generation types in service and the new - though delayed and costly - F-35. It remains in development as of 2014.
As finalized, the F/A-18E/F model is powered by 2 x General Electric F414-GE-400 series turbofans. This supplies up to 13,000lbf thrust each engine on dry and 22,000lbf thrust each engine with afterburner engaged. Maximum speed reaches Mach 1.8 (1,190mph) with ranges out to 1,275 nautical miles. Ferry range is 1,800 nautical miles with a combat radius nearing 390 nautical miles. The aircraft's service ceiling is around 50,000 feet and rate-of-climb is listed at 44,890 feet per minute.
Standard armament is a 20mm M61A2 Vulcan Gatling gun with 578 20mm projectiles carried for short-range work. The eleven hardpoints allow for a mixed ordnance carrying capability. The wingtip launches are typically reserved for 2 x AIM-9 Sidewinder short-range missiles. Six underwing hardpoints can carry missiles, bombs, rocket pods, and jettisonable fuel tanks as required. Three under-fuselage hardpoints are also available. Overall capability across all eleven hardpoints is 17,750lbs of external stores. The aircraft also supported the AIM-120 AMRAAM missile and the AGM-65 Maverick missile as well as the AGM-84 Harpoon anti-ship missile and the AGM-88 HARM anti-radar missile. Precision-guided as well as conventional drop ordnance are both cleared. The Super Hornet carries the base original Hughes APG-73 radar kit or the more advanced Raytheon APG-79 (AESA) series radar suite. It is also outfitted with a BAe Systems Electronic CounterMeasures (ECM) system , Northrop Grumman jammer pod, ALR-67 Radar Warning Receiver (RWR), and can tow the ALE-50 or ALE-55 decoy for added defense.
To date, Super Hornets have been fielded over Iraq to secure the "No-Fly Zones" of the north and south prior to the U.S.-led invasion of 2003. The aircraft then returned to these skies to contribute as part of the 2003 invasion force flying air defense and strike missions. External fuel loads and delivery equipment allowed Super Hornets to refuel allied aircraft during the campaign as well. Their combat service then extended to ongoing actions over Afghanistan following the earlier 2001 U.S.-led invasion to root out Taliban forces. Since then, Super Hornets have been directly involved in air strikes against ISIS forces in Syrian and Iraq during the September-October 2014 campaign to slow their advance in the region. Australian Super Hornets have not been idle themselves - having been committed to anti-ISIS actions recently as well. As Australia lacks aircraft carriers, RAAF Super Hornets are land-based systems.