Just How Stealthy Is the Navy’s Super Hornet?
Stealthier than you might think
One of the criticisms of the Navy’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet strike fighter has always been that it’s not stealthy enough to survive against the latest Russian- and Chinese-made air defenses. But Navy and Boeing officials suggest that might not be true.
That’s good news for the Navy, as the Super Hornet is set to be the sailing branch’s main carrier-launched fighter for at least another 20 years.
New Russian and Chinese-built surface-to-air missile systems like the Almaz-Antey S-300 or CPMIEC HQ-9 are extremely dangerous to non-stealthy aircraft. That is particularly true when such weapons are part of a so-called “integrated air defense system,” which networks together a wide range of sensors, missiles and guns.
Boeing officials have always maintained that the F/A-18E/F is far more capable than is commonly believed—even against the latest enemy systems. The company has pointed out that the Super Hornet has a certain level of stealth technology built into it, plus an advanced electronic warfare suite—jammers, basically—that allows it to push far enough into hostile territory to launch long-range weapons.
For years, the Navy has declined to comment on just how capable the Super Hornet really is, preferring to keep the jet’s precise level of stealthiness a secret. But in a recent interview with the U.S. Naval Institute, the sea service’s director of air warfare talked about what the F/A-18E/F truly can do.
“People think the F/A-18E/F is a fourth-generation fighter—can’t get close,” said Rear Adm. Mike Manazir. “That’s not true. The treatments that Boeing and PMA-265 at Pax [Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland] have done to that airplane are such that we can get close in enough to be effective with the weapons we’re going to have on the airplanes here relatively soon.”
For the Navy, it’s not a question of Super Hornets versus the new, stealthier Lockheed Martin F-35C, as many have speculated, Manazir said. The sailing branch needs both aircraft, he stressed. The F-35 will provide targeting data to the F/A-18E/F from deep behind enemy lines, since the Super Hornet can’t penetrate quite as far into hostile territory as the purpose-built stealth aircraft can.
The Navy hopes to use the two strike fighters alongside the new Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike drone, particularly in the Western Pacific, where countries such as China are building dense and dangerous air-defense systems. Stealthy and long-ranged, the drone could help spot targets and drop bombs and even carry extra air-to-air missiles to shoot down enemy warplanes.
The sea service even has a name for this conceptual teaming of Super Hornets, F-35s and drones: “Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air.” Call it what you will, the Navy has confidence in its Super Hornets to fight and survive against the toughest enemy defenses … as part of a team.
So how stealthy is the F/A-18E/F? Stealthier than you might think—and stealthy enough.