F-18E Super Hornet’s Wings Clipped: U.S. Navy Just Cut its Top Fighter’s Range, Making East Asian Missions Much Harder

Since its entry into service in 2001 the Boeing F-18E Super Hornet and its electronic warfare derivative the E/A-18G Growler have been relied on to replace the U.S. Navy’s formerly diverse aircraft carrier air wings with a single standard airframe, which was part of an effort to reduce operational costs and maintenance requirements for American carrier groups. The Super Hornet notably replaced much longer ranged aircraft including the A-6 Intruder strike platform and the F-14 Tomcat long range interceptor, with the result that the range carrier air wings could cover both for offensive and defensive missions contracted sharply. Indeed, the switch from the Tomcat to the Super Hornet was found to have reduced carrier air wings’ area of influence by a staggering 77 percent - which was considered acceptable in the post-Cold War world as a necessary sacrifice to rid the Navy of the F-14’s horrendously high operational costs. 

With the Super Hornet having long been criticised for its exceedingly short range, it is notable that the U.S. Navy sought to commission a slightly longer ranged variant of the aircraft under the F-18E Super Hornet Block 3 program. The new variant of the F-18E was set to integrate confirmed fuel tanks alongside limited stealth capabilities, superior sensors and engines and an enclosed weapons pod. An infra red search and track system, new cockpit displays, a new mission computer and the capacity to carry up to 14 air to air missiles were other notable features of the new Super Hornet variant, which despite its high acquisition cost remained cheap and relatively simple to maintain and operate. In late August 2021 there were signs that the U.S. Navy was moving to reduce the acquisition costs of the new Super Hornet by ending plans to integrate conformal fuel tanks, with the manufacturer Boeing announcing that it was not expecting to deliver any Block III jets with this extra fuel capacity. 

Cancelling plans to extend the range of the new Super Hornets has significant consequences for the viability of U.S. Navy supercarriers as power projection assets. The need for longer range aircraft similar to the F-14 or A-6 has become increasingly apparent as potential adversaries such as Russia and North Korea, but particularly China, have developed more effective classes of anti-ship weapons - forcing carrier groups to launch their aircraft from much further away in the event of a clash with a high level adversary. The Chinese DF-21D and DF-26 anti ship ballistic missiles in particular have been cause for concern for American carriers’ ability to deploy in the Western Pacific in the event of a major war. The decision to terminate the F-18E’s conformal fuel tanks may well be motivated by the fact that the range increase they provide would not be significant enough to be worth the expense. The Super Hornet is ultimately a relatively short ranged fighter, compared to both its Cold War era predecessors and to China’s new J-15B Flying Shark carrier based fighter. The U.S. Navy is thus likely to be forced to wait until its upcoming sixth generation carrier based fighter enters service before it will have the long range air superiority and strike capabilities it needs to optimise offensive operations against high level adversaries. 

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