Weapon Systems

Super Hornet: the Navy's flying Maverick


The super-sized Super Hornet carries 33% more internal fuel, increasing mission range by 41% and endurance by 50% over the earlier Hornet.

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An F/A-18 Super Hornet launches from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt. [CENTCOM]
An F/A-18 Super Hornet launches from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt. [CENTCOM]

The powerful, versatile F/A-18E/F Super Hornet is the US Navy's primary strike and air superiority aircraft.

Super Hornets provide air superiority, fighter escort, reconnaissance, air defense suppression and day or night precision strike.

The supersonic, twin engine aircraft is designed for operation from aircraft carriers. This "force multiplier" can function as an attack aircraft, as well as a fighter escort for fleet air defense.

As such, Super Hornets increase strike mission survivability and supplement the fleet air defense.

The Super Hornet evolved from the first A/B Hornet model the Navy used in 1983, which then led to a C/D Hornet in the 1980s.

The F/A-18E/F multi-role Super Hornet fighter is an updated version of the F-18C/D, featuring a 20% larger airframe, inspiring the name "Super." It is manufactured by Boeing.

The super-sized Super Hornet carries 33% more internal fuel, increasing mission range by 41% and endurance by 50% over the earlier Hornet.

The F/A-18E/F Super Hornet performs traditional missions of fighter escort, fleet air defense, interdiction and close air support, while still retaining excellent fighter and self-defense capabilities.

It can carry a variety of missiles including the AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM), Harpoon anti-ship missile, AGM-88 HARM air-to-surface missile, Supersonic Low Altitude Missile (SLAM), and Maverick air-to-ground missile, among others.

The Super Hornet, unlike previous versions of the aircraft, also can be equipped with an aerial refueling system to refuel other aircraft. This "buddy refueling" system allows one Super Hornet to refuel others midair.

The supply aircraft can carry a hose reel and five external tanks, each carrying more than 1,000 liters of fuel.

Two decades of service

The first operational cruise of Super Hornet F/A-18 E was in 2002 onboard the USS Abraham Lincoln. The jets were involved in combat in November 2002 in Operation Southern Watch.

On that mission, Super Hornets conducted air strikes on two surface-to-air missile launchers in al-Kut, Iraq, and an air defense command and control bunker at Tallil air base.

In one mission, a pilot released a heavy 2,000-pound (900kg) missile, the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) MK84, from a Super Hornet in combat for the first time. The Super Hornet had also completed this in a test for the Navy in May 2000.

On the same cruise, Super Hornets flew missions over Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. The aircraft demonstrated reliability, a longer range than previous aircraft had and the ability to carry more missiles.

The Super Hornet has also flown on missions in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Inherent Resolve.

During Operation Iraqi Freedom, hundreds of Super Hornets flew in combat missions, providing close air support, strikes, escort and aerial refueling. They served as a forward air controller in the air.

In 2006, F/A-18F Super Hornets participated in active combat operations in Afghanistan for the first time. Years later, they flew overwatch missions to patrol as Americans evacuated Kabul in 2021.

In the fleet in Kuwait and Australia

Three countries are Super Hornet customers, according to Boeing: the United States, Australia and Kuwait.

In May 2007, the Royal Australian Air Force became the first international Super Hornet customer. Australia today has 24 F/A-18E/F Super Hornets.

In three years from 2014-2017, Australian Hornet pilots conducted more than 2,700 sorties against "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) targets in both Iraq and eastern Syria, according to the Royal Australian Air Force.

The Royal Australian Air Force announced in the summer of 2023 that it would extend the life cycle of its current Super Hornets for at least another decade, prolonging its use for the country into the 2030s.

In 2016, the United States authorized a deal for Kuwait to buy 28 F/A-18 Block III Super Hornets to replace an aging fleet. Kuwait has been phasing out the earlier versions of the Hornet that the country had flown since the 1990s.

The Block III Super Hornets have upgrades with highly capable features: they have an increased service life of 10,000 flight hours and reduced radar signature. In the cockpit, the pilot has a new avionic suite, advanced cockpit system and more powerful computing.

The US Navy accepted the first two Block III Super Hornet jets from Boeing (out of a total of 78) in September 2021.

The Block III jets have been made stealthier and more survivable with additional treatments that reduce their radar cross section, reports Defense News.

Versatile aircraft

The versatile Super Hornet can conduct agile operations at sea. In March 2020, F/A-18E Super Hornet strike fighters from the aircraft carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower made an impressive rendezvous when they conducted touch-and-go landings on a French aircraft carrier.

They landed on board the nuclear-powered Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier and completed a trap and recovery.

The Block III Super Hornets are designed to support conformal fuel tanks (CFTs), which are added to the upper fuselage of the aircraft and could accommodate up to 3,500 pounds (1,600kg) of additional fuel.

CFTs also help reduce the radar cross section of an aircraft.

The Super Hornet has a robust airframe, built with an open mission systems architecture, according to the Navy. This feature makes it easier to integrate new weapons and technology.

The fighter jet can carry a variety of weapons. Its armament list includes M61A1/A2 Vulcan 20mm cannon; AIM 9 Sidewinder, AIM 7 Sparrow, AIM-120 AMRAAMs, Harpoon, Harm, Maverick missiles and SLAMs; Joint Stand-Off Weapons; and JDAMs.

It can also carry a data link pod or paveway laser-guided purpose bombs, as well as various general purpose bombs, mines and rockets.

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