The Navy hasn’t put the money down for it yet. But this week, Boeing wheeled out a major upgrade to the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, the Navy’s standard carrier-launched fighter plane. The new Advanced Super Hornet is stealthier, more powerful and boasts a much greater flying range than its predecessor.

It’s practically a brand-new jet. And an affordable one: $56 million for a factory-fresh copy or an estimated $14.6-$22 million to add the enhancements to an older Super Hornet. The heavily upgraded fighter is an option if admirals start getting cold feet over the troubled, $200-million-per-copy F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

The upgrades are designed to be subtle. Instead of keeping the weapons attached to the outside of the plane like in a conventional F/A-18, the Advanced Super Hornet holds its missiles and bombs — 2,500-pounds worth — inside an enclosed pod. This smoothes out the plane’s contours and makes it harder to detect with radar.

The pod still packs a lot of weapons inside in different configurations. It can carry a single 1,000-pound GPS-guided JDAM or a BLU-109 bunker-buster. Those bombs can also be swapped out for four AIM-120 air-to-air missiles, or a mix of two missiles with smaller bombs of varying sizes.

The other improvement is how the plane packs fuel. The Advanced Super Hornet’s predecessor, the Super Hornet, could boost its range by carrying extra fuel pods under its wings. This extended maximum range, but made the plane more ungainly and visible to radar. The new upgrade, by contrast, adds conformal fuel tanks attached along the fuselage behind and to the sides of the cockpit, blending with the aircraft’s contours.

The result, according to Boeing, is a plane that both weighs less and has a lower radar profile — while having a slightly greater range — about 260 more miles — than a standard Super Hornet using only extra fuel pods. To really boost the range beyond 700 or even 800 nautical miles, depending on which weapons it carries, the upgraded model can keep the old-fashioned fuel pods in addition to the conformal tank.

There are also a lot of other little things. Boeing tweaked the engines, giving the plane more thrust. The bird has also been given cockpit enhancements, a better incoming missile warning system and a new infrared sensor to complement the radar.

The standard F/A-18F Super Hornet aboard USS Enterprise, with drop fuel tanks. Navy photo

Long lineage

Incredibly, the F/A-18 was never meant to last very long — let alone become the backbone for U.S. naval aviation well into the 21st century.

Originally, when the Super Hornet first took flight in 1995, it was to be an interim fighter, an enlarged version of the 1980s-vintage F/A-18 that could function as a temporary replacement for more advanced planes like the A-12, F-14D and A-6F that wound up canceled at the end of the Cold War.

But the Super Hornet proved to be an adaptable and tough fighter capable of being extended long past its shelf life with upgrades. The Super Hornet also suited the Navy’s long-standing doctrine aimed at overwhelming enemy defenses with brute force, as opposed to being super-stealthy and sneaky. The Super Hornet also has an electronic warfare variant called the Growler, which is designed to scramble enemy sensors.

Boosting the F/A-18's range and stealthiness into the 2030s also fits the Pentagon’s strategy for countering what’s referred to in military lingo as “anti-access, area denial” weapons being developed by China.

It works like this: over a long enough time span, China will be able to out-range U.S. carrier battle groups with a combination of cruise missiles, aircraft, submarines and anti-satellite weapons — or so the Pentagon’s thinking goes. If China has enough of these weapons working in combination with each other, the amount of space a U.S. carrier has to safely operate near China becomes very limited.

This isn’t a new idea. Military strategists as far back as Sun Tzu have asserted the importance of limiting the ability of your enemy to maneuver, which gives you more freedom to outmaneuver your enemy and destroy them.

Hence an upgraded Hornet that can attack Chinese warships, missile launchers and strike aircraft before they have a chance to fire their weapons. Hence a plane that’s relatively difficult to detect using radar, while also being able to travel far enough to its target without endangering the carrier that launched it.

Advanced Super Hornet range with different weapons payloads. Boeing illustration

Backup plan

Boeing has a good reason to boost its upgraded Hornet. The Lockheed Martin F-35, which is expected to replace the Hornet and become America’s main fighter for the coming decades, is ridden with a huge — and growing — number of flaws. It may not even survive in combat against superior Chinese and Russian fighters.

The Navy is still intent on buying hundreds of them: “We need the F-35C; we need its capability,” Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the Navy’s top officer, said in March.

But a new Hornet is another option, just in case. It’d be stealthy — though not as stealthy as the F-35 — while blasting an enemy with missiles from long-range as opposed to sneaking in. In the years ahead, it could also fire ultra-long-range anti-ship and anti-ground missiles that are still in development.

“The question becomes how many [F-35s] do we buy, and how does it integrate into the air wing,” Adm. Jonathan Greenert said. “If we bought no Cs that would be very detrimental to the overall program.” The comments followed an article authored by Greenert which talked down some of the F-35's key features like stealth.

Whether the Navy buys into the upgraded Hornet also depends on balancing cost between the Hornet and the F-35. The crux is that cutting F-35s raises per-unit cost by forcing changes to manufacturer Lockheed’s production schedule.

These concerns are disputed, however. A Pentagon analysis from earlier this year found that cutting 900 F-35s from the schedule would increase costs by only nine percent per plane. Since the Hornet costs $100 million less than a F-35, it’d be a savings.

The Navy certainly wouldn’t mind the extra cash. It could even get a fine new super Super Hornet fighter in the bargain.

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