Seeing F/A-18 Hornets and F/A-18E Super Hornets on the carriers of the United States Navy is a very common sight. Originally introduced in the early 1980s, they have formed the backbone of the USN’s fixed winged aircraft fleet. The Soviet navy on the other hand relied on a variant of the trusted Flanker to secure their battle groups from aerial threats. As usual these jets have been wrongly compared even though the roles they have been designed for are pretty different. One of them is the Swiss knife of carrier borne fighters and is being used for strike, fleet air defense and electronic attack whereas the other is a dedicated fleet defense fighter. Lets compare them properly and clear the clutter surrounding their roles.
Ideology and Design
The Vietnam war had taught some hard lessons to both USAF and USN. Both of them had assumed that close in fighting using guns was a thing of the past. They had promoted air to air missiles (AAMs) as the weapon of the future. The F-4 Phantom II became the mainstay fighter for the USAF and USN and was used extensively in the conflict. The Phantom is a Mach 2 capable interceptor designed to climb fast and shoot down Soviet bombers before they released their atomic cargo over American cities. It was no dogfighter. It carried both the AIM-7 and the AIM-9 for taking out targets but lacked an internal gun. During the Vietnam conflict it was pitted against the MiG-17, the MiG-19 and the MiG-21. The first two were excellent dogfighters whereas the 3rd was a Mach 2 interceptor but could maneuver pretty well close in when flown by a well trained pilot. The missiles didn’t work as advertised and the need for an internal gun was felt. Thus the pilot training syllabus was changed later on while late model F-4s got an internal gun.
The lessons learnt were in the minds of the people involved in the study to determine navy’s future needs for carrier borne aircraft. The study was ordered by the Chief of Naval Staff, USN in the year 1972. This fighter would be designed to overcome the deficiencies in aircraft like the F-4. The F-14 Tomcat was the replacement for the now venerable F-4 but it ended up being costly and difficult to maintain. Thus a multirole fighter with reduced procurement and operational costs was desired to replace the remaining F-4 Phantoms and all A-7 Corsairs. The original VFAX programme which resulted in the F-14 was revived. The navy was suggested to choose either of the USAF’s LWF (Light Weight Fighter) competitors. The navy’s requirement differed from the air-force’s as they wanted a dedicated air superiority day fighter but the navy wanted an all weather multirole fighter for its decks. The resulting requirements have been listed below.
- Improved Agility,
- Compatible with AIM-7 and AIM-9,
- All weather fighting capability,
- Reduced operational and maintenance costs,
- Ground attack capability.
The LWF programme had two flying prototypes ie YF-16 from General Dynamics and YF-17 from Northrop. The air force would choose the YF-16 in the year 1975 and it would evolve into the F-16, one of the most capable fighters ever built. The navy felt that the Falcon was too small for its needs. It had a single engine but the navy preferred twin engine aircraft for higher safety. Thus they chose the YF-17 Cobra. There were other designs offered by Grumman, LTV etc. but they died on the drawing board.
Northrop teamed up with McDonnell Douglas to develop a carrier borne variant of the YF-17. Northrop would build the aft section of the jet whereas McDonnell Douglas would build the front half. The former would retain all rights for the F-18L, a dedicated land based variant. The F/A-18 and the YF-17 only share an over all resemblance with the former being a completely new aircraft. Extensive changes, listed below, were done to the Cobra’s design to make it carrier capable.
- Strengthened landing gear,
- Strengthened air frame,
- Increased wing area,
- Larger internal fuel tanks,
- Arresting hook was added,
- Nose tow link was added, (for catapult launches)
- New radar system,
- Increased take off weight,
- Folding Wings,
- Syncing AIM-7 etc.
This new fighter would enter service in the year 1983 as the F/A-18 Hornet. Around 1400 of these would be produced for the USN and several airforces. It would prove its mettle in conflicts and its variants still remain in production.
In our article on MiG-29K we did a touch and go on Su-33’s story. The Soviet Union had finally decided to match American carrier might on the high seas. Unlike the western allies their navy would still be submarine centric. The carriers would lead elaborate battle groups with dedicated air defense, surface warfare and ASW vessels. These vessels would take care of enemy assets thus allowing Soviet submarines to operate freely and block sea lanes of communications (SLOCs). The Soviets essentially intended to repeat what the Germans tried in both the world wars, ie conquer Europe by cutting off supplies from mainland America.
Thanks to lack of experience in carrier operations they decided to develop naval fixed wing aviation in steps instead of directly jumping onto large nuclear powered carriers. They started with Moskva class cruisers which would have large deck aft of the super structure to deploy helicopters. The next step came in the form of Kiev class aircraft carrying cruisers. These semi-carriers had heavy anti-surface and anti-air armament along with an angled deck for deploying Yak-38 STOVL aircraft. Kuznetsov class cruisers formed the next step. These aircraft carrying cruisers would also have heavy anti-surface and anti-air weaponry but a full fleged deck to deploy STOBAR fighters. The final step would be even larger Ulyanovsk class cruisers which would displace around 90,000 tonnes and would be powered by nuclear reactors. These would then challenge the USN on the high seas.
Soviets preferred ski jumps over catapults as the former required no maintenance, was easy to deploy and reduced stresses on the jets. Ski jumps reduced the variety of aircraft that can be launched as the aircraft needs to have high thrust to weight ratio for effective use. Thus 2 jets were selected for operational use, the MiG-29K would be used for strike and serve as second layer of air defense whereas the Su-33 (Su-27K) would be used for air defense only. To suite these needs, the original Su-27 was modified and the modifications have been listed below.
- Larger Leading Edge Root Extensions (LERX),
- Addition of canards to reduce take off distance and increase agility,
- Folding wings and horizontal stabilizers,
- Strengthened landing gear,
- Strengthened air frame,
- Better engines,
- Larger control surfaces,
- Shortened tail sting,
- In-flight refueling probe.
The carrier programme had several changes during its entirety and one last change made the naval Flanker the sole Soviet carrier borne fighter. It was decided that only the Su-33 would be procured and the MiG-29K programme would be shut down. It would serve on the Kuznetsov and Ulyanovsk class cruisers under construction. The Soviet Union started showing signs of an impending economic collapse in the late 1980s. Defense procurement was rolled back and as a result only 24 Su-33s were built. Construction of the 2nd Kuznetsov cruiser and the 1st Ulyanovsk class cruiser was stopped, the former was sold to China and the later was scrapped on the ways.
Development & Capabilities
After selection and nearly three and a half years of development the first prototype was ready for its first flight. It flew for the first time on 18th November 1978 from Lambert-St. Louis International airport. The aircraft effortlessly took off and safely landed after the 50min sortie which took it to 24,000ft at speeds around 300kn. An F-4 and an F-15 flew chase during the Hornet’s first sortie. A total of 12 prototypes would be built for testing by the manufacturer and the end user ie the USN and the USMC. The prototypes went through a series of tests to check their flight characteristics and their capabilities. Once their airworthiness was certified, they were tested at SBTF (Shore Based Test Facility) for carrier ops. This was followed by carrier certification trials onboard USS America CV-66 between 30th Oct and 3rd Nov 1979. The pilots first performed several touch and gos before making the first arrested landing and first catapult assisted launch. The Hornet entered service in the year 1983 with the designation F/A-18A for the single seat variant and F/A-18B for the two seat variant. It also marked the first ever use of the designation F/A for a fighter. It signifies that the fighter can do strike missions as well as air defense.
The Hornet has several design features which help it maneuver at very low speeds thanks to the lessons learnt during the Vietnam conflict. These features include a nearly flat belly and LERX. It is powered by 2 F404 engines producing a total of 22,000 pounds of thrust. These engines were a pretty big improvement over the J-79s used on the Phantoms as they produced nearly the same thrust while occupying less space in the airframe, weighing less and consuming less fuel.
United States Navy and the USMC presently operate the F/A-18C single seat and F/A-18D twin seat variants of the original Hornet. A new variant with a radical redesign was developed in the late 1990s. Designated F/A-18E/F, it sported a longer fuselage, uprated F414 engines and a larger wingspan. It sports the APG-79 AESA radar which was developed using technology from the F-22’s APG-77. An electronic attack variant of the Super Hornet, designated E/A-18G Growler has replaced the old E/A-6 Intruders in the USN service. Both the Growler and the Super Hornet have a wide variety of weapons to strike air and surface targets. They sport advanced missiles like the AIM-120 and AIM-9 for taking out air borne targets, AGM-84 Harpoon for taking out ships and JDAMs along with LGBs for taking out surface targets. It also has a M61 Vulcan 20mm Gatling just behind the radar in its nose. It can haul 8 tonnes of ordnance off the deck to targets thousands of kilometers away. With several jets of both the Super Hornet and the Growler variants in the order book, F/A-18 lines would be running for few more years.
Nearly a year before the Hornet entered service the Russians established their SBTF in Crimea which is commonly known as Nitka. They used the 3rd Su-27 prototype and a production Su-27 for trials at the facility till T-10K (Sukhoi’s inhouse designation for Su-27K) prototypes were available. A total of 9 T-10K prototypes were built for state trials by Sukhoi. This was followed by trials aboard the new Tbilisi. Trials started with carrier standing still in bow winds with aircraft performing touch and gos. This was changed to sailing in head wings with increasing speeds. The second T-10K prototype managed to perform the first Soviet arrested landing on 1st of November 1989 along with the first night landing some days later. At the controls was none other than Viktor Pugachov, the inventor of Pugachov’s Cobra. The naval Flanker officially entered service in 1998 thanks to the economic problems faced by the newly formed Russian Federation.
Like all carrier borne aircraft, the need for a dedicated trainer was felt. As the pilots came up the ranks they found it difficult to train directly on the rolling, pitching and yawing carrier deck after spending most of their time on firm ground. This led to the development of Su-27KUB or Su-33UB. It sported a redesigned cockpit with side by side seating for the pilots instead of the traditional tandem seating. This improved crew communication and visibility both of which are essential for carrier ops. It flew for the first time in 1999 but has been rarely seen thereafter. The Russians use Su-25UTG for this role.
The Su-33 is one mean flying machine. Powered by uprated AL-31F3, this fighter sports an impressive range. It was designed to be an air superiority fighter with limited anti-surface capability. It could carry the Moskit supersonic AShM along with Kh-31 to kill enemy surface assets. Other than that its armament was pretty limited to air to air missiles like R-27, R-60 and R-73. It could carry 6.5 tonnes weapons on 12 hardpoints. The center line point can be used for buddy refueling pod. The pod is seldom used thanks to the impressive range offered by the Flanker family. The aircraft still retain their original OLS-27 IRST pods and N001 radar. Interestingly it has been claimed that ski-jumps reduce range and payload of the aircraft operating off it. In Flanker’s case however a 2.5 tonne payload would translate into 4xR-77 missiles and 6xR-73 short range missiles which is pretty good for air defense mission. Add the Flanker’s impressive ferry range to the mix and you have got a potent fighter.
Even though both the fighters we spoke about in this article originated from variants designed to operate from terra-firma, thats where the similarity of their fates end. United States Navy has several squadrons of Hornets and its variants in service compared to just 20 or so Su-33 in Russian service. The USN will surely keep its Hornets airworthy for some time through the next decade whereas the new MiG-29Ks entering service with the Russian navy will replace the Su-33s pretty soon. The lineage of Su-33 however won’t die. The Chinese bought an Su-33 prototype and developed a carrier based variant of their J-11B itself a copy of Su-27. Designated J-15, this aircraft will see service on Chinese carriers for a long time and might end up finally challenging the Hornets thanks to the changing geo-political scenario.