The Plan For Making Aging USMC F/A-18 Hornets Deadlier Than Ever For A Final Decade Of Service

Major upgrades and a smart fleet management plan will give the Marines the most potent Hornets ever during the twilight of the type's service.

Jamie Hunter

The U.S. Marine Corps is moving towards a streamlined fleet of Lockheed Martin F-35B and C-model Lightning IIs for all of its tactical aircraft (TACAIR) needs post-2030. While USMC leadership juggles the exact planning over the number of the stealthy fighters it will need to meet future requirements, both the McDonnell Douglas AV-8B Harrier II and F/A-18A-D Hornet fleets will continue to provide Close Air Support (CAS) for Marines on the ground and air cover above the battlefield. Under current plans, the Harrier II will bow out in Fiscal Year 2028, followed by the Hornet in 2030. 

The aging Marine Corps Hornet fleet is composed of a range of 1980s-era F/A-18A-D models, all of which have undergone various upgrades. Now, in order to bridge the decade-long gap between now and the type's retirement, a select batch of approximately 84 Hornets has been earmarked to make it through to the planned “sundown” despite their advanced years via a series of upgrades, the likes of which the Hornet has never seen. 

With the Hornet considered to be the USMC’s most potent air-to-air and air-to-ground “legacy” fighter aircraft, the so-called “best-in-breed” are now receiving High Flight Hour (HFH) inspections during depot-level maintenance that will see them out to 10,000 flight hours. Concurrently, they are being equipped with new technology that will enable them to bridge the gap to the Marine Lightning fleet of 2030-onwards.

Known unofficially as “Classic” Hornets, these first-generation F/A-18s were ultimately superseded by the larger F/A-18E/F Super Hornet in U.S. Navy service. The original A-D models have now all been retired from the front line Navy fleet. Some of these aircraft have been redirected into the USMC to help prop up the fleet as the Marines’ eye a planned “sunset” of 2030 for the Hornet.

Jamie Hunter

The U.S. Marine Corps aims to operate up to seven active-duty Hornet squadrons with the latest upgrades.

The F/A-18A-D Program Management Agency (PMA) is actively engaged in future plans for the fleet, which includes managing multiple readiness initiatives, planning an aggressive strike/store plan, and implementing re-engineered end of life Planned Maintenance Inspection (PMI) events. Twice yearly reviews are held to identify the most suitable aircraft that will ensure the Marines keep a credible fleet of Hornets on the flight line now and into the future.

U.S. Marine Corps leadership has laid out the broad ambition for its Hornet strike fighter fleet in its annual Aviation Plans of recent years. Central to this is a series of upgrades that will ultimately realize up to seven squadrons-worth of best condition Hornets, all of which will receive a new Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar in the form of the Raytheon AN/APG-79(v)4

This radar is based on the AN/APG-79(v)1 radar that equips Block 2/3 F/A-18E/F Super Hornets and EA-18G Growlers. Ambitions for an AESA radar for the Classic Hornet have been in train for a decade, as have numerous other plans. In conjunction with a new advanced self-protection system and a suite of modern precision-guided weapons, the Hornet is being made as lethal as possible in order for it to meet high-end missions over the coming decade.

Speaking to The War Zone, former Hornet Weapons Systems Officer (WSO) Lt Col Michael “Sock” Pavis is the F/A-18A-D Capabilities Lead and F/A-18A-D Air Vehicle Lead for the PMA-265 Hornet Program Office at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland. “The Marine Corps Aviation Plan is the foundation of the plan for U.S Marine Corps F/A-18A-Ds. That’s a “sundown” of 2030 and supporting the transition to F-35. During that transition, the Hornet is the Marine Corps aircraft that has the greatest variety of both air-to-air and air-to-surface weapons. So. we need to support that, and the National Defense Strategy, to ensure we are lethal, survivable, and ready.”

USMC

The U.S. Marine Corps transition plan to the F-35.

“Keeping that in mind, we are looking at transitioning all our A-D squadrons to be composite squadrons, each with seven F/A-18Cs and five F/A-18Ds. [We will use] the most valuable fleet, [one that gives us] the most capability for the lowest cost of ownership. The F/A-18 was initially designed for 6,000 flight hours, and is now extended to 8,000 hours. Following a High Flight Hour [HFH] inspection, we’re able to fly those F/A-18s to 10,000 hours. That HFH inspection is expensive and time consuming, and [involves] a lot of time where those aircraft are not able to be used because they’re in the depot. The ones that have completed the HFH inspection and are compatible with capability upgrades like the AN/APG-79(v)4 radar, the AN/ALQ-214(v)5 and AN/ALR-67 electronic warfare suites — those aircraft are the most valuable as they provide the most available flying time with the least expensive depot costs. So, we are able to have our best flyers out there for the longest period of time for the lowest cost. We have a most valuable fleet mindset to reduce cost of ownership and keep the highest capability possible.”

The new composite squadron plan means that the seven remaining active-duty Marine Corps Hornet squadrons will be able to support all F/A-18 mission sets. “It’s partially a manpower solution, in that we have Hornet WSOs that we have created, but we are finishing that training of new WSOs in the next few years. The career field will remain throughout the life of the Hornet as they are still valuable and they add a mission set, particularly in the Forward Air Controller (Airborne) capability and Tactical Air Control mission that only those two-seat crews can do,” Pavis explains. “By spreading those throughout the fleet, you get better usage of our WSOs throughout the squadrons. It’s a mission and a logistic solution by going to composite squadrons — it’s not driven by hours remaining on aircraft or airframes specifically.”

Selecting the “best-in-breed”

The USMC’s Hornet squadrons have struggled over recent years with readiness — having sufficient available airframes to meet commanders’ requirements. According to the 2018 Marine Aviation Plan: “The USMC fleet currently has eleven active squadrons and one reserve squadron. In recent years there has been an aircraft inventory shortage due to In Service Repairs (ISR) and depot maintenance backlog. HQMC has reset the force by temporarily reducing squadron flightline entitlement (FLE) to 10 aircraft to preserve future combat readiness while meeting today’s current operational requirements. As inventory continues to recover we will return to a community FLE of 12 with deploying squadrons beginning in 3rd quarter of FY17.”

Jamie Hunter

A pilot conducts pre-flight checks on a Hornet as MCAS Miramar.

Naval Air Systems Command has conducted an exhaustive study of the overall Hornet fleet with the aid of a predictive flight hour tool to assess which of the aircraft will provide the best availability and lowest overall support cost through to 2030. “In that analysis we also looked at which aircraft are compatible with accepting our capability upgrades that we need,” Pavis explains. “That creates best-of-breed. Getting us the most flight hours for the least amount of depot cost. There’s a cut-off line at a certain production Lot [build] number, above that Lot number they’re able to accept those upgrades, below it they can’t. [That’s] Lot 15 and above F/A-18Cs and Lot 14 and above Ds. That was the initial neck down, then we look at what’s available, what’s valuable, and what’s going to give us the most hours.”

“When we’re assessing aircraft, we are looking at the overall number of hours it’s flown and also the fatigue life expended.” One of the most influential fatigue factors relates to the wing root, which, if in need of replacement, drives a time consuming and expensive structural upgrade known as Center Barrel Replacement Plus (CBR+). 

According to the 2019 Marine Aviation Plan: “The F/A-18 Service Life Management Program (SLMP) consists of the Center Barrel Replacement Plus (CBR+) and High Flight Hour (HFH) inspection programs.The CBR+ has extended the service life of numerous Lot 17 and below aircraft and the HFH inspection has extended the life of the F/A-18A-D aircraft beyond 8,000 hours. In parallel with HFH and CBR+ maintenance, the Service Life Extension Program (SLEP) incorporates a combination of inspections, repairs and a number of Engineering Change Proposals to extend additional F/A-18A/C/D to 10,000 Flight Hours. The Naval Aviation Enterprise has re-engineered the post-8,000 hour end of life maintenance plan.”

According to Pavis: “We went through our fatigue life, looked at our hours, the ability to accept the capability upgrades and looked at what needs CBR and not, and we were able to drastically reduce the number of forecast CBRs we have left to the order of less than five more planned future CBR inductions. By doing that we will have aircraft and can fly them the way we need to with only a small mitigation for fatigue life to make sure they keep their 10,000 hours.”

“The analogy we have been using is “the pig is passing through the python.” We have an immense number of aircraft in depot level maintenance right now getting that 8,000 HFH inspection. We’ve inducted a bunch and we’re delivering them as fast as we can, but our work in progress number right now is the highest it’s going to be. Those are the ones that are going to take us to 2030, because they have 2,000 hours left on them. There’s another inspection at 9,000 hours but it’s minor.”

Jamie Hunter

Composite Hornet squadrons will allow the USMC to retain the WSO career field until the final retirement of the Hornet.

In addition to the active squadrons, a single Reserve unit at Naval Air Station/Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth, Texas, also flies the Hornet. VMFA-112 “Cowboys” is transitioning from older F/A-18A+ aircraft to low-hour Lot 10 and 11 F/A-18Cs, which are being upgraded by Boeing to C+ configuration. This project originally included 30 Hornets but was later reduced to 19. “We have delivered seven Hornets from of our C+ program, and have 12 left to deliver to support VMFA-112 through its “sundown,” explains Pavis.

The F/A-18C+ upgrade provides the F/A-18C+ with Multifunctional Information Distribution System-Low Volume Terminal (MIDS-LVT) digital communications, the Naval Aircrew Common Ejection Seat (NACES), Joint Helmet-Mounted Cueing System (JHMCS), Tactical Aircraft Moving Map Capabilities (TAMMAC) and new full-color cockpit displays. The F/A-18C+ is also compatible with the latest AN/AAQ-28 Litening Gen4 targeting pod. 

New capabilities

A host of individual upgrade projects over recent years have been wrapped into a succession of software “drops” known as Operational Flight Programs, or OFPs. These have included Link-16 data link functionality, the Gen4 Litening pod, and required radar navigation upgrades to meet modern air traffic control regulations. 

Currently being retrofitted across the selected fleet of Hornets is a suite of electronic warfare enhancements. “We are outfitting aircraft with the ALE-67(v)3 Radar Warning Receiver [RWR], plus replacing the ALQ-165 ASPJ [Airborne Self-Protection Jammer] with the ALQ-214(v)5, and those efforts are ongoing,” says CDR Bisher “Binger” Mufti, the Radar/Future Electronic Warfare Lead in PMA-265.

Additional approved and funded programs coming down the pipe include an Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System (Auto-GCAS), which Pavis says will be added “as soon as possible.” So-called NAVWAR upgrades are funded as a new start in FY2022, for incorporation in FY2023-2024 and will be added to enable the assurance of GPS and timing, according to Pavis. This relates to jamming-resistant GPS systems that are applicable in certain operational scenarios, which you can read more about here in this previous War Zone piece.

Weapons upgrades have included the addition of the AIM-9X Block II, AIM-120D Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM) and the AGR-20A Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS), which is a Hydra 70 unguided rocket with a laser guidance kit to turn them into precision-guided munitions. Combining the new weapons with a new Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar unlocks a whole new level of capability for the Hornet. 

AESA technology not only offers significant improvements in combat capability, but also greater reliability due to the reduction in the number of moving parts. The operational improvements include enhanced detection and tracking ranges, target discrimination and identification, the ability to spot low-flying reduced radar cross-section targets like cruise missiles, as well as the capability to rapidly scan huge volumes of airspace as AESA radars do not rely on a mechanically steered radar dish to do so.

An obsolescence and capability upgrade to replace the existing AN/APG-73 system in the Hornet has been a long-term ambition for the Marine Corps. Raytheon initially performed a fit check in 2010 with what was known then as the APG-79(VX), also known as the Raytheon Advanced Combat Radar (RACR). However, plans did not firm up until the 2018 Marine Aviation Plan. 

Raytheon

Raytheon engineers fit-check an APG-79(v)4 on a Hornet.

Candidate radars also included Northrop Grumman’s Scalable Agile Beam Radar (SABR), with the company undertaking a Hornet fit check in 2018. On January 15, 2019, Raytheon announced that the U.S. Marine Corps had awarded it a contract for the AN/APG-79(v)4 that could ultimately lead to the retrofit of seven squadrons worth of F/A-18C/Ds — the current budget includes 75 total radars for the Marines. Naval Air Systems Command awarded Raytheon a contract worth $30.2-million that covered the first nine production-standard sets for delivery from December 2021. Notably, Canada has also selected the same radar for the upgrade of its CF-18 Hornets, which you can read about here.

This radar’s lineage in the Super Hornet’s AN/APG-79 was a major consideration when selecting the optimum candidate for a cost-effective retrofit. “The AN/APG-79(v)4 is designed to be compatible with the software that already exists in the Hornet and runs the current AN/APG-73,” says Lt Col Pavis. The commonality with the APG-79(v)1 in the Super Hornet and Growler also helps to minimise cost when it comes to future software development for the new Hornet radar. “What we really get with the AESA is supply chain streamlining,” adds CDR Mufti. “APG-79(v)1 is in our Super Hornets and the (v)4 shares about 90 percent commonality with that. This is the best way to ensure the radar is supportable and sustainable until sundown.”

“The [initial] nine radars was the first procurement and designed to get the ball rolling,” Mufti adds. This was in addition to a previous contract for test sets to be delivered in order to commence Hornet integration work at Naval Air Warfare Station China Lake, California. This includes a RACR test radar and four Engineering Development Model (EDM) radars that will arrive at China Lake over the coming year. One of these is just an antenna, which will be used for test work. Pavis says hardware installations of the set itself can either be made in the depot during scheduled inspections or in the field at operational units, whichever is deemed to be the most efficient. The Hornet’s new OFP 29C+ mission software is currently in development to support the initial introduction of the new radar.

Jamie Hunter

The USMC is hoping to fund more Hornet upgrades including new cockpit displays.

Looking further ahead, there are still some unfunded upgrades that Pavis says the Marines still require for the Hornet. This includes the improved AN/ALR-67(v)5 RWR. “We also have obsolescence and maintainability issues with our cockpit displays; the left and right digital display indicators [DDIs] and our Cockpit Video Recording System [CVRS],” he says, adding that incremental upgrades on the roadmap are in various states of funding and planning.

Overall, this coherent set of plans will provide for what will arguably be the most potent set of original Hornets on the planet. As F-35 fielding plans have slipped to the right, the ability for the F/A-18 to adapt through life extensions and capability insertions has provided the USMC with an extremely useful back-up option.

Despite all the new enhancements, the Marine Corps has no plans to change the designation of its Hornets. Moreover, Pavis is keen to point out that the various unofficial monikers that have been used in recent times for the F/A-18A-D fleet simply aren’t recognized within U.S. Navy and Marine Corps circles. “It is the F/A-18A-D Hornet. No “Legacy,” no “Legendary,” no “Classic,” we are the Hornet,” he asserts.

Contact the editor: Tyler@thedrive.com