Thursday, August 15, 2013

The end of the trilogy

So for my last bit about the Hornet saga, I'd like to address the issue of appropriate application of assets and the selection of the wrong fighter to super-size.

Now despite my ranting, I still believe the original Hornet is a useful aircraft that fills a very important role. Especially when in the hands of Foreign operators.  Other than having the ongoing complaint of sub-par range and fuel efficiency, the Hornet has served very well with the Navy and Marines, along with the air arms of Canada, Australia, Spain, Switzerland, Finland, Kuwait, and Malaysia.  This amount of success clearly shows the value of the platform.
Marine Air.  Ooh Rah!
My primary complaints are directed towards its use as a replacement for aircraft and roles that it was never conceptualized to fulfill in the first place.  That, and the development of the E/F Hornet does nothing but negate the advantages that the Hornet offered without granting much more other than fractional increase in range and payload.  Basically giving us a very lackluster heavy fighter that has no advantages of the light fighter either.

So, I have come up with some very basic and boring tables that directly compare some of the most important attributes of the Hornet with the aircraft it replaced.  Now, keep in mind that these tables do not list other more harder to define attributes such as mission survivability, and maintenance and it's relationship to mission availability.  Taken in the form of a picture to accommodate my blog format.

The first is a comparison of the hornet to aircraft it replaced.  Aircraft to the left of the Hornet are primarily American, and those to the right are mostly foreign.
* The A-6 intruder has a very special handicap in that it is unable to launch from a carrier with partially full wing tanks.  They have to be completely full or empty, so I adjusted the payload capacity to account for wing tanks loaded with fuel.  As an additional note, the price differences are so drastic because data for inflation adjusted dollars was unavailable, and I was too lazy to calculate it, so don't take them entirely at face value.
As seen here (and mentioned earlier), the Hornet has a distinct advantage compared to other light attack aircraft such as the A-4M, Saab-35, Mig-21bis, Mirage III, and F-5E, by improving on range, is far more sophisticated, and is more accurate in delivering it's ordnance, can bring more of it back, has more countermeasures, expendables and better ECM.  So, as a light attack/light fighter aircraft, the Hornet is a prime choice for a military looking for a more sophisticated and precision aircraft to replace aging assets, despite having a decrease in top speed and a higher cost.

Also, I was tempted to add the F-16 to this list, as it also compares very well against it as well, but in the end I figured it was a bit overkill.

However, when comparing against medium to heavy attack assets, like the A-6 and A-7, it's range and payload shortcomings are quite apparent and are completely inadequate for use in that role.  It's for these reasons that it was decided to make a super-sized variant to fix these shortcomings and allow it to fulfill those roles.

Also, you may notice a couple things in these tables, first of which is the fact that I did not include maintenance hours per flight hour, and the fact that I have no performance data to quantify survivabilty, as both are hard to place a value on, and I will address this issue separately.

One example of why I find maintenance hours suspect in relation to mission availability is, that the F-14As in Operation Enduring Freedom managed to have significantly higher mission availability rates than their newer Hornet and Super Hornet counterparts even though they had nearly double the maintenance hours per flight hour, and this experience was repeated in Iraqi Freedom as well.
...and don't even get me started on this pathetic "Growler" variant.
Also, survivablity is also difficult to ascertain, as those in the field insist that speed, maneuverability and overall performance is paramount; whereas those in the aerospace industry and DoD insist it is more dependent on the number countermeasure expendables, the capability of ECM, and other battlefield informational devices.  So in the end, we see decisions being made that completely contradict each other from day to day because of these schools of thought.

Such is case in the Hornet.  It was believed to have been a better option than the A-7E, because it was more "survivable."  How did they measure this?  Well, the Hornet had better sustained turn performance, higher top speed and acceleration, along with better overall agility.  True, it had more expendables, and better ECM, but time has shown that retrofitting older aircraft with the same equipment is relatively easy (note the f-14D had nearly 6 times the expendables of the A model).  So, the DoD/Navy/Pentagon said the Hornet has better performance = survivable

But then we move on to the second table.  I compare the Super Hornet to the aircraft it was facing competition with and/or was meant to replace.  As this table shows, the Super Hornet is on par with a few at best, but completely outclassed by others.
* The A-7F was designed as an Air Force variant, hence the lack of a bringback weight, but a Navy version was planned to incorporate a F110-GE-400 engine with even higher thrust, which would possibly allow for even higher performance. Also pricing data for the A-7 is far below projected unit price, as it doesn't account for inflation.  All ranges are for internal fuel only.
So, other than budgetary concerns (which I've already addressed to be moot in the case of the Tomcat), the big arguments for the Super Hornet are: lover maintenance hours to improve readiness (which I also just proved isn't the case), and the much vaunted "survivablity."  However, in the case of the Super Hornet, it is slower and less agile overall than any of the Tomcat variants proposed (including the models then in service) all while carrying less ordnance to the same ranges (including the models then in service) and it was even less maneuverable and slower than the original Hornet.  So why did they choose it?  It was more "surviveable."
The Super Tomcat 21.  The best of all worlds.
How is that you say? they just said that survivable equates to performance earlier, but now they say it's still more survivable while having none of those advantages?  I call shenanigans!  The only way that conclusion makes sense is the DoD, Pentagon, or the Navy are either lying their a**es off, or they are butt f-ing retarded.

Anyways getting back on topic with the comparisons between the Super Hornet and it's competitors.  As the chart shows, the E/F only has a marginal improvement in range over it's predecessor, and even though it has a higher payload capability, it is shaved by a full 6200 lbs when flying to the same ranges as the Tomcat.
A-7F Prototype.  She's not a looker, but she's got it where it counts.
Not listed here is also the improvements made to the A-7F, which had a top speed and payload on par with the E/F, but had a better sustained turn rate, acceleration, range, and more ammunition for it's gun.  All this with a lower development cost as well.

In my sources, I also link to an article by an Admiral who argues in favor of the Hornet compared to the A-6 because of it's larger bringback capability and lower maintenance hours/cost compared to legacy aircraft.  What he neglects to fully admit is that these figures are comparing anew build airframes to legacy aircraft that have seen at least 10 years of service.  All of the aircraft the Super Hornet was competing against were to be a small number of pre-production aircraft followed by completely new build aircraft that will comprise of the majority of the production run.  These aircraft also incorporate new, more reliable engines, vastly upgraded ECM, radar, countermeasures, along with structural refinements specifically to increase maneuverability longevity and reduce maintenance.

Also, the problems he brings up about the A-6 were all being addressed with the A-6F variant with a completely rebuilt, lighter stronger wing with better fuel tanks.  That, and even though the A-6 is slower than the Super Hornet, the Super Hornet actually has to fly at nearly the same speeds as an A-6 when approaching a target with ordnance and fuel.

So, in conclusion, we have the worst of both worlds with the F/A-18E/F: It is a light fighter that's no longer light weight or maneuverable, or a heavy fighter that's not fast, long ranged, or powerful.  And in this world, where faster, longer ranged, heavier hitting, more capable aircraft like the Su-27/30/35 are being adopted at alarmingly fast rates by third world and hostile nations, the "Super Hornet" is blatantly outclassed by nearly everyone.  As evidenced in this and other articles.

Even Adm. Gillcrist suggested the US Navy buy Flankers, as it would still offer over twice the capability of the E/F at a fraction of the cost.  Even after completely gutting them and installing all American compatible hardware. 
Sources (in addition to those listed in the last post on the subject, and vice-versa):

US Navy F-14 Tomcat Units of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Osprey Publishing; First Edition edition (July 13, 2005)

F-14 Tomcat Units of Operation Enduring Freedom, Osprey Publishing (February 19, 2008)

Iranian F-14 Tomcat Units in Combat, Osprey Publishing (September 23, 2004)

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