Home » Aviation » Navy Getting ‘Smarter’ About Tanking Mission As Super Hornets Approach 6,000 Hours

Navy Getting ‘Smarter’ About Tanking Mission As Super Hornets Approach 6,000 Hours

An F/A-18F refueling an F/A-18E over the Bay of Bengal, 2007. US Navy photo courtesy Wikipedia.

An F/A-18F refueling an F/A-18E over the Bay of Bengal, 2007. US Navy photo courtesy Wikipedia.

Carrier air wings are burning through the service life of the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornets faster than anticipated, forcing the Navy to think about how to complete its tanker mission without further draining life from the fighters.

Super Hornets perform the tanking mission when air wings are deployed, but high operational tempos and a depleted legacy Hornet fleet – many of the jets are stuck waiting for their Service Life Extension Program (SLEP) maintenance work while the aviation depots try to work through a backlog – contributed to the Super Hornets reaching the end of their 6,000-hour service life several years sooner than expected.

Commander of Naval Air Forces Vice Adm. Mike Shoemaker, speaking at an event Wednesday hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the U.S. Naval Institute, addressed the Super Hornet fleet and its fast-approaching SLEP.

“If you look at the Super Hornet squadrons over our [Hornet] classics, they’re flying a couple extra sorties every day that are providing those tanker missions,” Shoemaker told USNI News after the event.
“So there is a cost to that tanker mission, but again it’s only while we’re deployed, and I think we’ve gotten smarter” about performing the tanker mission in a way that minimizes stress on the airframes.

The air boss said the Navy used to load the maximum five fuel tanks onto the Super Hornets before launching them into the air, which puts a lot of fatigue on the planes and reduces service life faster. Now, “we’ve gotten smarter in how we do the tanking missions, so we don’t use those five wet tankers unless it’s absolutely required, so that helps with the wear and tear.”

Shoemaker added that the Navy was looking at other ways to “shed some of those tanker responsibilities,” including using the Navy’s variant of the V-22 Osprey and the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) platforms as tankers when they join the fleet.

The Navy will follow the Marine Corps and Air Force and buy into the V-22 program, using it as a replacement for the C-2 Greyhound for the carrier onboard delivery (COD) logistics mission. Though the Navy’s variant is being designed for the COD mission specifically, with a larger fuel tank to provide greater range, Shoemaker said the airplane is inherently flexible and the Navy would “look at other options” for missions to add on.

The Marine Corps has found ways to multi-missionize the Osprey, including adding a V-22 Aerial Refueling System, a sensor integration package, a digital interoperability communications package for passengers, weapons and more to the transport platform, Marine Corps Deputy Commandant for Aviation Lt. Gen. Jon Davis said at the same event. While Navy officials had previously discussed developing a “naval” variant that would be common between the Navy and Marine Corps, Davis said of the Navy’s V-22 variant, “they’ll chart their own course.” Shoemaker added that the Navy would learn from the Marine Corps but ultimately end of with a COD-specific V-22 variant.

Until either the V-22 or UCLASS can help take on the tanking mission, the Super Hornets will be the only plane covering that mission during deployments. Shoemaker said the Super Hornet fleet would not need different maintenance work done during the SLEP due to the tanking mission but rather the mission just added hours to the planes’ tally, bringing them to 6,000 faster.

When the first planes hit 6,000 hours late next year, the Navy and Boeing will work together on a service life assessment program to inform the SLEP, with Boeing focusing on the maintenance the planes tend to need to continue operating after that many flight hours and the Navy focusing on how to conduct the maintenance work without disrupting operational readiness. Shoemaker said the SLEP for the legacy Hornet fleet had its problems, and the service is trying to plan smarter the second time around.

“We expect to use the lessons from our legacy [Hornet fleet] … and the things we’ve learned inside the aviation depots, apply that with the work that Boeing will do on the initial airplanes, and then hopefully we’ll be able to have a sufficient capacity so when we get to all the Super Hornets and start SLEPing those we’re not seeing the same kind of Out of Reporting requirements we see right now in the classic force. Maybe a quarter of them or so would be out of service at any time to get that work done.”

With the legacy Hornet fleet, the aviation depots are backed up, keeping the legacy planes out of service for longer, disrupting current fleet readiness and forcing the Super Hornets to in turn burn through their service life faster as well. Shoemaker said the capacity of the aviation depots is improving, the depots’ ability to move planes through faster is improving, both of which will benefit the Super Hornet fleet when its SLEP begins – as soon as 2017 or 2018, despite a planned start of 2020.

  • Uncle Mike

    What the Navy needs is a carrier-based multi-mission platform capable of outer perimeter ASW, ELINT, ASuW, COD, and refueling. Maybe powered by fuel efficient turbofans for long legs and loiter time. Now that would really be something.

    • NavySubNuke

      What a great idea —- we could call it the S-3 Viking!
      And then one day we could decide to be like the Air Force and retire it because as functional as it was it wasn’t fast enough or pretty enough.

      • Bhess

        The Air Force is so annoying with that mentality. I would add that the Marines seem to need V/STOL for everything is another mindset I can’t stand.

        • NavySubNuke

          I don’t know – you can at least come up with some operational justifications for VSTOL —- the ability to fly of little deck carriers being one of them. Though I guess we could build our little decks with a ski jump. I’m honestly not familiar enough with small deck carriers to really know for sure though.

          • The Marines still look at the battle of Guadalcanal, and wonder, what if the Japanese hadn’t built an airstrip in such a convenient place where the Marines could take it over. The Marines are subject to going ashore and having the Navy leave them. S/VTOL seems to be very useful for that scenario.

      • Curtis Conway

        Grow that into the KC-3A Super Viking (there is a Facebook page for reference) for long range COD in the Big Pond, and tanking, then we can start the ASW/ASuW mission package development. The E-2D replacement in Twenty years could be the same platform. There are 108 S-3 beginnings of something at AMARG (83 in one location and the balance in another). Now we just need some budget, and that just might happen with the new leadership coming in 16 months. Need eyes on the future!

      • LMay

        What about the Air Force’s B-52s? Those were built in the 1960’s and they’re still upgrading them, expecting them to fly until the 2030s/2040s. I agree about the S-3, good air frame, proven tanker, ASuW, ELINT platform. As with the LCS, incomprehensible decision-making. Unfortunately, the most plausible explanation for said decision-making is corruption.

    • Bhess

      I never understood that decision to use the Hornet over the Viking for tanker duty. That Hornet for everything mentality is absurd. Now they are trying to squeeze the Osprey into other roles now.

  • 2IDSGT

    The Navy had a perfectly good fleet of S-3 based tankers before the Hornet-for-everything mafia completely got its way. Growler is a stupid idea too as the original plan was to replace the EA-6B, C-2, S-3, and E-2 with a common-base subsonic platform.

    • OldNavy207

      Hear Hear! Boeing’s practice of hiring NAVAIR flag officers once they retire has paid off. For many years, the Navy’s position has been “what’s good for Boeing, is good for the Navy.” Using Super Hornets for tankers has always been a dumb idea, but it resulted in higher procurement numbers of this older generation fighter, and now the contractor will be paid to extend its life.

      • Donald Bakon’s Army

        The DBA will look into this. Although most of this stuff is what Lockheed does.

    • Secundius

      @ 2IDSGT.

      Of the 198 S-3 Viking airframes built, 91 survive in the Bone Yard Desert Resort. Out of those 56 were Cannibalized to keep 35 Viking’s flyable. It get’s better, South Korea want’s 19 Viking’s to supplement there Orion fleet. And by year’s end of 2016, ALL remaining Viking’s. Will most likely be Cannibalized, to keep the remaining A-10 Warthog’s flying, or Sold-Off to Private Companies…

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  • Andy

    History may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

    Flashback to mid-1986:

    NSWAC: “We’re going to get rid of all dedicated tankers and hang D-704’s on, uh, other stuff, but only “as needed.” (Hoover and Intruder bubbas start cringing)

    Me: “You realize that “As needed” means “every freaking cycle, plus every single
    strike package”, don’t you? You’re going to wear out aircraft fatigue life shooting off birds at max gross, cycle after cycle, year in and year out. Ask the Intruder guys how that’s worked out for them.” (Intruder bubbas flinch)

    NSAWC: “No way, that’s crazy talk, we have plenty of range and payload in the Hornet. Intruders and Hoovers got it all covered and Tomcats never need gas. This’ll be ever so much cheaper. And stuff.”

    Me: “You’re wrong.”

    NSAWC: “Sit down and STFU, tanker/pathfinder puke, WTF do you know about tanking? We’re NSAWC!”

  • Leatherstocking

    Osprey tankers? There’s a way to age a set of platforms not intended for heavy hauling. F-35 per hour costs (including wear-out of the airframe) make that non-viable.
    Hornet short-legs and limited Hornet tanker capacity have caused this CF and there isn’t a good short-term solution to the problem. High tempo operations can be expected in the current (and very active) counterinsurgent environment. USAF F-15 and F-16 airframes are fatiguing as well.

    • Curtis Conway

      Everyone is putting off the inevitable instead of providing real Leadership.

  • Sailboater

    The Viking was nice platform, Even though it was a late 1960’s designed. The Navy should have had more of them built. Maybe those navair officers want to replace the F-18 with the F35, equally stupid idea. Yeah, Bring back the Hoovers. And maybe they will make a the New COD big enough to hold a LM2500 Gas Turbine Engine.

    • Curtis Conway


    • Secundius

      @ Sailboater.

      Don’t Count On It, The Basic LM2500 Gas Turbine Alone without Shipboard Mounting Hardware is 27-feet x 9-feet x 10-feet and weighs 48,000-pounds…

  • 2IDSGT


    The typical Hornet-for-everything mafia justification is that the Navy don’t need no stealth because Growlers can do their thing from standoff distance and NOT as part of the strike package. Hornet is very inefficient as an EW plane.

  • When not using standoff, one has to solve the problem of the jammer aircraft acting as a beacon for enemy air defense missiles. Standoff tries to solve that by being outside the enemy air defense zone.

  • 2IDSGT

    I’m a civilian now, so I can study whatever lane I want. Again, one of the most common justifications (amongst a very vocal cadre of Boeing hacks in NAVAIR) for buying more bugs is that standoff jamming and standoff weapons mean “we don’t need no fancy stealth jet.”

    And in any case, the Growler’s speed is greatly reduced relative to Superhornet due to the added weight and drag of its jamming hardware; so it can’t keep up any better with a strike package than the old Prowlers. Dumb ideas from dumb people. I wouldn’t be surprised if these !diots tried to market Hornets for COD with special cargo-pods. Didn’t they already try to push the bug for an AWACS role?

  • 2IDSGT

    Strike loadouts in situations requiring growlers are one way. Growler has to hang on to its load, so again, fail.

    And for the 3rd time, the main justification constantly bayed by the Hornets-Forever crowd for continued purchases is that standoff capabilities negate any requirement for strike fighters or strike packages that can actually survive in contested airspace without EW ruining everyone’s comms.

  • 2IDSGT

    Well then, seeing as the F-35C doesn’t need EW to hold its hand all the way in, a jamming platform (emphasizing size/efficiency over flexibility) with high-bypass turbofans is exactly what’s needed.

    But let’s not forget that this is really about tankers, and the stupidity of using Hornets for the job. Buddy-refueling amongst fighters is a useful capability to have, but should never have been used as a regular operational substitute for real tankers. Having failed to develop the above-mentioned “Super Hoover” as you derisively call it, the USN has now been saddled with sub-optimal solutions for its non-TACAIR missions for decades. With the all-CVN carrier fleet we have today, the S-3, EA-6, C-2, and E-2 should have been replaced by a larger aircraft using common engines and flight avionics. Instead, we got almost the exact opposite.

  • Curtis Conway

    To help take pressure off of the NARF activity, Boeing should be contracted to conduct some of this work.