Air Force to Trump: Sorry, but the F-18 Can’t Replace the F-35
Policy + Politics

Air Force to Trump: Sorry, but the F-18 Can’t Replace the F-35

© US AIR FORCE / Reuters

It took a few weeks -- possibly to recover from the shock -- but top officials in the Pentagon are finally publicly pushing back against President-elect Donald Trump’s proposal in December to do away with the troubled F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program and replace the fifth-generation fighter plane with a souped-up version of the F-18 Super Hornet.

The suggestion to completely overhaul the military’s vision for the future of jet fighters was made in a tweet, as with many of Trump’s policy statements. “Based on the tremendous cost and cost overruns of the Lockheed Martin F-35, I have asked Boeing to price-out a comparable F/A-18 Super Hornet!” Trump wrote.

Related: Air Force General Challenges Trump Over the F-35

The suggestion was met with immediate derision within the defense community, but Pentagon officials generally kept their criticism low-key, pointing out that the technology and design differences between the F-18 and F-35 are vast, and that an F-18 that is “comparable” to an F-35 would require such a massive overhaul that it really wouldn’t be an F-18 anymore.

This week, though, some of the criticism got a bit louder. In an interview reported on Thursday by DefenseNews, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said, “The Air Force does not view the F/A-18 and the F-35 to be substitutable at all. They fulfill different requirements. They’re both fine aircraft, don’t get me wrong. But it’s fourth generation, and F-35 is fifth generation.” 

On Friday morning, speaking in northern Virginia at a meeting of the Air Force Association, James repeated her criticism. Referring to the F-18, she said, “It's a fine aircraft, it's a different aircraft, it does not fulfill the same requirements ... It's a little bit apples and oranges and I have to believe before any final decision would be made with respect to a final shift, the chief requirements officer would be consulted.”

Others were not as diplomatic. Speaking to Business Insider about the idea that the F-18 could be transformed into something comparable to the F-35, US Marine Corps Lt. Col David "Chip" Berke, a pilot who has flown both planes, called the idea “preposterous” and “laughable.”

Related: The Pentagon Is Planning a New Super Rival to the Troubled F-35

Among the most significant differences is that the F-35 was designed from the ground up to be a stealth fighter, meaning that it is extremely difficult to spot using radar. The F-18 is not a stealth aircraft.

“The radar cross-section of an F-18 is the radar cross-section of an F-18 — you can’t change that,” said Air Force Brigadier General Scott Pleus this week, according to Pleus directs the F-35 program’s integration office. “Low observable technology, the ability to evade radar if you will, is something that has to be designed into the airplane from the very beginning.”