The F/A-18 Hornet and Variants
F/A-18 Development History
In the late 1960s the USAF started its Lightweight Fighter program (LWF). The program’s purpose was to see if it would be possible to build a credible fighter plane that was significantly lighter and less expensive than the F-15. The prototypes became the General Dynamics YF-16 and the Northrop YF-17. Aerial evaluation of the YF-17 began on June 9, 1974. The YF-17 lost the competition. Northrop, in conjunction with McDonnell-Douglas, modified the YF-17 to make it a suitable fighter for the U.S. Navy. In June, 1975 the U.S. Navy (USN) announced its decision to acquire the aircraft and designated it the F-18. On August 1, 1975 the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) announced it would outfit 4 squadrons with the aircraft to be designated.[i] There was to be a fighter version, the F-18, and an attack version, the A-18. The aircraft were designated F/A-18s.
The Canadian, Spanish, and Australian air forces also purchased the F/A-18. The Canadian version is officially designated the CF-188. The F/A-18s entered service with the U.S. Navy in January 1983.[ii]
McDonnell-Douglas merged with Boeing and Northrop Merged with Grumman. Grumman became Northrop Grumman. Boeing made E and F variants of the F/A-18. These aircraft were designated Super Hornets. These variants are 25% larger and have more powerful engines than previous Hornets. They are more maneuverable, have a greater range, and can carry a larger payload. The F/A-18E has a single seat and the F/A-18F has two tandem seats. The Super Hornets entered operational service in 1999.[iii]
Boeing developed an electronic version of the F/A-18, the EA-18G Growler. This aircraft joined the U.S. Navy fleet in 2008. The U.S. Navy celebrated Earth Day 2010, April 22, with the flight of an F/A-18F powered by a sustainable biofuel blend of 50% camelina and 50% JP-5 aviation fuel. This aircraft was nicknamed Green Hornet. The aircraft won seven consecutive awards for environmental excellence from the U.S. Navy. In August 2013 Boeing and Northrop Grumman began flight tests with an Advanced Super Hornet with conformal fuel tanks, an enclosed weapons pod, and other signature enhancements.[iv]
[i] U.S. Fighters by Lloyd S. Jones, © 1975 by Aero Publishers, Inc.
[ii] Boeing Aircraft’s F/A-18 Hornet page, http://www.boeing.com/history/products/fa-18-hornet.page, last accessed 1/26/19.
[iii] Boeing Aircraft’s F/A-18 Hornet page, http://www.boeing.com/history/products/fa-18-hornet.page, last accessed 1/26/19.
[iv] Boeing Aircraft’s F/A-18 Hornet page, http://www.boeing.com/history/products/fa-18-hornet.page, last accessed 1/26/19.
F/A-18 Hornet & Super Hornet Stats
F/A-18C & D
F/A-18E & F
Two F404-GE-402 enhanced performance turbofan engines. 17,700 pounds static thrust per engine.
Two F414-GE-400 turbofan engines. 22,000 pounds (9,977 kg) static thrust per engine.
51,900 pounds (23,537 kg).
66,000 pounds (29,932 kg).
1,089 nautical miles (1252.4 miles/2,003 km), clean plus two AIM-9s
1,275 nautical miles (2,346 kilometers), clean plus two AIM-9s
One M61A1/A2 Vulcan 20mm cannon; AIM 9 Sidewinder, AIM 7 Sparrow, AIM-120 AMRAAM, Harpoon, Harm, SLAM, SLAM-ER, Maverick missiles; Joint Stand-Off Weapon (JSOW); Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM); various general purpose bombs, mines and rockets.
One M61A1/A2 Vulcan 20mm cannon; AIM 9 Sidewinder, AIM-9X (projected), AIM 7 Sparrow, AIM-120 AMRAAM, Harpoon, Harm, SLAM, SLAM-ER (projected), Maverick missiles; Joint Stand-Off Weapon (JSOW); Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM); Data Link Pod; Paveway Laser Guided Bomb; various general purpose bombs, mines and rockets.
F/A-18 in Combat
F/A-18s first saw combat on March 24, 1986 when they supported A-6 and A-7 aircraft in the Gulf of Sidra. F/A-18 first used weapons in combat during Operation El Dorado Canyon, April 14, 1986. Hornets fired AGM-88 HARM missiles against active Libyan radars.[i]
On the first night of Operation Desert Storm an Iraqi MiG-25 shot down an F/A-18, killing the pilot, Lieutenant Commander Scott Speicher[ii]. Lieutenant Commander Mark Irby Fox and Lieutenant Nicholas Mongillo each shot down a MiG-21 while they were on a bombing mission.[iii] After they shot down the MiG-21s Lt. Cmdr. Fox and Lt. Mongillo completed their bombing mission. One F/A-18 was lost to ground fire and another was lost in a noncombat related incident in Operation Desert Storm. Some Hornets took direct hits from Surface to Air Missiles (SAMs) and returned to base. Ground personnel were able to repair the battle-damaged Hornets and these aircraft flew missions the next day. Thirty Canadian C-18s flew Operation Desert Storm missions and suffered no losses.
In July 1993 U.S. Navy and USMC F/A-18s began round-the-clock missions in support of NATO air operations over Bosnia-Herzegovina. Spanish EF-18s began supporting NATO’s Bosnia-Herzegovina mission in 1995. When NATO began airstrikes against Bosnian Serb positions on August 30, 1995 USN and USMC F/A-18s were in the first wave of strike aircraft.[iv]
The U.S. launched a four-day bombing campaign against Iraq on December 16, 1998 dubbed Operation Desert Fox. Tomahawk cruise missiles and carrier-based aircraft led the attack. This caught the Iraqis off guard.[v] U.S. Navy F/A-18s and 12 USMC F/A-18s were among the aircraft used in the campaign. This campaign was the first time American women flew strike aircraft in combat. Three women F/A-18 pilots from Carrier Wing 3, Lieutenants Carol Watts, Kendra Williams, and Lyndsi Bates, flew missions against Iraq on the first night of Operation Desert Fox.
On March 24, 1999 NATO began operations, called Operation Allied Force, against Yugoslavian forces in Kosovo. U.S. Navy and Marine Corps F/A-18s, Canadian Air Force CF-18s and Spanish Air Force EF-18s flew missions against Yugoslavian forces and infrastructure. Spanish EF-18s destroyed a petroleum storage tank and at least four buildings. Canadian CF-18s destroyed a barracks and an ammunition storage dump. U.S. Navy F/A-18s destroyed at least one bridge and damaged another. Among the F/A-18s targets were troop concentrations, vehicle convoys, artillery pieces, bunkers, and buildings. F/A-18s also acted as airborne forward air controllers. No F/A-18s were lost in Operation Allied Force.
On August 10, 2001 F/A-18s were part of a strike package that attacked Iraq. On September 10, 2001 F/A-18s from the USS Carl Vinson flew strike missions against Iraq. Four F/A-18s from the USS George Washington struck targets in Iraq on September 5, 2002.
U.S. Navy F/A-18s were among the first wave of attack aircraft in Operation Enduring Freedom. Enduring Freedom was the first time the F/A-18F Super Hornet was used in combat. On December 21, 2001 F/A-18s were among the aircraft that attacked a convoy and a compound. The attack destroyed 14 vehicles and killed 65 enemy troops. F/A-18s struck al-Qaeda’s Zawar Kili Camp numerous times in January 2002. Often in recent conflicts aircraft were tasked to destroy friendly equipment to prevent it from falling into enemy hands. On the 24th two F/A-18s destroyed a crashed CH-53E helicopter with two precision guided bombs. F/A-18s flew missions during Operation Anaconda. During this operation F/A-18s supported the crew of a downed Chinook helicopter. F/A-18s bombed Mullah Omar’s house. In another building attack F/A-18s killed Mohammed Atef and 50 other terrorists. In one attack a USMC F/A-18 missed its target with a 2,000-pound Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM). The bomb destroyed a Northern Alliance tank, killed six Northern Alliance Soldiers, and injured 5 U.S. troops. Besides bombing and strafing F/A-18s also flew overwatch, show of force, and reconnaissance missions. Among the F/A-18 pilots that flew missions in Afghanistan was USMC Lieutenant Colonel Amy “Krusty” McGrath. She flew 89 missions in Afghanistan.[vi]
In Operation Iraqi Freedom Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), and U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, F/A-18s flew missions against Iraqi forces. F/A-18s dropped the U.S. Navy’s first two 500-pound JDAMs. F/A-18s suffered no losses to enemy action. On April 2, 2003 a U.S. Army Patriot missile shot down an F/A-18C. Lieutenant Nathan D. White, the pilot, was killed in the shootdown. On May 2, 2005 two USMC F/A-18s crashed over Iraq. The crash was apparently a mid-air collision. Major John C. Spahr and Captain Kelly C. Hinz died in the crash. Another F/A-18 mid-air collision occurred on January 7, 2008. The USS Harry S. Truman rescued all three crew members. The EA-18G Growlers flew their first combat missions in Iraq.
In March 2011 U.S. and other NATO forces used airpower to support the revolution in Libya. EA-16Gs supported this operation. Canadian CF-188s flew over 700 sorties. On March 25, 2011 two CF-188s attacked an electronic warfare site.
When the Islamic State rose in Iraq and Syria in 2014 the U.S. and some other countries joined together in the fight against them. On August 8, 2014 F/A-18s attacked an Islamic State vehicle convoy and an artillery piece in separate attacks. The next day two F/A-18s from the USS George H.W. Bush escorted a C-17 and two C-130s on a humanitarian mission to Mount Sinjar. CF-188s have flown over 1,300 sorties against Islamic State forces. RAAF F/A-18 Super Hornets have also flown missions against the Islamic State. In one case an F/A-18 Weapons System Operator discovered a network of bunkers and caves. Allied air forces then bombed the network. The struggle against Islamic State forces in Syria is a multi-way struggle. On June 18, 2017 a U.S. Navy F/A-18E shot down a Syrian Air Force Su-22.
[i] Operation Prairie Fire and El Dorado Canyon, by Ravi Rikhye, 1/20/02, http://www.orbat.info/history/historical/libya/eldoradocanyon1986.html, last accessed 1/27/19.
[ii] For years after the conflict the U.S. military didn’t acknowledge any U.S. aircraft lost in air-air combat. Lt. Cmdr. Speicher’s remains were recovered during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
[iii] Airpower in the Gulf by James P. Coyne © 1992 by The Air Force Association.
[iv] Canadian CF-18 Hornets Ready To Serve In Bosnia, https://boeing.mediaroom.com/1997-08-19-Canadian-CF-18-Hornets-Ready-To-Serve-In-Bosnia, last accessed 2/2/19.
[v] Saddam Outfoxed, by Ronald Lewis, Air Forces Monthly, No 132, March 1999.
[vi] United States Naval Academy web site, https://www.usna.edu/PoliSci/facultybio/mcgrath.php, last accessed 2/6/19.
© 2019 Robert Sacchi