The F/A-18 Hornet is a modern, all-weather, carrier strike fighter. It is an
aircraft designed to fill the roles of fighter aircraft and attack aircraft.
Designed in the 1970s, it is in service with the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine
Corps, as well as several other nations. It fills the roles of fighter escort,
fleet air defense, suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD), interdiction,
close and deep air support, reconnaissance, and forward air control. Its
versatility and reliability have proven it to be a valuable carrier asset,
and its only drawback is its relative lack of range.
The F/A-18 design began as the Northrop YF-17, one of two competing designs for
the USAF's Lightweight Fighter Program, on which the USN was a minor partner.
For the Navy version, Northrop teamed with McDonnell Douglas to capitalize on
the latter's extensive experience in building carrier aircraft, including the
highly successful F-4. When the two services ended up choosing different aircraft,
McDonnell Douglas became the primary contractor for the Navy design(McDonnell
Douglas merged with Boeing in 1997).
The Navy's design concept originated from Vice Admiral Kent Lee. Drawing on his
experience as a navy aviator in WWII, where fighters hastily converted for
bombing with jury-rigged bomb racks proved to be versatile assets, capable of
defending themselves once they had dropped their bombs. He and his supporters
pushed for the VFAX concept, a cheap, lightweight strike fighter, as a counterpart
to the expensive and complex F-14 Tomcat then under development.
F/A-18 A/B Hornets were first test-flown in 1978, and entered service in 1983,
replacing the F-4 Phantom II and the A-7 Corsair II. In 1986, Hornets from the
USS Coral Sea (CV43) flew SEAD missions against Libyan air defenses during the
attack on Benghazi.
After a production run of 371 F/A-18As, manufacture shifted to the F/A-18C in
September 1987. As the A-6 Intruder was retired in the 1990s, its role was filled
by the F-A/18. The F/A-18 demonstrated its versatility and reliability during
Operation Desert Storm, shooting down enemy fighters and subsequently bombing
enemy targets with the same aircraft on the same mission, and breaking all records
for tactical aircraft in availability, reliability, and maintainability. The
aircraft's survivability was proven by Hornets taking direct hits from surface-to-air
missiles, recovering successfully, being repaired quickly, and flying again the next day.
In the 1990s the US Navy faced the retirement of its F-14 Tomcat, A-6 Intruder,
EA-6 Prowler aircraft without a proper replacement on the drawing board. To
answer this deficiency, the Navy developed the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. Despite
its designation, it is not an upgrade of the F/A-18 Hornet, but rather, a new,
larger airframe utilizing the design concepts of the Hornet. Until the deployment
of the F-35B, Hornets and Super Hornets will serve complementary roles in the
US Navy carrier arsenal.
The F/A-18 is a twin engine, mid-wing, multi-mission tactical aircraft. It is
superbly maneuverable, owing to its good thrust to weight ratio, digital
fly-by-wire control system, and leading edge extensions (LEX). The LEX allow
the Hornet to remain controllable at high angles of attack.
The Hornet was among the first aircraft to heavily utilize Multi-function displays,
which at the switch of a button allow the pilot to perform either fighter or attack
roles or both. This "force multiplier" capability gives the operational commander
more flexibility in employing tactical aircraft in a rapidly changing battle
scenario. It was the first Navy aircraft to incorporate a digital multiplex
avionics bus, enabling easy upgrades.
The Hornet is also notable for having been designed with maintenance in mind,
and as a result has required far less downtime than its counterparts, the F-14
Tomcat and the A-6 Intruder. Its mean time between failure is three times greater
than any other Navy strike aircraft, and requires half the maintenance time.
For example, whereas replacing the engine on the A-4 Skyhawk required removing
the aircraft's tail, the engine on the Hornet is attached at only three points
and can be directly removed without excessive disassembly.
The General Electric F404-GE-402 engines powering the Hornet were also innovative
that they were designed with operability, reliability, and maintainability first.
The result is an engine that is far more stall-resistant than its predecessors.
The F/A-18A and C are single-seat aircraft. The F/A-18B and D have two seats,
space for the rear cockpit being provided by a relocation of avionic equipment
and a 6% reduction in internal fuel; two-seat Hornets are otherwise fully
combat-capable. The B model is used primarily for training, while the D model is
configured as an all-weather strike craft. Whereas the B model has both seats
configured as pilot's stations, the D model's rear seat is configured for a flight
officer to assist in operating the weapons systems. The D model is primarily
operated by the U.S. Marine Corps in the night attack and
FFAC(Fast Forward Air Controller) roles.
The F/A-18C and D models are the result of a block upgrade in 1987 incorporating
upgraded radar, avionics, and the capacity to carry new missiles such as the
AIM-120 AMRAAM air-to-air missile and AGM-65 Maverick and AGM-84 Harpoon
air-to-surface missile. Other upgrades include the Martin-Baker NACES
(Navy Aircrew Common Ejection Seat), and a self-protection jammer. A synthetic
aperture ground mapping radar enables the pilot to locate targets in poor
visibility conditions. C and D models delivered since 1989 also include an
improved night attack capability, consisting of the Hughes AN/AAR-50 thermal
navigation pod, the Loral AN/AAS-38 Nite Hawk FLIR
(forward looking infrared array) targeting pod, night vision goggles, and two
full-color (previously monochrome) MFDs and a color moving map.
Beginning in 1991, Hornets were upgraded to the F404-GE-402 engine, providing
a 20% increase in thrust. In 1992, the original Hughes AN/APG-65 radar was
replaced with the Hughes (now Raytheon) AN/APG-73, a faster and more capable
radar. The A model Hornets upgraded to the AN/APG-73 are designated A+. Since
1993, the Nite Hawk also has a designator/ranger laser, allowing it to
In addition, 48 D model Hornets are configured for reconnaissance as the
F/A-18D (RC) version, substituting the gun with a sensor package.
Production of the F/A-18C ended in 1999.
F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet
The newest models, the single seat E and two-seat F Super Hornet, carry over the
name and design concept of the original F/A-18, but are extensively redesigned,
with a new, 30% larger airframe. The Super Hornet has a stretched fuselage and
larger wings, leading-edge extensions, and horizontal tails; the GE F414 engines
are a more powerful development of the F/A-18's F404; the avionics suite is
upgraded but broadly similar. The E/F began when McDonnell Douglas proposed an
enlarged Hornet to replace the cancelled A-12 project. (The ambitious and very
expensive A-12 design was to have been a stealthy replacement for the US Navy
A-6 and US Air Force attack aircraft.) Congress was unwilling to fund a "new"
aircraft, however the proposed F/A-18E could be represented as a mere upgrade,
and a $3.8 billion development contract was signed in December 1992. The first
of the new aircraft was rolled out at McDonnell Douglas September 17, 1995, and
the Super Hornet is currently in production, with two Super Hornet squadrons in
the USS Nimitz (CVN 68) airwing: VFA 14 (F/A-18E) and VFA 41 (F/A-18F).
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