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F/A-18 Hornet

After more than 30 years of dedicated service to the Royal Australian Air Force, Australia's fleet of F/A-18A/B Classic Hornets was farewelled 29 November 2021, to make way for the fifth-generation F-35A Lightning II fighter. The remaining few active Classic Hornets—that have been employed in the defence of our nation since 1985—were farewelled today by Minister for Defence, the Hon Peter Dutton MP, Chief of the Air Force, Air Marshal Mel Hupfeld, AO, DSC, Air Force aviators and industry partners at a ceremony at RAAF Base Williamtown. The aircraft were from No. 75 Squadron, based at RAAF Base Tindal, near Katherine in the Northern Territory; the last Classic Hornet squadron to changeover to the F-35A. In successive Defence White Papers since 1976, Australia has outlined its defence strategy, which includes the control of the air and sea approaches to Australia. In October 1981, the Government of Australia selected the F/A-18 to fulfill the prescribed missions of the Royal Austrahan Arr Force (RAAF). A fleet of 75 aircraft was commissioned.

The decision to purchase F/A-l8 in 1981 followed several years of consideration by the Government of Australia. Desire for a new aircraft to replace Australias Mirage IIIs dated back to 1972. Rivals to the F/A-l8 at that time included Northrops P530 lightweight fighter, the Swedish Viggen, the MDC F-15, GD F-l6, Panavias Tornado, and the Dassault-Breguet Mirage 2000. In 1975. the RAAF dropped the Panavia Tornado and the MDC F-lS from the list because of cost and lack of assurances that production of both aircraft would continue through the year 2000.

The final contenders were the F-16, F/A-18, and the Mirage 2000. These finalists were analyzed for their suitability by an Australian Evaluation Group made up of operational, technical, and industrial specialists. An evaluation group determined that of the contenders, none was able to match the PIA-18 in all-weather avionics and twin engine safety, both important considerations for missions in and around harsh Australian territory.

Australia reduced its shortlist for the Mirage replacement to only two candidates in November 1979. To fill the Tactical Fighter Force (TFF) requirement, the RAAF selected between the General Dynamics F-16 and the McDonnell-Douglas F/A-18 Hornet. On 20 October 1981, the Hornet was selected.

The F/A-18 was a descendant of the Northrop YF-17, which had been the loser of the United States Air Force (USAF) light-weight fighter competition. On 2 May 1975, the US Navy announced the selection of McDonnell-Douglas-Northrop project, which became the F/A-18 Hornet, as a multi-mission aircraft with the 'F/A' designation signifying both fighter and attack roles. The Hornet resembled a YF-17, scaled up 12 per cent. The YF-18 prototype first flew on 18 November 1978.

The Royal Australian Air Force F/A-18A and F/A-18B Hornets are multi-role fighter aircraft, capable of air-to-air and air-to-ground missions. Both the single seat F/A-18A and twin seat F/A-18B can undertake air interception, air combat, close air support of ground troops, and interdiction of enemy supply lines including shipping.

This order was for 57 single-seat F/A-18As (serialled A21-1 to A21-57) and 18 two-seat F/A-18Bs (A21-101 to A21-118). The Hornet gave the Tactical Fighter Group several firsts, including a pulse-doppler look-down radar with a shoot-down capability, an inertial navigation system and a head-up display. The first RAAF Hornet, A21-101, made its first public appearance at the McAir plant at St Louis on 29 October 1984. Two aircraft, A21-101 and A21-102, were then ferried in a non-stop record-breaking trans-Pacific 15-hour flight on 17 May 1985.

The first operational RAAF Hornet unit was No 3 Squadron, reformed at Williamtown. The first two aircraft, A21-8 and A21-9, were collected from GAF at Avalon and delivered to Williamtown on 29 August 1986. These aircraft were in low-visibility squadron markings with the Southern Cross on the fins and the Fleur-de-Lis (from No 3 Squadron's heritage in France during World War I) and flash on the fuselage spine. This marking was later changed to the No 3 Squadron winged-bomb badge. No 3 Squadron celebrated its 75th anniversary in 1991 and one aircraft, A21-57, was adorned with special fin markings for the occasion. On 15 December 1988, the last RAAF dual-seat Hornet, A21-118, was delivered. Each squadron is allocated one or two dual-seaters, the Aircraft Research and Development Unit (ARDU) operate one, and the remainder equip 2OCU for their primary role of type conversion. The last RAAF Hornet, single-seater A21-57, was handed over on 12 May 1990.

Based at RAAF Base Williamtown and RAAF Base Tindal, the 71 F/A-18A/B Hornets are an integral part of Australias air combat capability. The fleet has undergone a major avionics upgrade to ensure effective operations for the next 10 years. The F/A-18A/Bs have participated in a range of exercises including Exercise Bersama Lima and Exercise Bersama Shield in Malaysia, Exercise Red Flag in Alaska and Exercise Pitch Black in the Northern Territory.

F/A-18F Super Hornet

The Royal Australian Air Force F/A-18F Super Hornet fleet gave Australia an upgraded air combat capability for both air-to-air and air-to-ground mission until the full introduction into service of the F-35 Lightning II. The twin seat F/A-18F Super Hornet can undertake air interception, air combat, close air support of ground troops and interdiction of enemy supply lines including shipping.

The F/A-18F Super Hornets were based at Number 1 and Number 6 Squadrons at RAAF Base Amberley. They have recently participated in a range of exercises and operations including Exercise Pitch Black in the Northern Territory, Exercise Bersama Shield on the Malaysian Peninsula, and Operation OKRA in the Middle East. The F/A-18F Super Hornets are larger than the F/A-18A/B Hornets. The aircraft's increased wing area allows them to carry more stores on their extra hardpoints.

Air Force had 24 F/A-18F Super Hornets, which will ensure that Australia's air combat capability edge is maintained until the full introduction into service of the planned F-35A Lightning II. The F/A-18F Super Hornet achieved Final Operational Capability in December 2012.

EA-18G Growler

The EA-18G Growler is an airborne electronic attack aircraft capable of providing force level electronic warfare support by disrupting, deceiving or denying a broad range of military electronic systems, including radars and communications.

The 12 EA-18G Growlers will be based at RAAF Base Amberley and will operate in conjunction with our air, land and sea forces. The capability will reduce the risk to our forces and improve their situational awareness. The aircraft will be able to support the full spectrum of Defence tasks, from peacetime evacuations to major conflicts. The aircraft is based on the F/A-18F Super Hornet airframe and fitted with additional avionics, enhanced radio frequency receivers, an improved communications suite and ALQ radio-frequency jamming pods which enable it to jam enemy systems. It will provide a complementary capability to the F/A-18F Super Hornet and the future F-35A Lighting II aircraft.

The $1.5 billion EA-18G Growler purchase includes the aircraft, required mission and support systems, training, and ongoing support to effectively develop and operate a Growler capability. Defence plans to achieve Initial Operational Capability (IOC) in 2018.


Specific offset activities requested by Australia included orders for Australian manufactured goods or services; part production or assembly; joint or collaborative ventures; software development; research and development; design and development; technology transfer, and certain types of technical training by the overseas suppliers.

The F/A-18 offset agreement provides for three distinct types of offsets. The first is called Defence Designated and Assisted Work. Under this program, elements of the F/A- 18 are required to be manufactured, assembled, and/or tested in Australia. As a result, Australia is the only country outside the United States where a production and assembly facility exists for F/A-18s. This portion of the F/A-18 offsets is valued at approximately $200 million dollars. Work for this portion of the offset was completed when the last Australian aircraft is finished in 1990.

The second element of the F/A-18 offset package is usually called Eligible Offsets. This is a firm commitment, with liquidated damages for non-fulfillment. Some of the eligible offsets are directly related to the F/A-18s (such as the production of parts for use in F/A-l8s in the United States), while others are indirect. However, in order to meet the Australian criteria for satisfying the requirements, the transaction must have technological significance and contribute to the self-reliance of the Australian defense industry through the establishment, enhancement, or maintenance of defense capabilities. The period of fulfillment for these offsets is 1981-1999.

The final aspect of the Australian F/A-l8 industrial compensation package was Best Efforts offsets which are in addition to the firm Eligible Offsets commitment. This includes such indirect offsets as the promotion of Australian exports and tourism. This portion of the offset package was primarily a marketing tool used by MDC to make its overall offset proposal more desirable.

The final assembly and test of the RAAF F/A-18 was carried out by ASTA, a 100 percent Govemment-owned company which until 1987 was known as the Government Air Factory. ATSA also produced forward fuselage installations, trailing edge flaps and shrouds, windscreen and canopy transparencies and assemblies, and the radome assembly. Specific components of the F/A-18 being produced in Australia in addition to those being produced by ASTA, as well as the name of the Australian and US.


In 1991 the RAAF commenced forward-looking infra-red (FLIR) pod operations with the Hornet. This pod enables the pilot to navigate and acquire the target at night by the passive use of FLIR, which is displayed on the head-up display. The target can then be designated with a laser spot tracker for the guidance of laser-guided munitions.

Since 1995, there had been an extensive program of RAAF F/A-18A/B aircraft and weapon-system upgrade projects that have budgets totalling $3.245 billion. By May 2012, expenditure on these projects totalled $2.784 billion, and as a result, the RAAFs F/A-18A/B aircraft were significantly more capable than they were when introduced into service between 1985 and 1990.

The new weapons capabilities acquired for the Hornet fleet under the upgrade program include new short-range and medium-range air-to-air missiles, precision-bombing capability, and long-range cruise missiles for ground-strike operations, specifically:

  • the AIM-132A Advanced Short Range Air-to-Air Missile (ASRAAM);
  • the AIM-120B and AIM-120C5 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM);
  • the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) air-to-ground bomb-guidance system;
  • the AGM-158A Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM).
The aircraft themselves have received significant mission-system upgrades, including:
  • upgrades of voice communications, the Identification Friend-or-Foe (IFF) system, and the inertial navigation system, as well as software for the radar-warning receivers, radars and new operational software;
  • new fire-control radar, and electronic-protection techniques for the radar;
  • a LINK 16 secure data link, an upgraded counter-measures dispenser, color displays, an upgraded digital moving-map system, the Joint Mission Planning System, and a helmet-mounted cueing system;
  • replacement of the radar-warning receiver, supplementation of the counter-measures dispenser and of jammer capability, and enhancement of the aircrafts data-recording capability;
  • an upgraded target-designation system;
  • a GPS protection system;
  • a Variable Message Format data system.

The RAAF has also received updated flight-training simulators that take account of the upgrades to the aircraft and weapons.

The upgrade of all 71 RAAF F/A-18A/B Hornet aircraft was due for completion by 2015, at a total cost of $3.245 billion. Together with the fleets original acquisition cost of $4.44 billion, the total acquisition cost of the F/A-18A/B Hornet fleet amounts to some $7.685 billion over the period 1985 2015, covering the aircraft, aircraft upgrades and weapons upgrades.

Service Life

The RAAFs 71 F/A-18A/B Hornet aircraft were assigned to three operational squadrons and a training squadron. The Hornets entered service during the period 198590, and were originally planned to be withdrawn from service in 201015. However, Government decisions made in 2006 and 2009 extended the withdrawal period to 201720, and in May 2012 the need for a possible further extension arose.

While F/A-18A/B operational availability and logistics support satisfy the RAAF, this is becoming increasingly difficult to achieve, because significant aged-aircraft issues are resulting in maintenance durations and costs becoming less predictable. Annual spending to sustain the Hornet fleet has averaged $118 million since 200001, but is trending towards $170 million per annum over the next several years. The cost of airframe corrosion-related repairs has also increased significantly, from $721 000 in 2007 to $1.367 million as estimated in 2011.

The F/A-18A/B Hornet was designed for a safe life of 6000 airframe hours under specified flight profiles. At the current [2012] fleet flying rate of 13 000 hours per year, reducing to 12 000 from 201314, there is capacity on that basis for the Hornet fleet to continue flying until the end of 2020. However, this would require continuing close management of flying hours, to ensure that safe-life limits are not exceeded, and an expansion of the safety-by-inspection regime to include airframe structures that are increasingly susceptible to wear or corrosion-initiated fatigue-cracking. Using the fleet beyond 2020 may well require an expanded, and hence more costly, safety-by-inspection regime, structural modifications and capability upgrades.

At the time the Defence White Paper 2009 was developed, the RAAFs air combat capability consisted of a fleet of 21 F-111C fighter-bomber aircraft and 71 F/A-18A/B Hornet aircraft. At the same time, the acquisition process to replace the F-111 fleet with 24 F/A-18F Super Hornets was underway. The RAAFs 24 F/A-18F Super Hornet aircraft were acquired in 2010, and were operated in two squadrons. These aircraft replaced the RAAFs 21 F-111 strike/reconnaissance aircraft, which were withdrawn from service in 2010. The Planned Withdrawal Date for the Super Hornets was 2025.


RAAF Hornets from Air Combat Group maintained a presence for the five-power Integrated Air Defence System (IADS) at Butterworth, Malaysia and Singapore, with deployments several times a year. In addition, Hornets have exercised in the Philippines, Thailand and United States. Since 2001, RAAF F/A-18 Hornets have also been deployed to Diego Garcia and the Middle East Area of Operations as a part of the RAAF's commitment to the International Coalition Against Terrorism, and have also flown aerial patrols within Australia as a security force during the Commonwealth Heads of Government conference and the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne.

The Hornet's first operational deployment was in November 2001 to May 2002 under Operation Slipper, following the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks. The Australian Government agreed to deploy F/A-18A/Bs to protect the major United States Air Force air base on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, which was being used to stage operations in Afghanistan. In 2014 to 2018, F/A-18A/B Hornet squadrons were deployed on Operation Okra as part of the Global Coalition to Defeat Daesh. Once again performing above expectations, on Okra the Classic Hornets flew 1937 missions, accumulating 14,780 flying hours, and delivering approximately 1,600 munitions.

The US Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) announced 28 April 2015 that the Australian government sought a possible sale and services for 24 Super Hornets and 12 Growler aircraft, whose sustainment support efforts will have software and hardware updates. DSCA noted that the sale will assist Australia to have a strong and ready self-defense capability, and will enable the Royal Australian Air Force to ensure the reliability and performance of its F/A-18 fleet. The State Department has made a determination approving a possible Foreign Military Sale to Australia for F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and EA-18G Growler Aircraft Sustainment and associated equipment, parts and logistical support for an estimated cost of $1.5 billion.

Air Forces 71 F/A-18A/B Hornets were replaced with 72 fifth-generation F-35A Lightning II aircraft from 2018. The F-35A JSF aircraft, which is to eventually replace both the F/A-18A/B Hornet and F/A-18F Super Hornet fleets, was expected to enter Full-Rate Production by 2019, by which time the oldest RAAF F/A-18 would have been in service for 34 years.

DESCRIPTION Single-seat multi-role fighter.
POWER PLANT Two 7258 kg (16,000 lb) thrust General Electric F404-GE-400 turbofans.
Length 17.06 m (56 ft);
wingspan 12.39 m (40 ft 8 in);
height 4.64 m (15 ft 3 in).
Empty 9355 kg (20 580 lb);
max 22 755 kg (50 060 lb).
Max speed 1915 km/h (1190 mph);
ceiling above 50,000 ft;
combat range 740 km (460 miles);
ferry range 3700 km (2000 miles).
  • Two AIM-7 Sparrow and
  • two AIM-9M Sidewinder AAMs,
  • 20mm M61 gun,
  • variety of air-to-surface weaponry, such as
  • Mk 82 bombs,
  • 70mm rockets,
  • Harpoon anti-ship missiles

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    Page last modified: 13-12-2021 16:10:48 ZULU