Lon Nordeen profiles F/A-18 Hornet operators worldwide
The F/A-18 Hornet was one of the most successful fourth-generation fighters. It was designed from the start to perform multiple missions, including air-to-air, air-to-ground and reconnaissance, with a single platform. The F/A-18 Hornet strike fighter was in production from 1980 to 2000 and 1,047 aircraft were delivered to the US Navy and US Marine Corps, plus 431 to the air arms of Australia, Canada, Finland, Kuwait, Malaysia, Spain and Switzerland. Hornets fought in both Gulf Wars, over Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen and in many other operations.
There were 21 production Lots of the F/A-18, with many different configurations that included the single-seat F/A-18A and two-seat F/A-18B and the improved F/A-18C and F/A-18D respectively. This included two different radars (APG-65 and APG-73), two different sets of engines (the General Electric F404-GE-400 and higher thrust F404-GE-402) and many different avionics and systems configurations. New systems have dramatically enhanced the Hornet’s combat performance: for example, the APG-73, ASQ-228 Advanced Targeting Forward Looking Infrared (ATFLIR) pod, Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM), AGM-154 Joint Stand-Off Weapon (JSOW), laser-guided bombs and the Joint Helmet- Mounted Cueing System (JHMCS) with the AIM-9X Sidewinder air-to-air missile.
US NAVY HORNET SQUADRONS
NAS Fallon Nevada
NAWDC ‘Top Gun’ F/A-18A, F/A-18C
NAS Oceana, Virginia
VFA-15 ‘Valions’ F/A-18C
VFA-34 ‘Blue Blasters’ F/A-18C
VFA-37 ‘Bulls’ F/A-18C
VFA-83 ‘Rampagers’ F/A-18C
VFA-106 ‘Gladiators’ F/A-18B to D
VFA-131 ‘Wildcats’ F/A-18C
VFC-12 ‘Fighting Omars’ F/A-18C
NAS Patuxent River, Maryland
US Navy Test Pilots School F/A-18A, F/A-18B
VX-23 ‘Salty Dogs’ F/A-18A to D
NAS Pensacola, Florida
Naval Flight Demonstration Squadron F/A-18B, F/A-18C
NAWS China Lake, California
VX-31 ‘Dust Devils’ F/A-18D
VX-9 ‘Vampires’ F/A-18C, F/A-18D
NAS JRB New Orleans, Louisiana
VFA-204 ‘River Rattlers’ F/A-18A+
The F/A-18A and F/A-18B entered service with Strike Fighter Squadron 125 (VFA-125) ‘Raiders’, the US Navy’s first Hornet Fleet Replacement Squadron at Naval Air Station Lemoore, California in 1981, and went on to serve with 34 Strike Fighter Squadrons (designated VFA), five Air Test and Evaluation Squadrons (designated VX) and various support squadrons. The 2016 US Naval Aviation Plan calls for all remaining F/A-18 Legacy Hornet squadrons (most based at Naval Air Station Oceana, Virginia) to convert to the Super Hornet or F-35C Lightning II by 2026.
The intense flying rate experienced by US Navy, US Marine Corps and some international Hornet squadrons due to sustained operations over Afghanistan, Iraq, other military operations, and training has taken a heavy toll. The F/A-18 was designed to meet US Navy specifications for a 6,000-flight-hour service life. Structural evaluations, repairs and life extension programmes have been in process since the 1990s to allow the F/A-18 to remain in service well beyond its initial service life. As of early 2016, 91% of US Navy and US Marine Corps Hornets had flown in excess of 6,000 flight hours, nearly 20% had flown more than 8,000 hours and the high-time F/A-18s had achieved 9,575 hours. Hornets have also suffered a series of issues and problems with their on-board oxygen generation systems that provide oxygen to the pilots and naval flight officers.
In 2015, the then Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Jonathan Greenert, commented about the challenges of extending the life of the Hornet: “We’re finding that it’s very complicated and it’s harder than we imagined.”
Naval Air Systems Command’s F/A-18 and EA-18G Program Office, PMA-265 based at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland is responsible for the life cycle of the F/A-18 Hornet, from concept to delivery to sustainment and finally retirement.
PMA-265’s fleet maintenance personnel work diligently to keep Hornets routinely modified and upgraded to keep them viable with the primary goal of keeping the aircraft safe for flight and operationally relevant for as long as the US Navy and US Marine Corps needs them to be. When more extensive maintenance is required NAVAIR’s Fleet Readiness Centers, the modern term used for a Naval Air Depot, provide extensive upkeep and repair. The Service Life Extension Program (SLEP) is a good example, a programme designed to increase the original 6,000 flight-hour design life, to a SLEP goal of 10,000 flight hours. This will allow the remaining inventory of legacy A, B, C and D-model Hornets to last until the type’s current planned sundown in 2030.
All Hornets built in Lots 1 through 16 are being given a SLEP at the Fleet Readiness Centers where the aircraft centre barrel section, wing leading edges and other elements are inspected and replaced as needed. Later production Lot aircraft go through inspections and repairs. Since the year 2000 more than 350 Hornets have undergone major rework to keep them flying.
As F/A-18 Hornets reach flight times between 6,000 and 8,000 hours, many require additional inspections, costly repairs and life extension updates due to cracking and corrosion. Such is the extent of these problems that the readiness centers have had problems completing Hornet repairs on schedule. During the FY2017 US Senate Armed Services Committee hearings on March 15, 2016, Admiral Michelle Howard stated: “The Fleet Readiness Centers face a significant backlog of work, particularly for the service life extension of our legacy Hornets.”
Collectively, the air forces of seven nations, Australia, Canada, Finland, Kuwait, Malaysia, Spain and Switzerland, operate 409 legacy Hornets. Each nation’s relationship with PMA- 265 is one of both customer and partner, and as such each nation works with the program office for sustainment, enhanced capability and upgrades to their respective Hornet fleet.
There are three ways a nation can manage its Hornet fleet: by commercial means, by government to government agreement and by a means internal to its air arm. This three-pronged approach helps to develop requirements and manage a nation’s fleet in much the same way as the US Navy does.
Each nation shares similar objectives to the US Navy in terms of keeping the inventory relevant and operational for as long as required, but mission requirements, service and fatigue life vary. Successful examples include Switzerland’s Upgrade 25 programme, Canada’s consideration for extending service life, Finland’s midlife upgrade programme, and Australia’s recent centre barrel replacement.
US Marine Corps
Over time, the Hornet has equipped 22 Marine Fighter Attack squadrons (designated VMFA). In 1982, the first Hornet squadron, VMFA-314 ‘Black Knights’ received its aircraft and the last production Hornet, a Lot 21 F/A-18D, was delivered to Marine Strike Fighter (All Weather) Attack Squadron 225 (VMFA[AW]-225) in 2000. In 2014, the US Marine Corps decided to accelerate introduction of the F-35B and F-35C Lightning II, retire the AV-8B Harrier II by 2025 and sustain its gradually shrinking fleet of Hornets to 2030.
During a US Senate hearing in March 2016, Lieutenant General Jon Davis, Deputy Commandant Aviation, HQ US Marine Corps, was asked how many Hornets the US Marine Corps should have ready to go. He replied: “Under the current, shrunken force structure, 150: a training squadron of 30 and 12 combat squadrons of ten aircraft each.
Until 18 months ago, that figure was 174 – 30 training aircraft and 12 squadrons of 12 aircraft each – but the Marines decided to shrink each squadron to reflect the reality of insufficient aircraft.
“I pulled up our readiness data just yesterday. We have 87 aircraft that were mission capable. Out of those 87 airplanes, I put 30 airplanes in the training squadron and 40 airplanes deployed forward. There’s not a lot left for the [remaining] units to train with. The US Marine Corps aviation fleet is ageing. Last year, 19% of marine planes and helicopters – 159 aircraft – were out of action long term for maintenance reasons.”
The depots are working to speed up legacy Hornet overhaul deliveries and Boeing is refurbishing 30 retired F/A-18Cs to overcome inventory shortfalls. The first of the refurbished Hornets were delivered recently to Marine Strike Fighter Squadron 115 (VMFA-115) ‘Silver Eagles’ at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, South Carolina.
Andy Vest, Director of the Boeing US Navy/ US Marine Corps Sustainment Team, said: “As the platform’s original equipment manufacturer, our engineers and technicians in Jacksonville, Florida, and St Louis, Missouri, partner our customers to work innovative solutions that help keep these jets in service.”
In addition to structural enhancements, US Marine Corps Hornets are receiving a variety of new systems to keep them tactically viable until retirement. This includes upgraded cockpit displays, the AAQ-28 Litening Gen 4 targeting pod, APG-65 and APG-73 radar updates, AIM-9X Block II Sidewinder (2017) and AIM-120D AMRAAM air-to-air missiles, Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System 2.75-inch laser-guided rocket (2017–2018) and the AGM-65E2 laser-guided air-toground missile.
For survivability, the Hornets are receiving the ALR-67(V)3 radar warning receiver, and the ALQ-165 Airborne Self-Protection Jammer, and for interoperability high order language mission computers (2020), and Multifunctional Information Distribution System Joint Tactical Radio Systems (2017). The US Marine Corps is already developing new tactics and operational concepts to allow upgraded Hornets to integrate with fifth-generation F-35B and F-35C Lightning IIs.
US MARINE CORPS HORNET SQUADRONS
MAG-11, MCAS Miramar, California
VMFAT-101 ‘Sharpshooters’ F/A-18A to D
VMFA(AW)-225 ‘Vikings’ F/A-18D
VMFA-232 ‘Red Devils’ F/A-18C
VMFA-314 ‘Black Knights’ F/A-18C
VMFA-323 ‘Death Rattlers’ F/A-18C
MAG-12, MCAS Iwakuni, Japan
VMFA(AW)-242 ‘Bats’ F/A-18D
MAG-31, MCAS Beaufort, South Carolina
VMFA-115 ‘Silver Eagles’ F/A-18A+
VMFA-122 ‘Crusaders’ F/A-18C
VMFA(AW)-224 ‘Flying Bengals’ F/A-18D
VMFA-251 ‘Thunderbolts’ F/A-18C
VMFA-312 ‘Checkerboards’ F/A-18C
VMFA(AW)-533 ‘Hawks’ F/A-18D
MAG-41, NAS JRB Fort Worth, Texas
VMFA-112 ‘Cowboys’ F/A-18A+
Hornet operators have long collaborated to share data on support, maintenance issues and upgrades. Working through Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR), McDonnell-Douglas/Boeing, industry and governments, Hornet operators have coordinated structural life assessment and management concepts because the fighter has remained in service far longer than its initially planned 20-year service life. Countries have also shared the costs for upgrades, new weapons integration and added capabilities.
In 1980, Canada agreed to buy 138 Hornets; 98 single-seat CF-18As and 40 two-seat CF-18Bs. These aircraft equipped squadrons at CFB Cold Lake, Alberta and CFB Bagotville, Quebec, and were assigned to the 1st Canadian Air Group based at Soellingen in West Germany. Twenty-six CF- 18s participated in the Gulf War, flying from Qatar. Canadian CF-18s also participated in operations over the former Yugoslavia in 1999 and over Libya in 2011. There were 1,378 CF-18 sorties flown over Iraq and Syria in 2014–2016.
Canadian and Australian Governments and industry collaborated from 1988 to 2006 on the international follow-on structural test programme and other programmes to evaluate options to extend the life of their Hornets. More than 40 CF-18 aircraft have received new centre barrel modifications and most other jets received structural upgrades.
From 2001 to 2010, 62 CF-18As and 18 CF-18Bs went through the two-phase Incremental Modernisation Project. Phase 1 added the APG-73 radar, improved communications with the ARC-210 radio, GPS/INS navigation systems, AYK-14 XN-8 mission computers and a new APX-111 Combined Interrogator and Transponder identification friend or foe (IFF) system. In Phase 2, Boeing and Canadian industry added Link 16 networking, the JHMCS, new cockpit displays, electronic warfare systems, the AAQ-33 Sniper targeting pod and additional air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons.
ROYAL CANADIAN AIR FORCE CF-18 HORNET SQUADRONS
3 Wing, CFB Bagotville, Quebec
425 Tactical Fighter Squadron ‘Alouette’
433 Tactical Fighter Squadron ‘Porcupine’
4 Wing, CFB Cold Lake, Alberta
401 Tactical Fighter Squadron ‘Ram’
409 Tactical Fighter Squadron ‘Nighthawks’
410 Tactical Fighter Squadron ‘Cougar’
The Canadian Government invested into the Joint Strike Fighter programme to prepare for procurement of the F-35A as a replacement for the CF-18. However, later administrations did not confirm F-35 procurement and the current administration is now looking at all options.
In 1981, the Government of Australia purchased 75 Hornets, comprising 57 F/A- 18As and 18 F/A-18Bs. Two aircraft were built in the United States and the remainder assembled at the Government Aircraft Factories plant at Avalon in Victoria, Australia between 1985 and 1990. These aircraft equipped an operational conversion unit (OCU) and three fighter squadrons at RAAF Base Williamtown, Queensland and RAAF Base Tindal, Northern Territories. Royal Australian Air Force Hornets participated in the Iraq conflict in February–April 2003 and are currently deployed on Operation Okra over Iraq and Syria against ISIS.
Starting in 1999, Australia committed to Project Air 5376, known as the Hornet Upgrade Programme, to address structural issues and modernise the fleet to keep the aircraft current until replacement. Ten Royal Australian Air Force Hornets received new centre barrels in Canada and the others had work done in Australia. This three-phase programme also replaced the APG-65 radar with the more capable APG-73 and added the AAQ-28 Litening targeting pod, updated mission computers, communications including Link 16, JHMCS and updated electronic countermeasures. Later programmes added weapons such as the AIM-120 AMRAAM and AIM-132 ASRAAM air-to-air missiles, the AGM-158 Joint Air-to- Surface Stand-off Missile (JASSM) and Joint Direct Attack Munitions.
Commander Air Combat Group, Royal Australian Air Force, Air Commodore Steven Roberton commented: “I have had the privilege of flying around 3,000 hours in A through F models: A and B-model Hornets since the early 1990s; a subsequent tour with an operational US Marine Corps squadron in the late 1990s gave me experience with C and D models; and then as the lead of the Royal Australian Air Force’s Super Hornet introduction in 2007 to 2011, I flew the E and F model Super Hornets with the US Navy. The Hornet is fun to fly, designed by and for pilots. The jet is very reliable and well proven in all air combat roles. In a turning fight, or in a complex air support environment, there is simply no other fourth-generation fighter in the world I’d rather be in.”
The Royal Australian Air Force’s classic Hornet fleet today includes 71 aircraft. The OCU and No.3 Squadron will begin phasing out its F/A-18s in 2018 and all Hornets are planned to be replaced by F-35As by 2023.
ROYAL AUSTRALIAN AIR FORCE F/A-18 HORNET SQUADRONS
RAAF Base Williamtown, Queensland
No.2 Operational Conversion Unit
RAAF Base Tindal, Northern Territories
After an extensive evaluation, in 1982 the Spanish Government selected the F/A- 18 as the future Ejército del Aire (Spanish Air Force) fighter. The initial planned buy included 60 single-seat EF-18As and 12 two-seat EF-18Bs designated as the C.15 and CE.15 respectively.
Twenty-four former US Navy F/A-18As were purchased with deliveries in 1995– 1998. These Hornets were assigned to Ala 46, 462 Escadron at Gando Air Base in the Canary Islands and serve primarily in the air defence role. Spanish Hornets supported NATO operations over Bosnia and Kosovo and helped enforce the no-fly zone over Libya in 2011.
EJÉRCITO DEL AIRE HORNET SQUADRONS
Ala 15, Zaragoza Air Base
153 Escadron (the operational conversion unit)
Ala 12, Torrejón Air Base
Ala 46, Gando Air Base
The original Hornets have been upgraded twice; first to EF-18-plus standard and then to EF-18M mid-life update configuration.
During 1993 and 1994 a team that included the Ejército del Aire Logistics Centre, Spanish and US industry performed structural enhancements and added upgraded mission computers, software, hardware, the AAS-38 Nitehawk FLIR and laser designation pod to complete the EF-18A+ and EF-18B+ upgrade. This first upgrade enabled employment of the AIM-120 AMRAAM air-to-air missile, AGM-65 Maverick air-to-ground missile and carriage of a wider variety of weapons configurations.
From 2003 to 2016, the remaining Ejército del Aire Hornets (six have been lost in accidents) went through a unique Spanish mid-life upgrade, after which they were designated EF-18Ms. This included a new head-up display, communications systems, IFF, cockpit displays, an upgraded central computer, the addition of the Rafael Litening FLIR or Reccelite pods, and the Thales helmet mounted cueing system to improve targeting.
The EF-18M added new weapons; the AIM-2000 IRIS-T (Infrared Imaging System- Tail/Thrust-vector controlled air-to-air missile and the KEDP-350 Taurus conventionallyarmed stand-off missile. The Hornets are expected to serve in the Ejército del Aire for many years.
The Al Quwwat Al Jawwaiya Al Kuwaitiya (Kuwait Air Force) bought 32 F/A-18C and eight F/A-18D Hornets in 1988 to replace its A-4KUs and Mirage F1s. These aircraft were delivered between 1991 and 1993 and were equipped with the more powerful F404- GE-402 engines.
The aircraft serve with 9 and 25 Fighter Attack Squadrons at Al Jaber Air Base and have received modifications to address structural issues and enhance their tactical capabilities. Kuwait Air Force Hornets flew missions over Iraq during Operation Southern Watch in the 1990s and have supported operations in Yemen since 2014.
In 1989, a competition was launched to replace the Ilmavoimet Flyvapnet’s (Finnish Air Force) MiG-21s and Drakens for the air defence role, and in 1992 the Hornet was selected. Finland bought seven F-18Ds produced in St Louis and 67 F-18C kits, which were assembled by Patria in Finland between 1996 and 2000.
The Finnish Hornets were all lateproduction Lot 17 F-18C and F-18Ds equipped with the APG-73 radar, high-thrust F404-GE-402 engines, a unique Finnish data link and armed with the AIM-120B AMRAAM and AIM-9M air-to-air missiles.
FINNISH F/A-18 STATUS REPORT
The Ilmavoimet Flyvapnet’s (Finnish Air Force) 62 F-18s (55 F-18C and seven F-18Ds) form the backbone of Finnish air defence. The F-18s stand on quick reaction alert at air bases across the country. In time of a crisis, the Hornet fleet maintains a readiness to shift its focus to defensive counter air missions.
Under peace time conditions, Hornets are normally located at the main operating bases (Kuopio-Rissala, Rovaniemi and Pirkkala).
If a need arises to adjust readiness level, either in peace time or in the event of a crisis, aircraft may be dispersed to road bases and other remote operating locations. Most Hornets are assigned to the Lapland and Karelia Air Commands, flown by 11 and 31 Fighter Squadrons respectively. Each operational squadron is responsible for training and air policing missions and flies the majority of the annual F-18 flight hour allocation. There isn’t a separate operational conversion unit; instead new pilots complete their advanced and tactical Hawk training syllabus, and thereby graduate from the Air Force Academy at Jyväskylä and move straight to an operational unit.
The Finnish Hornet fleet has been subject to systematic updates, some minor, others full-scale upgrades. Partners have included Boeing, Naval Air Systems Command as an upgrade design organisation and equipment supplier, and the Finnish defence company Patria, which provides life cycle support services for the aircraft.
Full modernisation was split between two separate mid-life upgrades, designated MLU 1 and MLU 2, which were incorporated between 2004 and 2010, and between 2010 and 2016, respectively.
The focus of MLU 1 was to revamp the Hornet’s air-to-air capability. The aircraft were fitted with provisions for a helmet-mounted sighting system to improve close-range combat capability and the AIM-9X Sidewinder missile. A new APX-111 Combined Interrogator and Transponder identification friend or foe (IFF) system for easier identification during combat was also fitted. These features were supplemented by a tactical moving map capability.
The primary objective of MLU 2 is to give Finnish Hornets an air-to-surface capability, by integrating direct-attack smart bombs, medium-range glide weapons, long-range stand-off missiles, and the AAQ-28 Litening targeting pod.
MLU 2 further increases the Hornet’s capability in the air combat role and introduces modern self-protection, communication and information distribution systems. One aim is to make the aircraft more interoperable in joint operations and improve its interfacing with civil air traffic control services. MLU 2 will bring updated navigation systems and the Link 16-based Multifunctional Information Distribution System (MIDS). Large liquid crystal displays will be installed and updates to the Litening pod, Mode S IFF, radios with 8.33Khz channel spacing, and the ALR-67(V2) radar warning receiver.
MLU 2 includes structural strengthening and purchase of line replaceable units and other spares to ensure the availability of aircraft at operational units until the end of the type’s life cycle. The entire upgrade programme and associated purchase of materials has led to significant synergy benefits through cooperation with other Hornet users.
MLU 2 is in its final stage. Modifications to all MLU 2 airframes are being carried out by Patria. The project to provide Hornets with an air-to-surface capability has reached the weapons integration phase. Three variants of the Joint Direct Attack Munition – the 2,000lb GBU-31(V)1 and GBU-31(V)3, the 1,000lb GBU-32 and the 500lb GBU-38 – were tested in 2015 with four live drops. Additionally, the AGM-154C Joint Stand-Off Weapon has been integrated to meet the stand-off weapon release option.
Two Ilmavoimet Flyvapnet F-18C Hornets arrived at Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake in California in mid-April where the compatibility of the AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Strike Missile with the Hornet and its performance were due to be verified with ground and flight tests. The detachment will return to Finland in September 2017.
At the start of 2016 the Ilmavoimet Flyvapnet Hornet fleet was given an initial operational capability for the JDAM and JSOW air-to-surface weapons and is expected to receive full operational capability at the beginning of 2018.
Using stress modelling, Patria and the Ilmavoimet Flyvapnet have designed the Hornet operational load programme to monitor fatigue life expended (FLE). According to the data collected, Finnish Hornets will reach their expected 4,500-hour fatigue life without need for further airframe work, taking the Hornet to its out-of-service date of 2030. One reason for a higher FLE index usage than for most F-18 users is caused by the way the Ilmavoimet Flyvapnet operates its Hornets. Training areas are very close to the main air bases, so there is no need for long transit flights.
With MLU 2 fully fielded, the Hornet will be at the peak of its life cycle performance and maintain its prowess until replaced by a modern multirole fighter. However, the combined effect of MLU 1 and MLU 2 will not extend the airframe’s service life since the cost-effective development of the aircraft’s capabilities to meet the technological advances in air warfare, foreseen over the coming decades, would not be feasible. Finland is not planning any further F-18 MLU programmes; instead the Ministry of Defence has launched the HX programme to replace the Hornet by 2025 with multirole fighters. Finnish Defence Forces Logistics Command has sent requests for information to the governments of the UK (Typhoon), France (Rafale), Sweden (Gripen NG) and the United States (Super Hornet and the F-35 Lightning II). The invitation to tender for the HX programme will be released in 2018 and the procurement decision is scheduled for 2021.
The F-18 is very agile, easy to handle, and pilot to vehicle harmonisation is carried out effectively, which is extremely important in modern air warfare. Finnish F-18 simulation systems and a virtual training environment maximise the effectiveness of the pilot training system. In a beyond visual range scenario, the Hornet’s sensors provide comprehensive situational awareness and the aircraft’s performance and weapons allow tactical freedom and a first shot capability. In the visual arena, JHMCS and AIM-9X are a lethal combination. The F-18 is all-weather capable and its Link 16 systems and sensors allow very flexible use of different tactics. MLU 2 will enable Finnish pilots to exercise the full potential of the Hornet in joint and combined operations with a wide range of air-to-air and air-to-ground capabilities. Lieutenant Colonel Tuukka Elonheimo, AFCOMFIN A3 Operations Division, Chief of Flight Operations
The Hornets were assigned to HavLLv11 (11 Fighter Squadron) at Rovaniemi, HaLLv21 at Pirkkala and HaLLv31 at Kuopio- Rissala. Defence reforms in 2014 meant most F-18s were assigned to HaLLv11 and HaLLv31. Pirkkala has now become the Air Combat Centre, responsible for developing air warfare tactics and flight-testing the Hornet fleet.
EJÉRCITO DEL AIRE EF-18: EVOLUTION AND INTERNATIONALISATION
The EF-18’s introduction to Ejército del Aire service provided a step change in the capability and quality of its combat air force and enabled Spain to participate in international operations like Operations Deny Flight, Deliberate Force and Allied Force during the Balkan wars. With the EF- 18, the Spanish Government had an asset suitable for military intervention anywhere in the world.
The availability of a system capable of projecting military power outside of Spain contributed decisively to the change of mentality shown by Spanish society towards the air force. It marked a turning point in public opinion and involved moving from a traditional model of territorial defence to one that was, for example, ready to ‘impose’ peace in Bosnia-Herzegovina in a NATO mission. The EF-18 allowed the translation of political will into actions aimed at ensuring stability, or at least providing a certain degree of deterrence.
The technological return to Spain’s aerospace and defence industry amounted to approximately 10% of the EF-18 programme cost as technology transfers. Clearance for Spanish companies to co-produce equipment for the EF-18, in a quantity greater than previous programmes such as the Northrop F-5 or the Mirage F1, allowed Spain to develop its own defence capabilities, which has contributed to the penetration by the Spanish companies into international markets.
Having access to technology that facilitates modification of the aircraft’s hardware and software by organic (air force) and national means, enabled the EF-18 weapon system to use indigenously produced weapons and to update electronic equipment when it became obsolete. This was the case with the new tactical mission computer, which made it possible to display imagery captured by the Litening and Reccelite targeting pods, and provide improved management of mission data, to give the pilot greater situational awareness.
Most of the expertise is held by personnel assigned to the Centro Logístico de Armamento y Experimentación (CLAEX), which provides the Ejército del Aire greater independence in providing the EF-18 with different versions of operational flight programme software tailored to Spanish needs.
The arrival of the EF-18 was a pioneering programme represented the modernisation of Spanish air power in terms of the equipment used and the training of personnel including computer-assisted theoretical instruction, briefing and debriefing systems based on 3D representations, the hands-off throttle and stick concept and the implementation of air-tosurface night attack with laser target designation. The Multifunctional Information Distribution System provided pilots with a substantial increase in situational awareness, and adoption of new tactics also resulted in improvements to training. Equally, new precision-guided weapons with a targeting pod equipped with an integrated laser designator, also added to capability of Spanish air power.
The EF-18 mid-life update continued the evolution of the operational flight programme software and integration of the KEPD-350 TAURUS conventionally-armed stand-off missile, the 1,000lb (454kg) EGBU-16 precision-guided bomb and the IRIS-T air-to-air missile.
The increased weapon payload capability of the EF-18 was made possible by extending the data bus to each wingtip to enable carriage of missiles like the IRIS-T, modernisation of the APG-65 radar with an interrogator capability, fusion of inertial and GPS data into the weapons management system, and fitting two new systems; the SPAI-900 electronic warfare suite and the Scorpion visor, an integrated helmet-mounted sight that provides target designation capability.
Twenty-four F/A-18A+ standard Hornets were bought from the US Navy, all of which were modernised (mainly by the CLAEX) to a standard equivalent to the original EF-18A configuration. The F/A-18A+ aircraft have participated in major multinational NATO exercises that include Spring Flag in Italy, Bold Avenger in Norway and Anatolian Eagle in Turkey.
Despite the EF-18’s modernised configuration standard, the Ejército del Aire will have to replace the aircraft and is rigorously evaluating Future Combat Air Systems based on a ‘system of systems’ approach that will combine piloted fighter aircraft and remotely piloted systems.
It is not the case of just replacing one platform for another, but rather of relying on what new technologies offer to provide the desired effects (such as accelerating the decision cycle using ISR and sensors embedded in a multiplatform system or taking advantage of technology that allows a new fighter to avoid A2/AD areas of enemy air defence). The reasoning is similar to that followed by NATO in its joint air power strategy for the design of a new air combat fighter aircraft. Various options are available to Spain, such as the Advanced Super Hornet or Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II. The really important aspect of the new acquisition process is timing: it needs to begin as soon as possible to enable the first aircraft to enter service in the middle of the next decade, when the first EF-18s are scheduled to retire.
The number of aircraft and the ratio of piloted to non-piloted platforms depends of many factors and will be the subject of a full study; it is not possible to quote an exact number today.
The non-piloted combat aircraft could arise from European initiatives already in progress, such as the Neuron UCAV prototype currently in flight testing.
Thirty years after the EF-18’s arrival, the Ejército del Aire finds itself at another historic point: a new period in which a large component of its combat air capability needs replacing and in the none-too-favourable context of defence investment. All the weapons systems, including the most outstanding and versatile, have an expiry date and the end of the EF-18 is on the way.
Spain needs to deliberate replacement of its Hornet fleet, and provide the Ejército del Aire with air superiority and ground attack capabilities that will endure in the future. Colonel Juan Martin-Albo, Ejército del Aire
ILMAVOIMET FLYVAPNET F-18 HORNET SQUADRONS
Rovaniemi Air Base
Pirkkala Air Base
Finland has upgraded its Hornets in a twostep mid-life update programme, with MLU 1 taking place from 2004 to 2010 and then MLU 2 from 2010 to 2016 (see panel). The country is now starting its HX programme to replace the F-18 after 2025.
The Swiss Government selected the F/A-18 to be its future fighter for national air defence in 1988, and in 1993 purchased 26 F/A- 18Cs, eight F/A-18Ds and one fatigue test aircraft for the Schweizer Luftwaffe (Swiss Air Force). These late-production Lot 18 aircraft included the APG-73 radar, F404-GE-402 engines and strengthened wing spars. Two Hornets were delivered directly from the production line in St Louis and the remainder assembled from kits in country at Emmen between 1996 and 1999. Four Hornets have been lost in accidents.
Swiss Hornets have undergone two upgrades since delivery. Upgrade 21 included integration of the JHMCS, Link 16 and both the AIM-9X Sidewinder and AIM-120 AMRAAM air-to-air missiles. A Swiss F/A-18C was based at Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, California for the duration of a flight test programme designed to evaluate the Upgrade 21 capabilities and to fire AIM- 9X and AIM-120 missiles.
In 2008, the Swiss Government approved a further enhancement for the Hornet fleet entitled Upgrade 25. Systems added include the Raytheon ALR-67(V)3 radar warning system, the ASQ-228 Advanced Targeting Forward Looking Infrared (ATFLIR) pod, new cockpit displays, an upgraded GPS, computer upgrades and structural enhancements. With an ageing F-5 fleet, budget cuts and a national referendum in 2014 which voted against a new fighter, the Hornet will continue to be the backbone of Swiss air defence for years to come.
SCHWEIZER LUFTWAFFE F/A-18 HORNET SQUADRONS
Meiringen Air Base
Payerne Air Base
In June 1993, the Tentera Udara Diraja Malaysia (Royal Malaysian Air Force) placed an order for eight F/A-18Ds. The aircraft were delivered in 1997 to 18 Skuadron based at RMAF Butterworth. In 2011, Boeing received a US Government Foreign Military Sales contract to modernise Malaysia’s Hornets and enhance their capabilities. This included the addition of colour cockpit displays, GPS and IFF upgrades, the addition of the JHMCS, and support and training. The aircraft flew air strikes in support of anti-terrorist operations in Northern Borneo in 2013 and have been a regular participant in training with the US Navy, US Marine Corps and Royal Australian Air Force.