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McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet


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The McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet is a supersonic, all-weather carrier -capable multirole fighter jet, designed to dogfight and attack ground targets (F/A for Fighter/Attack). The F/A-18 was derived from the YF-17 in the 1970s for use by the United States Navy and Marine Corps. The Hornet is also used by the air forces of several other nations. It has been the aerial demonstration aircraft for the U.S. Navy's Flight Demonstration Squadron, the Blue Angels, since 1986.

The fighter's primary missions are fighter escort, fleet air defense, suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD), air interdiction, close air support and aerial reconnaissance. Its versatility and reliability have proven it to be a valuable carrier asset, though it has been criticized for its lack of range and payload compared to its earlier contemporaries, such as the F-14 Tomcat in the fighter and strike fighter role, and the A-6 Intruder and A-7 Corsair II in the attack role.

F/A-18 Hornet provided the baseline design for the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, a larger, evolutionary redesign of the F/A-18. Compared to the Hornet, the Super Hornet is larger, heavier and has improved range and payload capability. The F/A-18E/F was originally proposed as an alternative to a completely new aircraft to replace existing dedicated attack aircraft such as the A-6. The larger variant was also directed to replace the aging F-14 Tomcat, thus serving a complementary role with Hornets in the U.S. Navy, and serving a wider range of roles including refueling tanker, and electronic jamming platform.

Development

Origins

Development of the F/A-18 came as a result of the U.S. Navy's Naval Fighter-Attack, Experimental (VFAX ) program to procure a multirole aircraft to replace the A-4 Skyhawk, the A-7 Corsair II, remaining F-4 Phantom II s and to complement the F-14 Tomcat. Vice Admiral Kent Lee, then head of Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR), was the lead advocate for the VFAX against strong opposition from many Navy officers, including Vice Admiral William D. Houser, deputy chief of naval operations for air warfare - the highest ranking naval aviator.

In August 1973, Congress mandated that the Navy pursue a lower-cost alternative to the F-14. Grumman proposed a stripped F-14 designated the F-14X, while McDonnell Douglas proposed a naval variant of the F-15, but both were nearly as expensive as the F-14. That summer, Secretary of Defense Schlesinger ordered the Navy to evaluate the competitors in the Air Force's Lightweight Fighter (LWF) program, the General Dynamics YF-16 and Northrop YF-17. The Air Force competition specified a day fighter with no strike capability. In May 1974, the House Armed Services Committee redirected $34 million from the VFAX to a new program, the Navy Air Combat Fighter (NACF), intended to make maximum use of the technology developed for the LWF program.

Redesigning the YF-17

Though the YF-16 won the LWF competition, the Navy was skeptical that an aircraft with one engine and narrow landing gear could be easily or economically adapted to carrier service, and refused to adopt an F-16 derivative. The Navy fought for and won permission to develop an aircraft based on the YF-17. Since the LWF did not share the design requirements of the VFAX, the Navy asked McDonnell Douglas and Northrop to design a new aircraft around the configuration and design principles of the YF-17. The new aircraft, designated the F-18, shared not a single essential dimension or primary structure with the YF-17. Secretary of the Navy W. Graham Claytor announced on 1 March 1977 that the name of the aircraft would be "Hornet".

Northrop had enlisted the aid of McDonnell Douglas as a secondary contractor on the NACF proposal to capitalize on the latter's extensive experience in building carrier aircraft, including the highly successful F-4 Phantom II. On the F-18, the two companies agreed to split the parts manufacture evenly, with McDonnell Douglas completing the final assembly, representing ~20% of the work. McDonnell Douglas built the wings, stabilators, and forward fuselage; Northrop built the center and aft fuselage and vertical stabilizers. McDonnell Douglas was the prime contractor for the naval versions. Northrop would become the prime contractor and take over final assembly for the F-18L land-based version which Northrop hoped to sell on the export market.

The F-18, initially known as McDonnell Douglas Model 267, was drastically modified from the YF-17 while retaining the same basic configuration. For carrier operations, the airframe, undercarriage, and arrestor hook were strengthened, folding wings and catapult attachments were added, and the landing gear widened. To meet Navy range and reserves requirements, McDonnell increased fuel capacity by, with the enlargement of the dorsal spine and the addition of a 96 gallon fuel cell to each wing (the YF-17 had dry wings). Most visibly, a "snag" was added to the leading edge of the wings and stabilators to prevent a flutter discovered in the F-15 stabilator. The wings and stabilators were enlarged, the aft fuselage widened by, and the engines canted outward at the front. These changes added to the gross weight, bringing it to. The computer-assisted control system of the YF-17 was replaced with a wholly digital fly-by-wire system with quadruple-redundancy, the first to be installed in a production fighter.

The original plan specified acquiring 780 total of three closely related models: the single seat F-18A fighter and A-18A attack aircraft, differing only in avionics, and the dual-seat TF-18A, which retained full mission capability of the F-18, except with a reduced fuel load. With redesign of the stores stations and improvements in avionics and multifunction displays, it became possible to combine the A-18A and F-18A into one aircraft. Starting in 1980, the aircraft began being referred to as the F/A-18A, and the designation was officially announced on 1 April 1984. The TF-18A was redesignated F/A-18B.

Northrop's F-18L

Northrop developed the F-18L as a potential export aircraft. Since it did not have to be strengthened for carrier service, it was expected to be lighter and better performing, and a strong competitor to the F-16 Fighting Falcon then being offered to American allies. The F-18L's maximum gross weight was (approximately 30%) lighter than the F/A-18A, due to lighter landing gear, removal of the wing folding mechanism, reduced part thickness in areas and lower fuel capacity. Though the aircraft retained a lightened arresting hook, the most obvious external difference was the removal of the "snags" on the leading edge of the wings and stabilators. It still retained 71% commonality with the F/A-18 by parts weight, and 90% of the high-value systems, including the avionics, radar, and ECM suite, though alternatives were offered. Unlike the F/A-18, the F-18L carried no fuel in its wings and lacked weapons stations on the intakes. It had three underwing pylons on each side instead.

The partnership between the McDonnell Douglas and Northrop soured over competition for foreign sales for the two models. Northrop felt that McDonnell Douglas would put the F/A-18 in direct competition with the F-18L. In October 1979, Northrop filed a series of lawsuits charging that McDonnell was using Northrop technology developed for the F-18L for foreign sales in violation of their agreement, and asked for a moratorium on foreign sales of the Hornet via McDonnell Douglas. The case was resolved in 1985 when McDonnell agreed to pay Northrop $50 million for complete rights to the design, without any admission of wrongdoing. By then Northrop had ceased work on the F-18L, and most export orders were captured by the F-16 or the F/A-18.

Into production

During flight testing, the snag on the leading edge of the stabilators was filled in, and the gap between the Leading edge extension s (LEX) and the fuselage mostly filled in. The gaps, called the boundary layer air discharge (BLAD) slots, controlled the vortices generated by the LEX and presented clean air to the vertical stabilizers at high angles of attack, but they also generated a great deal of parasitic drag, worsening the problem of the F/A-18's inadequate range. McDonnell filled in 80% of the gap, leaving a small slot to bleed air from the engine intake. This may have contributed to early problems with fatigue cracks appearing on the vertical stabilizers due to extreme aerodynamic loads, resulting in a short grounding in 1984 until the stabilizers were strengthened. Starting in May 1988, a small vertical fence was added to the top of each LEX to broaden the vortices and direct them away from the vertical stabilizers. This also provided a minor increase in controllability as a side effect. F/A-18s of early versions had a problem with insufficient rate of roll, exacerbated by the insufficient wing stiffness, especially with heavy underwing ordnance loads.

The first production F/A-18A flew on 12 April 1980. After a production run of 380 F/A-18As (including the nine assigned to flight systems development), manufacture shifted to the F/A-18C in September 1987.

Design

The F/A-18 is a twin engine, mid-wing, multi-mission tactical aircraft. It is highly 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. This is because the LEX produce powerful vortices over the wings, creating turbulent airflow over the wings and thus delaying or eliminating the aerodynamic separation responsible for stall, allowing the Hornet's wings to generate lift several times the aircraft's weight, despite high angles of attack. The Hornet is therefore capable of extremely tight turns over a large range of speeds.

Canted vertical stabilizers are another distinguishing design element, and among the other design characteristics that enable the Hornet's excellent high angle-of-attack capability include oversized horizontal stabilators, oversized trailing edge flaps that operate as flaperon s, large full-length leading edge slats, and flight control computer programming that multiplies the movement of each control surface at low speeds and moves the vertical rudders inboard instead of simply left and right. The Hornet's normally high angle-of-attack performance envelope was put to rigorous testing and enhanced in the NASA F-18 High Alpha Research Vehicle (HARV). NASA used the F-18 HARV to demonstrate flight handling characteristics at high angle-of-attack (alpha) of 65-70 degrees using thrust vectoring vanes. F/A-18 stabilators were also used as canards on NASA's F-15S/MTD.

The Hornet was among the first aircraft to heavily utilize multi-function display s, 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 heavier 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. An experienced maintenance crew can remove and replace an F/A-18 engine in only a couple of hours.

The General Electric F404-GE-400 or F404-GE-402 engines powering the Hornet were also innovative in that they were designed with operability, reliability, and maintainability first. The result is an engine that, while unexceptional on paper in terms of rated performance, demonstrates exceptional robustness under a variety of conditions and is resistant to stall and flameout. By contrast, the Pratt & Whitney TF30 engines that originally powered the F-14A were notoriously prone to compressor stall and flameout under certain flight conditions.

The engine air inlets of the Hornet, like that of the F-16, are "fixed", while those of the F-4, F-14, and F-15 have variable geometry or variable ramp engine air inlets. The variable geometry enables high-speed aircraft to keep the velocity of the air reaching the engine below supersonic. This is one speed limiting factor in the Hornet design. Instead, the Hornet uses bleed air vents on the inboard surface of the engine air intake ducts to slow and reduce the amount of air reaching the engine. While not as effective as variable geometry, the bleed air technique functions well enough to achieve near Mach 2 speeds, which is within the designed mission requirements. The less sophisticated design is also more robust.

Because it was designed as a light multirole aircraft to complement the specialized F-14 and A-6 airframes, it had a relatively low internal fuel fraction. That is, its internal fuel capacity is small relative to its takeoff weight, at around 23%, a fuel fraction of.23. Most aircraft of its class have a fuel fraction between.30 to.35. This situation was exacerbated by the addition of new avionics over its lifespan, further reducing the fuel fraction. This led to 330-gallon external tanks being a common sight on F/A-18s, with the centerline and inner wings stations (numbered 3, 5 and 7) being plumbed to transfer fuel.

Design evolution

In the 1990s, the US Navy faced the need to replace its aging A-6 Intruder s, EA-6 Prowler s, A-7 Corsair II s and F-14 Tomcat s without proper replacements in development. To answer this deficiency, the Navy had the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet developed. 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. Hornets and Super Hornets will serve complementary roles in the US Navy carrier arsenal, until the deployment of the F-35C Lightning II, which will primarily replace F/A-18A-D Hornets.

Operational history

United States

Entry into service

The US Navy's Blue Angels Flight Demonstration Squadron switched to the F/A-18 Hornet in 1986, when it replaced the A-4 Skyhawk. The Blue Angels perform in F/A-18A and B models at air shows and other special events across the US and worldwide. Blue Angels pilots must have 1,350 hours and an aircraft carrier certification. The two-seat B-model is typically used to give rides to VIPs, but can also fill in for other aircraft in the squadron in a normal show if the need arises.

Combat operations

The F/A-18 first saw combat action in April 1986, when VFA-131 Hornets from USS ''Coral Sea'' flew SEAD missions against Libyan air defenses during Operation Prairie Fire and an attack on Benghazi as part of Operation El Dorado Canyon.

During the first Persian Gulf War, two U.S. Navy F/A-18s were destroyed with the loss of their pilots. On 17 January 1991, the first day of the war, Lieutenant Commander Scott Speicher of VFA-81 was shot down and killed in the crash of his aircraft. The other F/A-18, piloted by Lieutenant Robert Dwyer (who was officially listed as killed in action, body not recovered ), was lost over the North Persian Gulf after a successful mission to Iraq.

F/A-18 pilots were credited with two kills during the Gulf War, both MiG-21 s. On the first day of the war, U.S. Navy pilots Lieutenant Nick Mongilio and Lieutenant Commander (now Rear Admiral) Mark Fox were sent from the USS ''Saratoga'' in the Red Sea to bomb an airfield in southwestern Iraq. While en route, they were warned by an E-2C of approaching MiG-21 aircraft. The Hornets shot down two MiGs and resumed their bombing run, each carrying four bombs, before returning to ''Saratoga''. Mongilio and Fox become the first pilots to register air-to-air kills while still completing their original air-to-ground mission. The Hornet's survivability was demonstrated when a Hornet took hits in both engines and flew back to base. It was repaired and flying within a few days. Overall during the Gulf War, F/A-18s flew 4,551 sorties with ten Hornets damaged including the two losses previously mentioned.

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. It broke records for tactical aircraft in availability, reliability, and maintainability.

Both U.S. Navy F/A-18A/C models and Marine F/A-18A/C/D models were used continuously in Operation Southern Watch and over Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s. U.S. Navy Hornets flew during Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001 from carriers operating in the North Arabian Sea. Both the F/A-18A/C and newer F/A-18E/F variants were used during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, operating from aircraft carriers as well from an air base in Kuwait. Later in the conflict USMC A+, C, and primarily D models operated from bases within Iraq.

An F/A-18C was accidentally downed in a friendly fire incident by a Patriot missile when a pilot tried to evade two missiles fired at him and crashed. Two others collided over Iraq in May 2005. In January 2007, two Navy F/A-18E/F Super Hornets collided in mid-air and crashed in the Persian Gulf.

Non-US service

Though Navy aircraft have not historically sold well on the export market, the F/A-18 has been purchased and is in operation with a number of foreign air services. Export Hornets are typically similar to U.S. models of a similar manufacture date. Since none of the customers operate aircraft carrier s, all export models have been sold without the automatic carrier landing system, and Royal Australian Air Force further removed the catapult attachment on the nose gear. Except for Canada, all export customers purchased their Hornets through the U.S. Navy, via the U.S. Foreign Military Sales (FMS) Program, where the Navy acts as the purchasing manager but incurs no financial gain or loss. Canada, the largest Hornet operator outside of the U.S., ordered its aircraft directly from the manufacturer.

Australia

The Royal Australian Air Force purchased 57 F/A-18A fighters and 18 F/A-18B two-seat trainers. The first F/A-18 was delivered to the RAAF on 29 October 1984. The fleet is expected to be retired by 2015, replaced by the F-35 Lightning II.

In addition to the abovementioned aircraft, Australia has purchased 24 F/A-18 Super Hornets, the first of which was delivered in 2009.

Three options were considered for the replacement of the RAAF's Mirage IIIs : the F-15A Eagle, the F-16 Falcon, and the then new F/A-18 Hornet. The F-15 was discounted because the version offered did not have a ground-attack capability. The F-16 was deemed unsuitable largely on the basis of its having only one engine. Consequently, Australia signed a contract in October 1981. The first two aircraft were produced in the US, with the remainder assembled in Australia at Government Aircraft Factories. Deliveries took place between February 1985 and May 1990. Original differences between the Australian and US Navy's standard F/A-18 were the removal of nose wheel tie bar for catapult launch (later re-fitted with a dummy version to remove nose wheel shimmy), addition of a high frequency radio, an Australian fatigue data analysis system, an improved video and voice recorder, and the use of ILS/VOR (Instrument Landing System /Very High Frequency Omnidirectional Range ) instead of the carrier landing system.

In 2001, Australia deployed four aircraft to Diego Garcia, in an air defense role, during coalition operations against the Taliban in Afghanistan. In 2003, 75 Squadron deployed 14 F/A-18s to Qatar as part of Operation Falconer and these aircraft saw action during the invasion of Iraq. A total of 71 Hornets were in Australian service as of 2006, with four lost to crashes.

A number of the Hornets in Australian service have had refits applied to extend their time in service until the planned retirement date of 2020.

Canada

Canada was the first export customer for the Hornet, replacing the CF-104 Starfighter (air reconnaissance & strike), the CF-101 Voodoo (air interception) and the CF-116 Freedom Fighter (ground attack). The Canadian Forces Air Command ordered 98 A-models (Canadian designation CF-188A/CF-18A ) and 40 B models (designation CF-188B/CF-18B).

In 1991, Canada committed 26 CF-18s to the Gulf War, based in Qatar. In June 1999 18 CF-18s were deployed to Aviano AB, Italy, where they participated in both the air-to-ground and air-to-air roles in the former Yugoslavia.

62 CF-18A and 18 CF-18B aircraft took part in the Incremental Modernization Project which was completed in two phases. The program was launched in 2001 and the last updated aircraft was delivered in March 2010. The aims were to improve air-to-air and air-to-ground combat capabilities, upgrade sensors and the defensive suite, and replace the datalinks and communications systems on board the CF-18 from the F/A-18A and F/A-18B standard to the current F/A-18C and D standard.

In July 2010 the Canadian government announced plans to replace the remaining CF-18 fleet with 65 F-35 Lightning II s, with deliveries scheduled to start in 2016.

Finland

The Finnish Air Force (''Suomen Ilmavoimat'') ordered 64 F-18C/Ds. Delivery started on 7 June 1995. The Hornet replaced the MiG-21bis and Saab 35 Draken in Finnish service. One fighter was destroyed in a mid-air collision in 2001. A damaged F-18C was rebuilt into a F-18D. In order to do so, a forward section of a Canadian CF-18B was purchased and incorporated into the jet. The modified plane crashed during a test flight in January 2010.

The Finnish F-18C includes the ASPJ (Airborne-Self-Protection-Jammer) jamming pod ALQ-165 that was canceled on original US Navy orders. The US Navy later included the ALQ-165 on their Super Hornet (F-18E/F) procurement. The Finnish Hornets were initially to be used only for air defense, hence the designation F-18.

Finland is upgrading its fleet of F-18s with new avionics, including helmet mounted sights (HMS), new cockpit displays, sensors and standard NATO data link. A number of the 63 Hornets remaining are going to be fitted to carry air-to-ground ordnance such as the AGM-154C JSOW, in effect returning to the original F/A-18 multi-role configuration. The upgrade includes also the procurement and integration of new AIM-9X Sidewinder and AIM-120C-7 AMRAAM air-to-air missiles. This Mid-Life Upgrade (MLU) is estimated to cost between €1-1.6 billion and work is scheduled to be finished by 2015. After the upgrades the aircraft are to remain in active service until 2020–2025.

Kuwait

The Kuwait Air Force (''Al Quwwat Aj Jawwaiya Al Kuwaitiya'') ordered 32 F/A-18C and eight F/A-18D Hornets in 1988 and delivery started in October 1991. The F/A-18C/Ds replaced A-4KU Skyhawk. Kuwait Air Force Hornets have flown missions over Iraq during Operation Southern Watch in the 1990s. They have also participated in military exercises with the air forces of other Gulf nations. Kuwait had 39 F/A-18C/Ds Hornets in service in 2008.

Malaysia

The Royal Malaysian Air Force (''Tentera Udara Diraja Malaysia'') has eight F/A-18Ds. The air force split their order between the F/A-18 and the Mikoyan MiG-29.

Spain

The Spanish Air Force (''Ejército del Aire'') ordered 60 EF-18A model and 12 EF-18B model Hornets (the "E" standing for "España", Spain), named respectively as C.15 and CE.15 by Spanish AF. Delivery of the Spanish version started on 22 November 1985. These fighters were upgraded to F-18A+/B+ standard, close to F/A-18C/D (plus version includes later mission and armament computers, databuses, data-storage set, new wiring, pylon modifications and software, new capabilities as AN/AAS-38B NITE Hawk targeting FLIR pods).

In 1995 Spain obtained 24 ex-USN F/A-18A Hornets, with six more on option. These were delivered from December 1995 until December 1999. Prior to delivery, they were modified to EF-18A+ standard. This was the first sale of USN surplus Hornets.

Spanish Hornets operate as an all-weather interceptor 60% of the time and as an all-weather day/night attack aircraft for the remainder. In case of war, each of the front-line squadrons would take a primary role: 121 is tasked with tactical air support and maritime operations; 151 and 122 are assigned to all-weather interception and air combat roles; and 152 is assigned the SEAD mission. Air refueling is provided by KC-130Hs and Boeing 707TTs. Pilot conversion to EF-18 is centralized in 153 Squadron (Ala 15). Squadron 462's role is air defense of the Canary Islands, being responsible for fighter and attack missions from Gando AB.

Spanish Air Force EF-18 Hornets have flown Ground Attack, SEAD, combat air patrol (CAP) combat missions in Bosnia and Kosovo, under NATO command, in Aviano detachment (Italy). They shared the base with Canadian and USMC F/A-18s. Six Spanish Hornets had been lost in accidents by 2003.

Eight EF-18s, based at Aviano AB, participated in bombing raids against Yugoslavia in Operation Allied Force in 1999. They also performed air-to-air combat air patrol missions, close air support air-to-ground missions, photo reconnaissance missions, forward air controller-airborne missions, and tactical air controller-airborne missions over Bosnia.

Switzerland

The Swiss Air Force purchased 26 C models and eight D models. One D model was lost in a crash. Delivery of the aircraft started on 25 January 1996.

In late 2007 Switzerland requested to be included in F/A-18C/D Upgrade 25 Program, in order to extend the useful life of its F/A-18C/Ds. The program includes significant upgrades to the avionics and mission computer, 20 ATFLIR surveillance and targeting pods, and 44 sets of AN/ALR-67v3 ECM equipment. In October 2008 the Swiss Hornet fleet reached the 50,000 flight hour milestone.

Potential operators

The F/A-18C and F/A-18D were considered by the French Navy (''Marine Nationale'') during the 1980s for deployment on their aircraft carriers ''Clemenceau'' and ''Foch'' and again in the 1990s for the later nuclear-powered ''Charles de Gaulle'', in the event that the Dassault Rafale M was not brought into service when originally planned.

Austria,Chile, Czech Republic, Hungary,Philippines, Poland, and Singapore evaluated the Hornet but did not purchase it. Thailand ordered four C and four D model Hornets but the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s resulted in the order being canceled. The U.S. DoD then purchased the in-production Hornets for the Marine Corps.

The F/A-18A and F-18L land-based version competed for a fighter contract from Greece in the 1980s. The Greek government chose F-16 and Mirage 2000 instead.

Variants

A/B

The F/A-18A is the single-seat variant and the F/A-18B is the two seat variant. The space for the two-seat cockpit is 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.

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. A-model Hornets that have been upgraded to the AN/APG-73 are designated F/A-18A+.

C/D

The F/A-18C is the single-seat variant and the F/A-18D is the two seat variant. The D-model can be configured for training or as an all-weather strike craft. The "missionized" D-model's rear seat is configured for a Weapons and Sensors Officer to assist in operating the weapons systems. The F/A-18D is primarily operated by the U.S. Marine Corps in the night attack and FAC(A) (Forward Air Controller (Airborne)) 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 missiles. 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.

In addition, 60 D-model Hornets are configured as the night attack F/A-18D (RC) with ability for reconnaissance. These could be outfitted with the ATARS electro-optical sensor package that includes a sensor pod and equipment mounted in the place of the M61 cannon.

Beginning in 1992, the F404-GE-402 enhanced performance engine, providing approximately 10% more maximum static thrust became the standard Hornet engine. Since 1993, the AAS-38A NITE Hawk added a designator/ranger laser, allowing it to self-mark targets. The later AAS-38B added the ability to strike targets designated by lasers from other aircraft.

Production of the F/A-18C ended in 1999. In 2000, the last F/A-18D was delivered to the U.S. Marine Corps.

E/F Super Hornet

TF-18A

Two-seat training version of the F/A-18A fighter, later redesignated F/A-18B.

F-18 HARV

Single-seat High Alpha Research Vehicle for NASA. High angles of attack using thrust vectoring, modifications to the flight controls, and forebody strakes

;X-53 Active Aeroelastic Wing : A NASA F/A-18 has been modified to demonstrate the Active Aeroelastic Wing technology, and was designated X-53 in December 2006.

Export variants

''These designations are not part of 1962 United States Tri-Service aircraft designation system.''

F-18L

This was a lighter land-based version of the F/A-18 Hornet. It was designed to be a single-seat air-superiority fighter and ground-attack aircraft. It was originally intended to be assembled by Northrop as the export version of the F/A-18 Hornet. The F-18L was lighter due to the removal of carrier landing capability. Despite the advantages, customers preferred the "ordinary" Hornet, and the F-18L never went into production.

;(A)F/A-18A/B

*(A)F/A-18A: Single-seat fighter/attack version for the Royal Australian Air Force.

*(A)F/A-18B: Two-seat training version for the Royal Australian Air Force."F/A-18A" was the original company designation, designations of "AF-18A" & "ATF-18A" have also been applied. Assembled in Australia (excluding the first two (A)F/A-18Bs) by Aero-Space Technologies of Australia (ASTA) from 1985 through to 1990, from kits produced by McDonnell Douglas with increasing local content in the later aircraft. Originally the most notable differences between an Australian (A)F/A-18A/B and a US F/A-18A/B were the lack of a catapult attachment, replacement of the carrier tailhook for a lighter "land" arresting hook, and the replacement of the automatic carrier landing system with an Instrument Landing System. Australian Hornets have been involved in a number of major upgrade programs. This program called HUG (Hornet Upgrade) has had a few evolutions over the years. The first was to give Australian Hornets F/A-18C model avionics. The second and current upgrade program (HUG 2.2) updates the fleet's avionics even further.

;CF-18 Hornet

*CF-18A : Single-seat fighter/attack version for the Canadian Forces. The Canadian Forces' official designation is CF-188A Hornet.

*CF-18B : Two-seat training and combat version for the Canadian Forces. The Canadian Forces' official designation is CF-188B Hornet.

EF-18 Hornet

*EF-18A: Single-seat fighter/attack version for the Spanish Air Force. The Spanish Air Force designation is C.15.

*EF-18B: Two-seat training version for the Spanish Air Force. The Spanish Air Force designation is CE.15.

KAF-18 Hornet

*KAF-18C: Single-seat fighter/attack version for the Kuwait Air Force

*KAF-18D: Two-seat training version for the Kuwait Air Force

;F-18C/D Hornet

*The Finnish Air Force uses F/A-18C/D Hornets, with a Finland-specific mid-life update. The first seven Hornets (D-models) were produced by McDonnell Douglas. The 57 single-seat F-18C model units were assembled by Patria in Finland.

F-18C

/D Hornet

*Switzerland uses F-18C/D, later Swiss specific mid-life update. The Swiss F-18s were originally without ground attack capability until hardware was retrofitted.