When in the early 1970s the U.S. Navy (USN) started looking for a new generation fighter/attack jet they knew that it would have large shoes to fill. The USN's airborne fleet then consisted of three legends; the A-4 Skyhawk, the A-7 Corsair II and remaining McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom IIs.
In the 1970s, the United States Air Force (USAF) began evaluating two finalists, General Dynamics's YF-16 and Northrop's YF-17, in the Light Weight Fighter (LWF) program. The YF-16 won and in May 1974 the US House Armed Services Committee redirected the funds allocated for the Navy's Air Combat Fighter to the LWF program. The Navy however remained adamant that the single engine YF-16 (later the F-16 Fighting Falcon) with its narrow landing gear would not be suitable for carrier use. However, the YF-17, Northrop's twin engine had development potential. On 2 May 1975 McDonnell Douglas and Northrop were tasked to develop a new aircraft from the design and principles of the YF-17 and the F-18 "Hornet" was born and 1,480 were built.
Although superficially the F-18 may resemble the YF-17, it was drastically modified. To meet Navy requirements for carrier operations the airframe and undercarriage were strengthened, folding wings, catapult attachments and a tail hook was added. The landing gear was widened, the dorsal spine enlarged to increase fuel capacity and the aft fuselage widened by 4 inches. The wings and stabilators were enlarged and the engines canted outwards. The FY-17's control system was replaced with a fully digital fly-by-wire system with quadruple-redundancy. The Hornet was among the first aircraft to heavily use multi-function displays.
The Hornet that is powered by two General Electric F404 turbofan engines had its first flight on 18 November 1978. It has a high thrust-to-weight ratio, excellent aerodynamic characteristics and a top speed of Mach 1.8 (1,190 mph or 1,915 km/h at 40,000 ft or 12,190 m). Armed with a Vulcan M61A1 nose mounted 20 mm (0.787 inch) six barrel canon with 578 rounds, the Hornet is able to carry 13,700 pounds (6,200 kg) of external ordinance or fuel on nine hardpoints. Stores carried will depend on mission requirements and may include Zuni rockets, AIM air to air missiles, AGM air-to-surface missiles, Cruise missiles, AGM-84 Harpoon anti-ship missiles, nuclear, laser-guided bombs and unguided iron bombs. Up to 270 imperial gallons (1,200 litres) of fuel can be carried in drop tanks or pods containing chaff or infrared decoys, counter measures or targeting systems may form part of the external stores.
Following trials and operational testing, it entered operational service with Marine Corps during January 1983 and with the US Navy in March 1984.
Two years later in April 1986 the Hornet saw combat action. Flying from the USS Coral Sea Carrier Hornets flew missions against Libyan air defences and attacked Benghazi. Marine Corps and USN Hornets that were deployed during the Gulf War flew 4,551 sorties, ten were damaged and two lost to enemy fighters. One Hornet was confirmed shot down by down by a missile fired from an Iraqi Air Force MiG-25 while the other was lost over the North Persian Gulf. Hornet pilots were credited with two kills, both against MiG-21s.
In 2001 during Operation Enduring Freedom, Hornets operated from carriers in the North Arabian Sea. During Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, Hornets operated from aircraft carriers as well from an air base in Kuwait. One was accidentally downed in a friendly fire incident by a Patriot missile. Two others collided over Iraq and two more collided mid-air and crashed in the Persian Gulf.
The Blue Angels, US Navy's flight demonstration squadron that had up to then flown the Douglas A-4 Skyhawk switched to the F/A-18 Hornet in 1986.The Blue Angels perform in F/A-18A, B, C, and D models at air shows and other special events across the US and worldwide. The two-seat B and D models are 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.
Canada was the first export customer for the Hornet ordering 98 Hornets to replace their fleet of aging CF-104 Starfighters, McDonnell CF-101 Voodoos and CF-116 Freedom Fighters. The Royal Australian Air Force purchased 57 F/A-18A fighters and 18 F/A-18B two-seat trainers to replace its Dassault Mirage IIIs. The Australian Hornets will be replaced by the F-35. The Finnish Air Force ordered 64 F-18C/Ds to replace their MiG-21bis and Saab 35 Drakens. The Finish Hornets are currently being upgraded that will extend their service life until 2020-2025. The Kuwait Air Force ordered 32 F/A-18C and eight F/A-18D Hornets in 1988 to replace their Douglas Skyhawks. Kuwait Air Force Hornets have flown missions over Iraq during Operation Southern Watch in the 1990s.
The Royal Malaysian Air Force ordered eight F/A-18Ds. Malaysian Hornets were deployed for close air support to the no-fly zone in eastern Sabah. Delivery of the Spanish Air Force's 60 Hornets started on 22 November 1985. Twenty-four more were delivered in 1995. Spanish Air Force Hornets have flown ground attack, SEAD, combat air patrol and combat missions in Bosnia and Kosovo as well as over Yugoslavia and Libya. The Swiss Air Force purchased 26 C models and eight D models. Delivery of the aircraft started in January 1996.
Hornets and Super Hornets (not just an upgrade of the F/A-18 Hornet, but rather, a new, larger airframe using the design concepts of the Hornet) will serve in the U.S. Navy until completely replaced by the F-35C Lightning II. The US Marines have chosen to extend the use of certain F/A-18s due to delays in the F-35B variant. Introduced in 1983 the Hornet would by then have served for almost twenty years.