Australia’s Tactical Fighter Force project to select a replacement for the RAAF’s Mirage fighter was a significant one, not only for choosing the RAAF’s main fighter for the next three decades but to develop local industry participation.

The search for a Mirage replacement began as early as 1970 and by November 1979 the shortlist had been reduced to two aircraft: the General Dynamics F-16 and McDonnell Douglas F-18. By late 1981 it was the F/A-18 Hornet that was chosen.

Northrop had partnered with McDonnell Douglas to create a derivative of the  YF-17 for the United States Navy, which became the F/A-18 Hornet multi­role combat aircraft.  The first prototypes flew on 18 November 1978 and full-scale production for the US Navy was approved in June 1981.

In November 1981, the Australian Government contracted to buy seventy-five Hornets for the RAAF –  57 single-seat F/A-18As and 18 two-seat F/A-18Bs.

This would be the RAAF’s first computerized, digital aircraft, with innovations that made a more versatile, survivable, maintainable and reliable aircraft than previous generation fighter-bombers. The Hornet’s advanced ‘glass’ cockpit with extensive use of software programmable displays and systems complemented by the ‘HOTAS’ (or “hands-on-throttle-and-stick”) capability, allowed a single pilot to cope with the workload of both air-to-air and air-to-ground missions that would otherwise have required a second crew member.

The F/A-18A was also more self-sufficient with an on-board auxiliary power unit, which enabled engine self-start and power  for  basic ground maintenance or operation of the avionics, as well as a comprehensive test and fault analysis system on-board. The Hornet was refuellable in-flight and equipped with an internal 20mm cannon to complement nine external carriage points for installation of auxiliary fuel, sensors and air- or surface-target weapons.

Design engineers had made the Hornet incredibly safe in terms of system redundancy and failure-tolerant digital systems including a quadruple-redundant digital fly-by-wire flight control system (and a mechanical backup linkage to the stabilators). The twin engines provided redundant electrical systems, there were two independent separately routed hydraulic systems, multiple avionics multiplex busses and redundant avionics mission computers.

The airframe made extensive use of graphite composite materials providing light weight, high strength and fatigue and corrosion-resistance.

A significant aspect of the Australian Hornet program was local participation in the assembly of the aircraft. The first two aircraft were assembled in the US but the remaining 73 were assembled by Government Aircraft Factories in Victoria who were the prime contractor. They were responsible for components, final assembly and flight testing.  The Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation were involved in assembly, engine testing, and some airframe parts. Other Australian companies were involved with the radar and avionics used in the Hornet.

The first two RAAF Hornets were then ferried to Australia in a non-stop record-breaking trans-Pacific flight on May 17th 1985, from US Naval Air Station Lemoore, California, to RAAF Williamtown – a 15 hour flight.

The first operational Hornet unit was Number 3 Squadron, reformed at Williamtown on March 31th 1986. Then Number 77 Squadron at Williamtown, started converting to Hornets by mid 1987. Number 75 Squadron was also undergoing Hornet conversion and relinquished its Mirages in September 1988.

The last RAAF Hornet, A21-57, was handed over on May 12, 1990, and delivered by Aircraft Research and Development Unit test pilot Squadron Leader Ron Haack to Williamtown on May 14. Two days later, the Officer Commanding· No 81 Wing, Group Captain Ray Conroy, displayed this aircraft at RAAF Fairbairn for its official handover, five years after the first aircraft had been delivered across the Pacific.

In 1991, the AN/AAS-38 Nite Hawk targeting pod became the first new system fitted to the RAAF’s Hornets. This pod enabled the pilot to navigate and acquire targets at night using a forward-looking infrared passive sensor, shown on a cockpit digital display. A target could then be illuminated by a laser target designator for the guidance of laserguided munitions.

During the 1990s the threat of MiG-29s operating in the region urged the RAAF to consider replacing the Hornet with the Eurofighter Typhoon or the Super Hornet. However, the decision was made to substantially upgrade the existing Hornets. This upgrade program began in 1999.  Phase 1 of the program replaced the Hornets’ computer and navigation systems and radio as well as enabling the aircraft to operate the AIM-120, replacing the AIM-7M Sparrow.

Phase 2 replaced the APG-65 radar with the AN/APG-73 and a secure voice encryption communications system was added (along with computer system upgrades). Integration of the AIM-132 ASRAAM was enabled, replacing the AIM-9 Sidewinder as the within visual range air-to-air missile. The Hornets were then fitted with a “Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System”, Link­ 16 networked multifunction information distribution system, a new countermeasure dispensing system and several upgrades to their cockpit displays. The whole fleet was upgraded by late 2006. Further upgrades were made over the following 6 years including improved electronic countermeasures system, improved radar, targeting pods, GPS Protection System and data link capabilities.

The upgrade program also addressed any airframe damage. The Hornet had a safe life of 6000 airframe hours under specified flight profiles and each aircraft was assessed and repaired to restore airframe integrity. The whole upgrade process was long and complicated, resulting in a diversity of aircraft in various stages of modification.

RAAF Hornets from Air Combat Group had maintained a presence for the five-power Integrated Air Defence System at Butterworth, Malaysia and Singapore with deployments several times a year, as well as operating in the Philippines, Thailand and the US.

During late 1999, No 75 Squadron was placed on alert to provide close air support and air defence for the international forces deployed to East Temor as part of The International Force East Timor. While Indonesian forces posed a potential threat, no fighting eventuated, and the Hornets were not required.

Following the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in America, the Australian Government agreed to deploy F/A- l 8s to protect the major USAF air base on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, which was being used to mount operations in Afghanistan. This would be known as Operation Slipper, from November 2001 to May 2002. Four No 77 Squadron Hornets were initially deployed to the island and were relieved by No 3 Squadron pilots and ground crew in early February 2002. There were no threats during the deployment and the operation was uneventful.

No 75 Squadron formed part of the Australian contribution to operation Bastille and Operation Falconer in the Middle East during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The Australian Hornets saw combat in several roles during the Iraq War. No 75 Squadron was initially used to escort high-value Coalition aircraft such as tankers and airborne early warning and control aircraft. It rapidly became clear that the Iraqi Air Force posed no threat, so from March 21 the squadron also began conducting air interdiction sorties against Iraqi forces. On March 21, F/A-18A A11-22 dropped a Mk.82 GBU-12, the first bomb dropped by the RAAF in combat since the Vietnam War and the first dropped by an RAAF fighter aircraft since the Korean War. 

The Australian commanders in the Middle East had Number 75 Squadron assigned to support the US Marine Corps’ 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, flying up to 12 sorties a day of close air support. The number of sorties dropped to between six and ten per day from April 5th onwards as the American forces closed on Baghdad and few targets remained in southern Iraq. On April 12th, Number 75 Squadron supported elements of the Special Air Service Regiment and 4th Battalion Royal Australian Regiment, which occupied Al Asad Air Base. On this day, five RAAF FlA-18As flew close air support profiles in direct support of the Australian Army’s Special Air Service regiment for the first time since the Vietnam War.

Number 75 Squadron conducted its final sorties on April 27, 2003. During the Iraq conflict the squadron flew 350 combat missions (including 670 individual sorties) and dropped 122 laser-guided bombs. The fourteen Hornets returned safely to Australia on May 14, 2003.

Hornets engaged in combat missions as part of the Air Task Group for Operation Okra between March 15, 2015, and May 12 201 7. The Okra Air Task Group was part of the ADF’s contribution to the international effort to disrupt and degrade the Daesh terrorist threat in Iraq. In late August 2015, a bunker raid on a ‘senior IS figure’ was conducted and the first Classic Hornet CAS missions also occurred during 75 Squadron’s rotation. Missions over Syria began in September 2015 which the first weapon drops occurring a few days later. No 75 Squadron handed over to 77 Squadron later in September. During 77 Squadron’s tour the Okra tempo significantly rose. In late December 2015, four Classic Hornets rook part in the largest coalition air strikes against Islamic State when 137 targets in eastern Syria were destroyed by twenty-one coalition aircraft.

77 Squadron handed over to 3 Squadron on March 25, 2016, followed by 75 Squadron on September 20, 2016, and 77 Squadron again on January 22, 2017.

Operation Okra was a twenty-six-month deployment for 81 Wing squadrons, during which they collectively flew over 14,000 hours on combat missions and delivered more than 1500 precision munitions.

The RAAF’s F/A-18A/B Classic Hornet fleet has achieved the distinction of being the safest jet fighter in RAAF service with just four airframes lost in over 405,000 flying hours.

3 Squadron ended Classic Hornet operations in late 2017, while 77 Squadron ceased Hornet operations in December 2020, and 75 Squadron was the last RAAF unit to operate the F/A-18A, which made its final flight on 4 December 2021.