After more than three decades, the Royal Australian Air Force has formally bid farewell to its F/A-18A/B fighter jet, often referred to as the Classic Hornet, as it gets ready to withdraw its last examples of the type. The F/A-18A/B was Australia’s premier fighter and its first line of air defense for most of that time, but it has since been complemented by the F/A-18F Super Hornet and will be superseded by the F-35A stealth fighter.
The Royal Australian Air Force, or RAAF, today held a ceremony at RAAF Base Williamtown in the country’s southeastern state of New South Wales to mark the upcoming retirement of the Classic Hornet. The event was attended by the Australian Minister of Defence, Peter Dutton, the Chief of the Air Force, Air Marshal Mel Hupfeld, plus various other aviators and industry partners involved in the F/A-18A/B’s impressive tenure Down Under.
The jets taking part in the ceremony were from No. 75 Squadron, based at RAAF Base Tindal in the Northern Territory state, which will be the final Classic Hornet squadron to make the change to the F-35A. The unit is scheduled to stop flying the Classics before the end of the year and then make the switch to the stealth fighter in 2022.
“It is quite fitting that in [the] Air Force’s centenary year we say goodbye to the Classic Hornet, a fighter jet that has been an integral part of Australia’s defense capability for more than three decades,” Air Marshal Hupfeld told attendees at the retirement event.
“As the time of the Classic Hornet draws to a close after nearly 408,000 total flying hours, it’s time to for the transition to the advanced lethality, survivability, and supportability delivered by the F-35A Lightning II,” Hupfeld added. The current Chief of the Air Force has a special connection to the Classic Hornet, having been an F/A-18A/B pilot and also having taught tactics to newly fledged pilots on the type as a Fighter Combat Instructor.
The RAAF’s relationship with the first-generation Hornet dates back to October 1981 when the then-new F/A-18A/B was selected over the F-16 to replace the Mirage III as the RAAF’s next-generation tactical fighter, making Australia one of the first export customers for the Hornet. Under a deal worth $2.788 billion, Australia acquired 57 single-seat F/A-18As and 18 two-seat F/A-18Bs, all but two of which were assembled locally by the Government Aircraft Factory at Avalon, south of Melbourne.
Between 1985 and 1990, Classic Hornets were delivered to four units: the frontline Nos. 3, 75, and 77 Squadrons, plus No. 2 Operational Conversion Unit (OCU) that trained aircrew for the type. With the exception of No. 75 Squadron at Tindal, the RAAF Classic Hornet fleet was centered upon RAAF Base Williamtown, north of Sydney.
When they entered service, the F/A-18A/Bs were fitted with AN/APG-65 radar and armed with AIM-7 Sparrow and AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles. Under a comprehensive, multi-phase Hornet Upgrade Program (HUG), the jets have been successively retrofitted with new capabilities to match emerging threats in the Asia-Pacific region.
Kicking off in 1999, major enhancements under the HUG journey included the replacement of the AN/APG-65 radar with the more capable AN/APG-73, integration of the MBDA Advanced Short-Range Air-to-Air Missile (ASRAAM), Boeing Joint Helmet-Mounted Cueing System (JHMCS), BAE Systems AN/ALR-67 radar warning receiver, Elta EL/L-8222 electronic countermeasures pod, Saab BOL countermeasures dispensers, and Link 16 Tactical Data Link. A new targeting pod, the Northrop Grumman AN/AAQ-28 Litening pod meanwhile replaced the previous Lockheed Martin AN/AAS-38 Nite Hawk pod.
At the same time, the Classic Hornets underwent a structural rework, including the replacement of the fuselage center barrel that was carried out by L-3 MAS at Mirabel in Canada between 2006 and 2010.
Despite its long period of service, it was only relatively late in its career that the RAAF Classic Hornet saw combat service. As part of Canberra’s contribution to the campaign in Afghanistan launched after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the jets were deployed to the remote island outpost of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean between November 2001 and May 2002. The Australian jets undertook defensive duties of the base, which served as a hub for U.S. Air Force bombers engaged over Afghanistan.
The first time RAAF Classic Hornets were engaged in combat was over Iraq, as part of the U.S.-led invasion of that country. Initially, 14 F/A-18As from No. 75 Squadron were deployed to the Middle East in February 2003 under Operation Falconer, the jets being commanded by Air Marshal Hupfeld. After conducting defensive counter-air and close air support, the RAAF Classic Hornets flew their last missions of this assignment in April 2003.
“This was the first operational combat deployment of Australian fighters since the Korean War, and our aviators and aircraft performed above expectations,” Hupfeld recalled.
The Classic Hornets were back in action over the Middle East as part of the multinational coalition to defeat Daesh, in what the Australian Defense Force termed Operation Okra. Between 2014 and 2018 the jets — fully upgraded under HUG — undertook 1,937 missions over Iraq and Syria, in the process racking up 14,780 flying hours, and delivering around 1,600 munitions.
By this time, however, the RAAF had introduced the more capable F/A-18F, which achieved full operational capability in December 2012, and these jets subsequently took over the Okra commitment from the Classic Hornets.
While the Super Hornet was acquired primarily as a stopgap between the retirement of the F-111 and the introduction of the F-35A, the F/A-18F will now remain in service long-term. However, the successor for the Classic Hornet is the F-35A, with a total requirement for 72 aircraft, the first of which arrived in Australia in December 2018.
The latest RAAF F-35A deliveries comprised three jets that arrived at Williamtown on November 18, bringing the in-country total to 44. The Joint Strike Fighters are already in service with Nos. 3 and 77 Squadrons, as well as No. 2 OCU, with No. 75 Squadron waiting in the wings.
The introduction of the F-35A brings a step change in capabilities for the RAAF but is just one part of a wider modernization drive. This has already added EA-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft, with more electronic warfare aircraft on the horizon. The same strategy will see future fielding of an indigenously produced loyal wingman drone, known as the Airpower Teaming System (ATS), which will supplement and force multiply the modernized manned tactical combat jet fleet. At the same time, Australia is also increasingly embracing the potential offered by hypersonic weapons.
Footage from the Australian Hornet Ball 2020, including appearances by both the Classic and Super Hornets:
Meanwhile, another batch of 46 ex-RAAF F/A-18A/Bs has been lined up for transfer to Air USA, for use in the contractor adversary air support role in the United States. The current status of those plans, about which The War Zone was among the first to report, is unclear, although we have approached the company for comment.
Speaking today, Air Commander Australia, Air Vice-Marshal Joe Iervasi, himself an experienced F/A-18A/B pilot, reflected on the jet’s distinguished period of service:
“While I’m sad to see this incredible aircraft end its role as a sentinel of Australian skies, it’s an exciting time for [the] Air Force as we enter our second century with the F-35A delivering combat air power as part of a networked joint force, to assure the ADF’s ability to deter or defeat threats to Australia’s interests.”
With the Classic Hornet’s time in RAAF service rapidly coming to an end, the first-generation Hornet community will be further reduced. The U.S. Navy, once the largest operator, ceased carrier operations with the type earlier this year. Meanwhile, Kuwait and Switzerland have selected replacements for their legacy Hornets, with Finland set to make a decision imminently. Spain is also currently mulling options for a successor. As for the U.S. Marine Corps, they have embarked on even more extensive upgrades to continue flying around 100 of these capable jets for another decade.
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