Why did the Royal Australian Air Force (and others) procure the F/A-18 despite being purpose-built for carriers?


Two reasons:

The airplane is extremely versatile, while having adequate performance, and is a good choice when a small airforce needs a do-everything airplane to replace multiple types.

Being designed for carriers, it's overbuilt for normal land operations in many key areas, which means a longer airframe structural life in its much easier life landing on runways. For an air force with a limited budget and the need to run the airplane a long time, it's worth giving up some of the speed/payload/range that was sacrificed by the structural needs of carrier ops.

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    $\begingroup$ Don’t all airforces have a limited budget? $\endgroup$ – Koyovis Aug 10 '19 at 0:40
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    $\begingroup$ @Koyovis Most airforces have limited budgets - only when the governments funding them realize that the taxpayers' pockets aren't bottomless, and/or they actually care about not putting their country into incomprehensibly large debt. $\endgroup$ – X-27 wants to Reinstate Monica Aug 10 '19 at 0:49
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    $\begingroup$ @Koyovis RAAF or RCAF compared to USAF? A teeny tiny bit limited, in comparison. USAF's "limited budget" still allows for numerous different types for different jobs. $\endgroup$ – John K Aug 10 '19 at 1:01
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    $\begingroup$ @X-27 Yes. It was a rhetorical question. $\endgroup$ – Koyovis Aug 10 '19 at 1:33
  • $\begingroup$ There are a number of countries using the F/A-18. $\endgroup$ – Dohn Joe Aug 12 '19 at 7:48

Wanting to replace the Dassault Mirage III, and after considering multiple fighters from multiple nations, it boiled down to the F-16 and F/A-18.

The F-16 had engine issues, inferior radar, no long-range missiles and BVR capability, single engine, and was technologically immature at the time.

Note: There were concerns that the larger more sophisticated F-15 could destabilize the region. The F-16 and F/A-18 by comparison are light fighters.

Further reading on the selection process: McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet in Australian service (Wikipedia)

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    $\begingroup$ May be worth extending on this answer to highlight the F/A-18's root origin being an existing design that was expanded upon for carrier service, rather than something that was initially somehow a compromised design intended to work off a carrier. $\endgroup$ – TheLuckless Aug 9 '19 at 22:37

Selection of the replacement of the Mirage III was of course carefully considered by the RAAF, and the most suitable airframe was considered for the mission and circumstances typical for a vast, distant and sparsely populated continent:

  • The fact that it was designed for carrier operation actually was a plus, since it results in a more robust airframe with lower expected corrective maintenance costs.
  • It was a twin-engine design, and the most suitable one at the time. The distances between airfields are vast in Australia, and the experience with the single engine Mirage III was that too many were lost after an engine fail.
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    $\begingroup$ That raises the obvious question: is the F/A-18 ETOPS-certified? $\endgroup$ – Mark Aug 9 '19 at 22:43
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    $\begingroup$ Isn't ETOPS specific to passenger carrying aircraft? $\endgroup$ – Flexo Aug 9 '19 at 23:00
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    $\begingroup$ ETOPS is more about how it's maintained, i.e. The same mechanic doesn't change all three oil debris detectors at once... $\endgroup$ – Harper - Reinstate Monica Aug 10 '19 at 7:52
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    $\begingroup$ @Harper Correct operating procedures are necessary for ETOPS but most definitely not sufficient. Certifying new aircraft types for ETOPS is a major undertaking long before the maintenance guys get involved. Most of the maintenance issues are just "industry best practice" in any case - not that every airline in the world follows best practice, of course. $\endgroup$ – alephzero Aug 10 '19 at 14:34
  • $\begingroup$ I assume their experience with single engine airframes is one of the major reasons they didn't go for the F-16? $\endgroup$ – Mast Aug 10 '19 at 18:58

Why a carrier-capable plane over a land-based plane? Australia has a history of operating carrier craft beginning in the 1920s.

At the moment there are two helicopter carriers in the Royal Australian Navy, but no full-deck carriers since the retirement of HMAS Melbourne in 1982.

However, Australia is surrounded by a lot of water, and lacks land borders with any other nation. (map below) It is possible that carriers may return.

The F/A 18 had an estimated service life of 20 to 30 years (depends on the source) based on 100 carrier landings a year Source. So its not unreasonable that a carrier could be ordered and delivered and commissioned while FA-18 were still serviceable.

The FA-18 order was announced on 20 October 1981,source which overlaps the in-service years of the HMAS Melbourne.

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    $\begingroup$ Yeah, but why do the air force uses the FA-18 instead of the navy which operates the carrier? I'm not even sure if their air force pilots are generally trained to land on carriers. $\endgroup$ – Yudhi G. Aug 10 '19 at 11:25
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    $\begingroup$ "a carrier could be ordered and delivered and commissioned while FA-18 were still serviceable." While that won't take 20 years, it does take long enough that I have my doubts about this being one of the reasons. By the time that carrier would arrive, the airframes would still be flying, yes, but for how long? Keep in mind carriers are intended for long service life too. $\endgroup$ – Mast Aug 10 '19 at 19:02
  • $\begingroup$ @Mast Fair point - there's also a "skill" or culture which once lost is hard to maintain. I have no idea if landing a carrier-enabled fighter on land helps in any way with learning carrier ops later, so it didn't get into the answer, but I do know that once a skill is lost from a group (of pilots in this case) it is much harder to re-establish. $\endgroup$ – Criggie Aug 10 '19 at 23:42
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    $\begingroup$ @Mast The decision to buy FA-18s was announced in October 1981. At that time, RAN was expecting to get a cheap deal on a second-hand carrier from Britain (Invincible, which was then only four years old). Had that worked out as planned, the new carrier would've been in service before the new FA-18s arrived - though as it turned out, the Falklands War scuppered that plan . The decision not to replace Melbourne wasn't finalised until 1983. (1/2) $\endgroup$ – Geoffrey Brent Aug 12 '19 at 3:26
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    $\begingroup$ @Mast Per Wiki, the RAAF FA-18s were modified to remove all equipment for catapult takeoffs, so they probably weren't intended for carrier use. But some of the options for replacing the Melbourne involved carrier-based FA-18s. (2/2) $\endgroup$ – Geoffrey Brent Aug 12 '19 at 3:32

For the "and others", the documents from Finland have become public as the secrecy period of 25 years has recently been passed.

In a major military deal, there are always technological, economical and political aspects.

There were five candidates:

  • Russian MIG-29
  • Swedish JAS 39 Gripen
  • French MIRAGE 2000-5
  • General Dynamics F-16 (USA)
  • McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet (USA)

The Finnish Air Force tested all candidates between summer 1991 and winter 1992. The Hornet was considered clearly better than the others. It had the best range, mission time and could carry the biggest missile load. These are important factors for Finland, which is geographically a large country.

Air Force saw Hornet as modern and it had good development potential. Development costs were shared by many nations.

F-16 did not fulfill all the performance requirements from the Air Force. In addition, proposed participation of the Finnish aviation industry was not seen as adequate. At the time of decision, the production line of F-16 was closing.

Gripen and especially many of it's critical components were still in prototype stage. The system was seen as too immature and hence the JAS was rejected as being too risky. Swedes expected that Finland would take part in the development costs, though it was not known how much costs there ultimately would be.

Mirage did fulfill Air Forces requirements and was considered as a really good plane for the pilot. However, the maintenance system was seen as difficult and it was feared that maintenance costs would be high due to low number of users.

MIG-29's electronics and maintenance systems did not fulfill requirements. Lifetime of the plane was half from that of the others. MIG-29 was by far most expensive considering both purchase price and operating costs over 30 year period.

Politically, buying the MIG would have meant co-operation between Finland and Russia, and this type of co-operation was seen as undesirable by the government. Selecting the F-18 was a decision and signal towards co-operation with the west. During the cold war Finland was not part of the eastern block, but being a neighboring country of Soviet Union, did experience quite a bit pressure from the east.

The Russian economic crash following the collapse of Soviet Union was a major issue, too. There was no guarantee that the country would be able to deliver the planes.

In hindsight, the decision to choose F/A-18 has been considered as excellent. Especially, the risks with JAS did realize, the offered B-version of the plane has been considered as a failure.

Source: https://www.iltalehti.fi/kotimaa/a/201707022200238131 (in Finnish)

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    $\begingroup$ Looks very similar to the Canadian decision (though they of course didn't consider the MiG-29 but the Tornado and F-15). Twin engines, cost, payload, endurance, were important. Tornado and Mirage were considered poor performers, F-15 too expensive, and F-16 and Gripen (I think it was considered, maybe it wasn't) lacking in range and payload capacity. $\endgroup$ – jwenting Aug 12 '19 at 10:53
  • $\begingroup$ "At the time of decision, the production line of F-16 was closing." I'm not sure what you mean. F-16s were produced continuously until being paused in 2017 to move to a different factory. $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Aug 12 '19 at 14:40
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidRicherby "at the time of decision" refers to the information and plans available at the early 1990's. I suppose the plan then was to ramp down production, which indeed did not happen. $\endgroup$ – Tero Lahtinen Aug 12 '19 at 16:07

There is a very limited selection of affordable 2-engined fighter aircraft (and the selection was even more limited in the time frame of these acquisitions). Some countries (Canada, Australia) have large uninhabited areas and their air forces prefer the added safety of a second engine. This limited Australia's choices to F-15 or F-18.

  • $\begingroup$ Yes and no. The logical upgrade path from the Mirage III would have been the Rafale... $\endgroup$ – Gaius Aug 11 '19 at 16:06
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    $\begingroup$ But that wouldn't be available for another 15 years (The Hornets entered service with the RAAF between 1984 and 1990, Rafale entered service in 2001) $\endgroup$ – Hobbes Aug 11 '19 at 17:00

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