Hornet Twilight – End in sight for ‘Classic’ fighter
The arrival of the first two F-35A Joint Strike Fighters to be permanently based in Australia is the latest visible indication that the ‘Classic’ Hornet is now in its twilight years. These F-35s are being operated by No 3 Squadron, the first of the RAAF’s three operational Hornet squadrons to transition to the 5th generation fighter.
The Hornet, which has served for more than three decades, will be retired by the end of 2022. In recent years, Australia’s Hornets have undergone an incremental series of upgrades, which arguably restored an advantage lost after their first decade of service, when little was spent on sensor or weapons upgrades. Post-upgrade the jets are widely regarded as some of the most capable of the ‘Classic’ (F/A-18A/B to F/A-18C/D) aircraft in the world and have recently completed a series of deployments to the Middle East, where they routinely operated over Iraq and Syria.
Further confidence in the Hornet’s capability ostensibly came in 2018, with the news that Canada would purchase 25 ex-RAAF aircraft to bolster its own, similar, CF-18 fleet. However, it can be argued that Canada has little choice in the matter if it is to keep its own ageing fleet in service until it sorts out its plans for a replacement.
Back at home, the Hornet appears to have played its penultimate meaningful role in the biennial Pitch Black Air Combat exercise, but nevertheless it has to remain abreast of current threats until at least the end of 2022, bearing in mind that the F-35 – even if it does remain on schedule – will not achieve Final Operational Capability (FOC) until the end of 2023. In this context it is important to ask whether the Hornet is still relevant and effective in the modern battlespace and, if so, if it can maintain this edge for at least another four years.