Defence Policy,
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In Detail
CF18 Hornet


by Allan Ng
M.Eng., P.Eng.


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Canadian Defence Procurement  –  November 2003

The CF18 Hornet fighter aircraft  –  In Detail    (Part 1)

Allan Ng examines the evolution and development of the CF's fighter

Eventually, all roads lead to Rome...

Today's CF18 Hornet started life as the Northrop YF-17 Cobra which first flew in June of 1974.  Earlier in the 1970s, the United States Navy became concerned about the rising price of their large F-14 Tomcat fighters.  The F-14 program had produced a superior aircraft but, the costs had become so high that the quantities of Tomcat that could be procured would be insufficient to meet Navy needs. As a result the Navy drafted the VFX  (Carrier Fighter, Experimental) specification for a smaller, cheaper fighter design with which to equip USN carrier-based squadrons.

The United States Air Force was experiencing similar problems to those of the US Navy.  Like the Navy's F-14, the USAF's F-15 Eagle super fighter was simply too expensive for the numbers needed.[1] The USAF commissioned the Light Weight Fighter (LWF) program to find a quantitative partner for its F-15. Initially the LWF was not intended to produce a production fighter. Instead, the outcome was to be a technology demonstration aircraft  –  the Air Force was abandoning its lengthy drawing board-to-squadrons development approach in favour of prototyping.

Northrop had extensive experience with light fighters (having designed their F-5 Freedom Fighter series) and decided to try its luck. The Northrop entry into the LWF competition was the P-600 Cobra. General Dynamics entered an even more radical single-engined concept. In the end, the USAF accepted both new designs for prototype construction and competitive trials  —  Northrop's P-600 Cobra [2] as the YF-17,  and the General Dynamics' submission as the YF-16.

In the competitive fly-off between the two prototype designs, the YF-16 emerged victorious  –  much to the surprise of Northrop. In a further blow to Northrop, the USAF then changed its position and decided to purchase the winning design as a service aircraft, ordering 650 (later increased to 1,388) of the fighters designated F-16 in December 1974.  General Dynamics'  USAF success was followed up with extensive export orders to European NATO countries (Belgium, Holland, Norway, Denmark) looking for replacements for their NATO-standard F-104 Starfighters.

The European orders added insult to injury since Northrop's Cobra had held an early lead in the F-104 replacement race. However, the YF-17 was not destined to become a mere relic of history.  As a cost-saving measure,  the US Congress had directed the US Navy to abandon its VFX program.  Instead, it ordered the Navy to select one of the USAF's two LWF competitors for its new carrier fighter.

[1]  Another influence on US planners were the air-combat reports from Vietnam. Soviet-built fighters  (which the DoD regarded as technologically inferior) could out-manoeuvre heavier US opponents like the F-4 Phantom in classic dog-fights.

[2]  The unbuilt P-530 was Northrop's original Cobra design intended as a multi- role fighter to replace NATO's F-104s and F-5s. The P-600 was a simplified P-530 with just enough equipment to satisfy its main role of technology demonstrator.

>   Part 2  —  F/A-18:  the Hornet Gains its Sea Legs