The CF-18 / CF-188 "Hornet" is the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) equivalent of the American McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 "Hornet" single-seat, carrier-based 4th Generation Fighter. Like others, Canada elected to adopted the naval-minded Hornet as a land-based fighter and took deliveries of 138 of the modern aircraft between 1982 and 1988. The aircraft were formally introduced in USN service during 1983 and became a fixture of several national Western air powers since. The McDonnell Douglas name now falls under the Boeing brand label as its subsidiary following the 1997 merger between the two former rivals.
Up to this point in Canadian history, the RCAF relied on a mix of aged and out-going American-designed fighters used to fulfill NORAD, NATO, and local defense commitments. This gave rise to a standardization measure which sought to adopt an "all-in-one" solution to fulfill all of these required roles. The Canadian government defense program that followed became the aptly-titled "New Fighter Aircraft (NFA) program with the primary requirement being that the RCAF select an existing fighter mount. This led to the usual suspects of the time being interviewed (F-14, F-15, Mirage F1, etc...) until there remained just the General Dynamics F-16 "Fighting Falcon" and the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 "Hornet". These aircraft originally arose out of a USAF endeavor to secure a new lightweight fighter design with the service eventually selecting the F-16 for serial production (over the competing Northrop YF-17 "Cobra", forerunner to the finalized F/A-18 Hornet of the USN). The Hornet was selected by the United States Navy.
This left the F/A-18 as the winner of the NFA program in 1980 for its inherent qualities - including its approachable procurement tag. It was a twin-engine design unlike the F-16 which aided in survivability and could carry a broad air-to-air and air-to-surface war load (including mixed loads) while operating in cold weather and over-water environments. The AGP-65 radar suite was a capable system which offered tracking and engagement of targets above and below the aircraft over variable terrain. The Canadian government moved on ordering the type through its two primary guises - the single-seat fighter with strike capability and the twin-seat fighter (retaining full combat capability) to be used in training its RCAF airmen. The RCAF took on 98 of the former and 40 of the latter under the formal RCAF designation of "CF-188".
With its carrier origins - and despite the Canadians using it in a land-based role - the CF-18 retained its folding wings and arrestor hook which still managed to play well into the compact/short-field operating mentality. All models featured a false canopy painted along the underside of the nose section to trick an enemy - if only for a second - as to the exact position/attack angle of the Canadian fighter during close-in work. What effect this has/had in actual air-to-air combat is debatable but it was a feature nonetheless adopted by a few others (including the USMC). One other RACF addition was a night identification light added to the portside of the nose. In all other ways, the CF-18 was largely the same aircraft featured in the American inventory and elsewhere.
The first CF-18s in service were two examples delivered to 410 Squadron (training) of CFB Cold Lake during October of 1982. First RCAF combat actions were during the 1991 Gulf War of which twenty-six models participated in. The aircraft was then used as part of the U.N. action over the former Yugoslavia and strengthened coalition numbers. CF-18s flew security patrols during the 2010 Olympic games and - more recently - were deployed over Libya in 2011 as part of the U.N.'s enforced No-Fly Zone over the oil-rich African nation.
Due to their 1980s roots, CF-18s were forced into modernization during their service lives to help keep them viable aircraft for the foreseeable future. Additionally, technological advancements adopted by major U.N. players also forced the Canadians to stay compatible with the rest of the NATO forces. By the end of it all, CF-18s (like their American Hornet counterparts) were given the APG-73 radar set to replace their original APG-65 series and this opened the line to carrying and launching the advanced AIM-120 medium-range air-to-air missile family. Navigation, avionics, digital processing, and battlefield situational awareness were all upgraded for the better. Improvements were handled by Boeing and resulted in the first modernized CF-18 being handed over to the RCAF in 2007 with the last aircraft being completed in 2010.
Due to the fleet's age and operational/accident attrition (only about 103 CF-18s remain of the original 138 received), the Canadians plan to phase out their current fleet of CF-18s heading into the 2020s. Its eventually replacement is still up-in-the-air - the primary product is the Lockheed "F-35 Lightning II" 5th Generation Fighter (to be adopted as the "CF-35A") though growing delays and ballooning costs in the Lockheed product may very well push the Canadians in an altogether different direction despite Canada being an active participant in the F-35 development program. The RCAF may settle for a 4.5th Generation Fighter - either American or European in origin if the F-35 endeavor fails to produce the required fruits for the Canadians.
September 2014 - It was announced that the Canadian military will seek to extend the service life of their CF-18s into 2025, delaying a decision on the purchase of the Lockheed F-35 Lighting II. The government will, however, continue its support of development of the Lockheed product for the foreseeable future.
2016 - A formal initiative to find a successor to the CF-18 fleet has been launched by Canadian authorities.
October 2018 - Canada has official sent out a Request For Proposal to the usual Western fighter producers to find a successor to their aging line of CF-18s. This includes Boeing, Dassault, Eurofighter, Lockheed, and Saab. This means possible contenders are the Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet, the Dassault Rafale, the Eurofighter Typhoon, the Lockheed F-35 Lightning II, and the Saab JAS 39 Gripen.
June 2020 - The Royal Canadian Air Force has finalized plans for a nearly $1 billion USD program to upgrade its aging fleet of CF-18 fighters. As many as 36 CF-18 airframes are in line for the modernization that will include updated radar, avionics, and weapons support to keep the system viable for the next few decades until a replacement can be had.
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