HINDSIGHT 2020: The CF-18 Hornet
Welcome to Hindsight 2020! For this series we will be taking a look at Canada's past fighter purchases and asking a simple question: "Did we make the right decision?"
We will look at the aircraft itself, compare it to the alternatives available at the time, and determine whether or not Canada picked the right aircraft.
The CF-18 Hornet (officially the CF-188) needs no introduction. It has been Canada's primary combat aircraft for almost 40 years now. It has seen action in several combat arenas, including Kosovo, Libya, and the Gulf War of '91. The Hornet also has the distinction of serving during the final years of The Cold War. It is with no exaggeration that one could describe the CF-18 as one of Canada's most important aircraft.
With its long and varied service history, no one could call the CF-18 a "Hanger Queen".
It is hard to believe now, but the CF-18 was not without controversy when it was officially announced as Canada's new fighter back in 1980. Meant to replace the CF-101 Voodoo, CF-104 Starfighter, and (somewhat) the CF-116 Freedom Fighter. Big shoes to fill and certainly a challenge to fulfill multiple roles filled by three VERY different aircraft.
At the time, the CF-18 seemed to be an odd choice in some respects. The F/A-18 Hornet was, after all, designed for aircraft carrier operations. That meant a lot of extra weight and cost devoted to a capability Canada had zero need for. A lighter, more affordable ground-based version; the F-18L, was briefly considered but dismissed due to lack of interest.
Possibly the most interesting aspect of the F/A-18 of the time was how uninteresting it was. When comparing fighter jets, it is easy to get caught up in which one is the fastest or most maneuverable. While the F/A-18 is certainly no slouch in either department, it certainly does not hold many records. When compared to the other fighters contending for the New Fighter Aircraft Project (NFAP), the Hornet was neither the fastest, nor the most maneuverable, nor the cheapest.
So why was the F/A-18 selected?
Like anything else, there is no single, solid reason. It ultimately came down to several factors, both political and practical.