The world's premier naval fighter originated as a more sophisticated naval derivative of the Northrop YF-17 that was pitted successfully against the General Dynamics YF-16 in the USN's Air Combat Fighter programme of 1976. The first of 11 trials Hornets made its maiden flight on 18 November 1978. Production of the initial F/A-18A single-seat version eventually totalled 371 aircraft, the first US Navy squadron receiving its aircraft in 1983.
The F/A-18 offers much greater weapons delivery accuracy than its predecessors, and is a genuinely multi-role aircraft, with remarkable dog-fighting ability. Its advanced APG-65 multi-mode radar has become the benchmark fighter radar. The F/A-18 made its combat debut during the El Dorado Canyon action against Libya in April 1986, and was heavily committed to action during Operation Desert Storm in 1991.
The F/A-18A was superseded by the F/A-18C, which remained the principal single-seat production model up to 1999, some 347 having been ordered for US service. The first F/A-18C made its maiden flight on 3 September 1986. This version introduced compability with the AIM-120 AMRAAM and the IIR version of the AGM-65 Maverick missile, as well as improved avionics and a new NACES ejection seat.
After 137 baseline F/A-18Cs had been delivered, production switched to a night attack version with equipment including GEC Cat's Eye pilot's night vision goggles compatibility, an AAR-50 TINS pod, Kaiser AVQ-28 raster HUD, externally-carried AAS-38 FLIR targeting pod and color multi-function displays. The first night-attack Hornet was delivered on 1 November 1989.
The Hornet's versatility has led to substantial export sales. Canada was the first foreign customer, taking delivery of 98 single-seat CF-188A aircraft, while Australia followed with an order for 57 AF-18A. Spain purchased 60 EF-18As (local designation C.15) and later acquired 24 former US Navy F/A-18As from late 1995. F/A-18Cs have been delivered to Kuwait (32 KAF-18Cs), Switzerland (26) and Finland (57).