Monday, 5 October 2009

Why the RMAF Operates the F/A-18D Hornet Fighter


Malaysia's F/A-18D Hornet


Do you know the real reason why the Royal Malaysian Air Force flies the F/A-18D Hornet multirole fighter? Was it because Uncle Sam offered it at such a low price that the Malaysians find it hard to refuse? Was it because like what the BAe did to secure their Tornado Fighter deal with the Saudis, McDonnell Douglas greased the palms of Malaysian politicians? Perhaps, but not quite.
F/A-18D of the Royal Malaysian Air Force ( TUDM ) landing after a
national day fly past in 2014. Wikicommons.

RMAF F/A-18D taxis during Cope Taufan 2012 at Butterworth AB. USAF Photo


A Brief History of the F/A-18 Hornet

First, some background knowledge on the Hornet. It started life in the 1970s as the YF-17, a contender for the US Air Force's Lightweight Fighter Program but eventually its rival from General Dynamics the YF-16 won the contest. The YF-16 later evolved to become the Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon, one of America's most successful modern fighter aircraft. At around the same time, the US Navy and Marine Corps were looking for an aircraft to replace their aging A-4 Skyhawk, A-6 Intruder, A-7 Corsair and the prohibitively expensive F-14 Tomcat fighter. They did not want the F-16 as it has only a single engine with narrow landing gears. Twin engines are always preferred for flights over oceans as insurance against ditching due to engine failure. They subsequently selected the YF-17 but had to have it radically modified to adapt it for carrier operations. It would become the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet and later the Boeing F/A-18 Hornet as Boeing acquired McDonnell Douglas.

The Hornet's first flight was carried out on 18th Nov 1978 and it entered service with the USN and USMC in end 1983 and early 1984 respectively. As a carrier-borne strike fighter, its primary missions included fleet air defense, fighter escort, air interdiction, suppression of enemy air defenses, close air support and aerial reconnaissance. The early production models were the A and B versions which after 1987, evolved into the more capable C and D versions which are equipped with new radars, avionics and the ability to carry new missiles like the AIM-120 AMRAAM, AGM-65 Maverick and the AGM-84 Harpoon anti-ship missiles. The F/A-18 design would later form the basis from which the radically new F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet would evolve. 

US Marine Corps F/A-18C of the Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 212 ( VFMA-212 )
 flies over the South China Sea on the return trip from Paya Lebar Air Base,
 Singapore to Iwakuni Air Base, Japan
in support of Ex Commando Sling 2003. Wikipaedia

F/A-18C Hornet belonging to the aggressor squadron of the
Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center, Naval Air Station Fallon. USN Photo.

How to differentiate the Hornet from the Super Hornet at a glance :
The top aircraft is a F/A-18C Hornet with smaller ovoid air intakes.
The aircraft beneath it is the F/A-18E Super Hornet with larger rectangular air intakes.
USN Photo.

Why Would Anybody Want The Hornet?

It is strange why any country apart from the United States would want to have the F/A-18 Hornet as their interdiction / strike aircraft as the Hornet has one of the smallest combat radius of any modern strike fighter due to its limited internal fuel tank capacity. The USN initially didn't think the Hornet would need a huge range since it was supposed to play second fiddle to the F-14 Tomcat which had a much longer range and carried the then extremely long ranged ( 160km ) Raytheon AIM-54 Phoenix air-to-air missile in its fleet defender role. After many years, they eventually changed their minds, the entire F-14 fleet had been retired and the Hornet evolved to become the F/A-18E Super Hornet with slightly better combat range. The commonly sited reason for buying the Hornet? Inter-operability with the United States Navy - like the Royal Australian Air Force ( RAAF ).

Fighter Squadron VF-143 became Strike Fighter Squadron VFA-143
 when it transitioned from F-14B Tomcat ( bottom )
to F/A-18E Super Hornet ( top ) in 2005. Wikipaedia

A USN F/A-18E Super Hornet over the Bismarck Sea in transit to Townsville,
Queensland for Ex Black Dagger 2016 with the RAAF.
Inter-operability - that's what we are talking about! Photo : USN

The Hornet's Achilles Heel : Limited Range

The key parameter in determining an aircraft's range is the fuel fraction. It is derived by dividing the weight of the internal fuel by the gross take off weight of the aircraft and is expressed as a percentage or a ratio. Normally, a fighter jet would have a fuel fraction of 30% to 35% ( 0.30 to 0.35 if expressed in a ratio form ). The F/A-18 Hornet's fuel fraction is just 0.23 or 23%. This severely limits its range and 330-gallon external drop tanks are frequently seen attached to the centreline and inner wing stations of the Hornet. The external fuel tanks extend the range and combat radius of the aircraft but reduces the number of attachment points for bombs and missiles. It also obviously adds drag and reduces maneuverability and must be jettisoned before any aerial engagement.

F/A-18C of VFA-146 conducts a combat mission in support of
Operation Enduring Freedom in 2002.
The Hornet is seldom seen without its numerous external drop tanks. Wikipaedia

F/A-18C of the USN's Blue Angels flight demonstration team over El Centro, CA 2016.
The only times where you are guaranteed to see a F/A-18 without an external tank
 is perhaps during such aerial displays. USN Photo

The Million Dollar Question

So why have half a squadron of range limited Hornets especially when you already have a full squadron of MiG-29N Fulcrum that are also multirole fighters? The answer had eluded me for years but now I think I have finally uncovered the truth.

The TUDM's MiG-29N Fulcrum at the Singapore Airshow 2012. Wikicommons

The Great Singapore - Malaysia Arms Race According to Dr M.

In a recent interview by the press, Dr Mahathir, Malaysia's ex-ex-Prime Minister who does not see himself as retired from that post, when asked of his esteemed opinion of Singapore planning to display two of their F-16C/D Falcon fighters and the AH-64D Apache helicopter gunship at the coming LIMA '09 ( Langkawi International Maritime and Air Show ), mentioned that Singapore is entitled to display its military hardware. He stated that it would be good to do so since Malaysians can also see for themselves the hardware capabilities of the RSAF. He also cautioned about an arms race between the two countries, citing the example of " you buy the F-16 , I'll buy the F-18". Gosh! This guy seems to believe that a fighter's designation number is a reflection of its capability, and that the bigger the number, the higher the capability?!

The Truth Revealed

So, there you have it. Mahathir was the Prime Minister when all those MiGs and Hornets were procured in 1993. He must have wanted the Hornets very badly for the Royal Malaysian Air Force since Singapore already operated the F-16s from 1988, propelled by his mistaken believe that the F-18 is superior to the F-16. Unfortunately, even after years of saving and saving, Malaysia could still not afford a full squadron of F-18s, at least not on McDonnell Douglas' terms. George Bush probably did not want to extend any discount to Malaysia for the intended F/A-18 purchase through his foreign military aid schemes since Malaysia did not join the Desert Storm coalition during the 1991 Gulf War, unlike Singapore. Mahathir even openly criticised the coalition headed by H.W. Bush, George Bush's father, so don't expect any concessions here.

RMAF F/A-18D Hornet in 2007. Photo via wikicommons.

RSAF F-16D Block 52+ during Cope Tiger 2010. USAF Photo.

The Air Force Where East Meets West

Russia, however, was a totally different kettle of fish in those dark days of the early 90s. Barely recovering from the collapse of the old Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, they were desperately in need of cash and were very willing to give huge loans to buyers of their military hardware. In fact, they were so eager to conclude any foreign military sales that they agreed to a partial barter trade with Malaysia, palm oil for Migs! I wonder now many cakes of soap Yeltsin manage to manufacture out of USD500 million worth of palm oil. It must have been enough to depress the price of soap in Russia for decades! That's how Mahathir got his squadron of 18 MiG-29N Fulcrum A and how Yeltsin ended up with a little cash and more soap than he ever could imagine.

Now despite having the MiGs, our man is still intent on having the F/A-18s but could only afford half a squadron of 8 Hornets, so half a squadron it was.

As it turned out, this unique mix of American and Russian aircraft proved to be a logistical nightmare for the maintenance personnel. Imagine having to learn the Russian language first before one can even understand the instruction manual and then still having to contend with a totally different aircraft in the form of the F/A-18D Hornet.

TUDM F/A-18D at Butterworth AB during Cope Taufan 2014. USAF Photo

The Current Situation, Circa 2009

As of 2009, barely 15 years after the induction of the MiG-29 Fulcrum, Malaysia is retiring what's left of the entire fleet of 14 aircrafts ( down from the original batch of 18 aircrafts ), citing high maintenance costs and difficulty in obtaining spare parts as reasons. They tried unsuccessfully to sell the Migs to the Burmese who at least had the cow sense to refuse no matter how cheap they were. The role of the F/A-18D Hornets have also been diminished after the introduction of the Sukhoi Su-30MKM multirole fighter into the RMAF since 2007.

Singapore, on the other hand, opted for the F-16 and nothing else since 1985, slowly buying more advanced versions as they were made available and upgrading or donating away the older versions, thus enjoying the economy of scale with a large fleet of a common aircraft - advanced Block 50/52 F-16. It was not until 2006 that Singapore ordered the Boeing F-15SG Strike Eagle as a replacement for the ageing A-4S Skyhawk, perhaps partially in response to Malaysia's Su-30MKM order. The arms race continues .......

Update 2012

Typical of Malaysia's flip flop decision making in all things political, the top brass has decided to postpone the retirement of the Fulcrums. 10 Mig-29Ns will be repaired and upgraded to extend their useful service life for another few years. Heck, the Migs even put up an aerial display at the Singapore Air Show this year calling themselves the Smokey Bandits. Now I always thought that a smoky engine equals incomplete combustion. Must have been a result of some poor technician misreading those Russian manuals printed on Soviet era rice paper.

Update 2014

The F/A-18 played an important role in dropping precision munitions on Philippine rebels illegally invading Sabah in East Malaysia in 2013. Politicians are calling for more laser guided bombs to be added to the inventory.

The Malaysian MRCA programme to replace the MiG-29 Fulcrums had stalled. The government admitted that they were having some problems with the finances. It looked like the MiG-29 will retire in 2015 without a replacement. RMAF is hoping to extend their service life a little by restricting them to operational duties only. They are now actively looking at leasing options from SAAB ( JAS-39 Gripen and AEW ), BAE ( Eurofighter Typhoon ) and other manufacturers. Bye Bye Smokey Bandits.



  1. Malaysia is mostly maritime environment, thus twin engine offers more reliability, and although F-16 has greater ferry range, F/A-18 has a greater combat radius. Additionally, F/A-18 can operate off shorter and more rugged runways due to its naval strength landing gear and low stall speed, and is better suited to precision strikes and interdiction against both land and especially sea targets than F-16. Finally, F/A-18 is nearly unbeatable in a slow turning dogfight, again due to its ability to maintain control beneath other aircrafts stall speeds. RMAF choose F/A-18 not because of cronies or whatever, but because it suited RMAF primary role, which is maritime strike.

  2. Mahathir is not that dumb, man. RMAF wanted twin engines. Tornado and Hornet were shortlisted. RMAF then disliked the Tornado for being expensive. It couldn't even keep up with an F-5. But the US says no. Malaysia said "fuck you" then proceed to buy Fulcrums. US was afraid to (slowly) lose a strategic ally, so they sell Hornets.

    those Hornets are now equipped with 25X pack (which basically turns every avionics into a Super Hornet). However govt has rejected Super Hornet offers, since the legacy Hornet is more maneuverable and just as capable. Rafale and EF are now the main attention.

    1. Quite a dumb reply. 25x is a stopgap and definitely not super hornet standard. Its is purely because Msia cannnot afford to buy any new jets.

      $$ is the problem. Some people got rich. Definitely not the Msia armed forces or RMAF.

  3. Why reject the single engine fighter jets? Why need 2 engines? With 2 engines you have 2 jet planes. We no need to have 2 engines jet as the single engine can fulfill the MRCA role nicely.Our jets are not for offensive but defensive. Our jets are not suppose to cross other countries. That means the jet planes will be flying in our Malaysian airspace. If anything happen to the plane the pilot can eject and land back to our country soil. He will not land at enemy territory. 2 engines are good for offensive, wherby the jet is required to enter into enemy territory. Can Malaysia afford to that? Is it because RMAF not capable of maintaining the planes? Just in case one fail, you still have one... Is it logical? If one fail the other one can fail anytime too. Proper maintainance is very important. Most countries adopt the F16 single engine. I neer heard dropping from the sky every day nor in every other day...
    Lack of range... another bull shit! How big is Malaysia? Are they not airbase around Malaysia? Even kids now this phrase, we land to the nearest base, refuel and take off from there.....
    If we can buy the F16 at an affordable price, we have more planes and can distribute equally to all the airbase in Malaysia. More pilots will have a hands on training.
    Forget about the trainer KAI Fa50 fighting eagle, better top up the money and buy a Real Fighter jet....

    1. With 2 engines u have 2 jet planes wow! Going by this logic there should be a plane with 3 engines by now making it a plane which is equal to 3 jet fighters lol. Going by this funny equation 2 engines = 2 planes then i should see a tank with triple 120mm guns beacuse by this law 3 guns is equal to 3 tanks.

    2. Sample of a person (hopefully not Malaysian) that forget Borneo exist or never take a 2 hours plane to Borneo, or dont even accept that Sabah and Sarawak is part of Malaysia. Or maybe that person thinks we have bases at all states for every type of aircraft roles.

    3. Msia doesnt care much about East Msia. If it gets too tough they will probably protect KL and abandon the far away states. Thats the reality.

    4. Pigmoon,
      Who said Msia doesn't care about East Msia?? In 2013 we have successful destroyed the Sulu's intruder in Sabah. Your track record is very obvious that you're anti Msia. You're an enemy to us. Don't talk cock.

  4. It should be noted that the twin engine design offers redundancy in case of engine failure. Notice how there have been no hornet crashes due to engine failure, which is more that can be said for our poor Hawks.

    The other issue people are forgetting is that RMAF wanted a robust maritime strike capability. Buying F-16 would have meant we would need to pay extra for Harpoon intergration, and can only carry 2 Harpoons; meanwhile Hornet has built in Harpoon intergration can can carry up to 4 Harpoons. This was what edged Rafale out ahead of Typhoon even before Brexit btw; Rafale already had Expcet tested and ready to go, while BAE was still working on an antiship weapon for Typhoon.

    1. Good point. Still i really wonder if they really did thought of that themselves lol as they did buy the hornets in quite a hurry. Well does anyone know how long they planned for the hornets?

    2. I guess RMAF just want a different American airplane compared to RSAF. Harpoon integration already happened on Taiwanese F-16 in early 90s
      Loved the RMAF hornets but the small number is a disappointment.

  5. Malaysian, DUMB ASS PERIOD !

    1. Fuck your ass !! You're a bullshit enemy !

  6. I would like to see more American planes in the RMAF. Also would like to see an increase in the military budget.