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.
A Brief History of the F/A-18 Hornet
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.
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 .......
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.
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.