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On Target: Mirage IIIO to F/A-18A Hornet Lightweight to Light-heavyweight fighter transition

Brian Weston 'On Target Mirage IIIO to F/A-18A Hornet Lightweight to Light-heavyweight fighter transition' in Australian Aviation, April 2017

Following-on from the CAC Sabre to Dassault Mirage transition, after two decades of service, the RAAF replaced the Mirage IIIO with the F/A-18A Hornet. Unlike the preceding transition, the Hornet did not involve the vast broadening of capability conferred by changing from a day-fighter to an all-weather tactical fighter. The Hornet did, however, introduce a far deeper tactical fighter capability than was ever possible with the Mirage.

Much of the capability gain came not just from generational and technological developments, but from the size of the Hornet which conferred immediate improvements in payload and sensors, especially radar aperture and power.

The Hornet also improved on a major limitation of the Mirage, namely, its short range. Not that the Mirage was any worse than its 1950s peers; simply, the advance of time and technology gave the Hornet a 25 per cent range increase.

More significantly the Hornet was capable of air-to-air refueling, thus setting right some earlier conceptual thinking, when the RAAF asked Dassault not to equip the Mirage IIIO with single-point pressure refueling, on the basis that pressure refueling facilities would not be available at forward operating airfields. This decision had long term consequences, because even if the RAAF had later sought to modify the Mirage for air-to-air refueling, it could not be done easily as there was no single-point pressure refueling manifold within the Mirage into which to tap an air-to-air refueling probe.

To these enhancements, brought about by greater size and an ability to refuel while in flight, can be added aerodynamic advances, digital technology advances, and the benefits flowing from the F/A-18A human/machine interface which set a new benchmark in fighter cockpit design.

The RAAF had done well, and its promotion into a bigger league of tactical fighters was starkly evident when the first two F/A-18B aircraft were ferried to Australia, non-stop, across the Pacific.

Given its 20 years of Mirage operational experience, the RAAF also had a solid foundation on which to introduce the new fighter. That expertise had been gained not only from the permanent deployment of Mirages to Malaysia, but also from an increasing participation in Australian and regional exercises, including deployments to the USAF Pacific Air Forces Exercise Cope Thunder, at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, commencing in 1981.

Like the preceding transition to the Mirage, that of the Hornet also needed to be accomplished without any loss of operational capability. Hence when No 3 Squadron returned from Butterworth to convert to the Hornet, a new Mirage unit, No 79 Squadron, was formed at Butterworth to meet Australia’s Five Power Defence Agreement obligations.

During the Sabre to Mirage transition, No 2 Operational Conversion Unit was over-burdened, but this time the Fighter Conversion Unit was tasked solely with Hornet training. And rather than establish another fighter training unit to assume responsibility for the ongoing Mirage conversion courses, as had been done for the Sabre to Mirage transition, the conduct of all Mirage operational conversions was transferred to No 77 Squadron – contravening the dictum that military training should always be carried out in training units, not operational units.

No 77 Squadron also assumed responsibility for the MB-326H lead-in fighter training and for the conduct of the last Mirage fighter combat instructor course. All this, while maintaining its status as an operational fighter squadron. This was not a smart decision, as was evident when the unit’s aircraft establishment and annual flying rate grew to more than 40 aircraft and 11,000 hours per year respectively.

After No 77 Squadron converted to the Hornet in 1987, No 75 Squadron followed. No 75 Squadron, which had been based at Darwin with its Mirages since 1983, then moved to the newly-constructed base at Tindal. The sole remaining Mirage unit, No 79 Squadron, was concurrently disbanded, thus ending two decades of Australian service by Dassault’s elegant fighter, and bringing an end to 32 years of a permanent RAAF fighter presence in Malaysia.

The transition from Mirage to Hornet was completed in May 1989, along with the most significant reorganisation of RAAF operational units since World War II. This change amalgamated all of the RAAF’s tactical fighter units and air defence radars, irrespective of where they were located, into one operational group, the Tactical Fighter Group.

The RAAF had successfully brought into service not only an outstanding tactical fighter but also a new system of functional command, changes that without doubt, contributed to the exemplary performance of No 75 Squadron in the Iraq War of 2003, where the unit successfully conducted air superiority, close air support and air interdiction operations.

Air-Vice Marshal Brian Weston (Retd) was Commander Tactical Fighter Group from July 1990 to July 1993. Brian is a Board Member of the Williams Foundation and this On Target article appears in Australian Aviation magazine.

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