The United States Marine Corps’ F/A-18 Hornet conducted its final aircraft carrier deployment according to a Marine Corps statement, marking the end of the line for Marine Corps carrier-based Hornet operations.
The Hornet entered Marine Corps service in the mid-1980s, and the multirole fighter excelled in a number of different capacities, including aerial reconnaissance, air interdiction, carrier defense, air superiority, and suppression of enemy air defenses.
Marine Corps and Navy Hornets have been involved in quite a few combat operations, including combat flights against Libyan targets during the mid-1980s as well as during both the Gulf war and the Iraq War. The Hornet proved its versatility especially during the Gulf War, when Hornets tasked with bombing runs were also able to shoot down Iraqi aircraft en route to their target and still successfully deliver their ordnance.
The Hornet was scaled up with the introduction of the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, a similar but larger and more capable jet airplane, in the late 1990s. Though the Super Hornet offered a significantly improved range and payload carrying capacity compared to the older Hornet, the Marine Corps resisted operating the newer jet, fearing that introducing the Super Hornet would cut into available funds in the future and reduce the number of F-35B stealth fighters the Corps preferred to fly.
Though the Hornet was highly regarded when introduced into Marine service in the 1980s and known for being less maintenance-intensive compared to prior naval fighter designs, the fighter would see progressively lower preparedness rates. As recently as 2016, only a quarter of the Corps’ 280 Hornets were cleared for flight operations due to maintenance concerns.
In 2020, eighty-four of the Corps’ Hornets were hand-picked for intensive overhaul that would see their flight hour limit increased from 6,000 flight hours to 10,000 in order to keep them airborne until the 2030s. Still, the end is in sight for Marine Hornets.
Lockheed Martin’s F-35B, the short takeoff and vertical landing variant of the F-35 Lightning II program specifically designed for use with Marine pilots, will replace the Hornet in Marine Aviation inventories. “In line with the Marine Corps Force Design 2030, transitioning to the F-35 increases the lethality of 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW), as both F-35 variants provide unprecedented stealth capabilities and flexibility due to their ability to operate from conventional aircraft carriers and land bases,” the USMC statement reads. “Furthermore, the F-35 will provide the Marine Air-Ground Task Force strategic agility, operational flexibility and tactical supremacy in a high-end conflict.”
Caleb Larson is a Defense Writer with The National Interest. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.