Ukraine Could Have Been Flying F-18 Fighters Months Ago: Why It Rejected Them as ‘Flying Trash’ While Favouring MiG-29s

The Australian Defence Ministry in March 2023 first floated the idea of donating 41 of the Royal Australian Air Force’s retired F/A-18 Hornet fourth generation fighters to Ukraine, two months before the United States gave the green light for the re-export of fighters to the Eastern European country. While Ukraine is currently set to receive F-16 lightweight fighters from a number of European states, the F-18 represents a more costly medium weight class of fighter developed with a twin engine configuration, and which benefits from a longer range. A senior Ukrainian Air Force official rejected the donation, dismissing the aircraft as “flying trash,” according to a report from the Australian Financial Review. “That basically killed the F/A-18 deal. Had he not done it they would have been flying over Ukraine now,” the review concluded. While rejecting the F-18, Ukraine accepted significant numbers of MiG-29 fighters from across Eastern Europe, which have been used extensively in combat and are considered the closest equivalent to the F-18 produced by the Soviet Union and later Russia. 

Australian F-18s and European states’ MiG-29s have notably had similarly long service lives, but the MiGs have considerable advantages including superior thrust/weight ratios, climb rates, speeds and operational altitudes and access to R-73 missiles with helmet mounted sights which facilitate high off boresight targeting. The MiG-29 and F-16 are both considered significantly more successful aircraft than the F-18 and both remain in production on limited scales for export today, while the F-18 despite being a newer design was phased out of production 24 years ago in the year 2000. The final Hornets phased out of the U.S. Navy were replaced with F-16s, although a small number continue to serve in the U.S. Marine Corps. The F-18 is notably a derivative of the YF-17 design which the U.S. Air Force rejected in 1975 in favour of the F-16, with the YF-17 having itself been heavily based on the Vietnam War era F-5 fighter which first entered service in 1961. The U.S. Navy later adopted the design, primarily because its twin engine configuration reduced the risk of crashes which was critical for operations from aircraft carriers. The F-18 has during its service history encountered two classes of foreign fighter in air to air combat, namely the Soviet MiG-21 and MiG-25 flown by the Iraqi Air Force, and won both engagements with the former while being shot down in its sole engagement with the latter.