The F-18 is designed to function as two different types of aircraft. It is both:
- A fighter jet, a plane designed to battle enemy aircraft. Fighters need to be very fast, relatively lightweight and highly maneuverable, so they can keep up with any enemy aircraft and evade counter-attack. They carry air-to-air weapons, like heat-seeking sidewinder missiles.
- An attack jet, a plane designed to take out ground targets. Attack jets fly in low and destroy individual targets, such as tanks, rather than the larger area targets a bomber might take out from a high elevation. Attack jets tend to be bulkier than fighter jets, because of the various bombs they need to carry.
The F-18 is the first plane in the U.S. arsenal designed specifically to fill both of these roles.
The central innovation that makes this possible is a collection of stations -- storage areas on the belly and wings of the plane that can carry everything from extra fuel tanks to a tactical nuclear bomb. By loading these stations with different components -- for example, air-to-ground GPS-guided bombs as opposed to air-to-air heat-seeking missiles -- the F-18 in effect becomes different planes.
The other major secret to the F-18's adaptability is its high performance standards. As we'll see in the next section, its impressive engineering makes it a much better all-around player than most other aircraft.