Development of the F/A-18 came as a result of the U.S. Navy's Naval Fighter-Attack, Experimental (VFAX) program to procure a multirole aircraft to replace the A-4 Skyhawk, the A-7 Corsair II, remaining F-4 Phantom IIs and to complement the F-14 Tomcat. Vice Admiral Kent Lee, then head of Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR), was the lead advocate for the VFAX against strong opposition from many Navy officers, including Vice Admiral William D. Houser, deputy chief of naval operations for air warfare - the highest ranking naval aviator.

The YF-17 Cobra was navalized and developed into the F/A-18.

In August 1973, Congress mandated that the Navy pursue a lower-cost alternative to the F-14. Grumman proposed a stripped F-14 designated the F-14X, while McDonnell Douglas proposed a navalized F-15, but both were nearly as expensive as the F-14. That summer, Secretary of Defense Schlesinger ordered the Navy to evaluate the competitors in the Air Force's Lightweight Fighter (LWF) program, the General Dynamics YF-16 and Northrop YF-17. The Air Force competition specified a day fighter with no strike capability. In May 1974, the House Armed Services Committee redirected $34 million from the VFAX to a new program, the Navy Air Combat Fighter (NACF), intended to make maximum use of the technology developed for the LWF program.