The F/A-18(R) is a single-seat reconnaissance version of the Hornet. In order to test the feasibility of the concept, McDonnell modified a single Block 4 F/A-18A (BuNo 161214) with a twin-sensor package in place of the 20-mm cannon. Sensors included low-altitude cameras, low-to medium-altitude panoramic cameras, and infrared linescan. The aircraft could be converted back to stock fighter configuration in only a few hours. The modified aircraft flew for the first time on August 15, 1984.
The F/A-18D(RC) is a reconnaissance version of the two-seat F/A-18D, with a dedicated back-seat crewman who operates the reconnaissance equipment full-time. The M61A1 gun is replaced by a pallet-mounted electro-optical suite with a blister-mounted infrared linescan and two roll-stabilized sensor units. These units record onto video tape, but a datalink pod can be added to the centerline for instantaneous transmission of images to ground stations. This version was intended for the Marine Corps, with the F/A-18D(RC) initially replacing the aging RF-4B Phantoms which served with VMFP-3 at MCAS El Toro, California. When the squadron was re-established on July 1, 1991, it was redesignated VMFA(AW)-225 ("Vagabonds").
The initial aircraft (BuNo 164649, first in block 36) capable of carrying the Martin Marietta Advanced Tactical Airborne Reconnaissance System (ATARS) centerline pod was delivered to the squadron on February 14, 1992. They would also supplement TARPS-equipped F-14 Tomcats in Navy service.