The Royal Australian Air Force plans to convert 12 F/A-18F Super Hornets to the EA-18G configuration, greatly boosting its air combat capability. (LACW Kylie Gibson)
MELBOURNE, Australia — The Royal Australian Air Force would become the only non-U.S. operator of the Growler electronic attack aircraft in the Asia-Pacific region under plans to convert 12 F/A-18F Super Hornets to the EA-18G configuration, greatly boosting its air combat capability.
Defence Minister Stephen Smith and Minister for Defence Materiel Jason Clare jointly announced the plan — which will cost 1.5 billion Australian dollars ($1.6 billion), including conversion kits, support equipment, spares and training — on Aug. 23 The funds will come from money allocated in the current Defence Capability Plan.
Twelve of Australia’s 24 Super Hornets were prewired for possible conversion to Growler, which added $35 million to the initial $6 billion acquisition cost. The government has also recently spent a further $20 million on long-lead equipment, taking advantage of final U.S. Navy orders for Growler-specific items.
According to Clare, the U.S. experience of combining Growler capability with fifth-generation fighters such as the F-22 Raptor is one reason for the Growler decision.
“Having that extra level of capability will provide extra support, not just for the Joint Strike Fighters that we acquire, but Growler will add that extra level of capability to support all our air, land and naval assets, as well,” he said. “The ability of Growler to work well with the JSF is something that we’ll see proven as the latter comes online later this decade.”
Australia has a requirement for up to 100 F-35As, and although it has committed to an initial batch of 14, it has so far ordered only two aircraft. The remaining 12 have been deferred by up to two years, and the timing and quantities of further orders will depend on the outcome of a review into the Australian JSF program. The results of this review are due to be announced this year.
In the meantime, the Air Force is working to assure no fighter capability gap exists between the retirement of its F/A-18A/B fleet and the arrival of the F-35A.
The Super Hornets were ordered in 2007 to bridge an earlier perceived capability gap, and the timing of the Growler induction may take the delays in the JSF program into account.
Air Vice Marshal Kym Osley, head of the New Air Combat Capability program for Australia’s Defence Materiel Organisation, said six Growlers will be converted initially and a further six in the future.
“The Growler purchase does not affect JSF numbers; the electronic attack capability is a different capability but is complementary to air combat,” he said. “The F-35A is an air combat asset, and we need a certain amount of air combat assets to meet our geostrategic requirements.”
The government was considering options to avoid a capability gap, Osley said.
“We’re doing an exhaustive analysis as we speak. We’ve looked at the schedule in great detail, in terms of costs and capability, and we’re doing that for all options,” he explained. “The minister has mentioned in the past that the more likely option will be to extend the life of the classic Hornet to dovetail with F-35A introduction. One other option is the purchase of additional Super Hornets.”
The recommendations will be placed before the government in the near future.
“The minister will decide later this year, and ultimately, the decision on the next tranche of F-35As will be taken either next year or the year after,” he said.
In other news, Australian industry has delivered the first parts for the first Air Force F-35A, AU-1, to Lockheed Martin.
At a ceremony at the Lovitt Technologies facility here Aug. 24, the company presented the first machined components to be used in the assembly of AU-1 to Lockheed Martin GM/EVP F-35 program manager Tom Burbage.
“It’s a really important day for Australia, the first part for the first Australian Joint Strike Fighter, and it’s a demonstration of the capability of Australian manufacturing,” Clare said at the event. “We are now taking the next big step, and that’s not making aircraft parts for American F-35s or those from other countries; we’re starting to make parts for our own fighter aircraft. This component leaves as a part but will come back as one of the most advanced fighter planes in the world and one which will be the spearhead, protecting Australia for many years to come.”
AU-1 is part of low-rate initial production Lot 6 and is due to be rolled out in mid-2014. It and the second aircraft will go to Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., in 2015 to help train the first Australian pilots and ground crew. They will arrive in Australia with the other 12 aircraft of the first tranche later in the decade.