LONDON – Even as it mulls a follow-on purchase of Boeing F/A-18E/Fs as a possible gap filler for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Australian government expects to make a decision on upgrading some of its existing Super Hornets to an electronic-attack role.

“Within the course of this year, we’ll make a decision about Growler,” Defense Minister Stephen Smith says in reference to the EA-18G electronic attack version of the F/A-18E/F. Australia has taken 12 of the 24 F/A-18E/Fs already delivered for Growler capabilities, although a decision has not yet been made to integrate electronic attack capability. The mission system will likely be different than the U.S. Navy standard.

The Growler decision process will run in parallel with the assessment of whether Australia will go ahead with a near-term buy of 14 F-35s (two will be acquired, but the verdict on the next 12 of the first batch is still out). The issue for Australia is avoiding a capability gap between its classic F/A-18s retiring and the introduction of the new aircraft. “The deep maintenance program for classic Hornets has gone very well, but the risk of gap in capability for us is the end of life of classic Hornets and the arrival of Joint Strike Fighter,” Smith says.

The 12 aircraft now in the balance are to be delivered in 2015-2017, but with changes in the U.S. F-35 buying profile.

“In the course of this year, and I choose my words advisably and carefully and say not at the end of this year, but in the course of this year, we’ll make a range of judgments. We’ll make a range of judgments about whether there’s a risk of a capability gap and what steps we need to take in that respect,” Smith says, with buying more Super Hornets an obvious fallback.

At this point, Smith will not rule out F-35s reaching an initial operational capability in Australia before 2020, although that judgment is likely to be made within the coming months.