Australia hasn't had all that much luck with its recent defense procurements -- long delays on delivery of its E-7A Wedgetail AEW&C platforms, then its KC-30A tanker/transports and now its F-35A Joint Strike Fighters -- but its decision to acquire 24 F/A-18F Super Hornets to replace its F-111s appears to be paying off, at least in flexibility terms.
In a not-unexpected development, the Australian Department of Defence has decided to install electronic-attack systems on the half of its Super Hornet fleet that is already wired to take the systems, making them into EA-18G Growlers. This will cost an estimated A$1.5 billion ($1.44 billion) and the 12 converted aircraft are to be operational in 2018.
Concept: Australian Defence Force
That means at least some of the Royal Australian Air Force's Super Hornets will stay in service alongside the planned F-35s -- and that the Australians will operate one of the most powerful combat systems in the Pacific theater. The Growlers will be used for "electronic threat suppression" against air, land and sea forces, says the Department of Defence.
There is no mention of weapons, but the artist's impression (above) accompanying the announcement shows the RAAF Growler carrying AGM-88 HARM anti-radiation missiles and AGM-154 JSOW air-to-surface weapons. The F/A-18Fs are already getting the JSOW, but I can't find any reference to Australia having purchased HARMs -- perhaps someone out there knows whether they have.
In its latest (May) update on the Air 6000 project to acquire F-35s, Australia's Defense Materiel Organization (DMO) says a decision on the timing of withdrawal of the Super Hornets -- and the acquisition of a fourth squadron of F-35s to replace them -- is not expected before 2015. Full operational capability with the F/A-18Fs is not until December this year, says DMO, so Australia has plenty of time to decide.
E-7A Wedgetail (Photo: Australian Defence Force)
Meanwhile, the RAAF has finally been able to deploy its latest purchases operationally, the Boeing 737-based Wedgetail AEW&C taking part in the multi-national exercises Rimpac 2012 in Hawaii and Cope North 2012 in Guam and the Airbus A330-based KC-30A participating in Pitch Black 12 -- where the F/A-18Fs also made their first appearance in the annual exercise in Northern Australia.
Australia received its sixth and final Wedgetail in June -- a 68-month delay, according to the DMO. Initial operating capability is expected in late this year, and final operating capability in late 2013. The first two KC-30A tankers were delivered in June 2011 and were about 30 months late. Three remain to be delivered. Now the F-35 is slipping.
KC-30A (Photo: Australian Defence Force)
The first two of an initial 14 are to be delivered for operational testing in the U.S. in 2014, but in May the government announced it would delay placing an order for the other 12, pushing deliveries back two years from the planned 2015-17. An assessment of the overall progress of the F-35 program is to be presented to the government late this year and will inform a decision on whether to approve funding for the next tranche of up to 58 aircraft.