F/A-18F Super Hornet block II (photo : SciFi)
Australia has given the green light to an estimated A$6 billion ($4.7 billion) acquisition of 24 Boeing F/A-18F Block II Super Hornet fighters, with the lead aircraft to be delivered in early 2010 and initial operational capability to be achieved late the same year.
Defence minister Brendan Nelson says contract talks are expected to result in a deal being signed later this year, and that Australia will keep open the option of operating a mixed future fighter fleet of Super Hornets and Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighters (JSF). "A final decision will be made during the next decade to either maintain a mixed fleet or 'on-sell' the Super Hornets and acquire the fourth squadron of JSF," he says. "But the clear preference is likely to be four squadrons of JSF."
The Super Hornet deal may include a purchase of Raytheon AIM-9X Sidewinder short-range air-to-air missiles, rather than funding to modify the aircraft - so far operational only with the US Navy - with new software to support the integration of MBDA's ASRAAM, already fielded by the Royal Australian Air Force's current F/A-18A/Bs.
Australia is already studying a possible AIM-9X acquisition to equip its planned JSF fleet, and the new missile option will be investigated further as part of a high-level RAAF air weapons roadmap due to be considered by Australia's peak Defence Capability Committee this month (see story below).
Nelson says funding for the 24 new fighters will come from a supplement to the Department of Defence budget between fiscal years 2007-8 and 2016-17. The A$6 billion deal will also cover associated weapons and new infrastructure. "There is no impact on the current level of funding for the JSF project, nor deferrals [or] deletions from the [Australian] Defence Capability Plan," he says.
RAAF Super Hornet aircrew training will begin in the USA in 2009, and the service's first four two-seat F/A-18Fs are scheduled to arrive in Australia in early 2010.
"Initial operational capability should be achieved by the end of 2010," says Nelson. This will require the availability of 12 aircraft and trained crews, plus a full stand-off weapons capability. Australia's last aircraft will be delivered in 2011, with full operational capability planned by late 2012, when indigenous training and support services must also be in place.
The Super Hornet fleet will replace the RAAF's 26 General Dynamics F-111 strike aircraft, which are to be retired from 2010.