Australia is sticking with an order for 24 Boeing F/A-18Fs Super Hornets made by its previous government, but defence minister Joel Fitzgibbon rounded on his predecessors and accused them of lacking “sound long-term air combat capability planning during the last decade”.
“The Super Hornet is an excellent aircraft capable of meeting any known threat in the region,” says defence minister Joel Fitzgibbon. “It is the only aircraft which can meet the small delivery window created by the former Government’s poor planning processes and politically-driven responses. Cancelling the Super Hornet would bring significant financial penalties and create understandable tensions between the contract partners.”
The former Liberal government made the controversial A$6.6 billion ($6 billion) order for the Super Hornets in early 2007 to replace the Royal Australian Air Force's ageing General Dynamics F-111 fleet, and provide a stopgap ahead of the delivery of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
The Labor government came to power late last year and, in January, began assessing the country's air combat capability requirements – though some observers believe that the study is meant to scrutinise the procurement decisions made under ex-defence minister Brendan Nelson, who is now opposition leader.
The first part of the study focused on the feasibility of retaining the F-111s beyond 2010 and the status of Australia's plans to acquire the Super Hornet. Explaining the findings, Fitzgibbon said that the decision to retire the F-111s was irreversible due to the huge costs involved.
“The…decision to leave Australia's air defence in the hands of the JSF project was a flawed leap of faith in scheduling terms, and combined with the quick decision to retire F-111 early, allowed an air combat capability gap to emerge,” he said. “The subsequent timetable the former Government put on the acquisition of an interim fighter left Defence planners with no choice but to recommend the Super Hornet. No other suitable aircraft could be produced to meet the 2010 deadline the former Government had set.”
The second part of the study will now examine Australia’s air combat capability needs until 2045, including the plan to acquire the F-35s. Further announcements on this are expected in late-April. The review’s findings will be incorporated by end-2008 into a new Defence White Paper, which will guide future defence planning.
The decision will be a relief to Boeing, which has already cut metal on the RAAF's first aircraft. Australia, which is scheduled to receive the first two-seat F/A-18Fs from 2010, became the first export customer for the aircraft and its decision was seen as a major vote of confidence in the fighter. Boeing hopes that this will pave the way for other orders in the region, in particular a $12 billion 126-aircraft tender in India.
In February, Australia’s air force chief told Flight International that he was for ordering the F/A-18s. “We are asking them to spend a lot of money, so it is understandable that they want to examine it,” Air Chief Marshal Geoff Shepherd said then of the review. The next stage, he added, was with the F-35. "Our future is with the JSF, by 2020 we want to have an all F-35 fleet. We believe that the Super Hornets will serve us well until the F-35s come in. If the government gives us the OK for the F/A-18s, we will be able to handle any delays to the F-35 through mid-life upgrades for the Super Hornets.”