Australia has given the green light to an estimated A$6 billion ($4.64 billion) acquisition of 24 Boeing F/A-18F Block II Super Hornet aircraft with lead aircraft to be delivered in early 2010 and initial operational capability in place from late that same year.
The Australian government and Boeing are also examining establishment of a regional support centre for US Navy and Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Super Hornets at RAAF Amberley base outside Brisbane.
Australian defence minister Brendan Nelson says contract negotiations are expected to result in a final deal being signed later this year. The acquisition will be funded by direct supplementation of existing defence budget outlays between fiscal year 2007-2008 and FY 2016-2017. The A$6 billion figure includes aircraft acquisition, new aircraft weapons, and new infrastructure
“The government has provided full supplementation. There is no impact on the current level of funding for the [Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter] JSF project, nor deferrals [or] deletions from the [Australian] Defence Capability Plan” says Nelson.
The minister also says that Australia will keep open the option of a mixed future fighter fleet comprising both Super Hornets and the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
A mixed fleet remains “an option available to government. 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. The clear preference is likely to be four squadrons of JSF.”
Initial RAAF Super Hornet aircrew training will commence in the USA in 2009 but will later transition to Australia. The first four aircraft will arrive in Australia in early 2010.
The minister says: “initial operational capability should be achieved by the end of 2010, consisting of 12 aircraft, plus trained crews. The aircraft will have full stand-off weapons capability at that time. The last aircraft deliveries will be achieved in 2011 with full operational capability being achieved by the end of 2012. This will include full indigenous training, support, electronic warfare support, full deployment capability, and mature crew numbers.”
The aircraft will be a direct replacement for Australia’s existing General Dynamics F-111 fighters, which are to retire from 2010.
Nelson says the new fighters will leverage existing RAAF “F/A-18 systems and technical support, as well as strong relationships with suppliers. This makes the Super Hornet the greatest capability available today, at least risk, which ensures that Australia’s edge in regional air combat capability is maintained, at a time of major equipment renewal and change for the air force.”
The Australian aircraft will be held in the same configuration as those already operated by the USN. Nelson says “this acquisition will be of an ‘off the shelf’ product, with minimal changes – similar in many ways to the C-17 acquisition. Support options are being developed which could see the joint future development of the Super Hornet between the USN and RAAF. We intend to use the same software in the combat systems.
“It is intended that there will be high levels of commonality between sensors and weapons in the Super Hornet and our upgraded Hornets, further simplifying and de-risking the acquisition.”
Nelson says that Australian industry plans associated with the purchase remain “preliminary at this stage. Boeing and the Australian defence ministry are working to develop a strategic investment plan, which is envisaged will see the establishment within Australia of a regional support centre that could handle multiple Australian / US military aerospace platforms.
“The Super Hornet will not require the same degree of industry support as the F-111, as it is a vastly more modern aircraft." He adds that the Australian defence ministry and Australian industry are "conducting planning to transition the current F-111 workforce to support of a wider range of aircraft platforms.
“I am advised that Boeing has commenced a review of the workforce impact on the Amberley site to account for the F111 withdrawal, the Wedgetail modification programme, completion of the last Boeing 707 tanker deeper maintenance work, and the stand-up of C-17 support arrangements and a Super Hornet acquisition.”
The minister says that the full scope of support work for the new fighters and “associated acquisition strategy will be finalised over the coming months. The country's defence ministry will investigate the best mix of support from Boeing as the original equipment manufacturer and small-to-medium-sized enterprises.
“Given the commonality between many of the Boeing platforms in use by the Australian defence forces (ADF) and the US military, the strategic investment plan is to work towards the establishment, within Australia, of a regional support centre that could handle multiple Australian / US military aerospace platforms. Such a regional support centre would provide the ADF with a broad level of indigenous capability as required in support of ADF operational capability and self-reliance.”
Nelson says the plan is expected to result in the establishment of a 20 year “investment regime which progressively introduces / enhances local industry capability based on the level of business activity and the long-term nature of the defence ministry’s commitment to Boeing.”
Nelson also says that the “US Navy has written to teh defence ministry indicating that it would support the repair of US F/A – 18E/F aircraft in Australia.”