Australia will retire its last General Dynamics F-111Cs in a ceremony at Royal Australian Air Force base Amberley in Queensland on 2 December. As the last operator of the swing-wing, long-range strike aircraft, the event will close a chapter in aviation history that began with the first flight of the F-111A prototype almost 46 years ago at the then-General Dynamics' factory in Fort Worth, Texas.
Over the years the F-111 performed several roles for the US Air Force, including long-range strike, and with the EF-111 Raven variant, electronic warfare. In USAF service F-111s participated in the Vietnam War, the US attack on Libya in 1986, and Operation Desert Storm in 1991 against Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.
By 1997, the USAF had parked all of its "Aardvark" fleet. But the RAAF's Amberley-based 82 Wing continued to keep the "Pig" flying for another 14 years. Australia started operations with the F-111C in 1973, and retired its last ex-USAF F-111Gs in 2007.
© US Air Force
US Air Force F111s were used in anger against Vietnam, Libya and Iraq
Taking the bomber's place will be a fleet of 24 Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornets. The first 11 are already in Australia. Another three are to be delivered this year, with the new type to be declared operational later in December.
Another 10 two-seat F/A-18Fs will be delivered by October 2011 to fully replace the F-111 - but for only about 10 years. The RAAF originally announced plans in 2003 to replace the F-111 this year with the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. But after Lockheed announced the first major delay to the programme in 2004, Canberra moved to order 24 Super Hornets in 2006 as a stopgap.
Also based at Amberley, the Super Hornets are slower and have less range than the land-based F-111, and are optimised for carrier landings. The Boeing type also lacks the very low observable level of stealth advertised for the F-35, 100 of which are expected to be acquired for the RAAF.
© Australian Department of Defence
Australia's new F/A18F Super Hornets will become operational in December
But the service is receiving a fighter with Raytheon's state-of-the-art APG-79 active electronically scanned array radar, which has already received high praise from 82 Wing Commander Gp Capt Steve Roberton for its ability to track air and ground targets simultaneously. The F-111 features the Pave Tack targeting system to guide precision munitions, but the F/A-18F sports Raytheon's advanced targeting forward looking infrared pod, with third-generation thermal imaging.
Australia earlier this decade completed the integration of Rafael's AGM-142 Raptor air-to-surface missile with its F-111, but recent tests with the Super Hornet's Raytheon AGM-154C Joint Standoff Weapon have demonstrated an advanced strike capability.
The retiring type is also powered by costly to maintain Pratt & Whitney TF30s that have been used in the F-111's signature air show display: the "dump and burn".
© Australian Department of Defence
Pratt & Whitney TF30s were used in the F111's signature air show display; the dump and burn
The 1960s-era F-111 also lacks a communications suite on a par with the modern standard for transmitting data seamlessly between airborne platforms. Perhaps more than any other deficiency, it is this shortcoming which has pushed the RAAF to retire the type even before its original replacement is ready to be fielded.
Australia's air force inventory also includes 55 F/A-18A fighters and 16 F/A-18B trainers, as listed in Flightglobal's MiliCAS database.