Service proposes implementing a fuselage centre-barrel replacement programme

The Royal Australian Air Force is exploring options for maintaining its Boeing F/A-18A/B Hornet fighters in operational service until after 2015 by delaying and then selectively implementing a fuselage centre-barrel replacement programme.

The approach would aim to avoid the need for an interim combat aircraft ahead of Australia's proposed acquisition of Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, due to enter service from 2012.

The developing strategy is also meant to ensure the RAAF retains a credible fighter capability should the F-35 not be available in sufficient numbers from 2012 due to competing demands from the US Air Force and Navy, as well as other JSF customers.

The developing alternative life maintenance effort - or "SRP1++" programme - is predicated on keeping Hornet maintenance costs at acceptable levels. RAAF cost studies of a full fleet centre-barrel replacement programme, finalised in September 2001, indicate that it cannot be achieved with existing long-term Australian defence budgets.

The chief of the RAAF, Air Marshal Angus Houston, says centre-barrel replacement would be expensive, but "a lot cheaper than considering an interim aircraft".

Speaking last week at the handover of the final RAAF Hornet to be fitted with the Raytheon APG-73 radar, Houston said options for sustaining the fighters continue to be studied. He added that "more information" is required before a decision on when any centre-barrel replacement would start.

SRP1++ will be supported by a series of Australian Defence Science and Technology Organisation(DSTO)centre-barrel fatigue life studies. These studies will use centre barrels from USN and Canadian operated Hornets as part of their joint replacement programme.

A DSTO Hornet fatigue management report released last month says RAAF studies found that centre-barrel replacement "would be difficult to run in-country" due to a perceived lack of industrial expertise. The studies found aircraft availability would be insufficient to meet the RAAF's needs.

Source: Flight International