The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) is working toward a full definition of its planned F/A-18A/B Hornet upgrade by the third quarter of this year, the aim of which is to extend the aircraft's combat effectiveness until 2010.

The upgrade programme, say sources close to the project, is likely to focus on providing improved avionics, a replacement for the RAAF Hornet's Hughes APG-65 multimode radar, and a helmet mounted sight (HMS). The HMS is coupled with the RAAF's decision in mid-February to purchase the Matra BAe Dynamics Advanced Short Range Air to Air Missile for its F/A-18s.

Projected funding for the upgrade programme has, however, been much reduced, according to potential bidders.

Raytheon's APG-73 and the GEC-Marconi Blue Vixen Plus radar are being put forward as upgrade options while under a separate programme, the aircraft's semi-active AIM-7M Sparrows will be replaced by the AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air to Air Missile active radar-guided medium range weapon.

What has still to be determined by the RAAF, say industry sources, is when it wants to begin to replace the F/A-18. This could be between 2005 and 2010, with the RAAF favouring the end of this decade to begin the process of introducing a next generation combat aircraft.

Although the RAAF has yet to begin the formal procurement of a successor for the F/A-18A/B, some potential contenders are beginning to address the requirement. Bidders will probably include Boeing, with its F/A-18E/F, Dassault (Rafale), Eurofighter (EF2000), Lockheed Martin (F-22), and whichever company emerges as the winner of the US Department of Defense's Joint Strike Fighter competition.

There is also the potential for the RAAF's procurement programme to widen in scope to cover the acquisition of a successor to its RF/F-111 reconnaissance and strike aircraft.

Pulling together the F/A-18A/B and RF/F-111 replacement projects would place an increased emphasis on the combat radius of the required aircraft.

Source: Flight International