Minister for Defence Stephen Smith and Minister for Defence Materiel Jason Clare today provided an update on planning for Australia’s future Air Combat Capability.
“Australia’s Air Combat Capability is a vital part of our national security framework. The Government will not allow a gap in our Air Combat Capability to occur,” Mr Smith said.
In May this year, Minister Smith announced that the Air Combat Capability Transition Plan, an assessment of the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter project progress and any potential capability gap, would be presented to Government by the end of 2012 (Emphasis added-Ed.) to inform Government decisions about Air Combat Capability.
The Air Combat Capability Transition Plan prepared by Defence includes an assessment of whether alternative options need to be implemented to ensure continuity in Australia’s Air Combat Capability in light of Joint Strike Fighter project delays and the ageing of Australia’s Classic F/A-18 Hornet fleet.
The Air Combat Capability Transition Plan considered the process for managing the Royal Australian Air Force’s (RAAF) transition from the current mix of Classic Hornet and Super Hornet to a future Air Combat Capability fleet, including the Joint Strike Fighter.
The plan includes an assessment of progress of the Joint Strike Fighter project, the life of the existing 71 ‘Classic’ F/A-18 Hornets, any potential capability gap and management of the Super Hornet and Growler capabilities.
It includes options to purchase additional Super Hornet aircraft.
The Classic Hornet fleet, which originally comprised 75 aircraft, entered service in Australia between 1985 and 1990. The fleet has undergone an intensive maintenance program to ensure the fleet is able to operate until around 2020.
In September this year, the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) completed a performance audit on the management of the F/A-18 fleet upgrades and sustainment. The ANAO found that Defence’s management of the aircraft has been effective thus far in identifying the risks to their continued operation, that effective mitigation measures have been put in place for these risks, and outlined those that will require ongoing close management by Defence.
The Government has now considered the Air Combat Capability Transition Plan and has directed Defence to undertake further work on a range of Air Combat Capability options, including seeking from the United States up-to-date pricing information on Super Hornets.
RAAF currently has a fleet of 24 F/A-18F Super Hornet aircraft. The fleet was introduced between March 2010 and October 2011.
The F/A-18F Super Hornet was a major step forward in technology for Australia’s Air Combat Capability.
The Super Hornet gives the RAAF the capability to conduct air-to-air combat, to strike targets on land and at sea, to suppress enemy air defences and to conduct reconnaissance.
The Super Hornet is vital to ensuring Australia’s regional Air Combat Capability edge is maintained until the introduction into service of the Joint Strike Fighter capability.
The Government is also acquiring the Growler electronic warfare system for the Super Hornet. Growler is an electronic warfare system that gives the Super Hornet the ability to jam the electronics systems of aircraft and land-based radars and communications systems.
Australia will now send a Letter of Request (LOR) to the United States seeking cost and availability information for up to an additional 24 Super Hornet aircraft through the United States Foreign Military Sales program.
The Australian Government has not made a decision to purchase more Super Hornets. The sending of this LOR does not commit Australia to purchase more Super Hornets. It is being sent so that the Australian Government can further consider all options in 2013 with the latest and best cost and availability information. This has been made clear to both US officials and to the Defence industry.
Following receipt of the LOR response, Government will further and fully consider Australia’s Air Combat Capability in 2013.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Minister Smith announced in May that the government would make a decision on F-35 purchases within the 2012-13 financial year. The delay announced above delays the decision by at least six more months, into a new budget and election cycle when anything may happen.)