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Procurement: Super Hornet Shoots Down F-35s
   

December 24, 2006: In a surprise move, Australia is in negotiations to become the first export customer for the F-18F " Super Hornet". The proposed purchase of 24 aircraft will allow the Royal Australian Air Force to retire its aging force of 22 F-111 bombers by 2010. Ironically, this is because of the F-18F being an "evolved" version of the of the F-18 Hornets already in service with the RAAF. Earlier that had been the major reason why the F-35 was chosen to replace the F-111s. But now the  Super Hornet also has something that it did not have when Australia was making its earlier decision: proven combat performance over Iraq and Afghanistan.

The RAAF is doing this largely because of the potential for cutbacks in funding for the F-35 by the U.S.  Congress, that could delay production. Such delays could mean that the  F-35 would not enter service in  Australia by 2015. Not only is Australia looking to quickly replace its aging and expensive-to-maintain F-111s, but some of its Hornets have had fatigue issues - and acquiring the F/A-18F will allow the RAAF to retire its older airframes. The fact that the F-18F is an "upgrade" will also be used to convince the bean-counters and lawmakers to go along with this as a temporary measure - even though the F-18F is actually a new plane that is 20 percent larger than the original F-18, has engines generating 35 percent more power, and weighs 30 tons, compared to 23 tons for the older F-18s in RAAF service.

The F-111 first flew in 1964. It has a combat radius of 2,140 kilometers and can carry 15 tons of air-to-ground weapons - or up to 36 500-pound bombs. In its day, it was arguably one of the finest tactical bombers in the world, and had a solid track record over Vietnam, Libya, and Iraq. The F-18s in Australian service have a combat radius of 535 kilometers and carry 6.5 tons of weapons. The Hornet proved itself in combat over Libya, Iraq (1991 and 2003), and Bosnia. The F-18Fs that Australia contemplates buying have a combat radius of 1,095 kilometers and carries up to 8.8 tons of weapons, in addition to some stealthiness, and a new radar, in later production blocks.

The F-18F will easily integrate into the RAAF. It can carry just about anything the Australian F-18s can carry, and with two extra hardpoints, it can carry more of them. Transition from the F-18 will be very simple, and Australia will also not have to be saddled with supporting the aging F-111s. The total cost for this purchase will be just under $2.4 billion.

One potential loser in this decision is Lockheed Martin. If the Australian experience with this first Super Hornet purchase is a good one, more of them may be purchased, instead of  F-35s. The Super Hornet, which costs $58 million per plane, slightly higher than the $50 million "fly-away" price tag of the F-35. However, the Super Hornets will be much cheaper than the $110-115 million each for the initial production versions of the F-35. - Harold C. Hutchison (haroldc.hutchison@gmail.com)