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.
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.
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.
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.
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org)