From: The Australian
February 27, 2010 12:00AM
THE nation's air combat force has withered to its smallest size in a generation, with less than half of the country's fighter jets available for operations.
At times this year as many as three out of four of the RAAF's 86 fighter jets have been grounded due to maintenance, upgrades or safety concerns.
Of those warplanes that are available, only a handful can be sent into combat because they do not yet have sufficient electronic protection to survive against modern air defences.
The Weekend Australian understands that only 21 of the RAAF's 71 F/A-18 Hornets are currently available, while the 15 ageing F-111 strike bombers were only cleared to fly again last week after being grounded early this month when an in-flight emergency forced a safety review.
The parlous state of the frontline air force has added urgency to the arrival of 26 F/A-18 Super Hornets that were purchased for $6 billion by the Howard government and are due to start arriving next month.
Start of sidebar. Skip to end of sidebar.
.End of sidebar. Return to start of sidebar.
Defence Minister John Faulkner refused to discuss the current availability of the RAAF's fighters, but maintained: "Air force is at all times generating sufficient combat capability to meet government requirements."
The government has promised to inject more funds into making defence equipment more battle-ready. It has recently come under pressure to explain why the navy has been unable to put more than one of its six submarines to sea on a regular basis.
Defence sources say the F/A-18 Hornet fleet, which is of 1980s vintage, has been hit by maintenance issues, delayed upgrade programs and staffing problems.
After a safety review, the F-111 fleet was cleared to fly again on February 19, but the 1960s-vintage strike bomber is due to be retired at the end of the year and is considered unlikely to be given heavy operational requirements from now on.
The RAAF's 71 Hornets were designed in the US and assembled in Australia in the 1980s.
As a result, they have been subjected to rolling upgrades to their systems and airframes to ensure they can provide effective air defence until the first squadron of new Joint Strike Fighters comes into service in 2018.
The problems with the RAAF's fighter fleet are mirrored in many other areas of the defence force, where billions of dollars of powerful weaponry is awaiting upgrades or promised replacements and cannot be deployed.
The navy's eight Anzac frigates cannot be sent into a hotly contested war zone because of a lack of defensive weaponry, while the army cannot deploy its 33 Black Hawk helicopters to war zones because they are vulnerable to shoulder-launched missiles.