|KIM WHEATLEY From: The Advertiser August 31, 2010 8:15PM
AUSTRALIA'S new combat aircraft, the $6 billion Super Hornet fleet, is in South Australia to begin its first live weapons trials at the Woomera Test Range.
Five F/A-18F and about 100 aircrew and maintenance personnel from No. 1 Squadron at RAAF Amberley, Queensland, began testing air-to-ground weapons firing in the middle of the South Australian desert on Monday.
The strike aircraft, affectionately known as the Rhino, is designed to replace the ageing F-111s, which are due to be retired later this year after three decades of service.
Wing Commander Glen Braz told The Advertiser yesterday the warbirds were performing above expectations.
"It's amazing. It's got incredible performance," he said. "You can be on the runway here at Edinburgh and, two minutes later, it's supersonic at 40,000 feet.
"In terms of capability, it has 11 weapons stations - a 2000 pound bomb. We can carry four of those, each the size of a small car.
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"We drag those up to Woomera and drop them with pinpoint accuracy."
Reaching speeds of up to 1900km/h, it takes about 35 minutes to fly to Woomera each day, where an array of weaponry, including laser-guided bombs, rockets and missiles are being fired.
The jet is designed as a bridging fighter until Australia receives the stealthy, fifth generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which is due to arrive from 2015.
The Howard Government purchased 24 of the $250 million Super Hornets, which are in service to the US Navy, to address the capability gap.
At the time, then Defence Minister Brendan Nelson was criticised for purchasing an interim aircraft.
Defence analyst Dr Andrew Davies is one of many who was initially critical of its capabilities, but now believes buying the strike fighter was the right decision.
"With the benefit of hindsight it was actually a really good decision," he said.
Pilots also argue that it will take the risk out of Australia's air combat capability for the next decade.
"It's incredibly agile and responsive. The weapon system itself is incredibly mature so it's a great aeroplane," Commander Braz said.