|Cameron Stewart, Associate editor
From: The Australian September 18, 2010 12:00AM
The air force is about to reverse a decade of decline with a string of new aircraft
THE balance of power in Asia is changing faster than the new Gillard government would like.
China is flexing its muscles, making its near neighbours nervous with its ambitious naval expansion. The US has taken note and is quietly shoring up its alliances in the region, reassuring all that it will remain the pre-eminent power in the Pacific.
These big-picture trends are causing debate, but in Australia there is a more subtle military shift under way that will also help redefine the balance of power in our immediate region for years to come.
The Royal Australian Air Force is about to reverse a decade of decline in its strength relative to other regional air forces. Within two months, the second batch of Super Hornets will arrive from the Boeing plant in St Louis, creating the first operational squadron of the RAAF's new jet fighter.
At the end of this year, these initial 12 Super Hornets -- the first of 24 -- will take over from the grand old dame of warplanes, the F-111 strike bombers.
The mothballing of the F-111 and the arrival of the Super Hornets, along with the new Wedgetail airborne early warning and control aircraft and new air-to-air refuellers, marks a long-awaited turnaround in Australia's air power capabilities.
"In terms of hardware, the air force has begun a period of transition in which most of its front-line fleet will be replaced by 2020 or shortly thereafter," says Andrew Davies of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
"The delivery of Wedgetail and the Super Hornet represents the arrest of a slow decline in the RAAF's long-held regional qualitative lead in air combat capability."
Chief of Air Force Mark Binskin admits this is a pivotal moment in the history of the RAAF.
"It's one of those generational changes," the air marshal tells Inquirer. "The F-111 has been around for a long time and is seen as the strategic strike weapon for Australia so I think there is a lot of emotion and it will be quite a time in December when the last F-111 flies . . . but it is time for a change.
"The Super Hornets coming in and the [advance capabilities] it will bring in combination with the upgraded [classic F/A 18] Hornets really does reset the relative combat power that we have."
While other countries in the region have been investing in advanced fighter jets such as Russian Sukhoi fighters, US F-15s and F-16s, Australia's fighter stocks have been in relative decline during the past decade.
Until recently, the RAAF's 70 F/A-18s have struggled to reach full operating capacity because of the need for progressive upgrades to keep them flying until their planned retirement date in 2018.
The 15-strong F-111 fleet has been largely ceremonial for the past decade; modern air defences have made it too risky to send the much loved "Pig" into a hot war without heavy aerial support. With their long range and their ability to fly low and blindingly fast, the F-111s were the pre-eminent strike bomber of their era, reaching their target before defence radars could spot them.
But since the 1980s the development of new radars, such as the F/A-18's pulse-Doppler APG-65 radar, made the F-111 vulnerable because they could pick out fast-moving, low-flying targets.
"More and more air forces were re-equipping with modern Western and Russian fighters and ground-based air defence systems built around such radars," defence expert Gregor Ferguson says. "Suddenly the F-111 wasn't invincible any more. There was nothing it could do that can't be done now by a different combination of aircraft and weapons which can also fill other roles and deliver wider operational benefits."
While the F-111 will be a sentimental loss, the arrival of the Super Hornet represents a sharp lift in actual combat capability.
Used by the US Navy, they are the first new RAAF front-line fighters since 1985.
A recent ASPI report on RAAF capability states: "Compared to the classic Hornets, they carry more powerful radar, electronic warfare and networking capabilities and can carry greater weapons load over a longer range. They also have a degree of low observability built in. The Super Hornets will give RAAF a capability on par with the US Navy."
Davies says the combination of the Super Hornets and the standard F/A-18s should ensure that Australia retains a capability edge in air power in the region ahead of the arrival of the F-35.
"The number and capability of Australia's air combat aircraft will overmatch the piecemeal and less well supported fleets of nearby nations [except Singapore]. As well, in any defence of Australia scenario, the RAAF should be able to establish local air superiority and conduct sea denial operations even against a major power."
Davies tells Inquirer: "What we will get with the Super Hornet is the ab