The Pentagon has notified the US Congress of the possible sale of additional Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornets and EA-18G Growlers to Australia, with a deal possible by mid-2013.
This comes amid growing concerns about a capability gap that could arise from delays to the delivery of the country's Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) aircraft.
Canberra wants 12 F/A-18Fs and 12 EA-18Gs in a deal valued at $3.7 billion, according to the notification by the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA). The package includes 54 General Electric F414-GE-402 engines, 35 Raytheon AN/APG-79 radar systems and other training, logistics and support services.
If the deal goes through, these will supplement the 24 Super Hornets that are already in service with the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF).
"The proposed sale will improve Australia's capability in current and future coalition efforts," says the DSCA. "Australia will use the enhanced capability as a deterrent to regional threats and to strengthen its homeland defence."
In December, Australia sent a letter of request to the DSCA seeking information on costs for a possible purchase of 24 additional Super Hornets.
At that time, defence minister Stephen Smith said that the letter of request did not commit Australia to purchase the additional aircraft, but was sent so that "the Australian government can consider all options in 2013 with the latest cost and availability information".
The notification of a possible sale comes only days after Smith said that the decision could be made in the middle of the year.
"We do need, I think, to make a decision by the middle of this year about any risk for gap in capability, and we'll do that in a methodical, exhaustive, due diligent way," he says.
Australia is due to hold an election on 14 September this year, and it is expected that a decision will be made before the government enters caretaker mode in August.
The RAAF's 24 Super Hornets entered service in 2010 as an interim replacement for its General Dynamics F-111s, which were originally planned to be replaced by the F-35A JSF. The Super Hornets received final operating capability at the end of 2012.
Delays to the JSF programme and the decision last year to postpone the purchase of an initial batch of 12 F-35As until 2014-2015 as a budget saving measure forced the government to assess its options to ensure that a capability gap does not emerge.