Canberra commits to new Growlers, but remains coy on F-35s

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Australia's government plans to buy 12 newly-built Boeing EA-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft, but remains coy on how many Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighters it will purchase in its latest defence white paper.

Released on 2 May, the document commits Canberra to purchasing 12 new Growlers, instead of advancing with a previously announced plan to convert 12 of the Royal Australian Air Force's current fleet of 24 F/A-18F Super Hornets to the Growler configuration.

"This decision will retain all 24 Super Hornets in their current air combat and strike capability configuration," defence minister Stephen Smith and prime minister Julia Gillard say in a joint statement. "This decision will assure Australia's air combat capability through the transition period to the JSF."

 

Commonwealth of Australia

In March, the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency notified Congress of a proposed sale of 12 Growlers and 12 more Super Hornets to Australia, in a $3.7 billion package that also included engines, electronic systems and support.

The white paper also reaffirms Canberra's commitment to acquire the F-35 for the replacement of its 71 ageing F/A-18A/B Hornets, with plans for the three squadrons to be operational and enter service "around 2020".

"The JSF provides the stealth technology, advanced sensors and weapons, networking and data fusion capabilities required to maintain an air combat advantage into the foreseeable future," it says.

The document, however, does not say how many F-35s Canberra intends to purchase, leaving open the possibility that it may take fewer than the 100 it originally committed to.

Australia has, so far, only ordered two conventional take-off and landing F-35As, which will be delivered to a US training facility in 2014-2015. It delayed a decision to purchase a second batch of 12 F-35s until 2014 as a budget-saving measure.

The F-35 was intended to replace both the nation's Hornets and General Dynamics F-111s. The latter were retired in 2010 following the acquisition of the Super Hornets, which were supposed to be an interim aircraft that would be replaced by the JSF around 2025.

However, Canberra now envisions that the Super Hornets and Growlers will fly alongside the F-35s, at least until around 2030, when the government will make a decision on whether to replace the Super Hornets with additional JSFs.

"Australia's existing Super Hornet aircraft, together with the future Growler and JSF capabilities will provide a world class air combat force capable of controlling the air and electronic environments and conducting effective land and maritime strike," Smith says.