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Super Hornets will put RAAF back on the regional front foot

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The Australian -- By Cameron Stewart


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 ability to hit targets [that] have modern air defence systems.


"What we lose is a bit of range. We have to work harder to get a range anything like the F-111."


Twelve of the 24 Super Hornets will be configured so they can be potentially transformed into a specialised electronic warfare version of the Super Hornet known as the Growler.


"This is a dedicated electronic warfare aircraft and that is a significant capability that we have never had before," says Davies.


Because Super Hornets are already in use in the US Navy, they will arrive in Australia almost ready to fly.


Late last month, five Super Hornets and about 100 aircrew and maintenance personnel from No 1 Squadron at RAAF Amberley, Queensland, began the first live weapons trial in Australia, testing air-to-ground weapons firing at Woomera in the South Australian desert.


There are 11 Super Hornets in Australia and a new group of three planes is set to arrive in November. All 24 aircraft are expected here by the end of next year.


Their arrival coincides with the planned arrival by early next year of all six Wedgetail AWACs.


The Wedgetails are four years late and the program has been deeply troubled by technical hitches and cost overruns.


But when introduced into service next year the planes -- in theory -- should be able to scan the airspace above Australia's maritime approaches to detect an air or sea attack and direct planes and ships to defeat that threat.


"From a cruising altitude of 30,000 feet, the MESA radar mounted on the upper fuselage of the Wedgetail aircraft is designed to detect targets more than 400km away in all directions [including] hard-to-see targets such as cruise missiles," Ferguson says.


The Super Hornets are a bridging fighter to fill the gap between the retirement of the F-111s and the arrival from 2014 of the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighters.


Former defence minister Brendan Nelson was widely criticised in 2007 when he announced the $6 billion Super Hornet purchase, but setbacks and delays in the F-35 project have justified the decision in hindsight.


Australia plans to buy 100 F-35s but the project has been bedevilled by technical problems, cost blowouts and schedule slippages. Its original delivery date to Australia of 2012 has blown out and the first squadron of F-35s is not expected to become operational until 2018.


Despite this, the Australian government has never wavered from its commitment to the new warplane and still argues that it is the best and most cost-effective solution for the RAAF's future front-line fleet.


The troubled project also received a rare bit of good news recently. Its flight testing program, which has been well behind schedule, has gained some momentum and the full-year goal of 394 flights is likely to be met.





The Australian

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