Australia may need to follow the US navy and upgrade it’s F/A-18F fleet to Block III.
With the RAAF’s F/A-18F Super Hornets able to operate effectively beyond the 2030 cease date suggested in the 2016 Defence White Paper, there are good reasons to progressively upgrade the fleet to Block III standard rather than find the extra billions of dollars for more F-35s – if indeed that money is available.
The May edition of LQ discussed the challenges facing the introduction of the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter into RAAF service, particularly the substantial future cost of upgrading F-35s supplied over the next few years in different configurations (dependent upon when they came off the production line) to the mature Block 4 configuration. This substantial cost could adversely affect purchasing additional F-35s, beyond the 72 fighters already ordered, to replace the F/A-18F Super Hornet fleet now in service with No 1 Squadron at Amberley.
The US Navy is not ‘putting all its eggs in one basket’, with its F-35s, having signed off on a $4 billion order with Boeing for 78 of the new F/18E/F Block III Super Hornets.
The Block III variant has enhanced network capability, longer range, an advanced cockpit system, signature improvements and an enhanced communication system. These enhcancements make the Block III more capable and stealthier than the Super Hornet now in service with the US Navy and the RAAF.
That the US Navy is upgrading some of its Super Hornet fleet to Block III and is buying new variants – at a greatly reduced cost of more F-35s – should have Defence considering its options post-2023 when all RAAF F-35As will be in service.
A strong argument also exists for more flexibility in Australia’s strike and air combat capability, rather than relying on a single platform (F-35) fighter fleet. There’s the exorbitant capital and operating costs of the F-35, particularly for long-range missions such as maritime strike in the Indo-Pacific region and missions requiring a platform to carry more weapons into lower threat environments. An upgraded Super Hornet would also be more effective in combined F-35 and Super Hornet strike packages.
This upgrade could commence in the mid-2020s once the F-35s are fully operational.
Block III upgrades would extend the operational service of the F/18Fs to 10,000 flight hours, with similar advanced avionics, sensors and data systems to those of the F-35, and with the added advantage of greater payload and unrefuelled range.
The Super Hornets could also operate more effectively in the land and maritime strike roles, in company with the F-35, making use of the F-35 as a stealthy ‘sensor’ and the Super Hornet as a strike weapons platform. This combination would provide greater flexibility in strike packages.
The Block III Super Hornet represents a 4.5 generation capability, which makes the jet more capable in combat and more survivable in high threat environments, especially when operating in company with F-35s.
Cost is a significant factor with the F-35 (US$80 million+ per aircraft) while a new-build Super Hornet Block III is estimated at US$20 million and US$8 million to upgrade the current F/A-18Fs.
The final versions of the Block III jets will feature five major upgrades: conformal fuel tanks, a networked infrared search-and-track capability, physical changes, and coatings to reduce the radar signature of the aircraft. There will also be new mission computers and data links and a new, single wide-area multi-function display in the cockpit.
The massive costs of introducing final configuration F-35s into Air Force service plus the capability advantages of an upgraded Super Hornet fleet may convince Defence planners that the upgrade to Block III would have significant long term benefits, in force structure terms.