Today the government announced that the RAAF will have 12 of its recently acquired fleet of 24 F/A-18F Super Hornet fighter aircraft equipped with the ‘Growler’ electronic warfare jammer package at a cost of $1.5 billion. If all goes to plan, the aircraft will enter service in 2018.
The resulting EA-18G Growler configured aircraft will provide the RAAF with an electronic jamming capability against adversary air defences. Used in either a stand-off or escort jamming role, it will enable the penetration of hostile territory for strike and ground-support missions. Having only entered service with the US Navy in 2009, the Growler is a state-of-the-art system that will benefit from ongoing upgrades in the years ahead.
From an operational perspective, the Growlers will enable the RAAF to independently conduct operations against relatively more advanced adversaries than would otherwise be the case. Strategically, this significantly increases the range of circumstances where Australia can launch operations without the support of the United States. As such, it’s a valuable boost to our freedom of action in circumstances where our ally has conflicted interests or is otherwise distracted.
But everything has a cost, and the Growlers are no exception. In addition to the direct cost of $1.5 billion there will be the ongoing substantial cost of ownership. More importantly, by taking the Growler option the government has dispensed with the fiction that the F/A-18E/F Super Hornets are only an interim fix pending the arrival of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Assuming the F-35 purchase goes ahead, the RAAF will be operating two fleets of combat aircraft over the next couple of decades. To do so, they will have to spend twice as much on the fixed costs of fleet operations as would otherwise have been the case.
And these additional costs will be substantial. Over the long-term, money will have to be found to maintain two types of simulator, two sets of maintenance and test equipment, two types of maintenance training, two types of flight training, two sets of doctrine, two types of software support, two weapons suites, and dual logistical supply arrangements. Moreover, the air-to-air refuelling and AEW&C assets will need to be integrated with not one but two aircraft types. Previously, these duplicated costs were only going to be necessary during a transition period. Now they have been built into the defence budget for at least the next 20 years.
The RAAF must be doubly worried. The most optimistic outcome is that long-term additional cost of operating two fleets will be funded by purchasing fewer F-35 aircraft. Say goodbye to 100 aircraft. More worrying still—from an RAAF perspective at least—is that someone will crunch the numbers and come up with the obvious alternative; cancel the F-35 and use the substantial savings from operating a single aircraft type to build a larger fleet of Super Hornets. Sure, the F/A-18E/F does not have the technical performance (promised) by the F-35, but it’s good enough for the US Navy to be taking new deliveries at the moment. Moreover, a larger fleet of slightly less capable aircraft would be better to have in many circumstances (that is, against other than advanced adversaries). It’s at least worthy of close consideration. Indeed, if the costs and benefits of this alternative are not currently under active consideration, then something is deeply wrong with the way decisions are being made.
Mark Thomson is senior analyst for defence economics at ASPI.