The situation is now quite uncertain because of decisions last year to keep the 24 Super Hornets, convert 12 of them to Growler configuration and consider ordering another 24 Super Hornets while awaiting F-35s. Amid those changes, however, there has been no hint that the government wants to pay for more than 100 aircraft.
Australia is committed to buying 14 F-35s. The two actually on order will be delivered next year, says O'Bryan. Until last year's decision to look at more Super Hornets, the country intended to buy at least 72 more F-35s under Phases 2A and 2B of the program, Air 6000, between mid-2014 and mid-2016.
Now, “all options, including possible timing changes to Air 6000 Phase 2A/B, are being considered by [the department] as part of its submission to [the] government,” says the spokeswoman. “Any decision to adjust the schedule will be determined by [the] government.”
One factor must be the RAAF's argument that EA-18Gs are support, not combat, aircraft. “While they do attack [electronically], that is a fraction of their role and they cannot do all of the roles of a strike fighter,” says the senior officer. The Growlers will spend much of their time collecting electronic intelligence, not attacking, the officer says. Using them for conventional attacks would be beyond the training of their crews, specialists in the techniques of electronic warfare.
If Growlers are not combat aircraft, then the air force can argue that, despite their induction, it still needs 100 fighters—a mix of Super Hornets and Lightnings, at least at first. The government has made no comment on that possibility, and it is struggling to get its budget back into surplus.
Twelve of the original batch of Super Hornets were built with the wiring needed to turn them into Growlers, but the department's comments reveal that the EA-18Gs, due to achieve initial operational capability in 2018, may be newly built as part of the second batch.
The RAAF remains keen to procure 100 F-35s, since it sees the type as the most advanced available. Service and industry officials say the air force could consolidate on one type by buying a final batch of the stealthy Lockheed Martin fighters as late as the 2030s, when the Super Hornets might be sufficiently worn out to justify retirement—especially if the only Super Hornets that will need replacing are those that began operations in 2010.
Prolonged Growler service need not be an obstacle to early Super Hornet retirement. A small fleet of 12 Growlers might not be so hard to support, the same officials say, since Australia will in any case rely heavily on the U.S. Navy to keep the aircraft going. Regardless of the Super Hornet force, Growler training will be done separately, in the U.S. If 24 aircraft are wired for Growler configuration, then rotation in and out of storage would offer a longer service life.
Australia will not use its Growlers in exactly the same way as the U.S. Navy does, says the senior officer, declining to give details except to note that the RAAF will not fly the same types available to U.S. electronic attack units.