February 29, 2012: Australia has received 18 of the 24 American F-18F fighters it ordered five years ago. Now it has been decided to convert six of these F-18Fs to EA-18G ("Growler") electronic warfare aircraft. Converting an F-18F to an EA-18G will cost another $50 million per aircraft. The F-18F is a 29 ton, two engine, two seat, fighter bomber that carries 8 tons of missiles and smart bombs, plus an internal 20mm multi-barrel autocannon and 578 rounds of ammo. The first Australian EA-18G will be fitted out in the United States while the remainder will be converted in Australia.
The F-18F purchase is part of the Australian strategy to deal with the delays in getting 70 new F-35s. It works like this. Three years ago, after over four years of deliberation, Australia decided to buy U.S. F-35 fighter-bombers. The first 14 were ordered at a cost of over $100 million each (the price includes a lot of training and maintenance infrastructure).
The original plan was to replace the existing force of F-111 bombers and aging F-18As with F-35s. But five years ago it was realized that it would take too long for the F-35s to arrive and an interim aircraft would be needed.
The worn out 1960s era F-111s were finally retired in late 2010 after 37 years of service. The F-35s will not arrive until 2018. Meanwhile, Indonesia is buying Russian Su-30 fighters. In response Australia bought 24 American F-18F fighters for about $100 million each (including spare parts, training and such). Australia already operates 72 of the older, and smaller, F-18A (which will be retired by the end of the decade). While the two versions of the F-18 have a lot in common (about 25 percent commonality in parts) the F-18F is a new, and larger, design that is actually a new design based on the original F-18. The eighteen F-18Fs and six F-18Gs will last into the 2020s.
Two years after entering squadron service the U.S. Navy's EA-18G "Growler" electronic warfare aircraft saw combat for the first time last year over Libya. The EA-18G is equipped with the ALQ-99 radar jamming pod and a APG-79 phased array (AESA) radar, which also has some jamming capability (with the right software) as well as the ability to fry electronics. It was suggested that the EA-18G might have done this to some Libyan armored vehicles. Whatever the case, American aircraft supplied all of the electronic warfare missions, over 75 percent of the air-to-air refueling and over 70 percent of the aerial surveillance during the Libya operations.
In U.S. service the EA-18Gs are replacing the aging EA-6Bs that long provided electronic protection against enemy radars and missiles for navy and air force aircraft. The air force retired their EF-111 electronic warfare aircraft in 1998, on the assurance that the navy would get the EA-18G into service before the EA-6Bs died of old age. The older 27 ton EA-6B carried a crew of four, while the highly automated 29 ton EA-18G will have only two people on board. The EA-18G carries up to five electronic warfare pods, plus two AMRAAM air-to-air missiles, and two anti-radiation (HARM) missiles. It may be the last manned aircraft to handle the EW job. UAVs are becoming more capable and will eventually take over this dangerous task.
In 2007, the navy received its first operational (as opposed to developmental) EA-18G electronic warfare aircraft. The navy will receive 52 EA-18Gs by 2013 and another 30 after that (at the rate of about five a year). The U.S. Air Force and Marine Corps are planning on developing an electronic warfare version of the new F-35 or use a UAV if the EA-18Gs are not plentiful or powerful enough to provide all the electronic protection needed in future wars.