RAAFs First Super Hornet

Speaking at the rollout of the first RAAF Super Hornet, RAAF Chief Air Marshal Mark Binskin said that he personally is in favor of the future conversion of some of the aircraft to the Electronic Warfare ‘Grizzly’ variant. Previously known as the Growler, the EW variants have been rechristened to avoid confusion with their predecessor the Prowler.

1st Jul 2009


RAAFs First Super Hornet

Speaking at the rollout of the first RAAF Super Hornet, RAAF Chief Air Marshal Mark Binskin said that he personally is in favor of the future conversion of some of the aircraft to the Electronic Warfare ‘Grizzly’ variant. Previously known as the Growler, the EW variants have been rechristened to avoid confusion with their predecessor the Prowler. A decision has already been taken to pre-wire the final 12 RAAF aircraft so that they can be converted to the EW version quickly and relatively cheaply.

The Air Marshal explained:

“Whether we go down that path is a decision for Government well into the future, and the wiring decision is prudent. However the decision to go for the EW variant is more than just buying pods – we’d have to train the aircrews to operate them and we’d have to figure out issues of supportability.”

He said that the Growler variant could support the ‘classic’ RAAF Hornets and ultimately the Joint Strike Fighter as well as perform a variety of other missions in support of the Navy and Army. They could also provide enhanced protection for a number of other RAAF assets such as the AP-3Cs and all transport aircraft.

Air Marshal Binskin says he supports the RAAF Growler / Grizzly idea on the basis that:

“…..it’s something we will look at over a number of years, but I think it would be the final part of that air combat capability where we currently rely on coalition partners.”

The timetable for making any such decision is well into the future and RAAF does not yet have a project team to examine the capability. It is noteworthy that US military sources are strongly supportive of the idea because the United States Navy has 88 Growlers on order and would clearly like more of them.

However for budgetary reasons the USN is unlikely to get the go-ahead for many years. Therefore the idea of RAAF acquiring up to 12 of these aircraft is enormously appealing because of their usefulness for coalition operations – including Afghanistan.

Each Growler / Grizzly Super Hornet costs about US $10 million more than the standard platform, lifting the cost per airframe from US $55 to US $65 million.

The US military clearly believes this is a small price to pay for a highly capable platform which is then able to conduct operations such as stand-off communications jamming and emitter location in particular. While operational details remain classified, it is apparent that USN Growlers have been used in these roles supporting ground operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

As has been previously described, the EW variant of the Super Hornet has 90% commonality with the standard aircraft - the only major change being the replacement of the gun system with electronics. A large number of pods can be carried on the aircraft’s 11 hard points and the USN often flies with up to 5 jammers per Growler / Grizzly. However, the aircraft is not necessarily a dedicated EW asset but can also carry a mix of weapons allowing it to perform a variety of combat missions – an obvious attraction for a relatively small air force such as Australia’s.

If RAAF do eventually decide in favor of the Growler/Grizzly option, prime contractor Boeing says all of the aircraft could be easily converted at their Amberley base. The work would take 3 weeks per aircraft.

A more urgent decision facing Australia is the possible addition of an Infra-red Search & Track (IRST) capability to the Super Hornets. This is already a funded program in the US and senior Boeing sources describe the extra capability as “awesome”. Having a long-wave IRST, which can integrate data with the aircraft’s electronically scanned APG-79 radar dramatically expands situational awareness and brings even greater precision to target engagement. The IRST has the further advantage of being a passive sensor, permitting surveillance to be conducted stealthily.

An important history lesson from the ‘classic’ Hornets is that it is important for RAAF to maintain as much commonality as possible with the USN aircraft baseline. The experience of international Hornet users is that many of them diverged from a common platform during the 1980s and 90s – and now they are all trying to return the USN standard. This pattern has been noticed in Australia and will very much strengthen the case required for the IRST capability upgrade.

Meanwhile the first RAAF Super Hornet has started flight trials at China Lake and is soon to be followed by the second aircraft at Patuxant River. Maintenance training is also well under way.

The 24 aircraft will start arriving in Australia next year with an initial wave of 4 being ferried across the Pacific in March. The last batch is scheduled to arrive in October 2011.

APDR at a glance