Air Chief Marshal Houston’s comments advocating the F/A-18F Super Hornet buy in Senate Estimates this week come as no surprise. During his tenure as Chief of Air Force, ACM Houston sought the early retirement of the F-111 fleet, and was actively involved in the effort to acquire the Joint Strike Fighter. With the Joint Strike Fighter running late and in real difficulty, the basis of the decision to retire the F-111 now well known to have been incorrect, and the Super Hornet being questioned by every analyst of substance in Australia, as well as the Minister, there is a very real prospect that all of Houston’s major decisions will be overturned.
ACM Houston has used a lot of emotive language in advocating the Super Hornet to the Senate, quotes including “it’s an awesome capability”, “there is nothing better in the region at the moment”, and “give us an ability to maintain a very large capability edge over the Sukhoi capabilities that are being fielded in and around the region at the moment”. Carefully chosen language, carefully avoiding hard numbers.
Critics of the Super Hornet, and there are a great many in the expert community, are concerned about major limitations in this aircraft. The first is that its top end performance is simply not competitive. Having flown the aircraft supersonic, and having read the performance charts, I know this criticism is valid. A former fighter pilot colleague who has flown it says the same. Every ex-military pilot and engineer I know who has read the NATOPS flight manual agrees. At high speed, where it matters for a fighter, the Super Hornet cannot compete against any of the Russian Sukhois, whether the older 1980s models, or the latest 2008 model.
The Defence bureaucrats have argued that this doesn’t matter, claiming the new electronically steered radar in the Super Hornet has so much range, it allows the fighter to shoot first. What Defence will not tell you is that the latest Russian Irbis E electronically steered radar, about to go into production, outranges the Super Hornet radar by a good margin. They will also not tell you that the US Navy is so concerned about Russian jamming equipment disrupting the Super Hornet’s radar, that they are adding an infrared targeting system to the Super Hornet. Since there is no space to fit this equipment, it is being embedded into a external fuel tank!
The sad truth is that the Defence bureaucracy is simply no longer qualified to perform competitive assessments of combat aircraft. Defence last year cast out and blacklisted the only Russian fighter capability analyst they had, over his advice that the Super Hornet will not cut it. If there is nobody in Defence left qualified to analyse the limitations of this jet against its regional competitors, then it is easy to put emotive language over hard numbers.