UPDATED: Australia to sell “up to” 46 F/A-18 A/B Hornets to U.S. company for adversary work

This article was originally published on the 6th of March 2020 and has subsequently been updated with comments from the Department of Defence

Australia will service and prepare a number of soon-to-be retired F/A-18 Classic Hornet aircraft that will be sold to air combat training company Air USA, according to Minister for Defence Industry Melissa Price.

A news release from the minister said that the aircraft will be used to provide training services to the United States Air Force and will be prepared over the next three to four years.

The ministerial release said Air USA will take “up to 46” RAAF Classic Hornets, although with eight already allocated for heritage preservation (see below) and 25 set to go to Canada, it is unclear how Air USA will be able to get all 46 should it desire to given Australia has 71 Classic Hornet airframes in total.

Most of the work will be carried out at RAAF Base Williamtown, which according to the ministerial release the work “to prepare these aircraft and components for sale will provide 24 direct industry jobs while Air Force transitions from the Classic Hornet to the F‑35 Joint Strike Fighter,” Minister Price said.

Defence also elaborated further about the scope of work that will be carried out on the Classic Hornets before transfer, saying in an emailed response to questions from APDR that “the preparation activity includes limited refurbishment to make the aircraft safe for transport, and partial disassembly to enable shipment by air freight. This also includes limited demilitarisation to satisfy the arms export requirements of the Australian and US governments.”

It further added that “Air USA may request Australian Defence Industry to undertake further refurbishment activity on aircraft and spares.”

The “limited demilitarisation” of the aircraft going to Air USA will also likely include the removal of parametric data for the BAE AIM-132 ASRAAM short-range air-to-air missile from the aircraft mission computers, with a source telling APDR that it is highly unlikely that the U.K. government would consent to giving access to that to a third party private entity.

Air USA currently operates a mix of BAE Hawks Mk.67s, Dornier Alpha-Jets and Aero-Vodochody L-59 jet trainers. It also has the Russian MiG-29 fighter in its inventory.

The Illinois-based company is one of seven contracted by the U.S. Air Force last year to provide “red air” adversary support under a program potentially worth US$6.4 billion ($9.67b).

The USAF contract is part of a recent trend by advanced air forces to introduce contractor-operated adversary support utilising advanced, high-performance aircraft to replicate the kind of threat vector presented by a peer competitor.

With regards to heritage preservation, Defence told APDR that it “has allocated eight Classic Hornet aircraft for heritage purposes, including two to the Australian War Memorial and six for display at aviation museums around Australia.”

It adds that “any aircraft remaining (after Air USA has taken the number of aircraft it wants) will then either be allocated for further heritage retention or scrapped”.

APDR understands that the two aircraft that will be allocated to the AWM are historically significant airframes, while the RAAF Museum at Point Cook will get a single-eat F/A-18A and a twin-seat F/A-18 B. Fighter World museum next to RAAF Base Williamtown is also believed to eventually get two airframes.

The RAAF Classic Hornet fleet is being progressively retired as the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter is introduced into service, with an end of service date planned for 2021. Australia has now taken delivery of 20 Joint Strike Fighters, out of a total order of 72.

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