According to budget documents, the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) is preparing to replace its fleet of 737 Boeing Business Jet (BBJ) aircraft after almost 20 years of active service. The two 737 BBJs are operated by No. 34 Squadron, based at Defence Establishment Fairbairn in the ACT, which also flies three smaller Dassault Falcon 7Xs in support of special purpose flights.

The two BBJs were originally leased from Qantas Defence Services (QDS) back in 2002, however, with the purchase of QDS by Northrop Grumman Australia in 2013, Northrop Grumman took over the contract. In 2019, Northrop Grumman Australia was awarded a follow-on sole-source $84 million contract to provide through-life support to the entirety of the Special Purpose Aircraft (SPA) fleet through to 2024, with options to extend support until 2037.

The BBJs operated by No.34 Squadron are a hybrid of the 737-700 and 737-800, crewed by up to six RAAF personnel. To facilitate the duties of government, they’re also outfitted with secure communication systems and conference facilities.

Defence’s intent to replace the 737 BBJ fleet with newer aircraft was first flagged in an incoming government brief, released under Freedom of Information laws. The document lists the replacement with a new 737 platform as an ‘approved enhancement’ to the RAAFs air mobility fleet. However, unlike with other enhancements outlined in the document, it fails to disclose even a speculative price range.

It’s also not clear if the BBJs are being replaced with newer 737-700 derived BBJs or a 737 MAX-based platform. The incoming government brief simply states that the aircraft will be replaced by a ‘leased 737 BBJ platform’.

ADPR reached out to Defence to answer these questions and more, however, they ignored repeated inquiries over a series of weeks. ADPR also reached out to Northrop Grumman Australia, who did not respond to questions.

Absent an explanation from Defence, the Defence Portfolio Budget Statement (PBS) offers some clues as to why the BBJs are being replaced. According to the document, due to the introduction into service of new aircraft, the BBJs annual flight hours will grow to 1,600 hours across the forward estimates, up from 1,200 at present.

The BBJs have also been involved in several high-profile available issues, including in 2020 when one carrying then Prime Minister Scott Morrison broke down in Cairns, forcing a national cabinet meeting to be postponed. Taken together, this suggests that newer airframes are required to deliver the special purpose flight hours sought by government, and that simply refurbishing the aircraft is not a viable alternative.


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