F-18s for Ukraine? Australia still avoids answering this question
When quizzed about Australia providing Ukraine with decommissioned aircraft, Defence Minister Richard Marles was notably noncommittal. The question arises as Ukraine intensifies its plea for fighter jets.
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“The aircraft situation is a complex one. We are constantly in dialogue with Ukraine about this, as we are with all their requests,” Marles stated on a local radio show.
Marles pointed out that technological aspects, timing, and the capability of Ukrainian pilots to maneuver these planes are among the key considerations for Australia when contemplating aircraft donations.
“Hence, our ongoing discussions with Ukraine are crucial. They have been thorough and productive. Nevertheless, the end goal of these conversations must be practical, timely contributions that can truly make a difference,” he elaborated.
Since Russia initiated its military operation, Western allies have been supplying Ukraine with weapons, evolving from light artillery munitions and training to now, heavier weapons. Recently, Ukraine has been urging its benefactors to provision fighter jets, an action Russia has continually cautioned against.
F-35s over Hornets
Australia has its eyes set on the future, favoring the power of F-35 fighters over the aging Hornets. Despite the teething problems of Lockheed Martin’s F-35, Australians seem to have a soft spot for these new kids on the block.
Despite the hefty maintenance bill, the RAAF is gearing up for a showdown with Chinese fighter jets, in a hypothetical regional conflict. The RAAF is also on track to fully operationalize its F-35 squadrons this year, a military milestone often referred to as achieving a “kill rate”.
Our attention, however, is drawn back to Eastern Europe, where Ukraine is locked in a protracted conflict with Russia. The hopes of this war ending soon, or even by year-end, seem bleak despite talks of a “conflict freeze”. A freeze implies mutual agreement, and Russia appears uninterested in such a compromise, at least for now…
There are talks
Could Australia’s RAAF F/A-18 Hornets find a new home in Ukraine, along with 17 other similar aircraft? There are whispers that Washington, Canberra, and Kyiv are negotiating the transfer of 41 F/A-18 Hornets to Ukraine, a possibility that has opened up after Washington finally agreed to license the re-export of jet aircraft.
While numerous media outlets suggest that Australia might deliver 41 F/A-18 Hornets to Ukraine, the truth is Australia doesn’t have that many left. It currently has only 24, having sold 18 to Canada. So, last year, 12 single-seat F/A-18A and six two-seat F/A-18B Hornets took flight to Ottawa.
Canada, having received 18 Hornets from Australia, is reportedly looking to acquire at least seven more. The progress of these negotiations remains unclear, and recent revelations suggest that this deal might not come to fruition.
A three-way deal?
Why then, is there an international buzz about Canberra supplying 41 Hornets? It seems Washington prefers to avoid the spotlight as a direct exporter of combat aircraft to Ukraine and would rather work through intermediary countries. Australia could potentially serve as this third-party donor, receiving 17 fighters from the RAAF before re-exporting them officially from Canberra.
Another plausible scenario is a purchase and sale agreement. Australia could buy up to 41 aircraft from the US at a significantly reduced price or secure a massive discount on their next military purchase. The possibilities are endless, particularly given the strong bond between the US and Australia, two nations expected to form a solid defense front for Taiwan in a potential conflict with China.
Australia still operates its aging Hornets, but Canberra is keen on retiring them. Their potential deployment comes at a perfect time for Kyiv, with President Zelensky desperately seeking air combat equipment to counter Russian fighter jets that continue to dominate Ukrainian skies.
Australian Hornets are very good
The Australian Hornets, currently stationed at a RAAF base outside Newcastle, are all fully operational and come with some bonus approvals. This makes them an attractive purchase for any interested party, Ukraine or otherwise.
These Hornets have been upgraded to the A++ level and come equipped with an impressive arsenal. This includes AIM-120 AMRAAM and ASRAAM air-to-air missiles, capable of countering any aerial threat. They also carry weapons for ground attacks, like the Paveway II, JDAM-ER, AGM-158 JASSM, and Harpoon missiles. The latter two even feature stealth technology.
Is Ukraine the only potential buyer? In reality, yes. If these Hornets are not sold or put into battle, they will simply gather dust in the hangar. At present, only the USA, Australia, Finland, and Kuwait continue to operate F/A-18 Hornets.
Selling for parts?
Canberra could attempt to sell them for parts, but buyers will be scarce once this model is discontinued. Countries like Finland and Kuwait may find it more cost-effective to invest in new air platforms rather than hunting for spare parts for their aging Hornets.
Selling to a country other than Ukraine is also unlikely due to the reasons stated earlier. Private military companies have always been a good market for such equipment, but that’s another story.
Australia has had opportunities to sell its Hornets to private companies, primarily American, but these deals did not materialize. This leaves Ukraine as the most likely buyer. The market seems to favor this option, although it’s not the only one on the table.
There may be delays in configuring the Hornets for the Ukrainian Air Force or “downgrading” them by removing some technologies that should not fall into Russian hands. However, we predict that Ukraine will most likely acquire these aging Australian Hornets by the end of this year or the next.
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