The cost to the taxpayer of converting 12 RAAF Super Hornets into $250 million electronic warfare warriors, or ''Growlers'', has increased almost six fold from $300 million to $1.7 billion.
By the time they are expected to come on line around the end of the decade, the planes' jamming pods will be close to their use-by date.
The United States government has had to accelerate its ''next generation jammer'' program to counter problems with its own Growler fleet and the results of that research could be operational by the early 2020s.
Australian critics say Defence wants to spend top dollar for technology that dates back to 1971, was used on F-111s over Baghdad during the first Gulf War, has ''survivability issues'' in a combat environment and that America hopes to replace sooner rather than later.
Although the Australian government will not commit to Growler until next month at the earliest, it has already spent $55 million on the capability which has been strongly championed by members of the ADF senior leadership group.
Of this, $35 million was allocated in February 2009 to hardwire 12 of the 24 Super Hornets ''for but not with'' the Growler package. A further $20 million was allocated by Defence Minister Stephen Smith in March this year to fund ''long lead items''.
Joel Fitzgibbon, the then defence minister, said on February 27, 2009, that Australia's Growler project would ''require an additional investment of around $300 million''.
What he did not say was Australia wasn't planning to buy the ALQ-99 electronic warfare pods, just the systems and hardware to allow them to be fitted on an ''as required'' basis.
''Subsequently the US Defence Security Cooperation Agency advised the US Congress last May 22 of a potential sale of the Growler to Australia at an estimated cost of $1.7 billion,'' a Defence spokesman has explained. ''The initial proposal that underpinned the 2009 cost estimate would have provided a lesser capability than Defence now proposes to acquire''.
The pods would have had to be obtained from the United States Navy whenever Australia wanted them, a source said. The US would have retained absolute control over the RAAF's use of the Growler technology.
To buy the pods for 12 planes outright will cost an additional $1.4 billion, just $100 million short of the 2012-13 Australian budget surplus target.
The ALQ-99 pods have been criticised as unreliable by the US Government Accountability Office which said in 2010 the US Navy had identified ''seven major deficiencies'' and that the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation found the electronic attack suite ''degraded'' the aircraft's radar performance.
''The new plane [the Growler] is carrying aged ALQ-99 jamming pods into a future where they will be woefully inadequate,'' US analyst Loren Thompson says.
The Australian Growler project, listed in last month's revised Defence Capability Plan as Project Air 5349 Phase 3 and costing ''between $1 billion and $2 billion'', is well insulated from the current round of Defence budget cuts.
''If [the] government decides to acquire the Growler, the expenditure would be spread over a number of years, noting the modification kits and other mission and support systems would be produced later this decade,'' a Defence spokesman said.
Under the new arrangement, which will give Australia its own pods, there will still be constraints on their use.
''It is extremely unlikely the RAAF would be allowed to use its Growlers while there were American aircraft in the air [in the vicinity],'' we were told.
The cost blowout raises questions about transparency and value for money.
Andrew Davies, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, supports the shift from capability access to capability ownership - even if there are operational constraints. ''I think there is more of an upside than a downside,'' he said.
Carlo Kopp, of Air Power Australia, disagrees: ''There are some major survivability problems with the Growler,'' he said.Asian Defence News