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By Rob Taylor
CANBERRA, Oct 19 (Reuters) - Australia is considering equipping half its fleet of Boeing-built Super Hornet warplanes with sophisticated radar and communications jamming technology, giving its military a more potent electronic warfare capability than others in the region.
Defence Minister Stephen Smith said on Wednesday the government was looking closely at turning 12 of its new Super Hornet fleet into “Growlers”, similar to U.S. aircraft that recently paralysed communications and missile systems in Libya.
“We have to ensure that our air combat capability is up to the mark,” Smith told Australian television. “What we are now doing ... is in light of the Libya experience to now start the process of looking very carefully about whether acquiring Growler is in our national interest,” he said.
A report in The Australian newspaper said an announcement on the A$300 million ($305.7 million) upgrade, to be purchased from the United States, was imminent. Canberra is a close Washington ally and Australia has troops serving in Afghanistan.
U.S. carrier-based Growlers are a specialised version of the two-seat F/A-18F Super Hornet, with the electronic warfare capability provided mainly by Northrop Grumman .
The aircraft, first used in combat to help enforce the United Nations no-fly zone over Libya, provide escort and offensive jamming during air attack missions.
The government said in April it was considering buying an additional 18 Super Hornets, adding to the existing 24, for around $1.6 billion to plug a hole in defence capabilities left by expected delays in Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
Australia has already begun a multi-billion-dollar upgrade of its military that includes new air defence destroyers, two large amphibious assault carriers, helicopters, tanks, long-range cruise missiles and 12 new submarines costing $25 billion.($1 = 0.981 Australian Dollars) (Reporting by Rob Taylor; Editing by Ed Davies)