(Reuters) - Australia will upgrade half of its frontline warplanes with sophisticated American jammers to become the first nation outside of the United States to use the system, the country's defense minister said on Thursday.
Australia is a close U.S. ally and last year agreed to host 2,500 U.S. Marines in the northern city of Darwin under President Barack Obama's "pivot" to the Asia-Pacific.
Twelve of Australia's Boeing-built F/A-18 Super Hornets will be converted to so-called Growlers, giving them the capability to use the same technology that paralyzed communications and missile systems in the NATO air campaign in Libya last year.
The upgrade will cost around A$1.5 billion ($1.57 billion), with the first Growlers to be operating from 2018.
"In my view it's probably one of the most, well the biggest strategic increase in the ADF's capability since we ordered the F-111 (in the late 1960s)," air force chief Air Marshal Geoff Brown told reporters. ADF is an acronym for the Australian Defence Force.
U.S. carrier-based Growlers are a specialized 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 deployment of U.S> Marines to northern Australia has sparked concern in China, where officials have questioned whether it is part of a larger U.S. strategy aimed at encircling it and thwarting the country's rise as a global power.
($1=1.05 Australian dollars)
(Reporting by James Grubel; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)