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Air Combat Capability Options Review to examine RAAF air power options

7 January 2008

The Australian minister for defence, Joel Fitzgibbon, is about to commission a review of the Royal Australian Air Force’s future air combat capability options. The scope and schedule for the review haven’t been finalised as yet, but Rumour Control understands every aspect of the RAAF’s future air combat capabilities and plans will come under scrutiny.

Under Project Air 6000 Defence plans to spend some AUD$12-15 billion replacing its current fleet of 21 F-111C strike aircraft, 71 F/A-18A/B Hornets with up to 100 F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters. Defence will also spend a furtherAUD$ 5 billion or so replacing its sole remaining Boeing 707 tanker with five Airbus KC-30B multi-role tanker/transports, and acquiring six Boeing Wedgetail Airborne Early Warning & Control (AEW&C) aircraft and a new ground-based air defence command and control system.

The F-111s will be retired around 2010 and to prevent a ‘capability gap’ emerging before the F-35 become operational, the former defence minister, Dr Brendan Nelson, unexpectedly announced late in 2006 the RAAF would acquire 24 F/A-18F Super Hornet Block 2 fighters under a US Foreign Military Sales (FMS) agreement. These so-called ‘bridging fighters’ will enter service in 2010 at an additional cost of some AUD$6 billion – though this is the anticipated whole of capability cost over the projected 10-year life of type: it includes 24 aircraft at US$56 million each; Government Furnished Equipment (GFE) such as the EWSP suite; 10 years’ platform support; all of the new weapons to be used by the aircraft; and training.

The air power review will examine all of these plans and likely will be completed by mid-year so that it can inform the new Defence White Paper which will be published late this year or in early-2009.

The uncertainties for defence planners are significant: what will be the outcome of the Federal government’s 2nd Pass examination of Air 6000 – New Air Combat Capability (NACC), currently planned for October this year? Will the government continue with the purchase of the Super Hornets under Project Air 5349? And will the review recommend significant changes to some of the ADF’s enabling air power capabilities, such as the purchase of the KC-30B tankers and Wedgetail AEW&C aircraft?

At the time of writing the schedule and terms of reference for the review haven’t been set, and nor has anybody been commissioned, either internally or externally, to carry it out. The official line from Fitzgibbon office is unenlightening: “The Government has undertaken to conduct a thorough review of the Air Combat Capability options available to Australia. The mechanics of this review are being currently being considered; however the review will commence as soon as practicably possible.”

The fixed point in Defence’s calendar at present is the new White Paper – the major air power issues must be resolved thoroughly before it can be completed. Therefore, given the timeline for preparation of the White Paper, the Review should give the Government enough data, and enough confidence in that data, for Air 6000 to undergo 2nd Pass scrutiny, as scheduled, in about October 2008. That would also be the appropriate time for endorsement or cancellation of the Super Hornet program, if this is one of the terms of reference of the Review.

Australia is already a partner in the JSF System Development and Demonstration (SDD) phase and in late-2006 signed the JSF Production, Sustainment and Follow-on Development (PFSD) memorandum of understanding. However, Defence and Government scheduled the 2nd Pass Approval milestone, and any subsequent orders, to late-2008, giving it time to gather sufficient information to assess realistically the costs and risks associated with the F-35A.

Notwithstanding a vocal campaign by air power lobby groups to cancel the F-35A and Super Hornet acquisitions and acquire instead aircraft such as the F-22A Raptor and F-15E Strike Eagle, and extend the lives of the F-111s, analysts believe it’s unlikely Australia will back out of the JSF program. It’s less certain, however, whether or not the Rudd government will continue with the Super Hornet purchase.

In an interview in September 2008 with Australian Defence Magazine Fitzgibbon said, “I can’t envisage a circumstance where we wouldn’t remain … committed to the JSF. Having said, that we have a responsibility to ensure we’re getting value for money and that the final product is capable of meeting the government’s and the country’s requirements.”

However, Fitzgibbon has been a vocal critic of the Super Hornet purchase because of both its cost and Defence’s failure to follow its own Kinnaird process in identifying a capability requirement and then selecting a suitable aircraft to match it.

The Howard government has been criticised heavily, not least by the Air Power Australia lobby group and its supporters, for its decision to acquire the JSF and Super Hornet. Critics contend the F-35A and Super Hornet lack the payload, range, performance, stealth and agility required to be either good fighters or good strike aircraft. Air Power Australia advocateds instead acquiring the F-22A Raptor to counter the high-performance Russian-designed Sukhoi Su-27 and Su-30 fighter-bombers which are proliferating within the region, and extending the lives of the RAAF’s long-range F-111 strike aircraft to preserve what its states is a vital strategic deterrent.

The Review must start with the fundamentals, including realistic threat assessments and examination of critical enablers such as AEW&C, air to air refueling and the ADF’s air defence command and control system. Whichever aircraft (or combination of aircraft) is eventually chosen to replace the RAAF’s F-111s and F/A-18A/B Hornets, its combat effect will be a function of more than just its platform and weapon sperformance attributes. Sensor performance and data integration, stealth and networking of sensors, platforms and weapons will have a significant effect on combat outcomes, as will training and doctrine.

At a practical level, depending on the availability of combat-capable aircraft, either new or upgraded, the Government may still feel the RAAF needs some sort of interim air combat capability to seal off a potential capability gap.

Even if the Review endorses the F-35A as the RAAF’s single-type long term replacement for its F-111s and Hornets, it must also examine the risks and consequences of possible delays to the JSF program: the greater the risk that JSF deliveries to the RAAF will be delayed beyond 2013/14, the greater the risk of the JSF’s Block III avionics and mission system encountering delays and systems integration problems, the greater the need for a ‘bridging fighter’.

The head of Project Air 5349, Group Captain Steve Roberton, points out the Super Hornet is a highly capable ‘bridging aircraft’: it was chosen for this role because it was the most capable fighter available to Australia in the shortest timeframe and with the least disruption to the RAAF. In the medium term the service remains committed to the JSF as its single combat aircraft type – and despite some media speculation to the contrary the RAAF has no intention of acquiring further Super Hornets or F/A-18G ‘Growler’ electronic warfare variants.

In the air-air role, Roberton says he is “absolutely confident” that the Super Hornet Block II will more than match the Su-30 family beyond the middle of the next decade, thanks to its Raytheon APG-79 Active Electronically Scanned Antenna (AESA) radar, networking capabilities, high levels of sensor and data integration and a significant investment in Low Observable (LO) technology. Meanwhile, he points out, the US Navy and Boeing are working on spiral developments to maintain the Super Hornet’s combat edge well beyond that time.

According to Boeing’s Vice President Bob Gower the current Super Hornet Block II design is based on threat analyses beyond 2024, and the US Navy is confident it can overcome known threats through about 2020. He asserts that in terms of pure warfighting capability the Super Hornet Block II will be superior to the F-35 family until the latter’s Block III avionics and mission system become available, some time in the next decade.

Whatever the outcome of the Review, Fitzgibbon wants to settle the air power debate conclusively so that his department has a secure base from which to prepare the new Defence White Paper, believes defence analyst Professor Ross Babbage of the Kokoda Foundation.

He would be surprised if the F-35A decision is overturned, though he acknowledges the Super Hornet purchase could be endangered. And he doesn’t believe defence will acquire, or even try to acquire, the F-22A.

Babbage doesn’t believe the F-22A makes any sense at all for Australia in terms of its capability and price. The F-22A’s technology is in many areas quite old, he says, and it is designed for a narrower set of roles than the F-35A.

Given the choice, Babbage would prefer to invest Air 6000 dollars in F-35s, tankers and AEW&C aircraft as they provide a more flexible capability.

The F-22A is not currently available for export and both the US Government and Congress would need to grant permission to sell the aircraft to even the most trusted foreign customer. Australia did include the F-22A in its initial Air 6000 studies around 2000, but since then has not asked for export clearance for the aircraft.

That said, the US-Australia relationship is such that there’s reason to suspect the F-22A could be available to Australia, if the government were insistent enough. But securing US government approval to buy the F-22A could be a lengthy process subject to many political uncertainties in the USA. Also, it would almost certainly require significant (and undoubtedly expensive) re-engineering of the aircraft to protect sensitive US stealth and other technologies, adding considerably to its price and probably delaying service entry, giving rise once again to questions over a bridging fighter.

According to Andrew Davies of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), the Review must determine whether the sorts of tasks the RAAF will be required to carry out actually justifies the cost of acquiring the F-22A, and/or extending the life of the F-111: “The first thing you need to do is decide what range of missions we need to carry out successfully. Once you’ve done that you can decide whether you’re in the market for top end specialised capabilities [like the F-22A] or for a well-performing multi-role aircraft [like the F-35A]. We don’t have the resources to be able to do everything, so we need to decide what’s most important.”

© Rumour Control 2008


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