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Air power review to help map White Paper trail

10 March 2008

Cancellation of the RAAF’s the Super Hornet program and acquisition of the F-22A Raptor are just two of the options likely to be canvassed in the air power review, which in turn will shape Australia’s next Defence White Paper.

Defence minister Joel Fitzgibbon announced 18 February that he had commissioned Neil Orme, First Assistant Secretary for Policy Development, to carry out a review “into the adequacy of current planning for Australia’s Air Combat Capability to 2045.”

“I have asked the review team to provide its report by the end of April 2008 in order that its findings can be considered by Government and incorporated into the development of the Defence White Paper,” Fitzgibbon said.

The Air Power Capability Options Review is expected to be one of a series of so-called Companion Reviews commissioned by Fitzgibbon across a range of Defence areas to underpin the new White Paper. “These critical studies will be a key input to developing Defence business and budget priorities out to 2030,” he said.

However, a concurrent review of Australian defence acquisition projects overseen by Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Greg Combet is not expected to have a direct impact on the Defence White Paper, though it will likely shape the defence business environment over the next decade.

The Defence White Paper will be published at the end of this year, Fitzgibbon announced 22 February, and the writing team will be headed by the Deputy Secretary for Strategy, Mike Pezullo.

“The White Paper process will result in comprehensive policy guidance across the entire Defence portfolio, delivering on the Labor Government’s election undertaking to re-examine Australia’s strategic environment,” said Fitzgibbon. “It will align defence strategic guidance, force structure and capability priorities, and resource strategies, by taking a comprehensive view of the Defence enterprise.”

Pezullo’s writing team will be backed up by an external Ministerial Advisory Panel comprising Professor Ross Babbage of the Kokoda Foundation, and Major General Peter Abigail (Retd) and Dr Mark Thomson, both of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI). Like its predecessor, the 2008 Defence White Paper will also include a comprehensive public consultation process, Fitzgibbon stated. Further details on the Companion Reviews were not available at the time of writing, but one of them is expected to be the Air Power Capability Options review; another one could be the much-anticipated national security review which was announced by Prime Minister Kevn Rudd shortly after he came to office in November last year.

An unclassified executive summary of Orme’s air power report will be released after the government has considered the classified version. The two-stage review will first examine whether a genuine “capability gap” could emerge between the retirement of the RAAF’s ageing force of F-111s in 2010 and the arrival of its first operational squadron of F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters in 2015. Under the original plan, the RAAF’s combat force during this transition would have consisted of its 71 heavily upgraded “classic” F/A-18A/B Hornet strike fighters.

It was the potential for a capability gap to emerge, compounded by the risk of delays to the JSF program, that prompted former defence minister Dr Brendan Nelson in March 2007 to order the Super Hornet Block 2 as a Bridging Fighter. Fitzgibbon has been a vocal critic of the lack of detailed analysis justifying Nelson’s decision.

Orme will also examine the feasibility of operating the F-111 beyond 2010, and carry out a comparative analysis of aircraft available to fill any capability gap that might emerge after its retirement; and he will also examine the status of the Super Hornet acquisition program.

Fitzgibbon has confirmed that cancellation of the Super Hornet purchase is a genuine possibility, if the review finds that a bridging fighter is unnecessary or that a better option is available. Construction of the first of the RAAF’s Super Hornets has already begun in the US and Dr Steve Gumley, head of Australia’s defence acquisition agency, the Defence Materiel Organisation (DMO), told the Senate’s Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade (FADT) committee in February that cancellation at that time would likely cost the government around $400 million. With every month that passes that figure climbs by a further $100 million, he added.

In defence of the Super Hornet option, the Chief of the Defence Force (CDF), Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, told the committee, “This is a very good capability, there is nothing better in the region at the moment, and this would give us a very sharp edge over the other capability… in the region at the moment.”

Fitzgibbon also confirmed that Australia will ask the US government formally if the Lockheed Martin F-22A Raptor stealth fighter is available for export to the RAAF. If it is, then Orme’s review will consider its cost, and any conditions associated with purchase of the F-22A, in examining “the case for and against acquiring the F-22”, as laid out in the terms of reference of his inquiry.

Fitzgibbon made a formal approach to his US counterpart, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, during the US-Australia AUSMIN talks in Canberra in late-February and received a non-commital response: Gates said he had no objection in principle, but pointed out that a change in US legislation would be necessary to allow exports of the F-22A. Given the importance which Australia places on the issue, he said he would look into it on his return to Washington DC.

“Because we have not had the ability to sell the F-22, to be honest I haven’t delved into … what the complications would be, the questions about whether a new design would be required for export,” he told reporters in Canberra.

Australia has never formally requested export clearance for the F-22A, though early assessments during the late-1990s and early-21st century of potential replacements for the RAAF’s Hornets included unclassified data on the F-22A. Since the decision was made to replace both the F-111 and Hornet with a single aircraft type, Air Chief Marshal Houston (who was Chief of Air Force when the decision was made to join the Joint Strike Fighter program), has repeatedly stated that the F-35A is more appropriate to the RAAF needs than the F-22A because of its superior strike capabilities.

“The US government will not release the full F-22 capability to other countries – there’s no doubt about that,” according to Andrew Davies of ASPI. “So what would it cost to make [the F-22A] exportable, and what capabilities [would be withheld from Australia] as a result?”

The possible purchase of the F-22A will be examined as part of the second stage of the review which will also consider trends in Asia-Pacific air power until 2045, the relative capabilities of current and projected fourth and fifth generation combat aircraft such as the F-35A, and Australian defence and aerospace industry issues “relevant to the development of Australia’s future air combat capability.”

Orme’s review team will be guided by a steering committee which includes the Chief of Air Force, Air Marshal Geoff Shepherd, Dr Gumley, the Chief Defence Scientist Dr Roger Lough, and representatives from the Departments of Prime Minister & Cabinet, Treasury and Finance & Deregulation.

Second pass Approval for the F-35A purchase was due in October this year, but on the current production schedule Australia doesn’t really need to place a firm order until around 2010, says ASPI’s Andrew Davies.

The likelihood that the cabinet will approve an F-35A order this year seems to be receding: it’s more likely a decision will be announced after the Defence White Paper is published, as this document will set out the strategic justification for major equipment and force structure decisions over the next few years.

© Rumour Control 2008


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