The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) is preparing to receive its first squadron of 14 Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning IIs in-country in late 2018. They will be preceded by a squadron of 12 Boeing EF-18G Growlers that will arrive next year.
Like other air arms receiving advanced combat aircraft from the U.S., the RAAF must make careful choices about weapons and software commonality, and training, if costs are to be restrained. Air Commodore Mike Kitcher, the RAAF’s director general capability planning, provided some insight into the issues for delegates attending The International Fighter Conference in London last November.
“I don’t think we could repeat our F-18 Classic experience on the F-35; a higher-complexity platform with multiple security layers,” Kitcher said. He was referring to the RAAF’s choice of some unique weapons to arm its F/A-18A/B Hornets, 75 of which were acquired and entered service in the 1980s. They were the MBDA ASRAAM (advanced short range air-to-air missile), the Lockheed Martin JASSM (joint air-to-surface standoff missile), and the extended-range (ER) version of the JDAM (joint direct attack munition). None of these weapons are in the U.S. Navy’s Classic Hornet inventory, and Australian engineers made “some startling discoveries” during the integration process, Kitcher added. And although the wide-open spaces of the Woomera range were available, “flight-testing 200- to 300-km-range weapons is a considerable challenge,” he noted.
The RAAF subsequently acquired 24 F/A-18F Super Hornets to replace a similar number of F-111s in 2010. Now come the EF-18s, and Kitcher said the RAAF is aiming for commonality of weapons on the Super Hornets, Growlers and the F-35s. The F-18 Classics will be retired at the rate of one squadron per year starting in 2019 as more F-35s enter service. In 2014, Australia confirmed it would buy another 58 F-35s, making a total of 72 for three squadrons plus an Operational Conversion Unit (OCU).
“The intent is for our weapons to remain as closely aligned to the U.S. F-35 as possible,” Kitcher said. At initial operational capability (IOC) in December 2020, that means adopting the same line-up for strike as the U.S. Air Force F-35A: the laser-guided 500-pound GBU-12 bomb; the INS/GPS-guided 1,000-pound GBU-31 bomb; and the 25mm APEX cannon.
But that’s only a modest armory, according to Kitcher, and by final operational clearance (FOC) at the end of 2023 the RAAF will want its F-35s to also be capable of dropping the GBU-39/53 Small Diameter Bombs, and the AGM-154 Joint Stand-Off Weapon (JSOW).
For maritime strike, the RAAF wants “a quality missile that can be carried internally,” Kitcher said. The two current options for the F-35 are the Norwegian Joint Strike Missile (JSM) or the Turkish Stand-Off Missile (SOM-J). They are slated for Block 4 F-35s, to which the RAAF also plans to add the GBU-54 laser JDAM. That weapon is already on the Super Hornets, and has been successfully employed during the RAAF’s current deployment to the Middle East for the air war over Iraq and Syria.
The RAAF plans to spend the years 2019-20 operationally testing the F-35 in Australia. During that process, “We’ll find things that we–and the Joint Program Office–don’t understand,” Kitcher predicted. Around 2020, Australia will decide whether to increase its order for the F-35 to as many as 100, as a replacement for the Super Hornets in the late 2020s.
For the Super Hornet and Growler weapons, the RAAF is “reliant on the U.S. Navy flight plan,” Kitcher noted. These jets do boast a substantial inventory, and the RAAF has no regrets about buying them to bridge the F-111-to-F-35 gap, Kitcher said. However, he noted that the Growler’s airborne electronic attack (AEA) role is a new one for the RAAF. The service is fully embedded in the U.S. Navy’s AEA training system at NAS Point Mugu in California. Of necessity, the RAAF will rely on the U.S. Navy for any unique software updates that are required for its theater of operations.
The Air Commodore also noted that if the RAAF wants to keep the JASSM in service after the F-18 Classics are retired, “We’ll have to pay all over again for integration on the Super Hornet, unless we can persuade the U.S. Navy to also do it,” Kitcher said. Moreover, there’s a shortage of software engineers to work such tasks, he added.
As for pilot training, Kitcher reported that all Super Hornet pilots are now trained by the U.S. Navy at NAS Whidbey Island in Washington State. The first F-35 pilots are well into their courses at Luke AFB in Arizona. The RAAF will create two-thirds of its first F-35 squadron there before transferring it Down Under for full and final work-up. Thereafter, it will develop its own internal F-35 training system for both aircrew and maintainers. The service will aim to provide its F-35 pilots with 150 hours’ flying each year, plus 100 hours in simulators.
Kitcher said the RAAF is aware that it will be impossible to generate all the potential F-35 operating scenarios in live flying training, due to the “challenging security implications.” There will be a heavy reliance on live, virtual and constructive (LVC) training to generate the necessary complexities, he added.
The International Fighter Conference is organized annually in London by Defence IQ. See http://www.international-fighter.com/.