by Kristian Hollins
In the haze of further indecision by government yesterday, a few key points were lost in the ether which might give an indication of the way government is progressively thinking.
When Australia made the decision to buy-in to the ambitious Joint Strike Fighter program, it was with a view to resolving two fleets–one an air combat fighter/attack, one a tactical strike platform–into one. The JSF would be able to fulfil both roles, and a single fleet is cheaper and easier to maintain.
Fast forward eleven years and the Australian air combat capability is in a more precarious state. The F111 has been phased out, the classic fleet is slowly but surely doing the same, and the F-35 has experienced delays enough to make these other factors appear threatening.
With hindsight, the decision by then-Minister Brendan Nelson to purchase 24 Super Hornet aircraft as a short-term bridging capability, seems inspired.
The decision by Minister for Defence Stephen Smith to convert the 12 pre-wired Super Hornets into EA-18G Growler variant will have long terms consequences. With Super Hornets now increasingly ingrained in RAAF’s fleet structure, there seems little reason to maintain the argument of a ‘single-type’ future. The Minister’s comments yesterday indicate the same.
“So we are now not just looking at Super Hornets as transition but looking at the longer-term potential of Super Hornets and Growler and Joint Strike Fighters essentially as a mixed fleet … we’re now not just looking at transition, we’re looking at the longer-term potential use of Super Hornets, Growlers, and Joint Strike Fighters.”
And again: “So this is now not just a narrow gap in a transition from classic Hornets to Joint Strike Fighter. It is the longer term strategic merits of the utility of the Super Hornets together with Growler, in combination with Joint Strike Fighters.”
Once more with feeling: “Whether it’s 24 Super Hornets, 36 Super Hornets, or 48 Super Hornets, for the foreseeable future that would still give us a substantial edge in our part of the world. And the introduction here of Joint Strike Fighters would obviously also have a substantial edge.
“But we have no reservations about a potential combination of Super Hornets and Joint Strike Fighters because on any measure, that gives us a significant edge into the future in our part of the world, just as currently the combination of Classics and Supers gives us that edge.”
Despite the Minister’s gushing praise for Super Hornet, he said government remained committed to the F-35.
“The commitment so far as Joint Strike Fighter was concerned in the 2009 White Paper was that the previous Government and the current Government were committed to the Joint Strike Fighter program; that we would look to the purchase of up to 100 Joint Strike Fighters, but the precise number would be subject to advised Government decisions as we went. And the only decision that the Government has made with respect to purchase of Joint Strike Fighters is we’re contractually committed to two. We’ll receive those in the United States for training purposes still on the 2014 timetable. And we’ve indicated publicly that we will also purchase an additional 12, our first tranche. That will essentially give us a squadron.”
And the mixed fleet option may not be diminishing as quickly as first thought. Boeing’s Muti-Year Contract with the US Navy for Super Hornet production will see aircraft delivered out to 2015. Beyond that, AA understands Boeing will maintain the facility’s industrial base with additional single year contracts or other orders, perhaps even using company funds, as they have previously in the case of the C-17 production line.
Australia has, for many decades, operated mixed fleets. While not the ideal way to manage air combat capability, it may be the most logical, both in terms of avoiding a capability gap and for bespoke fighter/attack and tactical strike capabilities, and despite the cost overheads.