This editorial first appeared in the March issue of Australian Aviation.
I shouldn’t have been if I had thought about it, but I was quite surprised to see fuselage sections for no fewer than six RAAF F-35s on the production line at Northrop Grumman’s factory in Palmdale, California during a visit there in late January.
For more than two years now the RAAF’s first two F-35A Lightning IIs have been flying from Luke Air Force Base in Arizona as part of the F-35 International Pilot Training Center there. And with the next eight RAAF F-35s due for handover in 2018, it does stand to reason that they would be entering production this year. But nonetheless seeing that most of those jets are already in production reinforces the fact that Australia’s F-35 acquisition is well and truly underway, that it is not, like it has seemed for so many years now since Australia first joined the program in 2002, something that was happening in some far-off distant future.
And the appearance at the Avalon Airshow of the RAAF’s first two F-35As on Friday only further serves to highlight the fact that Air Force’s much-vaunted ‘fifth-gen’ future is here, now.
Indeed Avalon Airshow attendees are able to see on display almost every piece of equipment that will make up that fifth-gen Air Force. As not only has the F-35A made its debut wearing RAAF roundels, but so too has the EA-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft and the P-8A Poseidon maritime surveillance platform. And they’ll be joined on the flightline by the E-7A Wedgetail AEW&C aircraft, while a mockup of the MQ-4C Triton maritime surveillance UAV will be on show outside the exhibition halls.
All of these will be key tools for Air Force to exploit in the information age.
But as Air Force has recognised for some time, it is one thing to operate advanced ‘fifth-gen’ aircraft, it is another thing to operate them and network them to best exploit the huge amounts of data and information they generate. Hence Plan Jericho, and now the Air Force’s new strategy document, formally released by Chief of Air Force Air Marshal Leo Davies at his symposium on the day before Avalon began.
“The Air Force Strategy outlines a set of strategic change vectors that will shape how Air Force will transform to a fifth-generation force over the next decade and beyond – a period of increasing strategic uncertainty, rapid change and complex operational challenges,” CAF’s foreword to the strategy reads.
Perhaps the most pertinent word in that statement is “change”. Air Force Strategy is just the latest in a number of change and reform programs that Air Force has implemented, such as the Air Force Improvement program and Plan Jericho, not to mention broader Defence change programs which have affected the RAAF, from the Strategic Reform Program to One Defence.
In an interview with Australian Aviation CAF acknowledges the risk of change fatigue. But he also acknowledges the success of Plan Jericho, which has focused on achieving practical results from small demonstrations and which has encouraged a culture of greater innovation, as laying the foundations for the Air Force Strategy, in showing that change done properly brings results.
That’s a mindset and approach that will be needed to best exploit the capabilities of the F-35A, EA‑18G, F/A-18F, E-7A, P-8A, MQ-4C et al.
But it is also a mindset and approach needed to foster and develop the workforce that will operate and exploit those systems, and that which will generate the best ideas for new and better ways of doing things.
For as seeing the F-35A wearing a RAAF roundel at Avalon will so powerfully demonstrate, the fifth-gen future is here already. Ready or not.