The options that weren’t for the RAAF fighter fleet

Dassault’s Rafale – pictured here with a classic Hornet – was always an outsider in AIR 6000 considerations. (French Navy)

Today’s ‘Throwback Thursday’ feature from a past edition of Australian Aviation is this June 2013 article that looks at the options that never were to replace the RAAF’s fighter force.

It is now history that, as a result of delays to the RAAF’s AIR 6000 New Air Combat Capability (NACC) project brought on by development issues with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, Australia was forced to acquire 24 Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornets in order to maintain capability and capacity through the period between the retirement of the F-111C strike aircraft in 2010 and the F-35A’s service entry from 2018.

But the history of the RAAF’s Project AIR 5349 Bridging Air Combat Capability (BACC) makes for interesting reading for those so inclined, and few realise it is a history that could very well have taken a very different course. Indeed, following the government’s announcement it will acquire 12 new-build EA-18G Growlers as part of its public Defence White Paper release on May 3, one feels that much of the Super Hornet’s history in Australia still remains to be written.

Despite the F-111C undergoing an extensive avionics and engine upgrade in the mid to late 1990s and subsequent plans for the jet to serve until 2015 or beyond, the retirement of the USAF’s F-111F/EF-111A fleet, a wing breakage during cold-proof load testing and the near loss of an aircraft in flight due to a fuel tank wiring issue led RAAF airworthiness authorities to reconsider the F-111’s supportability and safety in the post-2010 period.

These looming airworthiness concerns coincided with a growing realisation that despite its still impressive range, speed and payload, the F-111’s survivability in the face of modern threats was also rapidly diminishing. A child of the 1960s, for 25 years the F-111 gave little away in its ability to penetrate fast at low level and hit a hardened target or, in Australia’s case, a surface vessel with a high degree of accuracy.

But its active and passive self-defence systems and its communications were lacking compared to modern fourth and fifth generation capabilities, and emerging air defence and airborne threats meant it was increasingly being required to perform its work from standoff distances and with escort fighters, which left few opportunities to fully exploit its speed and range.

VIDEO  – a video published on the RAAF Youtube channel celebrating the career of the F-111.

While the F-111’s issues were coming to the fore, the RAAF was also embarking on a massive midlife upgrade of its F/A-18A/B fighter fleet. The Hornet Upgrade program (HUG) saw the enhancement of the Hornet’s avionics, sensors, weapons and various structural elements, all designed to maintain the aircraft’s capability against emerging threats and to make it more supportable by addressing obsolescence issues.

It was initially thought the upgraded Hornets combined with new standoff JASSM missiles, KC-30 MRTT tankers, Wedgetail AEW&C and Vigilare command and control (C2) systems would be sufficient to see the RAAF through the period between the F-111’s retirement and the F-35’s service entry.

But during the Phase 3.1 and 3.2 elements of HUG, the Hornets were found to be experiencing various structural and fatigue-related issues that hadn’t been foreseen at the start of the program and plans to replace the all-important centre-barrel structure on up to 49 of the RAAF’s jets wouldn’t necessarily have addressed all of these issues. These findings were preceded by a restructure of the JSF program, which saw its planned RAAF service entry put back from 2012 to beyond 2014.

Years earlier in the mid to late 1990s, as a possible alternative to the HUG program Boeing had proposed the Super Hornet as a replacement for the classic Hornets. The Super Hornet was at that stage just entering service with the US Navy in its original Block I form and apart from its greater range and enhanced signature management, offered little more capability than the upgrades planned for the classic fleet.

The Super Hornet was acquired as a’bridging’ replacement for the F-111C. (Defence)

The original task of the AIR 6000 project was to find a replacement system for both the F-111C and the F/A-18A/B. Under this brief, the project team took submissions from manufacturers and assessed a number of aircraft, current and emerging, manned and unmanned, but this process was interrupted by the Howard government’s commitment to the JSF in 2002.

Despite being a clear stand-out on paper, the JSF at that time was still years away from first flight and many – including some within the project itself – felt it was far too early to commit to the JSF, let alone to a single type to replace both the F-111 and the Hornet.

So perhaps with a degree of canny intuition, the RAAF maintained a ‘watching brief’ on the Super Hornet program and Boeing regularly but informally updated the RAAF on program development and enhancements.

The then emerging Super Hornet Block II with its advanced sensors and high levels of integration was always considered by the Air Force as its fall-back or ‘Plan B’ option after the JSF decision, and as such, the ‘bones’ of a Super Hornet proposal was written and then shelved, and was occasionally dusted off and updated as the aircraft and its capabilities matured.

Other considerations

While any possibility of buying the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor has repeatedly been dismissed by politicians over the past decade or more as being too expensive, too inflexible and “not for sale”, following an informal RFI there was a proposal put to the Australian government by the US early in the AIR 6000 process for an export-configured Raptor which would have satisfied US ITARS arms export control laws while still providing a high-end capability.

But the proposal was never seriously considered for a number of reasons, including the fact the aircraft was designed primarily for the air supremacy mission with only a secondary strike role and had no maritime strike capability. In addition, apart from the high unit cost, there would have also been a huge additional investment required as lead customer for the development of the export version.

The Dassault Rafale and Eurofighter EF2000/Typhoon were also looked at during the early AIR 6000 process. Despite the dramatic reconstruction by the ABC’s 4 Corners program of the Dassault salesman being turned away from Canberra moments after landing to pitch the Rafale to the project team in 2002, neither that aircraft nor the Typhoon were seriously in play for either AIR 6000 and certainly not for the later AIR 5349 bridging capability.

On face value, the Rafale and Typhoon tick many of the boxes required. Both are high performance fighters with multi-role capabilities, both feature good payloads and very good sensors and communications, and on paper at least, strong growth paths.

The Eurofihter was never more than an outside option. (Austrian Air Force)

But both jets are European, and as has been born out with the AIR 87 armed reconnaissance helicopter (ARH) experience, are encumbered by political and multi-national considerations, and their systems are not designed to seamlessly integrate with those forces of Australia’s principle ally in the region, the US. Thus, any efforts on Australia’s part to increase those levels of integration would likely have been costly and would have had little support from the US for either the development or the validation work.

Both types would have required their own tailored weapons, training and support streams, and a clean-sheet approach to the overarching political agreements required to be able to operate them effectively. There was also a valid perception that, particularly in the case of the Typhoon, both aircraft were lacking in maturity of their systems and capabilities, although this is somewhat ironic when compared to the then still-undeveloped JSF.

Developments of the F-15E were given careful consideration as a bridging option.

One aircraft that was more closely considered for the bridging role was a development of the Boeing F-15E Strike Eagle, advanced versions of which were under development for South Korea and Singapore. The F-15 is fast, has a large combat radius and weapons payload, advanced sensors such as AESA radar and modern IR/EO targeting pod, and uses US-common weapons.

The USAF was also keen for Australia to take the F-15 and made representations as such, perhaps with a view to bolstering the production line and development path while it mulled over its own bridging plans.

But despite the advances made to the platform, the F-15 is a 40-year-old design and the USAF hadn’t bought a new F-15 since the early 1990s, so there was uncertainty regarding future support for the aircraft. Australia would have been forced to either go it alone in developing and supporting its own configuration, or specify its aircraft as close as possible to those of South Korea or Singapore in order to realise some, albeit modest, economies of scale and support network.

The F-15 is also expensive to acquire and to operate, and it doesn’t have the active and passive qualities of many of the newer generation aircraft available. New support and training partnerships with original equipment manufacturers and parent services (USAF) would have to be established, and new weapons sets and stocks would have been required.

And one overriding factor the RAAF considered when looking at not just the F-15 but also the European fighters was that, when the F-35 started to enter service, Australia would be required to support three totally different fast jets for a number of years through the transition, meaning three supply chains, three training pipelines and thus fewer enduring strategic options.

Go Navy!

In the end, the decision to select the Super Hornet as a bridging capability was a no contest. Indeed, the speed with which the proposal for the Super Hornets was taken up by government in August 2006 caught many in the Air Force by surprise, with the government requiring a formal proposal and plan be written in an unprecedented 39 days.

The reasons for going with the BACC option instead of persisting solely with the classic Hornet were many, with the primary one being the risk to that fleet which was rapidly ageing and which had many unknowns still to be discovered. But more than putting jets in carports to bolster airframe numbers, the bridging capability has also given Air Force capacity to grow and maintain sufficient pilots, air combat officers and maintainers in anticipation of a 100-strong air combat fleet.

Further, BACC has given the ADF a step up into the world of the much higher standards of training, handling and facilities required for operating aircraft with low observable coatings and treatments, and to the compartmentalised security requirements associated with operating with high-end advanced sensors and communications, both of which will give a clear pathway to the more complex requirements that will come with the F-35.

Defence insiders described the Super Hornet selection as “easy”. Despite sharing few common systems with the classic Hornet, the configuration and systems layout of the two aircraft are very similar, the engines and primary sensors on both jets are manufactured by GE and Raytheon respectively, and the pilot’s cockpit, flight control system and general handling characteristics are very similar. Both variants are operated by the US Navy and, due to the HUG program, strong development and training relationships were already in place with that service.

The BACC requirement called for a rapid acquisition and introduction of the capability and only the Super Hornet could meet that schedule due to its commonality of training and systems and the US Navy’s capacity to accommodate the RAAF’s delivery and training requirements within its own system.

Even though the RAAF’s training and operating philosophies vary greatly from those of the US Navy, it is actually that service from which the RAAF draws many of its mission sets.

Australia is a maritime nation and requires a maritime strike capability, something the USAF’s current and planned fighters do not have. The RAAF operates P-3C Orion maritime ISR aircraft and will soon replace these with a mix of P-8A Poseidons and likely the unmanned MQ-4C Triton BAMS, both of which are US Navy-common systems. In these respects, there is far more synchronicity with US Navy doctrine that that of the USAF in the maritime domain.

This feature article first appeared in June 2013 issue of Australian Aviation.

Comments

  1. TwinTiger says

    Thanks. A great read to give context to the decisions regarding the Rhino purchase at the time, which IMO in hindsight, has proven to be a very good decision for Australia given its maritime context, as well as lead to further military enhancement opportunities for the RAAF and the later Growler purchase.

  2. Josh James says

    As great as it is to acknowledge the wonderful contributions of past and current airframes have been to the RAAF & ADF, I really do find articles like this one fascinating in terms of wondering what have might have been if selection processes had gone differently. Would the RAAF had used their fighters in more of a support role in Vietnam if they had purchased Hunters instead of Sabres? Would have RAN Sea Harriers gone to seve in the Gulf if the government didn’t can the purchase of HMS Invincible (and if this would have lead to the purchase of a new carrier and the F-35B)? And so on. Great article again AA!

  3. Rocket says

    The wing failure was later found to be an incorrect setting on the testing equipment. The government however, did not disclose it (a la ‘Tampa’) until after they’d made the decision to retire the F-111 and the entirely spurious decision to buy the F-18 rubbish without ANY competitive tender. Anyone who says otherwise is plain telling porkies because Howard was in Washington, met with the manufacturer and ordered them on the spot. Several other manufacturers had only just arrived in Canberra and bought houses, etc. for the long pitch to try and sell their aircraft and without any notice, the Howard government just decided on the F-18F on the spot. Analysis would have indicated that a more suitable and more ‘capable’ replacement could have been made, the F-15SE for example.

  4. Trev says

    The F-15E probably would have been a great purchase had they chose to replace the F-111 in the 1990’s instead of completing the avionics update.

  5. says

    Definitely the most logical decision to acquire the Rhino at blk2 stage, with more upgrade potential on the way. Throw in the Growlers as well which gives the RAAF another 10 dimensions. A very combat proven platform which helps immensely for transition to 5th gen.

  6. Pioneer says

    I’m sorry, but as was the case with Menzies premature blind commitment to the drawing board TFX/F-111, Howard ignorantly prematurely committed the RAAF/ADF to the drawing board JFS/F-35 for political reasons.
    IMO, just as in the case of the delayed F-111’s for technical reason, and the sensible leasing of F-4E Phantom II’s as a stop-gap measure, the Australian government should have insisted on a lease agreement for a stop-gap fighter bomber – be it F/A-18E/D or F-15E’s, as opposed to an outright purchase of the so-called stop-gap Super Hornet period!
    This saga IMO has been the commencement of Australia’s own little Military/Political Industrial Complex machine.

  7. Jasonp says

    Have these comments been cut and pasted from numerois other previous articles? They’re still ill-informed!

    Rocket – your comment about Howard being in Washington, I think you’re getting the JSF and Super Hornet decisions mixed up.

  8. says

    Rocket, as much and how good the 15E is, the Rhino was the easiest and fastest way to cover the pig. Having both the Rhino and Growler mix has more punch and capability than the single option of the eagle. Too much time and money would of been invested on this as a stop gap filler. On the other hand if we wanted to purchase and run a 2 fighter force, an advanced 15E and JSF would of been great as well. Cheers.

  9. says

    The F-15E variants are certainly not expensive to acquire and to operate. Well, at $100M (est) per plane, it may seem expensive but when all costs vs performance are reviewed, X vs Y vs Z are not the same. As stated by those in this discussion thread the F-15 provides, longer range, bigger weapons load and speed benefits that other small fighters a.k.a Typhoon, Rafale, Gripen and Super Hornet albeit less expensive cannot match. In turn, many of the new enhancements such as the fly by wire flight controls, and the availability of F110-GE-132 or under development F100-PW-232 engines should keep operating costs at or below the known costs.

    However Australia is in a good bargaining position and should be able to get it for a fly away cost of around $100 million each. The F-15E has a current unit cost of around 30 million dollars and has been in production since 1988. Now it looks like you are looking at the F-15K; which has been around since 2006 and matches your 100 million/unit cost. This seems to directly complete with the Rafale in cost and performance. The department of defence should really clearly lay out for example, how they decided between the three tiers of aircraft.

    The aircraft does have the active and passive qualities of many of the newer generation aircraft available.

    Procuring additional new built F-15E+ is the best approach to get more “bang for the buck” for Australia than the F-35.

    The Saudi Arabia paid for the development F-15SA and it is 98% of what the “Silent Eagle” proposal was. The only differences were the canted tails, engine blockers, stealth coating and CWBs with the armament bays. IMO the CWBs with the four armament bays aren’t worth it but can still be developed for use since they are separate units. The rest can be easily added to a new production F-15SA derived run. Plus Boeing has identified SA+ improvements which include a more modern internal IRST vs. the antiquated 1980’s F-14D-derived IRST pod. The Selix IRST is much more advanced and compact for internal use.

    In addition, the F-15SA run is hot with 84 new SAs in production with an additional 70 Saudi F-15s that will be upgraded. Plus, as part of being compensated for the Iran nuke deal Israel has requested 1-2 squadrons of new F-15s from the US. These would likely be equivalent to the SA with SE features. So we have an opportunity for a large production run with lower unit costs due to economies of scale. Therefore, the USAF procuring an additional run of F-15SA+ equivalent aircraft is the most logical choice vs. the less capable F/A-18E/F or F-35A options.

    The F-15SA+ has a longer range, a larger weapons load, is more powerful, is faster, and more versatile than the other two. Plus once new production advanced F-15s are in service older model F-15Es can be upgraded like what the Saudis are doing. Plus the airframe has been upgraded over time. The main aspect as I have heard it is that they need to re-wing the F-15s and that will give them another couple of decades.

    It really is a big mistake for Australia not to look at an F-15 for its air force. The F-15 whether outfitted for strike or air superiority would have the best range, best payload, and best air superiority for the large expanses of the Australian geography. In addition to being a full depot airframe with a very long lifespan, it has significant room for upgrades and access to a large ecosystem of variants and upgrades with the other countries flying the plane.

    If you look at the Su-35S is a classic example of evolutionary development. Take a great platform; keep modifying it and making it better in successive models. There is no reason the US cannot do this with the F-15 as the basis of the Su-35 was the Su-27/30.

    Lastly the Australia needs to make all the fighters capable of using the MBDA Meteor LRAAM to complement the AIM-120D, and provide for longer range engagements.

    These aircraft need to be viable for another 30+ years in light of increased challenges in Europe and eastern Asia.

    Cheers!

  10. Rocket says

    Paul,
    For years we were reminded how it would take 3 F-18s to replace the capability of one F-111, yet now it can conveniently be replaced by a 1:1. The same as we were fed that range wasn’t important but now the RAAF is sourcing conformal tanks for the F-18F so range it seems is important.

    Jasonp- no, I’m not ‘confused’, Howard made the decision on the 18F on a whim in Washington, the F-35 decision was made separately and announced by Chief of ADF in Canberra.

    The fact is the story has changed on what capabilities are required many times and each time issues like range have been dismissed then Li and behold we’re then looking at auxiliary tanks.

    To an intelligent observer it is evident there is a degree of making up as they go along.

    BTW, before anyone mentions tankers, there’s not much point flying 5th generation F-35s over long distance if there’s a bloody great tanker with them is there… these aeroplanes don’t have all angle stealth either and are slow as a wet week on the way out, certainly slower than an SU-35.

  11. Mick C says

    Do you people really think that the true LO, Range, speed, Maneuverability of the F35 is anywhere near public knowledge? Or any other Combat Aircraft for that matter.

    I would back a RAAF Fighter, Classic. Super or F35 in any engagenent against any Fighter operated by any Airforce other than the major powers. Why? Superior ability to put the Fighter in the right place at the rigjht time, superior trg superior command and control, better logistics.

    All weapon systems are nothing but Paperweights until you can get them aimed at the enemy.

  12. TwinTiger says

    @ Rocket
    I was intrigued by your comment that “… the RAAF is sourcing conformal tanks for the F-18F”. Are you able to share any links that can confirm that?

  13. says

    Rocket, a Rhino will out do a pig apart from range and speed. The Rhino is ten times more effective because of the weapons it carries period!!! Yes Mick I agree , there are so many elements that make a fighter win a fight.!

  14. PAUL says

    Yes I always thought the Strike Eagle was the better replacement for the F111, However agree that the Super brings advantages particularly with the Growler capability. Always more expensive operating several types of Aircraft which is what many forces are trying to swing away from.
    Mirage 3 replacement program, was also an interesting story, with the RAAF opting for the F18 over the F16. Australia tried to sell the Mirage to NZ but the RNZAF went for the A4 which had longer legs & could carry more, & with great tactics the US couldn’t even intercept them during exercises such as Cope Thunder which was a smaller version of Red Flag. So modus operandi is important.

  15. Rocket says

    @TwinTiger

    I definitely read it, it was part of an article about the potential availability of conformal tanks – I will try and find the source and post a like but it was a while ago (meaning sometime in the last year I believe).

  16. Rocket says

    @TwinTiger

    Here is a link to one of the articles, I also read it elsewhere…

    http://australianaviation.com.au/2018/02/super-hornet-growler-to-get-longer-legs-as-us-navy-funds-conformal-tanks/

    Quote:

    “It is thought likely that the RAAF would acquire CFTs for its fleet of EA-18G Growlers (reduced to 11 aircraft following a recent engine failure on takeoff incident) should the US Navy fund their development. The 2016 Defence Integrated Investment Program roadmap of defence capability spending provides for some $5-6 billion in funding for upgrades to the Growler over the next decades.”

    The thing that amazes me is that a Super Hornet cannot fly from Melbourne to Sydney fully laden or will ‘barely’ make it… with a 300 mi combat radius (as opposed to 1300 mi for an F-111/twice the speed nearly and 1000 mi for a F-15 and even faster than an F-111) thus it astounds me that people think a huge, non-stealthy tanker can follow no less than 300 miles behind and allow it to conduct long-range strike. The F-35 at best has a radius of 700 mi, still just over half the F-111 and 30% less than the F-15 and the F-35 is even slower than an F-18A/B/E/F. That people can seriously call it a ‘replacement’ is like saying a Lada Niva is a credible replacement for a Toyota Prado.

  17. Dee Thom says

    @ Rocket.

    The F-15 has a speed of 2.5 times that of sound, and a range of over 3000 miles enough to fly direct U.S. to Europe.

    Go to U-Tube and look up “Why America’s enemies still fear the F-15 Eagle”, it explains why this 40 year old design (like the B-52) is still the foremost fighter bomber out there.
    Upgraded with the latest electronics, stealth ability, joint connectivity, and radar, it becomes the ideal platform into the future until unmanned fighter/bombers come in to being.

  18. Mick C says

    Whats the top speed of a Fighter got to do with how good they are? There is a very good reason why 5th gen Jets don’t do Mach 2.5 because its a waste of time in a era of Mach 4 AAMs that can do 40 g turns and have a range of 50nm+.

    You can’t out run them or out turn them. Once they have a Radar lock you are in it deep. All Air to Air Combat is done at subsonic speeds. Anyway they will use up all there fuel in about 10 mins at Mach 2.

    Yes the F111 could do Mach 2+ at high altitude but its attack profile was very low level where it could only do high Subsonic.

  19. Rocket says

    @ Dee Thom. Not sure why you directed the post at me, I am saying we should have got the F-15 instead of the F-18F… everything else about how manoeuvrable it is that everyone goes on about is BS as it’s not much use if it can’t fly anywhere without an army of tankers following it… I really like the F-15.

    Singapore, one of the smartest countries in our region and what do they have??? 60 F-15SE – and we have a continent 100,000 times the size of their country and we only need 300nm combat radius of an F-18F… give me a break, seriously.

  20. TwinTiger says

    @Rocket,
    Thanks yes – I saw that too in AA, but was hoping for some other external links? As it states in the article there are quite a couple of ‘ifs’, and it appears that only the Growlers would be considered for the CFTs, (not the Rhinos) post 2022 and if the US Navy funds it, and possibly if it doesn’t impact on the budget for other tech upgrades for the ‘G’s. Add to that is still the internal RAAF review about that time whether the RAAF continues with the Super-Hornet frame at all … (I think they will though)

    @Dee Thom
    I’m pretty sure that F-15 option (in whatever flavour variant) has flown off into the distance for the RAAF, despite what a formidable fast jet it really is. There would be little appetite or funding by the RAAF for yet another jet type in the fleet with its own bespoke training, spares, etc.
    IMO, I would expect that the RAAF’s next fast jet after the F-35 will be an unmanned one – but 2 or 3 decades into the future.

  21. Trogdor says

    @Rocket – nice as the F-15 is, there’s no way the RAAF would go to the expense of introducing another type with the Hornet in service and the F-35 on the way. Plus, with the Super Hornet we also get the Growler which will continue on in service after our other Hornets have been retired.

    As for Singapore, their mission focus is quite different to ours and they can’t operate tankers over neighbouring countries easily, whereas we have vast portions of land and ocean to do this.

    Is the Super a compromise – yes. Could we justify the cost for Eagles when we’re ultimately transitioning to the F-35 – probably not.