Opinion – Where politics and capability collide

written by australianaviation.com.au | February 23, 2012
F-35s on the production line. (Lockheed Martin)

Defence Minister Stephen Smith’s comments at a conference in Canberra this week have reinforced this writer’s perception that Mr Smith either isn’t being properly briefed by his advisers on some of the major defence programs currently underway – specifically the Air 6000 New Air Combat Capability (NACC) project – or that he is ‘target fixated’ on ordering additional Super Hornets for the RAAF.

Smith reiterated a proposed slowdown of the US low rate production (LRIP) rates for the F-35 JSF over the next few years by deferring 179 jets from five LRIP lots to 2017, and that there was “an alignment between the Australian position and the United States’ position”, not for the first time indicating Australia was also looking to defer its first tranche of 12 aircraft beyond the first two F-35As for which we are already committed for delivery in 2014.

“More recently… I’ve been making the point that we now need to look at the first tranche, the timetable for delivering the first tranche, 12 of which are currently scheduled for delivery in 2015-2017,” Smith told media on February 21. “The second tranche of the 14, the remaining 12, the original timetable for those was 2015 to 2017. Just as [US Defense Secretary] Leon Panetta is now looking at the timing of 179 Joint Strike Fighters for a comparable period, so are we.”

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Recent statements by Pentagon acquisition head Frank Kendall attribute the LRIP slowdown to concurrency issues with the JSF program – that is, that aircraft produced to date and for the next few LRIP lots will require upgrades in the near future in order to meet planned life of type targets, due to potential structural issues discovered during flight and fatigue testing. US budget estimates show that F-35s built up to LRIP 10 will require upgrades costing between $3 million and $6 million each in order to meet life of type. But, because of the rate drop from a planned 100 per year to less than 40 per year, each aircraft will now cost between $10 million and $15 million more at the lower rate!

Kendall’s statements also overlook the fact that the overall number of these concurrency issues reported on by December’s Quick Look Review (QLR) – fewer than 70 across the three F-35 models – is of an order of magnitude smaller than the low thousands of issues from ‘legacy’ programs such as the F/A-18 and F-16, and that they have been caught far earlier due to modelling and early static testing. Even today – nearly 30 years after they entered service and less than a decade out from retirement – operators have been required to perform costly modifications to their classic F/A-18 fleets in order to get their jets to the promised 6000 hour design life. Witness the ADF’s Project Air 5376 Phase 3.1/3.2 and ongoing structural refurbishment programs.

And on top of this – even though the US budget projects at least $200 million will be required each year out to 2016’s LRIP 10 and beyond to fix concurrency issues – it is likely most if not all of these upgrades will have long been incorporated into production aircraft on the line.

Back to Smith – what he doesn’t appear to realise is that by deferring the decision on the first Phase 2A tranche and thus – by extrapolation – the follow-on second Phase 2B tranche of 58 F-35As, he is putting in jeopardy Australia’s plans to achieve an F-35 initial operating capability (IOC) by late 2017, and thus is widening the capability gap he has stated he will not accept.

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Importantly, the money for the program’s new support facilities – initially at Williamtown and subsequently at Tindal and Amberley, including squadron buildings, maintenance hangars, simulators, sustainment and support contracts, and numerous other items vital to support an RAAF F-35A IOC – is budgeted to be drawn from funds allocated to Phase 2B, a decision on which was due to be made late this year. But if this phase is deferred, then so will be the design, planning, contracting, Finance’s Public Works Committee (PWC) vetting process, and construction work for these facilities, the cycle for which is expected to take at least five years.

Further, if current plans to acquire 12 F-35As from LRIP 8 are deferred, then the RAAF is at risk of not just a combat capability gap, but also a prolonged pause in the training of pilots and maintainers – most of which were scheduled to have begun transferring from classic Hornet units from 2015.

The RAAF’s classic Hornets are rapidly approaching their life of type, and Smith has repeatedly said he won’t accept a capability gap from the classic to the JSF. However, by deferring the JSF – which he says he believes will be a successful program – for the sake of saving a potential couple of hundred million dollars in concurrency upgrade costs, he is in effect creating a capability gap which will require a couple of billion dollars of Super Hornets to fill.

Perhaps Smith is looking to leave a legacy in Defence by approving risk-free projects such as additional C-17s, surplus UK amphibious ships, and possibly more Super Hornets, while not wanting to be associated with riskier but likely more capable decisions such as future submarines and the JSF.

Andrew McLaughlin

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11 Comments

  • Aussie Digger

    says:

    An acquisition risk-free defence force wouldn’t bother me. C-17’s and Super Hornet are providing great capability and any “australianisation” of these projects would not have added a single thing capability-wise to them. So it is with many projects that are modified from the standard “offering” the vendors provide Defence.

    I see a large amount of explaining by Defence officials at Estimates Committees etc about why this is done or why that is done and so on and I ask why? In cases such as the ALR-2001 (debacle) why don’t they just say the actual truth? The Minister wants this done for Australian workshare and industry reasons.

    We’d be perfectly happy with off the shelf ALR-67 v3 the USN standard chosen by the majority of Hornet users and installed by Boeing , but the Minister refused that so we’re going with the technologically risky plan, by a vendor with no experience in the field nor with the platform that they are meant to be installing this system on and this magnificent plan you see complete stuffed up before you and likely to fail anyway, is only being carried out by Defence under protest and is likely to see ALR-67v3 adopted down the road anyway WHEN this project fails…

  • Kingsley

    says:

    Anyone who knows anything about aircraft and is not politically biased knows that neither the F-35 or the F/A-18F can provide Australia with the strategic capability of airspace and maritime denial should we be subject to an extended, high intensity attack across our borders.

    In strategic terms the F-35 program will drain funds from the Australian Defence Force and compromise the strategic effect of operating the aircraft altogether because of the constant equipment failures and cost overruns.

    As a tactical front-line multirole strike fighter the F-35 can be easily overpowered by current aircraft and radars developed by China and Russia. Too much emphasis has been placed on the stealth of the aircraft when stealth should not be cause for performance compromise in a tactical fighter aircraft. Even the partially stealthy nose cone of the F-35 limits the performance of the forward facing radar.

    Australia needs to take its head out of the sand, stop following the United States in everything and be impartial between nations when choosing military equipment. The United States is in a different situation to Australia and Australia need a tactical fighter which will suite the needs of the Australian Defence Force.

  • Darren

    says:

    A ‘Safe’ decision, or a smart one? In the case of the C-17 and RN Landing ship I’d say these are both. And the two are not mutually exclusive. Australian history can teach a fine example of what may happen in the future. The F-111 was one of the finest aircraft ever put into service – eventually. There were engineering and cost issues. The government of the day deferred delivery until the engineering issues were sorted out. A safe and smart decision. At the time the Canberra’s were running out of life and effectiveness against modern air defence systems. Enter the F- 4 Bridging capability. There are many parallels with the current situation. The F-35 is still in testing while in production. Retro fitting can be expensive, uneconomically viable, or perhaps not even possible. There may be fleet wide groundings to come. No one really knows for sure. This would impact on training and/or IOC. I believe the F-35 will mature into a capable aircraft, however is it right to aim for a single type operating fleet? Years down the line an unexpected, unforseen issue can ground an aircraft type. If you’ve only one type in the fleet (as in the RAAF F-35) we don’t have any fighters. I believe the RAAF should have an additional 24 F/A-18E/F’s . And that decision should have been made 4-5 years ago. The ‘classic’ Hornet could have a more modest upgrade and pooled the remaining jets to extend the fatigue life/out of service date. The F/A-18A/B’s could have been replaced much later as the F-35 program got into full stride and most of the initial issues were discovered and remedied. RAAF jets would then arrive in tranche lots ready to fly and fight. This delivers a balanced fleet with staged renewal.

  • random

    says:

    The great problem with acquisition is that nobody retrospectively looks at the political motivations and their interference in the equipment decision. There appear to be a wide variety of political criteria that are given just as much weighting in the acquisition process as the user defined criteria. These invariably include the “australianisation” issues, and allow for local content, marginal electorate, internation diplomatic relations and a host of other considerations to out-weigh what should be the primary focus – is it fit for purpose, deliverable on time, and within budget. Only after these primary criteria are fully satisfied should any of the inferior political niceties be given oxygen.

    Unfortunately it seems that the politicians (both sides) are never held to account for their “influence” or role in the equipment decision – rather it then becomes the scapegoat of project management. Whilst it is hard to argue that the “users” do not create problems by trying to modify and adjust projects on the run, there seem to be a great many projects where the “users” first choice has been sidelined at the hands of the political process. The resultant mess is then very much the result of the acquisition decision rather than any project management that tries to make the best of that decision.

  • Peter

    says:

    Hello Kingsley

    I totally agree that Australia needs to stop following the United States in everything and be impartial between nations when choosing military equipment. If I had my own way of choosing military equipment I’ll go for the “long range” tactical fighter that can fulfill the needs and give the small nation a hefty fire power for the ADF.

    Certainly the F/A-18 fleet will never currently meet its peacetime fighter availability requirements, with the remaining fatigue life in F/A-18A/B models to expire over this decade, further costly structural and enhancement program to replace fuselage centre barrels has been initiated to stretch the life of these aircraft. With the APG-73 radar, electronic warfare, guided weapon and missile upgrades and software will diminish this availability even further. The acquisition of the Su-27/30 Flanker family of fighters by most regional nations now shows an environment where the F/A-18A/B and F/A-18F Super Hornet is outclassed in all key performance parameters, aerodynamic and radar performance by widely available fighters. We need to get out of this “Hornet country”.

    We have to ask ourselves why are so many nations have ordered or remain committed to the F-35 that is unaffordable, behind schedule, cost overruns, obsolete and never be able to fulfil its mission requirements???

    I will kill the F-35 (Joint Strike Failure) if I was doing the announcement for defence acquisitions.

  • Matt

    says:

    To Peter and Kingsley,
    What fighter jet do you suggest, would fulfill the needs of the RAAF .
    Regards
    Matt

  • Richard

    says:

    The idea that the RAAF is outclassed by regional export flanker variants is incorrect. RAAF has AMRAAM, ASRAAM, a fantastic BFM fighter, supported by AEW&C and AAR. They also have a higher tactical mastery from years of doctrine development.

    Suggesting the RAAF is outmatched shows a lack of understanding of real world air power.

  • Alex

    says:

    F-15SE silent eagle and super hornet 🙂

  • Peter

    says:

    Richard

    I totally disagree, the idea that the RAAF is outclassed by regional export Flanker variants is correct. Yes the RAAF has AMRAAM, ASRAAM, a fantastic BFM fighter, supported by AEW&C and AAR. The Su-30 Flanker family will outclass the F/A-18 family and upcoming lemon F-35 JSF in terms of key performance parameters, aerodynamic agility (with thrust vectoring), long range, bigger weapons payload, radar and sensor performance

    The Super Hornet has a similar performance deficiences to the F-35 which the aircraft has short range and does not have the performance envelope of a true air superiority fighter. The Super Hornets will be decimated if going up against the Flankers.

    The Eurofighter Typhoon with AMSAR will compete with the Su-35BM/Su-35-1 in terms of close combat agility and dash speed, but it does not have a decisive advantage in systems and sensors and cannot match the radar range of the Irbis E, and will not match a supercruise engine equipped Flanker.

    The Dassault Rafale share many qualities with the Typhoon, but is smaller, and much the same comparisons apply to the Su-35BM/Su-35-1.

    The F-16C/D/E and F variants subtype with AESA radar and conformal fuel tanks are not really competitive against the Su-30MK, Su-35BM/Su-35-1 on all key performance parameters, the Sukhoi cleanly outclasses the F-16 across the board and the Gripen NG which probably shares many qualities with the F-16.

    Again single engine totally illsuited to our needs. We’ve had 116 Mirages and lost 41 fatalities which was heavily utilised, operated at extremely low altitude in any weather, probably in saturated airspace infested with low flying birds, rolling hills, antennaes, many other high speed aircraft and gun firing which caused surges to the SNECMA Atar 9C turbojet which resulted an engine failure. To place the F-16V Viper, Gripen NG or turkey F-35 in the excat environmental circumstances as in any of the Mirage accidents, and it too would have as high an attrition rate. If you place the twin-engined aircraft in the same situation the rate would be at least halved.

    Small fighters with short range are only ideal for smaller air forces in Europe, some parts of Asian countries and some parts of South American nations to operate them is because their range is not as important and they are surrounded by the small vast land areas, and more surrounding air bases (for any emergency situations e.g. hydraulic and engine failures). They can be equipped with either single or two engines (Actual range varies with mission).

    We need a high capability fighter such as the Advanced F-15E+ Strike Eagle or Silent Eagle which should be looked at for Australia. Why? Is to give our nation a hefty firepower, the F-15 has a fantastic long range endurance, bigger weapons payload, more powerful radar and sensor performance and speed capabilities than its F-X competitors.

    Suggesting the RAAF is outmatched shows how understanding Australia is equipped with less capable and useless platforms such as the Super Dog (Hornet) and lemon F-35A.

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