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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.