2014 marks the centenary of military aviation in Australia. To commemorate this I am writing a six-part series of articles on the key stages of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF): The Early Years – 1914 to 1939 (World War One and the interwar years), World War Two – 1939 to 1945, The Cold War begins and the Korean War – 1945 to 1953, South East Asian Conflicts – 1950 to 1972, Peacekeeping and Modern Conflicts – 1973 to 2014 and finally The Future (the re-equipping of the RAAF).
Following decades of conflict, entering the 1970’s saw a shift in roles for the RAAF. This modern era has seen RAAF involvement in many peacekeeping duties (including in the Sinai and East Timor) and humanitarian operations along with major changes in the aircraft fleet. Conflict reared its ugly head again by the 1990’s with the Gulf Wars and Afghanistan War.
The men and women of the RAAF contributed with professionalism and skill in all these fields of peacetime and combat operations. They continue to do so in 2014 in the fight against The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) militant terrorist group in Iraq (they are also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant or ISIL. They were originally an extremist splinter group of al Qaeda).
ARRIVAL OF THE F-111
The RAAF placed an original order for 24 General Dynamics F-111C long-range all-weather strike bomber in 1963 but due to long development delays with this highly sophisticated swing wing aircraft with terrain-following radar (which allowed automatic blind low-level flight), the first operational example was not delivered until June 1st, 1973 and the last on December 4th, 1973. As a stop-gap measure Number 1 and 6 Squadrons at RAAF Amberley received 24 new McDonnell Douglas F-4E Phantom II fighter bombers in September/October 1970 that were leased from the USAF until the F-111C could be delivered.
With the arrival of the F-111C, the leased McDonnell Douglas F-4E Phantom II aircraft were returned to the United States in 1973. Only 23 were returned though as 1 had unfortunately been lost in an accident in 1971 with the sad loss of both crew members.
The F-111 was a formidable aircraft capable of flying at Mach 2.5 at altitude, Mach 1.2 at low-level and could carry a heavy payload including air to ground missiles, guided bombs, unguided bombs and Sidewinder air-to-air missiles. The F-111 was also modified to carry AGM-84 Harpoon anti-shipping missiles.
In 1979/1980 four of the F-111C aircraft were modified for reconnaissance duties whilst retaining their strike capability and were designated as RF-111C (these were operated by Number 6 Squadron until 2010). The reconnaissance platform was considered one of the best tactical reconnaissance aircraft in the world and won a number of flight competitions up against US and NATO allies during Red Flag exercises held at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.
An additional 4 F-111C were delivered in 1982 to replace attrition aircraft and in 1992 15 surplus USAF F-111G aircraft were purchased to increase the overall fleet (they were operated from 1993 to 2007). Between 1977 and 1999 eight F-111’s were destroyed in crashes (7 C models and 1 G model) sadly with the loss of 10 air crew.
Although never used in combat by the RAAF, over the years the avionics suite of the F-111’s were upgraded to ensure they remained a deadly asset and deterrent in the modern field of combat. Weapons systems upgrades included Pave Tack forward-looking infra-red radar and a laser target designation pod enabling targeting in all-weather, day or night. These upgrades enabled the F-111 to remain in service with the RAAF for almost 40 years and the last F-111 was retired in 2010 (they were replaced by the Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet). She was affectionately known as “The Pig” and 13 are today displayed in various museums in Australia and Hawaii (the rest sadly had to be destroyed as part of an agreement with the United States).
EVACUATION OF SAIGON 1975
The RAAF probably thought their involvement in Vietnam had ended with the withdrawal of Australian Defence Forces from the Vietnam War in 1972. Unfortunately leading up to the collapse of the South Vietnamese government and the fall of Saigon on April 30th, 1975 a humanitarian crisis was at hand that required peacetime intervention. In March 1975 as part of a program coordinated by the United States, 8 RAAF Lockheed C-130 Hercules and 2 Douglas C-47 Dakota transport aircraft and 100 personnel participated in airlift operations to relocate displaced Vietnamese civilians that were fleeing communist North Vietnamese forces. This RAAF force was known as Detachment S. Initially they were based in Saigon but as the situation became more dangerous they were relocated to Bangkok, Thailand and flew into Vietnam each day. By the end of the war Detachment S had relocated 1,100 refugees and carried 900 tonnes of cargo including emergency food and medical supplies.
In addition the Australian Government made a decision to rescue Vietnamese orphans from near Saigon before they fell into the hands of the North Vietnamese (the United States also aided in rescuing orphaned children and it became known as Operation Babylift). The first RAAF mission was on April 4th, 1975 when 2 C-130E Hercules transport aircraft landed at Tan Son Nhut airport near Saigon from the Butterworth air base in Malaysia. With the aid of volunteer doctors and nurses they evacuated 194 children to Bangkok, Thailand.
A second top-secret mission was undertaken with the deployment of 3 RAAF C-130E’s from Number 37 Squadron. They flew into Ton Son Nhut from Bangkok on April 17th, 1975. 2 of the aircraft were to extract 77 orphans (mostly babies and toddlers) and the third flew in Australian volunteer nurses and medical staff to assist the children and provide medical attention as required. This was dangerous work as the aircraft faced potentially heavy anti-aircraft fire coming into and out of the airfield. The last of the Australian Embassy staff had assembled the children and despite the airfield coming under attack during the evacuation all 3 aircraft and all the orphans were safely airlifted out of Saigon then to Bangkok (1 child sadly died on the flight – all the kids were very dehydrated when they were first evacuated). A specially prepared Qantas Boeing 747 awaited them to return the children, nurses and medical staff back to Australia. The children received full medical attention and were adopted by Australian families for a better life.
Other Detachment S aircraft also airlifted the last of some 80 Australian civilians (mostly embassy staff and their families) out of Saigon on April 25th, 1975 (they also evacuated embassy staff and families from Phnom Penh, Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge took over there that same month). The last Australian military personnel evacuated from Vietnam were 4 RAAF Air Defence Guards that same day (amazingly they had to wait at the airfield with just a pistol and 4 rounds each as the enemy fast approached until a Hercules could land and get them out of there. They had no idea what was happening as they had no means of communication so it in an understatement that it must have been a huge relief to see that big Herc appear!). In early May 1975 as part of a United Nations operation, 2 Number 37 Squadron C-130’s designated Detachment N began transporting cargo around South East Asia and conducted the evacuation of Australian embassy staff from Vientiane, Laos in early June 1975 before that nation also fell to communist forces. The Detachment N mission ended in June 1975 after flying 91 sorties for the United Nations.
NEW AIRCRAFT ENTER RAAF SERVICE 1978 TO 1982
The Lockeed P-3 Orion long-range maritime patrol aircraft with a 15 hour operational endurance replaced the earlier Lockheed P-2 Neptune in RAAF service. Number 11 Squadron first received 10 P-3B variants from January 1969. Number 10 Squadron received 10 of the newer and more capable P-3C variants between February 1978 and January 1979. Both squadrons were based at RAAF Edinburgh in South Australia when they began Orion operations and remain there today (given the size of the country, this relatively central base allows for rapid deployment anywhere in the country). The P-3C was equipped with improved avionics and sensors and signified a major leap in patrol capability and submarine detection. The P-3C was also able to fire AGM-84 Harpoon anti-ship missiles to further increase its offensive capability. In 1982 10 more P-3C were ordered to replace the earlier P-3B models (they were sold to Portugal).
In addition to patrolling the Australian coastline. From 1981 onwards a detachment of Orion aircraft from both Number 10 and 11 Squadrons has been deployed to the Butterworth Air Force Base in Malaysia (once an RAAF base) to assist in maritime patrol as part of the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) with Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore and the United Kingdom. This base has had a long RAAF association since 1957 and the Malaya Emergency (1948-1960). Following the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan and increased naval presence in the Indian Ocean, one of the key roles of the Orion’s at Butterworth during the Cold War was monitoring and tracking Soviet nuclear and diesel submarine and ship movements (destroyers, cruisers and transports) from the South China Sea, through the Straights of Malacca and into the Indian Ocean. This was known as Operation Gateway and the Soviet craft were heavily monitored between 1981 to 1989 to deter their military presence and aggression away from regional bases and shipping. Orion aircraft would fly very low and close to the ships on multiple passes taking photos and gathering intelligence. One famous mission was the “persecution” as the RAAF put it, of a Soviet “Echo II” nuclear powered cruise missile submarine between February 21st to 25th, 1982. During that period Number 10 Squadron Orion’s tracked the sub with radar and the dropping of sonobuoys basically just harassing it out of the region!
From 2002 onwards the P-3C fleet received significant improvements with upgrades in avionics and sensor equipment including digital multi-mode radar and electro-optics detectors (infra-red and visual). The aircraft were then re-designated as the AP-3C and continue to serve the RAAF today.
In 1979 the RAAF lacked long-range transport aircraft and purchased 2 ex-Qantas Boeing 707 aircraft to fill this transport void (including VIP transport of the Australian Prime Minister and visiting dignitaries such as Queen Elizabeth II). They were assigned to Number 37 Squadron at RAAF Richmond in New South Wales to operate alongside the C-130 Hercules. In 1981 the 707’s were transferred to Number 33 Flight which became Number 33 Squadron in 1983 with the addition of 2 more ex-Qantas 707’s. In 1987 all 4 of the Boeing 707 aircraft were converted to be dual transports and air-to-air refueling tankers by Israeli Aircraft Industries (IAI) and Hawker de Havilland. Special fuel delivery tanks were fitted along with wing mounted hose and drogue pods (these were essential to refuel the new F/A-18 Hornet fighter). The first of these converted tankers was delivered in 1990.
In 1988 an additional 3 Boeing 707 aircraft were obtained (ex-Saudia Airlines). 2 were used as transports and 1 was purely for spare parts to keep these aging aircraft flying (the Qantas examples were all delivered to the airline circa 1965). Sadly 1 of the additional transports was lost with its 5 man crew in a crash off the coast of Gippsland in Victoria on October 29th, 1991. The 707 fleet conducted numerous transport and refueling missions for the RAAF including transporting personnel to United Nations peacekeeping duties and deployment to the Persian Gulf region in 1998 to refuel Coalition aircraft operating over Iraq. On June 30th, 2008 the last Boeing 707 was retired from RAAF service (they were old and failing noise and pollution requirements by that stage of their career!).
PEACEKEEPING 1970’s TO 1980’s
Since first established the RAAF has supported numerous United Nations peacekeeping operations from Asia to the Middle East. In the 1950’s this was predominately combat missions but following this period they became more oriented to peacekeeping duties.
Kashmir 1975 to 1979
As part of a United Nations peacekeeping operation, Australian military observers were deployed to the disputed Kashmir region between India and Pakistan from 1952 to 1985 (the peacekeeping operation still continues today with other nations contributing observers). These two nations have had numerous disputes which have resulted in combat in this region since they gained independence from Great Britain in 1947. From March 1975 to late November 1979 the RAAF played a small role by providing a de Havilland Canada DHC-4 Caribou transport from Number 38 Squadron to support the observers. This aircraft was a huge time saver in quickly delivering personnel, equipment and supplies in rugged mountainous terrain that would take many hours by road otherwise. One key mission for the aircraft was to transport the UN Chief Military Observer to visit various observation stations along the ceasefire line. Every 6 months the aircraft was rotated with another from Australia and the squadron flew 1,800 hours in the Kashmir supporting the UN.
The Middle East 1976 to 1979
A significant deployment was in Egypt at Ismalia from 1976 to 1979 as part of the second United Nations Emergency Force II (UNEF II) to monitor a cease-fire agreement in the Sinai desert between Egypt and Israel following the Yom Kippur War fought from October 6th to 25th, 1973. The RAAF deployed 45 air and ground personnel with 4 Bell UH-1H Iroquois that were painted white with UN markings from Number 5 Squadron. The helicopters flew observers around the region to monitor the ceasefire and also carried supplies and equipment as required. By the time the detachment finished their mission and returned home in October 1979 they had flown 10,000 sorties and transported 22,500 passengers!
The Middle East 1982 to 1986
In early 1982 Number 9 Squadron deployed 8 Bell UH-1H Iroquois helicopter with crews and support personnel to the Sinai in Egypt as part of the United Nations Multi-National Force and Observers (MFO) to monitor the Israeli withdrawal from the region (after decades of conflict Egypt and Israel had finally made peace). The squadron deployment remained in the Sinai desert until 1986. The helicopters flew observers around the region along with carrying supplies and equipment for the operation.
CHANGING OF THE GUARD
The F/A-18 Hornet Arrives
With the Dassault Mirage IIIO fleet ageing, the RAAF looked at both the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon and McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet multi-role fighters as a replacement. In 1981 the F/A-18 was selected and deliveries were made from 1984 to 1990 of 57 F/A-18A single seat fighters and 18 two-seat F/A-18B combat capable training variants (the last F/A-18B was delivered in December 1988). The first 2 aircraft were manufactured in the United States with the remaining 73 being licence-built at the Government Aircraft Factories (GAF) in Victoria. The first Australian assembled airframe (A21-103) took off on its maiden flight at Avalon airport on February 26th, 1985.
The first 14 Hornets were delivered to Number 2 Operational Conversion Unit (2OCU) at RAAF Williamtown (NSW) for immediate instructor pilot training which commenced on August 19th, 1985. On August 29th, 1986 Number 3 Squadron at RAAF Williamtown received the first Hornet’s for operational service. Hornet’s in Number 77 Squadron become operational at RAAF Williamtown in May 1987 and were followed by Number 75 Squadron in September 1988 at RAAF Tindal, Northern Territory (the last Mirage IIIO squadron).
Although at Mach 1.8 the F/A-18 was slower than the Mach 2.2 Mirage IIIO it was significantly more advanced, maneuverable and capable given it was fitted with modern weaponry, a pulse-doppler look-down shoot-down radar, inertial navigation system, a heads-up display and since 1991 a forward-looking infra-red (FLIR) pod that were all firsts for the RAAF. At the time, this aircraft gave Australia a significant regional technology edge in air defence.
The Hornet has participated in many military exercises with allied nations, has seen operational service during the Gulf Wars, Afghanistan and provided air defence for Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings, G-20 Summits and the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Australia. In addition aircraft are frequently deployed to Butterworth Malaysia and Singapore to participate in air defence commitments to the five-power Integrated Air Defence System (IADS) that involves Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Singapore and the United Kingdom.
First Female RAAF Pilots
Women had been part of the RAAF for decades but never as pilots (although many were qualified as such). They served in various ground roles in the Women’s Air Training Corps (WATC April 1939 to March 1941) which then became the Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAF March 1941 to 1947 when disbanded) and then the Women’s Royal Australian Air Force (WRAAF 1951 to 1976). During their time in the WRAAF women enlisted for 4 years and as a real sign of the times received only two-thirds of the equivalent men’s pay and were discharged from service upon getting married!
In 1977 the WRAAF was fully integrated into the RAAF. Women in the RAAF then received equal pay and privileges but still were not allowed to fly. This all changed in 1987 though when the first women entered the RAAF 144 Pilots Course at Number 2 Flying Training School at RAAF Pearce, Western Australia and graduated on June 30th, 1988. They were Flight Lieutenant Robyn Williams and Pilot Officer Deborah Hicks. Williams was the dux of the course and went on to become a flying instructor in 1992, the first RAAF female test pilot (flying with the Aircraft Research and Development Unit at RAAF Edinburgh) and Australian project lead on the C-130J program in the USA from 1995 to 2000 becoming a Wing Commander and returning to Australia that year. Hicks served with Number 34 Squadron flying VIP transports, promoted to Flying Officer in 1990 she left the RAAF in 1990.
In other significant firsts, Wing Commander Linda Corbould became the first female Commanding Officer of a squadron in 2003 with Number 36 Squadron (they flew C-130’s transports during that period and since 2006 fly the C-17 Globemaster III) and in 2014 Squadron Leader Marija Jovanovich became the first Australian in 25 years to graduate from the USAF Test Pilot School and only the second ever female RAAF test pilot.
Squadron Leader Marija Jovanovich completed the intense 48 week USAF Test Pilot School course at USAF Edwards AFB in California after 2,500 hours of academic training and 120 hours flying 23 different aircraft types from leading edge combat aircraft such as the F-15E Strike Eagle and F-16 Fighting Falcon to a crusty old Antonov An-2 Colt biplane! Quite a prestigious achievement indeed which resulted in a posting to the Aircraft Research and Development Unit (ARDU) at RAAF Edinburgh.
“It was the most difficult, the most demanding but ultimately the most rewarding course I’ve ever done.” – Squadron Leader Marija Jovanovich
RAAF Helicopters transfer to the Army
The first helicopter to fly with the RAAF came into service in 1947 (Sikorsky S-51 Dragonfly) and after almost 40 years of helicopter operations a Defence Force decision was made In 1986 to transfer all battlefield helicopter assets from the RAAF to the Royal Australian Army. The last helicopter to fly with the RAAF was formally retired in 1990.
In 1989 to 1990 the RAAF transferred 25 Bell UH-1H Iroquois to the Army’s Number 171 Squadron and Aviation School at Oakey and Number 5 Aviation Regiment at Townsville (they had been in service since 1968 and all were retired in 2007). RAAF Number 9 Squadron received Sikorsky S-70A Black Hawk helicopters In February 1988 but after conversion training they relocated to Townsville, Queensland for formal transfer of the helicopters, crews and ground personnel to form the Australian Army 5th Aviation Regiment (by 1991 they had received 39 Blackhawk’s).
RAAF Number 12 Squadron had operated 12 Boeing CH-47C Chinook heavy lift helicopters in an Army support role since 1974 (Australia was the first foreign customer for the Chinook). They were used in many roles from general transport to airlifting damaged helicopters and retrieving World War Two aircraft wrecks from Papua New Guinea to be restored in museums and the like. 2 were involved in accidents in 1975 and 1985, with the first one being repaired and put back into service in 1981 while the latter was relegated to a training aid in 1986. In 1989 the government decided to reduce costs by withdrawing the 11 remaining Chinook from operations but it was soon decided that the new Blackhawk helicopters could not replace their heavy lift capability. A subsequent agreement was made to sell 7 Chinooks to the US Army for $40,000,000 and trade the other 4 C models for the newer D model. The CH-47D’s were received by the Australian Army in 1991.
United Nations Missions 1990’s
With the end of the Cold War in 1991 the 1990’s became a very busy period of peacekeeping duties for the United Nations. The Australian military were involved in various UN missions in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and regional non-Un missions in the Pacific region. The RAAF provided logistics (Lockheed C-130 Hercules and Boeing 707 for transporting personnel and equipment), communications, air traffic control and medical support to UN operations in Cambodia (1992), Somalia (1992) and Rwanda (1995). In a regional deployment between 1997 to 1998 to support peace talks to end the civil war in Bougainville, members of the RAAF operated there in a medical capacity and as part of the Peace Monitoring Group. Then in 1999 East Timor erupted into chaos.
East Timor 1999
East Timor was a former colony of Portugal. In 1975 Indonesia invaded East Timor and ruled in a repressive manner for the next 24 years resulting in many deaths of the East Timorese from violence, starvation and disease. In 1999 under some persuasive pressure from the Australian government, Indonesia offered East Timor a referendum for independence or the option to be an autonomous province of Indonesia.
The United Nations assisted in facilitating the August 1999 voting process and during this period law and order was maintained by Australian police. Pro-Indonesian militia used intimidation and violence to attempt to deter voters but despite this 95% of eligible voters turned out and more than a 75% majority voted for independence from Indonesia. The nation then exploded with the pro-Indonesian militia committing acts of violence, atrocity and destruction killing many East Timorese and rendering thousands homeless. Indonesian military and police forces in East Timor stood by and did nothing to stop this violence.
This was unacceptable and resulted in an international outcry. Indonesia bowed to pressure and in September 20th, 1999 and let the United Nations authorised and Australian lead International Force East Timor (INTERFET) under the command of Major General Peter Cosgrove into East Timor to negate pro-Indonesian militia forces and restore law and order (INTERFET was a multinational peacekeeping operation of 22 nations including New Zealand, Canada, United Kingdom, USA and Portugal provided 9,908 personnel with half the troops provided by Australia. This was known as Operation Warden) . This was complicated by the fact that regular Indonesian forces were still in the former province of Indonesia and tension between INTERFET and Indonesian troops was high (they did not withdraw from East Timor until October 31st, 1999). INTERFET was far better armed and organised than the militia and soon took control of the port, airport and capital of Dili. The next step was control of the surrounding countryside to enable the East Timorese to return to a normal life. With the worst of the military situation settled, in February 2000 INTERFET handed over the operation to the United Nations to help the fledgling nation continue to recover and develop (Australian forces remained within this UN force).
RAAF involvement in East Timor included the movement of troops, equipment and supplies aboard 13 Lockheed C-130C Hercules from Number 36 and 37 Squadrons and 3 de Havilland Canada DHC-4 Caribou transports of Number 35 and 38 Squadrons (DHC-4 aircraft were based in East Timor during Operation Warden along with other RAAF detachments including Number 2 Airfield Defence Squadron) along with maritime patrols by 5 Lockheed AP-3C Orion aircraft from Number 10 and 11 Squadrons and reconnaissance flights by General Dynamics RF-111C aircraft from Number 6 Squadron operated from RAAF Tindal in the Northern Territory. These recon flights were conducted with Indonesian diplomatic approval and started on the October 31st, 1999 withdrawal of Indonesian forces from East Timor and were the first time the F-111 had been used operationally in its then 25 years of service with the RAAF (these missions continued until December 9th, 1999 when INTERFET had control over the violence in East Timor).
Diplomatic tensions were high in 1999 between Indonesia and Australia (and remained tense there after). As such during the conflict 12 McDonnell Douglas F/A-18C Hornet fighters from Number 75 Squadron and 10 F-111C strike aircraft from Number 1 and 6 Squadrons along with various support aircraft including 3 Pilatus PC-9A Forward Air Control (FAC) aircraft, 3 Boeing 707 tankers and a Dassault Falcon 900 VIP transport were deployed to RAAF Tindal to act as a deterrent and in preparedness for any escalation in the conflict by Indonesia. Luckily they were not required to go into combat
AFGHANISTAN, IRAQ AND THE WAR ON TERROR 2001 TO 2012
Operation Slipper (Afghanistan)
September 11th became a date of infamy in the western world when in 2001 the Al Qaeda terrorist group hijacked passenger aircraft to attack the World Trade Centre in New York City and the Pentagon in Virginia killing almost 3,000 innocent people. The international response condemned the group and military action by coalition forces was implemented against them and the Taliban government in Afghanistan that supported them to destroy their ability to attack on such a massive scale ever again.
Commenced in 2001 and completed in December 2014, Operation Slipper was the Australian Defence Force contribution to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. In addition to combating terrorism, other duties included maritime patrol in the Middle East Area of Operations (MEAO) and to monitor and control pirates in the Gulf of Aden.
The RAAF deployed 4 McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A Hornet fighters and seventy personnel from Number 77 Squadron to the Indian Ocean base of Diego Garcia (a territory of the UK) on November 9th, 2001 until February 10th, 2002 to provide combat air patrol cover for coalition forces based there including USAF heavy bombers like the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress that were involved directly on combat sorties in Afghanistan. Number 77 Squadron was replaced by Number 3 Squadron from February 10th, 2002 until the deployment returned to Australia on May 21st, 2002. The threat to the island was minimal and nothing much happened out there (they were scrambled a few times but these were proved to be false threats) but the deployment did free up US and UK combat aircraft to operate closer to the front.
The RAAF also deployed 2 Number 33 Squadron Boeing 707 tanker/transports and support personnel from RAAF Amberley to Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan to provide air-to-air refueling of Coalition aircraft operating in the region from March to September 2002. Their efforts contributed to a Meritorious Service Citation for sustained outstanding service in warlike operations.
2 RAAF Lockheed AP-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft were deployed from 2001 to 2012 to the Middle East and 3 Lockheed C-130 Hercules transports were deployed to the region to support the mission of the Australian Defence Force throughout Operation Slipper. Personnel were also deployed to the RAAF Control and Reporting Centre at Kandahar International Airport in Afghanistan.
3 RAAF IAI Heron remotely piloted aircraft were deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan in 2009. In support of the Australian military and coalition partners, the Heron detachment completed more than 27,000 hours conducting real-time intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions during Operation Slipper. The final IAI Heron mission was remotely flown from Kandahar on November 30th, 2014 and the detachment left Afghanistan in December 2014.
Operation Falconer (Iraq) 2003
In the Second Gulf War the RAAF supported Australian and Coalition forces in the fighting with Iraq. 620 RAAF ground personnel along with 14 McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A Hornet fighters (predominately from Number 75 Squadron), 2 Lockheed P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft and 3 Lockheed C-130 Hercules transports were committed to the fight under Operation Falconer in February 2003. After Iraq failed to comply with UN resolutions Operation Iraqi Freedom commenced on March 19th/20th, 2003 with coalition attacks on key Iraqi targets. The RAAF Hornet fighters were used to conduct Combat Air Patrols, close air support and strike attacks when required (between March 20th and May 2nd, 2003).
This marked the first time since 1960 during the Malaya Emergency that RAAF fighters had been used in offensive operations (all other fighter operations and deployments had not seen combat since then) and on March 22nd, 2003 Hornet A21-22 dropped the first bomb from an RAAF aircraft on an enemy target since 1972 during the Vietnam War (by Canberra bombers back then). Key Iraqi targets during this period included strikes on the 10th Armoured Division Headquarters and a facility used by the Iraqi Intelligence Service using laser guided bombs. Most of the missions conducted by the RAAF Hornet fighters were for close air support on targets including Iraqi airbases, artillery and tanks as the Iraqi Air Force was effectively grounded very early in the conflict. The Hornet fighters flew 350 sorties and dropped more than 120 Laser Guided Bombs during Operation Falconer.
One significant mission during this conflict was to provide close air support to the Australian Special Air Service (SAS) and 4RAR Battalion Commandos as they assaulted and captured Al Asad airfield on April 12th, 2003. This was a key Iraqi airbase and marked the first time RAAF aircraft had provided close air support for Australian troops since the Vietnam War. According to the Sydney Morning Herald the Australian troops captured 57 Soviet-made MiG fighters, helicopters, anti-aircraft batteries, helicopters and 7.9 million kilograms of munitions following the capture of the base.
The RAAF C-130’s provided an airlift capability to coalition forces during the conflict but following the capture of Baghdad they started to transport supplies for humanitarian aid in Iraq. The majority of RAAF assets returned to Australia at the end of the conflict in May 2003.
PEACEKEEPING AND HUMANITARIAN MISSIONS 2000’s & 2010’s
Solomon Islands 2003 and 2006
During civil and political unrest in the Solomon Islands in both 2003 and 2006 the Australian Defence Forces deployed to the island as part of the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Island (RAMSI) to restore law and order. In 2003 RAAF Lockheed C-130 Hercules aircraft transported military, police and civilian personnel from fifteen countries to the capital of Honiara to aid RAMSI and repeated the mission again in 2006. RAAF Number 38 Squadron also deployed de Havilland Canada DHC-4 Caribou aircraft to provide logistics support. They operated from Honiara airport and facilitated rapid deployment between the islands.
Sudan 2005 to 2011
The United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) between 2005 and 2011 was conducted to aid in peacekeeping operations with the separation of the nation into North and South Sudan following the declaration of independence by South Sudan in 2005. The RAAF contributed to this mission with the deployment of Lockheed C-130 Hercules and Boeing C-17 Globemaster III aircraft to transport UN personnel, equipment and supplies.
Humanitarian Missions 2002 to 2014
The RAAF was busy in this period providing humanitarian aid in response to natural disasters and acts of terrorism around the world. These included Medical evacuations of victims of the Bali bombings in 2002 from Indonesia to Australia, transporting medical staff and equipment to Iran (2003) following a devastating earthquake, Thailand (2004) following the Boxing Day tsunami and Pakistan (2005) following another devastating earthquake. Disaster relief was also provided at home by the RAAF including during Cyclone Larry that hit north-eastern Australia in 2006.
More recently the RAAF provided air bases and aircraft (AP-3 Orion and C-130 Hercules) to aid in the still to be resolved multi-nation search of the missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 in the Indian Ocean. This was known as Operation Southern Indian Ocean and 7 other nations (China, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, South Korea, the UK and the United States) contributed to the search including flying 344 missions over 42 days searching across more than 4.5 million square kilometres of the ocean’s surface operating as far as 2,000 kilometres from Perth in Western Australia (the mission ended April 29th, 2014)! The air mission was unsuccessful and continued as a more cost-effective surface search. The RAAF received worldwide coverage for their efforts in leading the search to find the wreckage of MH370 in the vastness of the Indian Ocean.
CURRENT RAAF INVENTORY
As of 2014 the RAAF operates a modern fleet of aircraft that originated from either the United States or Europe. Predominately the aircraft are from Boeing (including McDonnell Douglas which they took over) and Airbus Industries.
Potential pilot candidates who pass the RAAF selection process and Officer Training School at RAAF East Sale are sent to the ADF Basic Flying Training School in Tamworth, New South Wales to commence the Basic Flying Course. The basic training is provided by civilian contractor BAE Systems Australia (since 1999) using the Pacific Aerospace Corporation CT-4B Airtrainer.
The RAAF formerly operated 37 CT-4A Airtrainer’s from 1975, then added an additional 14 in 1980. The trainer was removed from RAAF service in 1992 and basic training was then conducted by civilian contractors.
The primary training aircraft of the RAAF is the Pilatus PC-9/A two-seat, single-engine turboprop trainer. The PC-9 was first delivered to the RAAF in 1987 and the last was delivered in 1992 (67 were ordered and 65 remain in service) and the first training course was conducted on the type in 1989. They replaced the Aermacchi MB.326 jet trainer. The PC-9 is primarily operated by Number 2 Flying Training School (FTS) at RAAF Pearce in Western Australia for advanced pilot training and the Central Flying School (CFS) at RAAF East Sale in Victoria for the training of flying instructors.
The FTS receives pilots who have completed the Basic Flying Course at the ADF Basic Flying Training School then they undertake the Advanced Flying Training Course flying 130 hours in the PC-9. Pilots that pass this final course are then assigned to operational squadrons for further training (according to the RAAF only one-third of the graduates are considered suitable for the rigours of fast jet flying. They progress to fighter training on the Hawk 127).
Joint Terminal Attack Controllers
4 modified Pilatus PC-9A(F) aircraft are based at the Forward Air Control Development Unit at RAAF Williamtown in New South Wales to train Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (Forward Air Controllers) to coordinate air support for ground troops. These aircraft are painted in a low-visibility grey scheme and are fitted with smoke grenade launchers to mark targets for air strikes from fighter aircraft.
The RAAF Roulettes demonstration team (formed in 1970) have flown the Pilatus PC-9 since 1990 (replacing the Aermacchi MB.326 jet). They fly aerobatic performances in 6 PC-9’s (with a spare) all over Australia. The Roulettes pilots are all flying instructors and the team is part of the Central Flying School (CFS) based at RAAF East Sale. In over 20 years of controlled but extreme demonstration flying, the team has only lost five aircraft in accidents (3 Aermacchi MB.326 jets in two separate mid-air collisions in 1983 and 1988, sadly resulting in the death of 2 pilots in the 1983 incident, a PC-9 in a mid-air collision in 2005 and another following an engine failure in 2011). The Roulettes are the public face of the RAAF and highly popular around the nation, forming a highlight of any air show (a great recruiting tool).
The BAE Hawk 127 is operated by the RAAF as a lead-in fighter trainer to prepare pilots for operational conversion to the Hornet and Super Hornet fighters. The trainer is fitted with modern avionics and systems to familiarise pilots with combat jet flying including an integrated communications. navigation and attack system, head-up display (HUD), multi-function displays (MFD) and hands-on-throttle-and-stick (HOTAS) controls. The first of 33 Hawk aircraft RAAF entered service in 2000 and are operated by Number 79 Squadron at RAAF Pearce and Number 76 Squadron at RAAF Williamtown.
Number 79 Squadron conducts the 14 week Introductory Fighter Course which includes general flight training, navigation training and flying with instruments, at night and in formation. Graduates then progress to Number 76 Squadron to commence a 20 week course in air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons training. (the Hawk 127 can be fitted with Mk.82 bombs, AIM-9M Sidewinder air-to-air missiles and a 30mm cannon). If successful the graduated pilots then move on to the operational fighter squadrons.
55 McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A Hornet multi-role fighters and 16 F/A-18B’s two-seat training variants (fully combat capable) are currently in RAAF service (delivered 1984 to 1990). Over the years the “Classic Hornet” has received numerous weapons and avionics upgrades along with airframe strengthening to keep them capable of engaging effectively in the field of modern combat. The Hornet fighters will remain in service until the full introduction of the Lockheed-Martin F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter which is planned to first arrive in Australia in 2018 and enter full RAAF operational service between 2020 and 2023 (more on the F-35A in my next RAAF post).
The F/A-18 is operated by Number 3, 77 and Number 2 Operational Conversion Unit (2OCU for pilot training) which are all based at RAAF Williamtown (NSW) along with Number 75 Squadron based at RAAF Tindal (NT). Each squadron is allocated 1 or 2 F/A-18B’s for training, 1 is with Aircraft Research and Development Unit (ARDU) at RAAF Edinburgh for weapons/avionics testing and the remainder equip 2OCU for pilot conversion training.
The Hornet is capable of carrying a wide range of air-to-air/ground weaponry to supplement its M61 nose mounted 20mm cannon. These include the AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM), AIM-132 Advanced Short Range Air-to-Air Missile (ASRAAM), Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM), AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Stand-off Missile (JASSM), Mk. 82 bombs and even AGM-84 Harpoon anti-shipping missiles if required.
24 Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet strike fighters (known as the “Rhino”) are operated by the RAAF. The Super Hornets were delivered for operational service between 2010 and 2012 with Number 1 and 6 Squadrons at RAAF Amberley (QLD). They achieved full operational service in December 2012. Originally 12 of these highly sophisticated strike aircraft were purchased as an interim solution to cover the gap of the retirement of the F-111 in 2010 and the introduction of the Lockheed-Martin F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (from 2018). The Super Hornet has proven to be very popular and is so effective that more were ordered and they will be retained and operated alongside the F-35A with most of the Super Hornet fighters also being fitted out for electronic warfare in the future (more on that in my next RAAF post).
The F/A-18F Super Hornet is larger than the F/A-18A Hornet and carries a much larger weapons payload for both air and ground attack missions. Weaponry includes the standard M61A2 nose mounted 20 mm cannon along with AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM), AIM-9X Sidewinder short-range air-to-air missile, Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM), AGM-84 Harpoon anti-shipping missiles, AGM-154C Joint Stand-off Weapon (JSOW) and Guided Bomb Unit GBU-54 Laser JDAM munitions. Very capable indeed (this capability has already been tested in combat and proven highly successful – see below)!
AIRBORNE EARLY WARNING & CONTROL
6 Boeing E-7A Wedgetail Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft (AEW&C) were delivered to Number 2 Squadron between 2009 to 2012. These aircraft are based off the Boeing 737 airframe with highly sophisticated avionics and a radar mounted on the spine of the airframe. The Wedgetail has added a sorely needed asset to the RAAF inventory and now allows total control of Australian air space (in conjunction with ground radar) to track and vector friend or foe.
TRANSPORTS & TANKERS
The RAAF has operated numerous variants of the Lockheed C-130 Hercules multi-role medium tactical transports since 1958 (A models 1958 to 1978, E models 1966 to 1999, H models 1978 to 2012 and the new J models which were introduced in 1999). These transports have seen extensive use in military and humanitarian aid missions in Australia and on overseas deployments (they were even used to fly domestic passengers during the 1989 Australian airline pilots dispute!). The C-130 is an invaluable asset to the RAAF.
The new Lockheed C-130J Hercules introduced improved avionics including a glass cockpit and automated systems along with improved and more efficient engines with 6 bladed propellers (4 were on the earlier models). These improvements also reduced the crew from 5 to only 3 (2 pilots and a loadmaster with no need anymore for a Flight Engineer and Navigator). 12 C-130J’s are operated by Number 37 Squadron at RAAF Richmond in New South Wales.
With ongoing military and humanitarian commitments across vast distances and many regions it was evident the RAAF lacked a heavy airlift capability. In March 2006 an order was placed for 4 Boeing C-17A Globemaster III transport aircraft and in December 2006 the first arrived at Number 36 Squadron at RAAF Amberley.
The C-17 can carry almost four times the payload of a C-130 and travel twice as far. The 77,519 kg payload is especially handy for deploying Australian Army assets such as 102 troops, an M1A1 Abrams tank; up to 5 Bushmaster infantry vehicles; a CH-47 Chinook helicopter or 3 Eurocopter Tiger scout helicopters. The aircraft has proved very successful and between 2011 to 2012 an additional 2 C-17’s were delivered to the RAAF (as of 2014 the government is considering purchasing a further 2 examples).
RAAF C-17 aircraft fitted with anti-missile electronic counter measures have been used to deploy Australian military assets and conduct aeromedical evacuations in Afghanistan and the Middle East since 2008 (regular fortnightly flights and any special missions as required) along with United Nations Peacekeepers into South Sudan in December 2013. Transporting humanitarian aid including emergency supplies has also been a major role for the C-17 following natural disasters such as bush fires in Australia; heavy flooding in Australia, Pakistan and Papua New Guinea; earthquakes in Indonesia, New Zealand and Samoa; cyclones in Fiji and Samoa; a typhoon in the Philippines; and the earthquake/tsunami in Japan. In June 2014 following the incident where Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine an RAAF C-17 was dispatched to repatriate the bodies of victims to the Netherlands for identification. These missions highlight the value of a very capable heavy lift transport aircraft in times of need.
In 2009 and after 40 years of operation, the RAAF bid a sad farewell to the de Havilland Canada DHC-4 Caribou a venerable tactical transport workhorse that’s load and incredible STOL capability has been sorely missed. This capability will not be truly replaced until 2015 with the arrival of the Alenia C-27J Spartan tactical transport. Until then the RAAF has been using 8 Beechcraft 350 King Air multi-role light aircraft as an interim solution for Air Logistics Support tasks (5 were purchased in 2010 and 3 were transferred from the Australian Army in 2009).
Number 38 Squadron at RAAF Amberly operating as “Dingo Airlines” fly the King Air in a light transport role with a surveillance platform capability. Number 32 Squadron at RAAF East Sale use the King Air as the School of Air Warfare’s training aircraft for low-level tactical fast-jet operations, maritime patrol and air battle management for a transfer of skills to operational squadrons as RAAF Air Combat Officers or Maritime Aviation Warfare Officers in the Royal Australian Navy (also used in a secondary light transport role).
To transport the Australian Prime Minister, government leaders, the Governor-General, visiting heads of government, dignitaries and the like, Number 34 Squadron at Defence Establishment Fairbairn in Canberra operates a mixed VIP fleet of 2 Boeing Business Jets (BBJ – a version of the Boeing 737) and 3 Bombardier CL-604 Challenger 600 business jets. Both aircraft types entered service in 2002 replacing 2 Boeing 707’s and 5 leased Dassault Falcon 900 business jets (in service since 1989) on VIP duties.
5 Airbus KC-30A Multi Role Tanker Transports (MRTT) tankers (based on the A330 airframe) are operated by Number 33 Squadron at RAAF Amberley. Australia was the lead customer of the MRTT and following development delays they were delivered between 2011 and 2012 (originally intended to be 2008 to 2010). As of August 2014 the government is intending to purchase 2 additional MRTT aircraft with one being fitted out as a VIP transport for the Australian Prime Minister.
The MRTT can carry more than 100 tonnes of fuel and can deploy both boom and drogue hose refueling systems to refuel numerous types of combat, transport and patrol aircraft not only in the RAAF inventory now but also in the future along with aircraft operated by alliance and coalition partners. Unlike older tankers the Air Refueling Operator sits in the cockpit with the rest of the crew rather than at the rear of the aircraft and monitors refueling on 2D and 3D screens. Advanced communications and navigation systems along with electronic missile counter measures are fitted to the KC-30A to ensure it is able to operate effectively in a busy and potentially dangerous airspace. In the transport mode the MRTT can carry 270 passengers and 34,000 kg of cargo. Already deployed to Iraq the MRTT is proving highly valuable in extending the operational capability of RAAF and coalition aircraft.
REMOTELY PILOTED AIRCRAFT
4 IAI Heron remotely piloted aircraft fitted with numerous sensors were obtained in 2009 under a lease agreement to conduct real-time intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions in support of the Australian military (they can be deployed for more than 24 hours and fly at speeds in excess of 180 km/h at up to 10,000 metres in altitude). Until December 2014 there were 3 Heron’s deployed in Afghanistan and 1 was operated in a training capacity at Woomera in South Australia. 2 of these aircraft will be retained on lease and operated from Woomera until the still to be determined introduction of the MQ-4C Triton Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS).
RAAF and Australian Army pilots remotely fly the Heron supported by a Payload (Sensor) Operator who also acts as a co-pilot. On the ground up to 7 personnel process, analyse and disseminate all the information provided by the sensors aboard the Heron. The personnel on the ground can include aircrew and staff from intelligence, operations, engineering, logistics and administration.
THE WAR ON ISIS/ISIL 2014
In 2014 the intolerable actions and reign of terror implemented by the The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) terrorist forces (also known as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant or ISIL) against the people of Syria and Iraq reached a point where an international coalition had to take action against them. At the request of the Iraqi government, the RAAF forms part of this coalition of forces including other Gulf states (Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates), Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, the United States and the United Kingdom that are conducting air strikes in both Iraq and Syria (note: the RAAF is not involved in engaging ISIS/ISIL targets in Syria).
The Australian Defence Force’s contribution in the fight against ISSI/ISIL is known as Operation OKRA and to support this mission the Australian Air Task Group (ATG) deployed to the Middle East under the command of Air Commodore Steve Roberton in late September 2014 with sorties to disrupt ISIS/ISIL activities commencing in early October 2014. The ATG consists of six RAAF Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet strike fighters, one Boeing E-7A Wedgetail Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft and one Airbus KC-30A Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) aircraft along with approximately 400 RAAF personnel. In addition RAAF Lockheed C-130J Hercules and Boeing C-17A Globemaster III transport aircraft are providing humanitarian aid and support in Iraq. ATG missions are coordinated with the Iraqi government and international coalition partners.
On October 1st, 2014 the RAAF KC-30A Multi Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) and E-7A Wedgetail conducted their first mission in Iraq (two F/A-18F’s conducted a certification sortie over the Northern Arabian Gulf on the same date) and over the next few days the KC-30A started to distribute thousands of litres of fuel to RAAF and Coalition aircraft. On October 2nd to 3rd the E-7A Wedgetail and F/A-18F Super Hornets conducted intelligence, reconnaissance and command and control missions. On October 5th, 2014 RAAF ATG aircraft conducted their first combat mission over Iraq. F/A-18F Super Hornets remained on station and were refueled by RAAF KC-30A tankers. No targets were received during this mission nor over the next 2 days of operations so it was not until October 8th, 2014 that RAAF F/A-18F Super Hornet aircraft deployed their guided weapons against an ISIS/ISIL target for the first time (a building facility) during Operation OKRA. The fight against ISIS continues and the RAAF are playing an integral role in this battle. Ongoing ISIS targets include military equipment, vehicles, command facilities and training areas that are being used to launch attacks against the people of Iraq.
The E-7A Wedgetail is proving to be a valuable asset to the RAAF and Coalition forces in Iraq. The crews are flying missions of at least 13 hours aloft whilst controlling the ‘battle management areas’ of Iraqi air space. Each mission may involve controlling over 80 Coalition aircraft to and from their designated targets across a massive area of territory. Controlling such a sheer number of aircraft is not the only challenge the E-7A crews face as they are also learning to effectively communicate with Coalition pilots and crews who speak many different languages. Lots of challenges in the skies of Iraq!
Throughout the last 100 years the Royal Australian Air Force has stood tall and always answered the call to action. Even against the odds they have never given up the fight. This proud tradition continues in 2014 and the RAAF is planning many new aircraft procurements to ensure this remains so in the future. My next post will discuss these new aircraft that will be entering RAAF service in the next decade to ensure they remain competitive in the modern field of air defence.