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 now The Future (the re-equipping of the RAAF).
NEW AIRCRAFT ENTERING RAAF SERVICE
Currently and in the near future the RAAF is re-equipping with some of the most advanced military aircraft in the world. The future is bright for the RAAF with state of the art equipment including many new aircraft that have replaced or supplemented older aircraft including strike fighters, tankers, Airborne Early Warning and Control and transport aircraft. These have made an immediate impact on the readiness of the RAAF to meet any situation including operational combat roles over Iraq in 2014. New even more advanced aircraft are to follow. These new aircraft will enable the RAAF to continue its proud tradition into the next 100 years of service in the defence of Australia, supporting our allies and providing civilian aid in their times of need.
Super Hornets and Growlers
24 Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet strike fighters (known as the “Rhino”) are currently operated by the RAAF (delivered for operational service 2010 to 2012 with No. 1 and 6 Squadrons at RAAF Amberley). 12 of the Super Hornets are to be wired to EA-18G Growler electronic warfare standard and will be joined by an 12 additional EA-18G’s (a derivative of the Super Hornet) which will become fully operational in 2018 with No. 6 Squadron (RAAF crews are training on the type with the US Navy). The EA-18G is equipped with numerous advanced avionics, jamming equipment and weaponry designed to disrupt and destroy enemy air defence and electronic systems including radars and communications systems. The EA-18G carries AGM-88 High-speed Anti-Radiation Missiles (HARM) which target surface to air radar electronic transmissions along with AIM-120C Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles for self-defence from enemy aircraft.
Joint Strike Fighter
The future acquisition of 72 Lockheed-Martin F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter will welcome Australia into the Fifth Generation Fighter Club (the total capital cost of $12.4 billion AUD for this acquisition includes associated facilities, weaponry and training). The first two Australian F-35A’s (AU-1 and AU-2) are currently being test flown in the USA at USAF Luke Air Force Base, Arizona (the first maiden flight occurred on September 29th, 2014) and the F-35A will eventually form three operational squadrons and one training squadron (the training squadron and two operational squadrons will be based at RAAF Williamtown and the other at RAAF Tindal) and are planned to replace all McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A/B Hornets in service (delivered 1984 to 1990, 55 F/A-18A and 16 F/A-18B’s are currently operated).
The first F-35A will be deployed to Australia in 2018 and they will enter full operational service in 2020 with all 72 delivered by 2023 (No. 3 Squadron will be the first operational squadron). Initially the F-35A will operate alongside the Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornets strike fighters and Boeing EA-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft that more recently entered RAAF service (the first of 24 became operational in 2010). An option of one additional squadron of F-35’s (for a total of 100 aircraft) will be considered for operation from RAAF Amberley in the future to eventually replace the Super Hornets.
The F-35 is the most advanced combat aircraft ever to be produced. It contains stealth technology and advanced sensors and avionics including networking with other aircraft and air defences enabling it to see and essentially engage targets in any direction around the aircraft. The F-35A will be armed with a 25mm cannon, AIM-120C Air-to-Air Missiles and guided air to ground munitions such as GBU-31 Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) within weapons bays that maintain a stealthy profile.
The Joint Strike Fighter has been a controversial project given the cost and delays but ultimately it is a leading edge aircraft so this really is to be expected. There are concerns that it has only one engine and isn’t fast enough to compete with other modern combat aircraft (the top speed is reported to be 1,960 km/h or Mach 1.6) but ultimately the plan is you cannot shoot down what you cannot see! Time will tell how good the F-35 really is but all the testing of the aircraft in the USA is currently leading to more and more airframes being produced and going into operation for a number of nations. The U.S. military, eight other partner nations (Australia, Canada, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Turkey and the United Kingdom) and additional foreign military forces (Israel, Japan and South Korea) have indicated plans to purchase more than 3,100 F-35’s across the 3 variants:
- F-35A Conventional Take Off and Landing (CTOL) which will be the most prevalent variant for all operators.
- F-35B Short Takeoff Vertical Landing (STOVL) which have been ordered by the US Marine Corps, United Kingdom (RAF and Royal Navy) and Italian Air Force.
- F-35C aircraft Carrier Variant (CV) to be operated by the US Navy and the US Marine Corps.
In mid 2014 the Australian Government announced that the F-35B Short Take Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) variant would be included for consideration in the 2015 Defence White Paper. The Royal Australian Navy is in the process of commissioning two Canberra Class Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) amphibious assault ships which are capable, with modifications (including upgrades to command and control systems to accommodate jet operations and heat-resistant deck coating to deal with jet exhausts) to operate STOVL jets (HMAS Canberra was commissioned into official service on November 28th, 2014; HMAS Adelaide will follow in 2016). I imagine if this was to happen the F-35B’s would be operated and maintained by the RAAF.
MARITIME PATROL AIRCRAFT
The ever reliable and effective Lockheed AP-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft will be replaced by the Boeing P-8A Poseidon for patrol, anti-shipping and anti-submarine warfare duties in the RAAF. The P-8 is a twin jet engine long-range patrol aircraft with an unrefueled range of 7,500 km / 4,000 nautical miles. It is planned to purchase 8 P-8’s with an option of 4 additional aircraft with deliveries between 2017 to 2021 (the AP-3C is due to be retired in 2018 after almost 30 years of service – 19 are currently operational). The P-8 aircraft is starting to come into use with the US Navy and is the most advanced maritime patrol aircraft available, fitted with highly advanced sensors, avionics, cameras, an acoustic system 4 times more capable than that of the AP-3C and advanced anti-shipping/submarine weaponry (the aircraft includes 11 hard points in a bomb bay, under wing and under the fuselage for weapons).
The P-8 is based on the Boeing 737 airframe, which will provide some synergy in regards to maintenance given the Boeing E-7A Wedgetail Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft (AEW&C) is also based off the 737. The RAAF also leases 2 Boeing Business Jet 737’s for VIP transport which are operated by Number 34 Squadron.
Maritime Patrol and Surveillance Drones
The MQ-4C Triton will be based and remotely flown out of RAAF Edinburgh in South Australia and is purpose built to operate in all-weather conditions (has a sealed electronics and avionics compartment) with a strengthened airframe including de-icing capability along with hail and bird-strike protection. They are due to enter operational service with the US Navy in 2017 with the RAAF no doubt following shortly after (the decision on numbers purchased and service entry will be made in 2016 based on the Defence White Paper). The MQ-4C Triton has also been designed to work in conjunction with the new Boeing P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft
One capability the RAAF has been lacking for a number of years is a STOL transport aircraft for battlefield support to move troops, equipment and supplies as well as conducting aero-medical evacuations of casualties (this has been an issue since the DHC-4 Caribou was retired in 2009). The Alenia C-27J Spartan is going to fill this void. 10 will be delivered as of 2015 with full operational capability achieved by 2016. The C-27J can access airfields and landing strips (including unpaved and rough strips) that larger aircraft like the Lockheed C-130J Hercules cannot land upon (the RAAF reports this opens access to 1900 airfields in Australia compared to around 500 for the C-130). The C-27J is also equipped with missile warning systems, electronic counter measures, armour plating and secure communications to protect it on the frontline from ground fire and missile systems. They will be operated by No. 35 Squadron.
SIGNIFICANT AIRCRAFT RETIREMENTS
Despite various avionics upgrades to keep them current in todays combat arena, goodbyes will occur in the next few years for the “Classic Hornet” the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A/B Hornet multi-role fighter that has served the RAAF so well since 1984 and the Lockheed AP-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft (three were decommissioned in October 2014 as they had reached the end of their useful airframe life). The P-3 Orion first entered service in 1962 but was replaced with the upgraded P-3C in 1968 and the AP-3C in 2002. The F/A-18’s will start to be replaced by the F-35A commencing in 2018 as will the AP-3C by the P-8 Poseidon in that same year.
In the next few years the RAAF will need to replace the turbo-prop Pilatus PC-9/A basic flight training aircraft. They have been in service since 1987, with a full program of pilot training in the aircraft commencing in 1989. This replacement program falls under the Australian Defence Force AIR 5428 Pilot Training System. Possible contenders include the Pilatus PC-21 and the Beechcraft T-6 Texan II (addendum: the RAAF went with the PC-21).
There are lots of changes ahead for the RAAF but the air force will be equipped with a modern fleet of aircraft to meet any challenges that may appear, be they military or humanitarian in nature. It is a bright future indeed and I for one look forward to seeing all these new aircraft take to the skies in the years to come.