The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) has a new paper out that warns government to have a plan-B or even a plan-C for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) procurement. At first this sounds like great advice. However, the only useful part of this paper is where it mentions the blinders-on approach Defence has to the solution of what kind of fighter Australia needs.
”Their answer will remain ‘F-35’, pretty much independent of the question.”
The report is riddled with errors and lazy research. ASPI always has the word “Analysis” in large type at the front of their reports. Sorry, I am just not seeing the analysis. Or at least, I am not seeing quality analysis that takes all the facts on board.
The gross errors in the ASPI paper start out in the beginning of the executive summary.
“Problems that became obvious early in the program made it necessary in 2006 to commit several billion dollars to acquire twenty-four Super Hornets to supplement the RAAF’s Hornet fleet and to avoid a capability gap as the F-111 reached the end of its useful life. The revised plan saw the F-35 being introduced to Australian service in 2018, with the ageing Hornets being phased out over the following few years.”
First, the only “capability gap” is between the ears of senior defence leadership and bureaucrats.
The idea that the F-111 was reaching the end of its useful life is in dispute. We could have kept this aircraft logistically sound all the way out to the 2020s. As threats got stronger, the aircraft would be able to carry long-range stand-off strike weapons; over a long range. If the threat was not as strong, the aircraft could still carry a variety of weapons. For instance, JDAM capability was not put on the F-111 simply because Defence was short-sighted.
The F-111 range issue is a big deal because we don’t have any tankers today (except the buddy-tanking from the Super Hornet) and when we do get big tankers—once the tanker program gets off the dreaded project of concern list–they will not be enough to support scores of the thirsty short-range fighters Defence wrongly wants. The F-111 would be value-added for any coalition warfare for a long time. We gave that capability up based on a lie.
The ASPI goes on mentioning the idea passed on from Defence that there were “margins” built into the F-35 procurement plan. Certainly there are margins with any procurement. What has happened though in the past few years when news of F-35 program cost ills became more visible in the public media, is the “we have margins built in” claim was—and is today—thrown about by senior Defence group-thinkers that don’t know what they don’t know as the boilerplate answer. It then gets copy-pasted by the news media (and others) with little or no critique.
The current budget climate does not give confidence to the theory that there will be margins for purchasing the F-35. Defence recently handed billions in acquisition credits back to the government because of incompetence in managing procurement. The allocation for these funds is unlikely to come back. Does anyone seriously believe that the current Defence management along with the incompetent Defence Material Organisation (DMO) have the skills to field a Collins-class submarine replacement, or new gold-plated and under-developed high-risk aircraft like the F-35?
No one—certainly not the Australian Defence senior leadership–knows what the F-35 program will cost Australia. Whatever the F-35 is, it cannot be had at any price.
Even then, it looks like an intelligent purchaser of military equipment should not hand over any money for the F-35 until it can be evaluated in full form which might be in the early 2020s. I ask the Australian public; are our politicians and defence leaders intelligent purchasers of military equipment?
And what would we get with an oh-so-early and high risk F-35 buy? The capability of the F-35 is unknown. Other studies of the F-35 show that it is at a serious risk of not being able to stand up to future threats; that it won’t be affordable to procure; that it won’t be affordable to sustain.
Instead of a solid and careful suggestion that up to this point we have gotten it all wrong and that Australia should wipe the slate clean and start over with planning out a procurement strategy for fighter aircraft, one of ASPIs recommendations is that we buy more Super Hornets. Why?
Other than giving Defence an easy way out and giving the public something that is pointy and sort of looks like a fighter aircraft, this isn’t a very good idea until a full analysis is performed on all available aircraft types. What ASPI doesn’t mention is that if the F-35 program fails—a distinct possibility—that commitment to more Super Hornets will open the door toward making the Super Hornet our main fighter; for 20 years or more. In other words; a very expensive flying club.
Here is a look at some of the Super Hornet history. Read it and then ponder if that is something that you want to purchase for Australia. Consider also that India just performed an in-depth study of all aircraft in the class (generally) of the Super Hornet as part of a plan to procure up to 124 fighter aircraft. After that evaluation, they rejected the Super Hornet. And that was after a significantly better home industry deal than what Australia got with its first batch of Super Hornets.
Brief Super Hornet history with the U.S. Navy
The Super Hornet was first fielded in the “fleet” in its Block 1 form with a lot of legacy-based technology: radar (same as the legacy Hornet), jammer, early towed decoy. The aircraft is pretty safe for general flying. It has a safer slow speed envelop than the legacy Hornet and traps nicely on an aircraft carrier with one engine off or at idle and can bring more unspent weapons and fuel (by weight) back to the ship. For flying safety not involving combat, this is the aircraft you want your kid to fly.
It has a defective hardpoint/wing design discovered early in developmental wind tunnel tests when releasing stores (external fuel tanks and weapons). In these tests, stores bumped into each other and the aircraft model. Not wanting to spend money on a redesign of the airframe, Boeing and the Navy agreed to a kludge of a fix. The solution to make stores fall safely from the aircraft was to point pylons (appliances that connect the stores to the wing) outward. This created extra drag. This makes the annual claim that the Super Hornet was 40 percent better in range than legacy Hornets by admirals in front of our elected officials on the Hill untrue. Before this problem came up, they expected the design to have a 40 percent increase in range compared to legacy Hornets. Hope versus what actually happened.
Then in flight testing, excessive wing drop appeared. This was acceptably fixed by putting appliances on the wings to control airflow.
Then there is the issue of vibration. When you hang expensive high-tech weapons costing $100,000 or more on fighter aircraft, these weapons have a limited amount of flight hours on them before they have to be refurbished. Because of the airframe design combined with the outward pointing pylons, the Super Hornet puts a shorter life on these weapons compared to other fighter aircraft because of excessive vibration.
How did the U.S. Navy officially evaluate and accept the Super Hornet into service? The jet was pencil-whipped in OPEVAL.
The aircraft has some of the most anaemic combat flight performance ever put into a fighter aircraft design.
In OPEVAL the two-seater variant met some of its range requirements only by a hair when not using after-burner for catapult shots.
The Navy changed its acquisition strategy with the Super Hornet in the 1990’s. Originally the program would be mostly single seat E’s along with a bigger order of aircraft for the program. The U.S. Navy changed this after program approval by ordering a much higher percentage of two-seat F models. With the F-14 being retired this provided for a “no backseater left behind act” and less total airframes because the two-seater was more expensive to procure and sustain. The Navy is still very committed to two-seat attack aircraft and has very good reasons. One would think the fancier gear in the aircraft would mean less pilot workload. What has happened is that with the more capable sensors of the Block 2 Super Hornet, the Navy has more workload in the cockpit for air to ground operations. This means that for certain kinds of missions, the two-seat aircraft still has value. Today in the U.S. Navy, two-seat variants make up around half of all Super Hornets
The plan for the Super was that with AIM-9X and a high-off-bore-sight (HOBS) target cueing helmet backed up by the aircraft’s slow speed combined with rapid nose pointing, could stand up to threats during within visual range (WVR) fights as good as anything else. The problem for this is that enemy aircraft likely to face the Super will also have HOBS weapons making WVR combat high-risk for everyone. The Soviets certainly had HOBS/helmet ability several years before the Cold War ended.
Where it gets ugly is speed. In the sunset years of the F-14 (think similar speed performance to a SU-3x) when it was converted to also perform air to ground missions, using speed and height in training exercises, the F-14 “bombcat” could go around legacy Hornet aircraft and press on to bomb the target. The Super Hornet is slower than a legacy Hornet.
When the P-38 and F-4U Corsair showed up in the Pacific WW2 theater, the Japanese stated that their highly agile Zero fighter could no longer be in control of the fight. Because of their speed, the P-38 and the Corsair pilots could decide how, when and if they wanted to enter battle The slower Zero could not. The Super Hornet has the same problem against just about any other modern fighter out there from the F-16 to the SU-3x series and even more powerful threats that will grow in the Pacific Rim.
So what about the AESA and AIM-120 AMRAAM on the Super Hornet? It will count for something but the AMRAAM can be jammed down to where it has a low probability of kill (PK). That and the AESA just like most fighter aircraft radars, will be in the same bandwidth that low-observable aircraft designs and jamming work best against: X-band.
For over 10 years, the U.S. Navy has been using the Block 1 Super Hornet with some numbers of the advanced Block 2 design now in service. Block 2 is what is currently being built at the Boeing factory.
Comparing the capability of the Block 1 and Block 2 Super Hornet is interesting. Comparing the defensive capability between the two is extreme. The self-defense jammer in Block 1 was a previously rejected design thrown in to get the jet out to the fleet on schedule. Today, the avionics in Block II are stunning and meet the “balanced-survivability” need in the original concept: if all one believes that you need for a fighter is technology and not real flight performance. That technology the Super depends on is a small amount of nose on low observable capability (not like a real stealth fighter) but “balanced” with the fused avionics to help lower the probability of kill (PK) of enemy radar missile threats. The aircraft is designed with some low-observable concepts in place only so there is a known and more measurable quantity of the aircraft’s radar signature under a variety of situations. This allows the emission detection fused with the computer to better understand how vulnerable the aircraft is to radar threats and also allows for better estimates of when and how to use the onboard defensive jamming. This makes the defensive suite more efficient.
How would this compare to the F-35 in a similar defensive scenario? The F-35 only has limited export-friendly stealth. The F-35 has limited defensive measures when stealth is exposed due to a turn or bad angle to the radar threat. The F-35 sales force claims that the front-facing radar can jam radar threats. The theory that you can use a small radar with limited power to successfully jam threats is just that. Whatever effect this can produce, it can only do it inside its own radio frequency band. Electronic warfare experts have stated this method is not proven to work well based on available power and heat issues with the radar set. The F-35 does not have near-all-aspect defensive jamming like the Super Hornet and only has some expendable decoys. The Super Hornet Block 2 has a towed decoy that coordinates with the onboard self-protection jammer and also has the kind of radar like the F-35 that is hyped to do some jamming. Interesting as this electronic attack ability using the aircraft’s radar, was marked as a short-coming when Australia evaluated their new Block 2 Supers. Something to think about when the F-35 sales force hypes this ability. In a scenario where stealth is naked, it is likely that the Super Hornet has more survivability options than the F-35.
The Block 2 Super Hornet with the advanced AESA radar (needing different cooling and engine appliances to support it), better defensive jammer; better emissions detection/classification; better towed decoy all fuses properly including fused with the HOBS helmet and ATFLIR, is significant for the U.S. Navy; at least against legacy threats.
Years ago, when the U.S. Navy fielded their Block 1 Super Hornets, the aircraft was generally useful against a low tech threats like Iraq who buried their air force in the sand. This is the sum total when you hear that the Super Hornet is combat proven. For the Navy the Super carries more munitions than the legacy Hornet; more gas and can be a buddy tanker when needed. It also solved a problem for the U.S. Navy who was less interested in threats and more interested in smaller numbers on an Excel spreadsheet when looking at operating costs in the carrier air wing. That is what made the aircraft Super.
If Australian Defence is looking for a good close air support aircraft for the Army or an aircraft to control advanced long range drones of the future as hounds before the hunter, the existing two-seat Super Hornets will provide some value. Against modern threats growing in the Pacific Rim where fighter versus fighter performance is needed, the Block II Super Hornet—fancy technology and all–will be cut off, run out of gas and run down and killed.
So if the Super Hornet is unable to maintain regional air-supremacy, why should Australia consider buying more? And certainly this decision should not happen without a fighter competition like what India has just performed.
From looking at the above short history of U.S. acquisition of the Super Hornet, we can see (groupthink behaviour aside) that the path it took to get into service has little relevance to how the high-risk F-35 program will be developed, tested, paid for and sustained. For ASPI to bring up the Super Hornet as a comparison of U.S. acquisition programs and then compare it to the F-35 program, well, OK, but harder work on their part would be appreciated. The F-35 from the ground-up, is a different aircraft and also a different acquisition program especially because of the multi-national involvement; including the fierce rent-seeking lust of JSF Partner Nation industry stake-holders.
ASPI also does not point out (or refuses to acknowledge) all the facts surrounding the F-22 in both cost and foreign procurement potential. History now; but important history since the F-22 was mentioned in their paper.
ASPI has not properly warned the Australian public about the grave effects to Australian industry. This look at just one home shop (Quickstep) shows some of the problem. If the F-35 program collapses, it will be a growth industry for lawyers. Australia must do a complete evaluation of the risk faced by home industry that participates in the F-35 program. Time is running out for any risk reduction methods needed to help protect these companies that seem to have been ill informed before they jumped onto the F-35 bandwagon. The promise that there will be thousands of F-35s produced seems to have no basis in fact given the current sickness in the program. For instance, in 2003, it was briefed that the low-rate production batch number 5 (LRIP-5) would be composed of 120 aircraft. In 2009, LRIP-5 was briefed as 61 aircraft. Today, LRIP-5 looks like 35 aircraft. Investors in Australian industry must be wondering when they will see a return on investment. How many jobs will be lost? What is the long range effect to Australian industry?
Australia’s current fighter roadmap is in a shambles. We have old legacy Hornets that will not be able to stand up to growing threats. We have a small number of Super Hornets that can’t contribute to maintaining air supremacy. We have ditched a valuable long-range strategic strike option with the F-111. We are staking billions on a flying question mark along with billions to fix up the mess when it all collapses.
For ASPI to have any real worth to the public with their air power studies, they need to do the following. They need to do better research. What they have presented so far is poor. They must raise a large noise to the problem and not a little one. In order to earn their money on this topic—that money comes from you—they need to fiercely challenge Defence. So far ASPI has only scratched the surface and in doing so has published a lot of things that are just untrue.
After getting it all wrong, Australia needs to stop the current air power roadmap and start again with a clean sheet of paper. This should prove to be the lower risk option. And in doing that, we can look like an intelligent buyer of military hardware.