F-22A Raptor, FB-22, F-22E, F-22N and Variants Index Page [Click for more ...] People's Liberation Army Air Power Index Page  [Click for more ...]
Military Ethics, Culture, Education and Training Index Page [Click for more ...]
Russian / Soviet Weapon Systems Index Page [Click for more ...]

Last Updated: Mon Jan 27 11:18:09 UTC 2014

The Changing Tide in Australia's Air Power

Air Power Australia - Australia's Independent Defence Think Tank

Air Power Australia NOTAM

   6th January, 2008

Air Cdre E. J. Bushell AM, RAAF (Retd)

Contacts: Peter Goon
Carlo Kopp

Mob: 0419-806-476 Mob: 0437-478-224

The 2007/2008 New Year period saw a flurry of activity in what has been a lengthy period of ‘trench warfare’ over Australia’s New Air Combat Capability (NACC) planning, the main targets of dissent being Defence’s decisions in relation to the early retirement of the F-111, the uncritical pursuit of the JSF, and the impromptu purchase of the Super Hornet. The flurry started with media reports of the new Labor Government’s sensible plan to conduct a thorough review of NACC options, but these soon gave rise to such headlines as ‘Jet Contract May be Torn Up’ and ‘Scrapping Hornets Could Harm US Ties.’

All major newspapers seem to have jumped into the fray, firing off whatever ‘information’ they had. Unfortunately, the result has been to miss important factors and to repeat as fact statements that have already been proven to be wrong. The aim of this NOTAM is to direct attention and discussion back to fundamentals.

The Strategic Requirement

Time and again, governments have restated the central role of air power, as follows:

Air combat is the most important single capability for the defence of Australia, because control of the air over our territory and maritime approaches is critical to all other types of operation in the defence of our Nation.’

While enshrined in the RAAF’s Air Power Manual, this very simple concept seems to come second to joint operations and coalition operations when it comes to force structure planning. These types of operations, of course, rely upon some other country to provide the ‘friendly air’ under which we will operate, so there is a tendency for Defence to lose sight of the central role of air power.

However, the role of air power as stated by successive governments has two complementary dimensions which must always be kept in mind:
  • Firstly, our capability must be able to guarantee the ‘friendly air’ we need to conduct land and sea operations in our region, safely and effectively.
  • Secondly, our capability must contribute, in concert with our regional allies, to the maintenance of security in our region. In this regard, Australia must aim to play a leading and demonstrably competent role rather than a second-tier, supportive role that has to rely upon someone else providing the ‘friendly air’ critical to all successful operations.
Some papers reported a possible option here, based upon whether Australia will need the capability to face ‘state-of the-art’ opposition, or will only be involved in coalition support operations and so can leave the ‘state- of- the- art’ (’friendly air’) role to others.

Unfortunately, much Defence thinking seems to be driven by a ‘coalition’ and ‘joint operations’ focus, much as has happened in the USA, which will result in a distorted longer-term force structure that will dictate against our ability to conduct any independent operations unaided. In effect, this path will lead inevitably to:
  • An inability to control (unaided) the air over our territory and our air and maritime approaches, as required by government.
  • An inability to provide (unaided) ‘friendly air’ for any land or sea operations in our region.
  • An inability to contribute as a leading partner in support of regional security arrangements

This will inevitably produce a clear perception amongst our neighbours and our allies, particularly the USA, that we are no longer willing to pull our weight in regional defence matters. Australia must decide unequivocally whether it wishes to play a leading role as an independent nation capable of contributing meaningfully to regional security [1].

Coalition support can be made to fit into this framework without conflict, but it is essential that our NACC decisions are not driven by any ‘either/or’ role pressures. In the final analysis, Australia is faced with a need for two aircraft types to do the work it wants to do at the standard that it must be done.

F/A-18E Super Hornet Block I (US DoD).

The Super Hornet

Claims in support of the Super Hornet decision continue to be made without operational or technical basis, and seemingly without embarrassment. Boeing continues with its mantra of “The platform Australia is buying has world class stealth capabilities, low visibility, great range and great survivability” [2].

Sadly, these easily-challenged and fanciful statements have been taken up within Defence leadership and by the RAAF without question or qualification. One senior RAAF operator went on to say: “The Super Hornet’s fifth generation stealth characteristics minimised the chance of detection.” In the face of such statements, it might well be assumed that the aircraft was accepted for procurement without anyone in Australia having access to, or having read, the aircraft’s NATOPS (Flight) Manual. A simple read of that document would have sobered anyone involved with the aircraft or been exposed to the Manufacturer’s PowerPoint presentations.

However, the aircraft’s actual capabilities against those claimed will be the subject of a separate APA Analysis now in preparation, a task that should have been done as a matter of course by the RAAF and Defence before the aircraft was even considered (if it was), let alone purchased.

The previous Minister for Defence reportedly stands by his decision to purchase the Super Hornet 100 percent, adding that the acquisition was recommended by the Australian Defence Force, including the RAAF. However, the truth behind this statement has yet to be tested fully – the evidence available to support this statement is certainly not compelling.

Most importantly, the overtly extravagant and misleading assessments of the Super Hornet’s capabilities have to be confronted and exposed with the data and the facts available before any NACC analysis can proceed. Similarly, verifiable and accurate capability baselines will also need to be established for the F-111 and the JSF, as well as any other contenders, particularly the 5th Generation F-22A and its planned derivatives, as this is the area where Australia should be focussed strongly in establishing a force structure to meet the challenges that will develop over the next 30 years or more.

In looking at the Super Hornet dilemma, it should be remembered that Boeing’s intentions under its Project Archangel is to market more Super Hornets (both F/A-18E/F and electronic attack G Models) into Australia so that they become our primary air power capability. This possibility becomes a probability given the previous Defence Minister’s declaration that “We are Hornet Country”, coupled with the increasing likelihood that the JSF Project may not proceed, or proceed to an unacceptable time/cost schedule and capability erosion.

Should Boeing’s plans eventuate, Australia will be left with an evolved 3rd Generation fleet of aircraft for the next 30-plus years. No matter what ‘tarting up’ is done to the Super Hornet, it will always remain an evolved 3rd Generation aircraft, optimised for carrier based operations, with entrenched design/performance limitations that cannot be overcome or compensated for to meet our primary role and strategic need for air superiority. Anyone who claims otherwise will also have to dismiss the assertions of commonality with the 3rd Generation 1980s Hornet classic so stridently argued by Dr Nelson, Boeing and those in the RAAF leadership who don't know what they don't know.

If Australia is to take up its envisaged role in our region (in particular) and the world (in general), it cannot stay with an evolved 3rd Generation capability. Resources should be channelled into 5th Generation air power capabilities, noting that the JSF, by design and thanks to CAIV (Cost as an Independent Variable), will never be a genuine 5th Generation capability, no matter how many times the marketeers claim it to be so. Advanced stealth characteristics were excluded as an initial design driver on the grounds of cost, as were supersonic cruise and high agility with vectoring thrust. In the end, the design embodied no growth margins in terms of weight, volume, and electrical and cooling power. It is thus very misleading to call it a 5th Generation stealth aircraft. The aircraft may eventually demonstrate acceptable ground attack capabilities, but it has many hurdles to clear before that can be demonstrated with any confidence.

Finally, any suggestion that the Super Hornet may be the right plane for the wrong reasons should be treated with caution, if not totally disregarded, as this repeats the fallacy of accepting a capability before the operational requirement has been established properly, and it would be the first step in locking Australia into a long-term evolved 3rd Generation air combat capability.

Scrapping Super Hornets Could Harm US Ties

An article in the Australian on 1st January raised the possibility that scrapping the Super Hornet could harm our ties with the USA, both commercially and diplomatically, which seems to be a strange suggestion. Firstly, the US is not averse to taking tough decisions on defence matters when considered necessary, and so could not take exception to others exercising the same prerogative. In regard to the Super Hornet, it should be remembered that the US Government has some unfinished business with Boeing in regard to that Company’s activities during the aircraft’s development phase and the manner in which it was marketed to the US Navy. In Australia’s case, many of the maker’s claims can only be assessed as dubious at best.

Unspecified warnings were also expressed that any decision to axe the Super Hornet contract would carry precipitous consequences that would require careful management in Washington, and would result in fraught commercial ties with Boeing, one of Australia’s biggest defence contractors.

Australia must expect and ensure nothing less than expert and competent commercial negotiation with Boeing, and, as a matter of courtesy, some frank and open discussions with the US Department of Defense explaining the reasons behind Australia’s actions and intentions. In the end, Australia’s NACC planning should demonstrate clearly to all our desire to pull our weight in ensuring security in our region, something seemingly lost in our current force structure planning, but something that should be most welcome to the US at both diplomatic and defence levels. The US Air Force, in particular, might be expected to have reason for relief that we have our act together at last as it is that Service which would have to provide us with air support, both regionally and in any significant coalition operations, not the US Navy.

Finally, it is probably timely for Australia to prove that it can once again be a highly-informed customer, operationally, technically and contractually, to all its potential support contractors. The inevitable conflict of interest faced by Boeing (Australia) with regard to its commitment to support the F-111 fleet while the parent company was marketing its replacement by the Super Hornet should have been managed much better by both sides. The whole business will cost Australia dearly as, under current planning, we face the loss of a very significant part of our Defence Industry skills and facility base. A clearing of the air with Boeing might not be a bad thing. There is still much that Boeing can contribute to Australia’s Defence Industry base, but it must be on Australia’s terms.

First flight of SDD JSF Prototype AA-1 in December, 2006 (Imagery via Air Force Link).

The Review of Air Combat Capability Decisions

One newspaper article titled “Jet Contract May be Torn Up’ stated that:

Defence Department planners are believed to have been asked to present a detailed analysis on all fighter jet options to the new Federal Government and how they stack up against likely adversaries.”

If this is correct, the question that arises is – Is this a reasonable expectation? A very significant measure of independence from the Defence bureaucracy amongst those conducting the review would seem to be a wise, if not mandatory requirement. Otherwise, those doing the review would be those who, step-by-step, created the very problem in the first place and then persisted with it doggedly in the face of detailed analyses forewarning them of every major problem with which they are now confronted – and others yet to be confronted.

It is most doubtful that the new Minister would miss the need for the review to be done by, and under the guidance and control of, persons having the technical and analytical skills that the review will demand. Unfortunately, these are not now available within Defence.

The review must also include searching inquiries into how the Department got Australia into the current predicament, particularly into the methodology (or lack of it) currently used by Defence and the Defence Material Organisation in analysing force structure requirements, and the equipment evaluation, selection and procurement processes. If these questions are not answered, and changes are not introduced to prevent recurrences, then the same trend will persist to frustrate any new decisions. Prima facie, there is a structural problem in Defence, resulting in inadequate political control and direction of Defence management, aggravated by inadequate technological and management competence within the Defence organisation.

The work facing the new Labor Government in its review of Defence plans and decisions, particularly that relating to Australia’s New Air Combat Capability, will be many faceted, requiring in turn the marshalling of all the experience and skills available within our Nation. It is a task well worth the support of all who have skills to offer. The determination and management of the selection, development and control of sovereign assets should, rightly, be done by competent Australians for Australians if we are to ensure the Nation’s defence and security will be assured.

F-22A Raptor performs first drop of the new GBU-39/B Small Diameter Bomb (Photo by Darin Russell, Text by 95th Air Base Wing Public Affairs, US Air Force).


Ted Bushell, AM is a retired Air Commodore with 35 years experience in RAAF engineering, maintenance and new project management.
He  joined the RAAF as an Engineering Apprentice in 1948 and left the Service in 1983 following a career as an aeronautical engineer in Unit, Command, and Air Force Office appointments. His final appointment was as the last Senior Maintenance Staff Officer at Headquarters Support Command, Melbourne.

[1] The Rudd Government's stated intentions in terms of policy, declared before the election, are for Australia to be self reliant in basic capabilities and to be able to play an important role in the region. In this respect the Minister has inherited a force structure plan with  design objectives diametrically opposed to government policy. Refer Kopp C., Sorting out Defence mess the key to Rudd's plan, Canberra Times, 16th December, 2007.

[2] Bob Gower, Chief Hornet Salesman, Boeing. Refer McPhedran I, Super Hornet stings Brendan Nelson, Herald Sun, 1st January, 2008.

Air Power Australia Website - http://www.ausairpower.net/
Air Power Australia Research and Analysis - http://www.ausairpower.net/research.html

People's Liberation Army Air Power Index Page [Click for more ...]
Military Ethics, Culture, Education and Training Index Page [Click for more ...]
Russian / Soviet Weapon Systems Index Page [Click for more ...]

Artwork, graphic design, layout and text © 2004 - 2014 Carlo Kopp; Text © 2004 - 2014 Peter Goon; All rights reserved. Recommended browsers. Contact webmaster. Site navigation hints. Current hot topics.

Site Update Status: $Revision: 1.753 $ Site History: Notices and Updates / NLA Pandora Archive