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What do we need of a military fighter aircraft?

Two F-35 Joint Strike Fighters in action. AAP Image/Department of Defence, Lockheed Martin

What do we need of a military fighter aircraft?

Now the Australian Government has committed to a further 58 F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) aircraft it is time to ask whether this is a good idea, will we be getting value for money – and will the JSF carry out the roles Australia needs them for?

The Defence White Paper 2009 stated that our military strategic aim is to achieve and maintain air superiority and sea control in places of our choosing.

This is particularly important for Australia since it is an island continent with vast areas of ocean, a very long coastline and a ring of land-sea borders to worry about.

To control “places of our choosing”, as the white paper recommends, the marine and air services need to “enable the manoeuvre and employment of joint ADF [Australian Defence Force] elements” in the operational environment.

More specifically Australia’s defence aircraft need to meet a range of future air and surface threats:

  • it would be nice if it was able to win air-to-air combat
  • it should be capable of having first strike capability, so it can hit bad guys before they hit us
  • it should be able to support ground troops, air and sea forces, and future coalition forces, and do a multitude of tasks all within one mission
  • it needs to be affordable to acquire and maintain and upgrade throughout its life
  • it needs to fit our intended schedule of new acquisitions and retirements of current air platforms.

A big ask

The intention of the US was to leverage the same technologies as those developed for the F-22 to construct a single air-frame that could be modified to carry out the specific functions of the US Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.

F-35 Flight Test Intentional Departure.

If you were ever inspired to modify a house you may have found that the cost is equivalent to buying a whole new house, and you end up with … well … a modified house, not a new one.

So how does this impact Australia, I hear you ask. After all, we have opted for just one variant of the JSF – the basic conventional take-off and landing F-35A bargain basement version. None of this F-35B vertical take-off nonsense for us.

The problem is that the issues involved in getting the multiple variants to work in the first place impact on the cost and schedule – we pay more, and we wait longer. The first aircraft are not expected in Australia until 2018 with 72 to be operational by 2023. But this is not a problem if performance is sufficiently quantum-leap-ish. So is it?

The A$12.4 billion JSF program is intended to replace the Australian fighter fleet of F/A-18F Super Hornets, termed fourth-generation fighters. This new aircraft with increased technology is a fifth-generation fighter with all sorts of good stuff such as stealth, comprehensive situation awareness, network-centricity, stand-off capability and so on.

The bad guys

The intention is to give us a “decisive combat edge” over the bad guys, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston said in 2004 when he was Air Force chief.

The Russian Sukhoi Su-35 – is it better than the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter? Sukhoi

Who, you would like to know, are the bad guys? It had better not be the Russians because their latest Sukhoi Flanker variants, such as the Su-35BM or Su-35-1, would outclass the JSF, all else being equal – despite of claims to the contrary by people involved in the F-35 program.

Our F-35A variants may have better luck against typical fighter aircraft employed by regional forces in South East Asia or Africa where older variety fighters are in use or being purchased. India, Algeria, Malaysia and Indonesia operate fourth-generation fighters as well as older models.

But Indonesia is considering purchasing a more advanced SU-35 among other possible options. As long as our potential foes opt for fourth-generation fighters with outdated technologies (and not too many of them at one time) we should have a chance of competing against them with some advantage. But why should they hold back?

The F-35 JSF in action

Where can the JSF operate? The range of just over 1,000km (2,000km return) doesn’t get us very far around Australia. This has been addressed by purchasing a fleet of five air-to-air refuelling tankers, so the JSF can go a fair bit further, remembering that Australia has no access to aircraft carriers to provide floating airports.

Does the F-35 JSF have what is needed? Joint Strike Fighter

There is also a fleet of six airborne early warning and control aircraft designed to provide external situational awareness data. This combined with satellite communications, all-around sensors and a heads-up display to provide the pilot with information in an easily digestible form, means they will have a fair idea of what’s going on.

All good so long as the enemy isn’t sneaky, overpowering in numbers, or overpowering with more advanced technologies.

In considering the land-support side of the equation, for instance, the enemy could be sneaky by using man-transportable infrared rocket launchers. These are now much more sophisticated than they used to be - and hard to defeat - especially as the JSF tends to glow in the infrared.

Radio frequency–targeting from the ground isn’t so dangerous, since such systems are expensive, stationary and vulnerable to radio frequency-seeker missiles.

Consider the alternatives

Was there a choice? Australia could have opted for larger numbers of cheaper fourth-generation aircraft, as has been done by our regional neighbours, or it could have gone for a top-flight machine, such as the US F-22 Raptor.

The thinking goes that a step-advantage could not be gleaned over neighbours by resorting to fourth-generation aircraft, while for the same budget as forecast for the 100 JSF aircraft initially recommended by the white paper, only 30 F-22 could be purchased.

As a couple of squadrons of F-22 cannot achieve the strategic aims of fighting in two separated geographic locations, it looks like we are stuck with the JSF.

The JSF is a good aircraft, not necessarily the best – nor is it the worst. Whether it meets our demands depends on what it comes up against in a hostile situation.

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