One day before the opening of the Avalon air show in 2011, US Navy Vice Adm Dave Venlet, then-newly appointed executive officer of the Lockheed Martin F-35 programme, gave his first press conference after assuming the role. The notoriously tough Australian defence journalist corps hammered him with questions about development delays and aircraft software releases. Venlet ended the conference forecasting that the F-35 would gain another customer by the end of 2011. This prediction ultimately came true with Tokyo's December 2011 decision to buy 42 F-35As, choosing the stealthy type over the Boeing F-18E/F Super Hornet and Eurofighter Typhoon.
Venlet has since been replaced by US Air Force Lt Gen Christopher Bogdan. Nonetheless, questions about the F-35 will again be paramount at this year's Avalon. Although the F-35 made good progress during flight testing in 2012, concerns about costs and other issues persist.
A little over one year after the last iteration of Avalon, in May 2012, Canberra dealt a blow to the F-35 programme when it decided to reduce costs by ordering just two F-35As and delaying the acquisition of an additional 12 F-35As until 2014-2015. Australian media reports at the time suggested that Canberra hoped for savings of A$1.6 billion ($1.67 billion) from the postponement.
"When we embarked upon the project, we did a couple of very sensible things: firstly, we chose the conventional Joint Strike Fighter, and secondly, we put a fair amount of padding in our cost and in our timetable," said minister for defence Stephen Smith at the time of the announcement. "On the timetable, we have been making sure that we don't end up with a capability gap. We'll make that decision formally by the end of this year in terms of the capability gap, but my current advice is that the life of our 71 F-18 Classic Hornets and our 24 Super Hornets is sufficient for our air combat capability, but we'll make an advised judgement before the end of this year."
The May 2012 announcement marked an abrupt reversal from Canberra's stated intentions in 2009, when it approved the acquisition of the original 14 F-35As for A$3.2 billion (AIR 6000 Phase 2A). The original plans also called for Canberra to place a massive order for 58 aircraft (AIR 6000 Phase 2B) in 2012, followed by a decision on an additional 28 aircraft in 2015. Had this course been followed, Canberra would have committed to 100 F-35As by 2015.
The three planned orders would have set the stage for the Royal Australian Air Force to operate a single fighter type and thus enjoy significant economies of scale in acquisition and long-term sustainment. While inducting this massive fleet of F-35s, Canberra would retire its aging F/A-18 A/B Hornets in 2020, followed by its Super Hornets in 2025.
The May 2012 announcement also said Canberra would "launch a transition plan to assess options to ensure that a gap does not emerge in the RAAF's air combat capability". This foreshadowed a December 2012 letter of request (LOR) to Boeing asking for more information about 24 additional Super Hornets.
"The sending of this LOR does not commit Australia to purchase more Super Hornets," said a department of defence statement. "It is being sent so that the Australian government can consider all options in 2013 with the latest cost and availability information."
This is not the first time Canberra has looked to the Super Hornet to fill a capability gap. Canberra's current fleet of Super Hornets was obtained between March 2010 and October 2011, making it the second user of the type after the US Navy. The Super Hornet purchase was intended as an interim measure to cover the gap between the retirement of the General Dynamics F-111 and the delayed introduction of the F-35A.
The key question facing Canberra at the beginning of 2013 is the composition of its fighter fleet in the 2020-2040 timeframe. Will it be entirely composed of F-35As? Or a force equally divided between F-35As and Super Hornets? By delaying the purchase of the additional 12 F-35As in May 2012, and then asking for more information about the Super Hornet eight months later, it would appear that Canberra is leaning toward a combined fleet.
By all accounts, the RAAF is extremely happy with the Super Hornet. Its pilots love the aircraft, and Boeing makes much of the fact that it was delivered on time. The aircraft is equipped with the Raytheon APG-79 active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, making Australia one of the region's largest AESA users. What is more, the aircraft has a clear development and upgrade roadmap, with the US Navy likely to operate the aircraft well into the 2030s.
In a vote of confidence for the platform, Canberra announced in August 2012 that it would invest A$1.5 billion to convert 12 Super Hornets into Boeing EA-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft.
"[The upgrade] will provide options for the air force to undertake electronic threat suppression operations in support of Australian Defence Force operations, including land and sea forces," the government said at the time of the Growler decision. "The Growler capability can also undertake intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and will be able to support the full range of defence tasks from evacuations to major conflicts."
Industry sources say that if Canberra buys 24 more Super Hornets, the 12 Growlers will come from these new-build aircraft. This will be cheaper than retrofitting current airframes (even though 12 RAAF F/A-18Fs came pre-configured for transformation to Growlers) and insure the availability of the current fleet.
Although Canberra has never publicly backed away from the plan to obtain 100 F-35s, a follow-on purchase of 24 Super Hornets would likely see this type operating well beyond 2030 in both its Super Hornet and Growler guises. This would inevitably cut Canberra's total F-35 orders before 2020.
"The advantage to buying additional Super Hornets is to cover any potential capability gap caused by delays to the F-35 programme," says Forecast International analyst Douglas Royce.
"At this point in the programme, the Super Hornet is technologically mature and immediately available. Public comments from the RAAF have indicated a high degree of satisfaction with the aircraft, particularly with its AESA radar and strike capabilities. If they add 12 or 24 more aircraft, they know what they're getting and will know exactly when they will get it. At this point, they can't say the same thing about the F-35 because the F-35 is still in development/testing."
Royce also sees a possible downside for a follow-on F/A-18F buy: "The disadvantage of buying more Super Hornets is that these aircraft cost a huge amount of money and if the RAAF's F-35 purchase works out as planned, the RAAF will have spent a lot of money on an aircraft type that they plan to make into a secondary platform in the future."
One Australian defence expert questions the savings Canberra hopes to enjoy through the purchase of additional Super Hornets. "By 2030, we will need to replace the Super Hornet with the F-35 anyway," he says. "Why spend money on more Super Hornets now when you'll only end up replacing them with F-35s 15 years down the road?"
He notes that the development of stealthy fighters such as Russia's Sukhoi T-50 as well as China's Chengdu J-20 and Shenyang J-31 suggest that the Super Hornet, even with significant upgrades, will no longer rank among the world's leading fighters after 2030.
Indeed, in May 2012, the US Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) issued a report questioning the Super Hornet's survivability against emerging anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) threats.
"Upgrading the F/A-18 family is a good idea, and it could extend their service lives," says CSBA analyst Mark Gunzinger. "That being said, F/A-18-based platforms are short-range, lack un-refuelled persistence, and are best suited for operations in relatively uncontested airspace."
But in the future, uncontested airspace is unlikely to remain the norm as potential adversaries develop means to deny the US and its allies access to a region, US Department of Defense officials and analysts say. Many future conflict zones are likely to be heavily defended by new surface-to-air systems, advanced aircraft and other weapons.
"The F-35 provides a level of capability that is far beyond the current generation of airplanes," says Dave Scott, director for F-35 international development at Lockheed, in a telephone call with Flight International. "The [aircraft's] fifth generation capabilities - in terms of stealth sensors that can pick up and recognise what's in the environment, and then combine this data and share it so that airplanes can fly and fight together - allow a far greater capability than you can achieve in current airplanes."
At the Seoul air show in 2011, Lockheed offered Flight International a ride in a non-classified F-35 simulator. In a simulated air attack against surface-to-air missile sites, the aircraft's distributed aperture system (DAS) suite (coupled with off-board sensors) allows the pilot to see the enemy's radar coverage and weapons' envelope displayed as coloured domes. In theory, pilots can reduce their chances of detection by carefully flying between domes.
During the simulation, a Lockheed technician flipped a switch. The size of the domes was reduced by two thirds. Vast swathes of airspace suddenly appeared wide open. Domes that previously overlapped were now far apart.
"This part of the simulation shows how much the F-35A's stealth features degrade the detection capabilities of the enemy," said the technician. "Previously, you were seeing the enemy's radar coverage if the F-35A was a non-stealthy aircraft."
Indeed, a major element of the F-35's victory in the Japanese F-X competition was its stealthiness. Aside from the utility of the F-35's stealth in combat situations, it also allows the aircraft to operate closer to sensitive geographic regions in peace time with less chance of being detected. Perhaps more important in Japan's decision was the fact that the F-35 is likely to play an increasingly important role in future coalition war efforts.
"[The F-35 programme] is about the US and close allies joining together on a common system that they can work together with, and fly and deter potential adversaries for the next 20-30 years," says Lockheed's Scott. "No other airplane can offer this level of connection and interoperability."
He points out that the USAF, US Navy, and US marines are already receiving the aircraft, which eight nations, including Australia, jointly developed. Israel and Japan have also purchased the F-35 through the US government's foreign military sales (FMS) mechanism.
Boeing, for its part, has proposed several updates for the Super Hornet under its "International Roadmap" offering for the aircraft. Enhancements include a full touch-screen display in the cockpit, conformal fuel tanks, an integrated infrared search and track (IRST) sensor, and up-rated engines. Boeing has also proposed a large external pod (optimised for low observability) for the internal carriage of weapons.
Lockheed's Scott, however, questions the viability of such efforts. "We built a very good fourth generation fighter with the F-16. We know what you can do to upgrade and enhance them. They reach a fundamental limit. You just can't add in the stealth and systems that you can with a clean sheet design."
Although maintaining a mixed fleet of F-35s and Super Hornets for the long term would likely be more expensive for Australian taxpayers than operating a single type, the ultimate question is how effective such a fleet would be in the event of a war.
When asked about the viability of the Super Hornet in the coming decades, Forecast International's Royce indicates that there is no black and white answer: "It's difficult to say at this point because of the uncertainty regarding the use of stealth aircraft in peer-to-peer combat. In the case of Australia, they are likely to be using their Super Hornets as part of coalition operations around the world or against non-peer opponents in their own region. It is extremely unlikely we'll see Australia fighting any major war by itself in the current security environment."
"The prospect of a showdown between RAAF Super Hornets and Su-27/30 variants in the [Asia-Pacific] is something that pops up on a lot of enthusiast boards, but in a real shooting war, the air battle would be more than just a fighter-to-fighter conflict," he adds. "It would involve a mixture of naval assets, intelligence assets, cruise missiles, strike aircraft, etc. That's just too complex a situation to break down by which nation has the "best fighter", as enthusiasts are apt to do."
Irrespective of the individual merits of either aircraft, or how they will fit into the RAAF's force structure in the decades to come, Australia's ruling Labor party has set an election for September 2013. Australia defence experts feel that the government could well decide whether to double down on the Super Hornet or push through with the F-35A in the months before the election. The future of Australian combat airpower is in the balance, and will inevitably be hostage to the political and budgetary calculations of the Labor party.