Air Marshal Leo Davies, chief of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), leads one of the most modern – and capable – services in the Asia-Pacific region.His CV includes stints in the 1980s as a navigator and pilot aboard the Lockheed Martin P-3 Orion and later as a pilot on the General Dynamics F-111, a type in which he amassed 2,000h. He later went on to be Canberra’s air attaché in Washington DC, before assuming his current role in 2015.
Speaking to FlightGlobal, Davies says while he does not lose sleep about the task of overseeing the RAAF adopt several new types and increasing force connectivity, these are the first things he thinks about on waking up in the morning.
“Our air force role is emerging,” says Davies. “We are quite a sophisticated air force now, and becoming more sophisticated. The option set we bring to a land-centric fight, a control-of-the-air fight, or a maritime fight is like a Swiss Army knife. We have many options. It’s key that we educate our counterparts and regional neighbours of what we can do, and why they would seek that contribution.”
One major area where the RAAF has recently ventured is the secrecy-shrouded world of electronic warfare (EW); a capability that will feature prominently at the upcoming Air Show Australia in Avalon. At the show, Davies and Australia’s defence minister will welcome the arrival of the RAAF’s brand-new Boeing EA-18G EW aircraft. The service has now taken all 12 of its ordered examples of the Growler, and has worked closely with the US Navy at Whidbey Island, Washington, to train personnel and develop the capability.
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The EW mission is among the crown jewels of US air power. Washington’s willingness to share this capability with Canberra testifies to the close ties between the two countries. With some pride, Davies says RAAF Growlers recently flew their first all-Australian training sortie. The effort took place over a US range, with the mission planned, flown, and debriefed by Australian personnel.
“All the Growlers are ready to come over [to Australia],” he says. “One thing that has proliferated is the number of electronic devices in the bad guy’s game." He adds that the RAAF regards the Growler as a “kinetic” asset. “You select the weapon for the effect you want in a frequency band and get results – it’s not a broad-spectrum effect,” he notes.
Davies stresses the joint nature of the Growler platform. He estimates that for 75% of the aircraft’s missions it will not operate alongside the RAAF’s F/A-18A/B and F/A-18F Super Hornets. Rather, it will spend most of its time supporting ground and maritime forces. “It’s truly a joint platform,” he says.
Another major Australian acquisition is of Lockheed's F-35A Lightning II. So far, the air force has taken two examples, which are part of the global F-35 training pool at Luke AFB, Arizona. These came from the programme’s sixth lot of low-rate initial production (LRIP). It will take eight more of the conventional take-off and landing aircraft each in LRIP 10 and 11. Canberra's overall commitment is for 72 aircraft, although this could rise to 100 over the long term.
The RAAF has four qualified F-35A pilots, and is beefing up maintenance capabilities for the type. Australia has been a long-term partner on the programme, and the Avalon show has featured prominently in the past. In 2013, the head of the US Joint Programme Office, Maj Gen Christopher Bogdan, used a briefing at the event to blast the relationship with Lockheed and F135 engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney, who he accused of taking a short-term view of the programme. One topic bound to come up at this year’s show is a January report from outgoing top Pentagon weapons tester Michael Gilmore, which cited hundreds of deficiencies with the programme, which he said will push back full combat tests to late 2018 or early 2019 at the earliest.
Davies says the RAAF welcomed the independent perspective the report brought, but points out that there was a lag between the identification of several of the issues and its publication. He says the programme continues to make steady progress dealing with issues discovered, and that it is reasonable to expect deviations from the schedule.
“While the test plan hasn’t followed the squiggly red line, it hasn’t been too far away,” he says.
Davies lists several specifics to support his confidence in the F-35 programme. “There are now more than 200 aircraft delivered, operating in 12 locations, with over 75,000 flight hours,” he notes. “More than 380 pilots and 3,700 maintainers have been trained/or are under training. This can’t happen with a troubled programme.”
The first of Australia’s F-35As will be ferried to the country in 2018, with an eye to achieving initial operational capability (IOC) in 2020.
Meanwhile, the RAAF’s 71 F/A-18A/B “Classic” Hornets, which the F-35 will eventually replace, continue to be the service’s combat workhorses. Davies says the average rate of activity for each airframe has risen by 1,000h annually as a result of its combat detachment to the Middle East. Examples with the highest airframe hours will start to be retired in 2018, with the remainder to follow shortly thereafter. Personnel will transfer to the F-35A.
Although on their way out, the Classic Hornets are leaving with a dramatic flourish. The venerable type has formed the bulk of the RAAF Air Task Group’s supporting operations against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria. Service data shows that single-seat F/A-18As have flown more than 1,500 sorties, releasing 1,250 weapons. Its younger and larger stablemate, the F/A-18F, had logged 418 sorties and dropped 278 munitions by late January.
“This is a substantial amount for a small force,” says Davies. He declines to discuss where, exactly, in the Middle East the RAAF's contribution is based, but says its current composition is six Hornets, one Airbus Defence & Space A330/KC-30A multirole tanker transport and one Boeing E-7 Wedgetail airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) system aircraft. Australia’s contribution to the campaign is entirely self-deployed, with its own intelligence capability and air tasking.
Davies says the KC-30A has been very effective during the campaign, delivering nearly 70,000,000lb of fuel, and that the 737-based E-7 has also performed extremely well in the AEW&C role.
To complement its Wedgetail and Growler capabilities, the RAAF is in the process of obtaining two Gulfstream G550 business jets that will be modified for electronic intelligence missions.
“In the 2016 defence white paper, we found there was an electronic warfare co-ordination role that was not being filled,” says Davies. “The G550 will serve as the conductor of the orchestra.” The service is still looking at how exactly these assets will work together, he adds.
“Our air warfare centre is looking at a maritime environment, in which case the Growler will support vessels like the future frigate and the air warfare destroyer, providing the navy with an electronic option at distance. The bit we want to understand regarding [the] G550, Wedgetail and Growler is what part of that EW mission do we apportion to each. We don’t want to have a Wedgetail that should be doing airborne control in a congested environment, also having to send packets of ones and zeros to the F-35 or the air warfare destroyer. This becomes the role of the G550.”
Davies says the RAAF has approval for two G550s, but has yet to decide how many more will be sought and in what configuration. Last year’s white paper suggested that Canberra’s G550 special mission aircraft fleet could eventually grow to five.
Another major intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) asset the RAAF plans to obtain in the near future is an armed medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) unmanned air system. A decision could be made this year between a type from General Atomics Aeronautical Systems’ MQ-9 Reaper or Israel Aerospace Industries’ Heron families. “We’re still looking at the options,” says Davies, adding: “A decision is not that far away.”
In addition to the MALE system, Canberra is committed to an eventual acquisition of the Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton. A mock-up of this aircraft has been a staple at previous Avalon shows, and for its 2015 iteration the US Air Force sent a Block 30 Global Hawk to appear on the static display after flying from Beale AFB in California via Guam.
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An RAAF officer at the show said the aircraft’s 24h endurance would allow it to cover patrols along Australia’s northern borders. The Tritons will work intimately with the RAAF’s incoming fleet of Boeing P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft. Canberra has firm orders for eight of the 737-based type, and its 2016 white paper suggested that seven more could be obtained.
“We are looking at IOC for the P-8s in 2019,” says Davies. The RAAF has taken delivery of a single example so far, which is at RAAF Edinburgh in South Australia. Davies estimates that subsequent P-8s will arrive at 20-month intervals. A crew will head to Seattle “very shortly” to take delivery of its second aircraft, he notes. A third crew is half way through its training, and a fourth is about to begin its instruction.
The capability offered by the P-8A/Triton combination will replace the RAAF’s aged fleet of Lockheed AP-3C Orions. The first three of these have already been retired, and others will follow gradually retired as the replacement manned capability is stood up.
In terms of airlift, Davies is very satisfied with the RAAF’s capabilities. The service has a range of fixed-wing transport options comprising eight Boeing C-17s, 12 Lockheed C-130Js and four Leonardo Alenia C-27Js. Flight Fleets Analyzer shows that the C-27J force will grow to 10 aircraft by the end of 2018.
Davies says this array of strategic and tactical transports is complemented by the RAAF’s five KC-30As. In addition to their tanker role, the aircraft can carry 270 passengers and have capacity for 34t of military and civilian cargo.
“The KC-30A has proven to be such a great aircraft for carrying people that we also use it as an element of our air bridge for carrying people to the Middle East,” he says. “But we can also use it very efficiently in deploying, say, four Hornets to RMAF Butterworth in Malaysia. We can take the tanker, all the troops, and all the maintenance gear for one week of operations in one aircraft.”
The RAAF has ordered two additional KC-30As, which will be converted from former Qantas A330-200 airliners. One of these will have VVIP accommodation, which will allow Australia’s prime minister, for example, to fly long-haul routes on government business along with accompanying staff and journalists.
Davies says that the real challenge for the RAAF is knitting these assets together into a capable whole. This represents a continuation of the Project Jericho effort launched by his predecessor, AM Geoff Brown, in 2015. One successful example Davies offers is a Heron UAS transmitting imagery of a landing area to soldiers aboard an inbound C-17.
“They could plan their arrival to best fit the scenario they saw,” he says. “The information they received was 3h newer than their last brief.”
Another Jericho initiative, conducted with help from Northrop, related to connecting three assets with disparate datalink systems. This saw a Eurogrid-equipped Airbus Helicopters Tiger attack rotorcraft operated by the army, a Link 16-equipped Super Hornet, and the army’s battle management system all linked up for a shared, common perspective.