A new report on Australia's planned Joint Strike Fighter acquisition highlights issues in decision making against a backdrop of an increasingly sophisticated air threat

About 20 months after Australia announced its down selection of the Lockheed Martin's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter as its next frontline combat aircraft, a new report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) warns that the rushed decision process is still surrounded by unanswered questions. The report says the decision to "favour the JSF" for the Project Air 6000 New Air Combat Capability project was made "with no very comprehensive analysis of Australia's needs and of the various options for meeting them".

The ASPI also finds that the Australian Department of Defence appears to have failed to prepare adequate fall-back plans for the maintenance of Australia's combat air capability if the JSF programme experiences delays.

The report says Australian government announcements late in 2003 that the Royal Australian Air Force's ageing General Dynamics F-111s would be retired in 2010 may have been premature as air threats continue to evolve in Australia's neighbourhood. It warns that the JSF, despite being a fifth-generation fighter, may be equalled in dogfights with fourth-generation Russian combat aircraft now becoming commonplace in east and South-East Asia.

Contingency plan

The report also says that the RAAF has already lost its qualitative edge in technology terms and it calls for a contingency plan based on keeping the F-111s to 2015 if existing upgrade programmes for the RAAF's Boeing F/A-18A/Bs fail to meet desired capability targets, and for the DoD to prepare fall-back options for the selection of either a lease or acquisition of interim fighters.

Standard Australian defence procurement practices call for second-place tenderers to be kept on stand-by in case negotiations with the preferred supplier falter, the report says, and this same process should apply to the proposed JSF acquisition.

It also calls for the Australian government to make public the basis of its down-select of the JSF, particularly the comparison process used to eliminate other contenders. "[The Department of] Defence argues that the JSF is the best aircraft to meet the Australian Defence Forces capability requirement, but the department needs to specify publicly and in detail those capabilities of the fighter that made it the preferred choice. A baseline definition is needed now; as the development of the aircraft continues and perhaps its final performance specifications change, this will allow continuing assessment of the appropriateness of the decision to buy it."

The report highlights the fact that, despite a commitment to make public such an analysis, made in June 2002 by the chief of the RAAF, Air Marshal Angus Houston, no effort has been expended by either the DoD or the government to allow that to happen.

The ASPI says annual reporting on the status of Air 6000 to the Australian Parliament may be needed to ensure transparency as the project progresses, with this including monitoring of risks and the success or otherwise of Australian industry in the JSF system development and demonstration industrial programme.

The ASPI is an Australian government financed think-tank established in 2001 to provide independent advice on national security issues. Despite the shortfalls it identifies in the Air 6000 decision-making process, the report does give qualified support for the downselect.

"Arguably, if the JSF delivers everything that has been promised by Lockheed Martin and the Australian and US governments, it will prove the best available replacement aircraft for our purposes.

"It remains to be seen however how much of what has been promised by the JSF in terms of its stealth, sensors, cost, general capability, reliability and supportability might be lost in the delivery, and to what degree this will undermine the original effective decision to acquire it," it says.

Australia plans to buy 72 JSF conventional take-off and landing aircraft in a three-phase acquisition programme that would see the first aircraft enter operational service by 2012. The initial acquisition phase, based on purchasing up to 40 aircraft as F/A-18 replacements, is scheduled for government expenditure approvals in 2006-7. The phase has a cost cap of A$4.5 billion ($3.45 billion).

Buy more aircraft

The ASPI report says that Australia would be better served by a purchase of around 100 aircraft. It says that the JSF decision also requires Australia to proceed with the acquisition of an additional two Boeing 737-based Wedgetail airborne early warning and control aircraft to supplement the existing four on firm order. At least six new-generation in-flight refuelling would also be required, rather than the four or five planned.

Australia has options for up to three additional Wedgetail AEW&C platforms as part of the original purchase contract signed in 1999, with two of those options expiring in June.

The report warns that despite its advanced capabilities, the JSF has a significantly shorter range in strike configuration than the F-111. It notes that the combination of F-35 with in-flight refuelling and the 370km (200nm)-range cruise missile would provide a capability that is only marginally superior to the unrefuelled range of an F-111 operating on internal fuel tanks.

Australia relies on air power to provide it with a qualitative edge over its neighbours. But since the mid- 1990s this has been systematically eroded by the introduction into regional service of Sukhoi Su-27 and Su-30 variants, as well as RSK MiG-29s.

ASPI predicts that by 2020 "nations in our region will be operating a mix of platforms comprising manned aircraft [possibly including the JSF] and UAVs [unmanned air vehicles], and possibly UCAVs [unmanned combat air vehicles] and cruise missiles. The sophistication of these capabilities will be determined by economic factors, political will, technology transfer [potentially from the USA, Russia and Europe] and the ability of the armed forces to operate and maintain the weapon systems.

"Low-observable technology will have been present in the region for nearly 20 years, with most nations possessing a mature understanding of its capabilities and employment. There will also be a comparable growth in the capability of missiles, with a number of increasingly lethal within-visual-range and beyond-visual-range missiles available from a range of suppliers, including the USA, Europe, Israel, South Africa, Russia and China."

The report notes Singapore's current competition for a new interim fighter and says that by 2015 that nation "will have had wide experience with reduced radar cross-section platforms, including the [Northrop] F-5S/T, [Lockheed Martin] F-16C/D, and new fourth- and fifth-generation aircraft. Singapore will also have substantial experience with UAVs, and could choose to purchase a dedicated UCAV, possibly of Israeli origin, if one becomes available, for air-to-surface missions." The report also identifies Singapore as being interested in acquiring cruise missiles, but says that "Singaporean political concerns may constrain the purchase of this capability until another South-East Asian nation acquires it."

The ASPI says Indonesia's purchase of two Su-27SKs and two Su-30MKs last year is likely to be followed by further orders up to a total of 48 aircraft, subject to that nation being able to negotiate an appropriate deal. It says that the introduction of these aircraft types into service will represent a major step for the Indonesian air force compared with its current fighter types, but may not represent a credible challenge to RAAF fighter capability for some time.

Capability erosion

"Whether this is a real erosion of Australia's capability will depend on whether Indonesia acquires the intended 48 Sukhois; equips the aircraft with the latest Russian air-to-air and air-to-surface missiles; develops supporting and enabling capabilities such as airborne early warning and control and air-to-air refuelling; develops the industry and expertise to support the aircraft in country; and maintains adequate funding for logistics support and pilot training," it adds.

The pace of new-generation fighter acquisition is such that Australia cannot afford to be complacent, the ASPI says, with the RAAF already lagging regional capability. "We have already witnessed that capability can increase in large incremental steps. As a case in point, Singapore had limited fighter capability in 1995, but today operates fighter aircraft that are qualitatively superior to those of the RAAF."

Without a next-generation fighter, the ASPI says that Australia maintains a relative level of capability compared to the region with this in large part due to "air-to- air refuelling, AEW&C, larger numbers of fighter aircraft [and] superior training and logistics support. In the future, the acquisition of JSF should also return to Australia a qualitative edge in the fighter platform."

Source: Flight International