Canberra is changing the way it acquires military aircraft as it battles to integrate JSF and Wedgetail into a "system of systems"

For the past two years, a radical approach to transitioning new aerospace capability into the Royal Australian Air Force has been under way as part of Australia's rapidly advancing Project Wedgetail airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft acquisition.

Under the standard military aerospace acquisition model applied by Australia, new capabilities are defined by a combination of RAAF and Australian Defence Headquarters planning staff, endorsed by the government and then handed to the Defence Materiel Organisation (DMO) for the purchase phase. The next time the RAAF gets intimately involved with the new capability is when the system is officially handed over several years later.

With Wedgetail, however, a fundamentally different process is being applied and is being closely watched by the RAAF as a potential model for the introduction into service of a range of new aircraft types planned over the next decade. This includes the purchase of high-altitude, long-endurance unmanned air vehicles (UAVs). The Wedgetail approach may also have a major impact on how Australia plans to absorb its Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighters into operational service.

The Wedgetail methodology has seen the raising of a new organisation - 2 Sqn - by the RAAF. However, 2 Sqn is operationally controlled by the airborne surveillance division within the DMO, the entity which co-ordinates the AEW&C project with prime contractor Boeing. The combination is intended to enable the future user community to have a direct input into the design and development of the four- and possibly six-aircraft airborne surveillance system.

In parallel, the users are preparing concepts of operation that directly draw upon their familiarity with the system technology and capabilities, with the objective of dramatically reducing the transition time into full operational service after the scheduled delivery of the four aircraft from late 2006. On acceptance of the aircraft into service, control of 2 Sqn will revert to the RAAF.

A key objective of the approach is to ensure that the integration of AEW&C into the wider Australian Defence Force structure is well understood in advance. Since mid-2002, however, this process that has taken on a far greater significance as a result of the Australian government's decision to acquire the JSF as the RAAF's future frontline fighter.

Chief of the Royal Australian Air Force, Air Marshal Angus Houston, says the JSF decision sparked much broader thinking about the relationship of the RAAF's present and future capabilities, including Wedgetail, with Australia's joint service architecture. New aerospace capabilities, Houston says, have traditionally been approached by Australia on the basis of "a platform stovepipe". This contrasts, he argues, with planning for the future of the RAAF being intimately linked with "network enabled or network centric operations. What we are about is designing a system that will take on board these exciting new capabilities that we are going to bring into service."

The design of that future system, Houston says, will be spearheaded by a multi-year battlefield experimentation process launched in December that, for a start, will explore the relationships between Wedgetail, the RAAF's Boeing F/A-18 Hornets, the JSF, Australia's Jindalee Operational Radar Network (JORN) and the Royal Australian Navy's planned new squadron of air warfare destroyers. "We understand to some extent the technology that is coming in, but we haven't yet developed the concepts to employ that technology. Once we get the concepts sorted out, we then need to adjust the organisation to take account of them."

Air Vice Marshal Norm Gray, head of the Airborne Surveillance Projects Acquisition Division, says the transition methods being used on the Wedgetail programme are clearly "an unusual arrangement and some people get uncomfortable with it, about the DMO owning or controlling a squadron, but it is critical".

New capability

AEW&C, Gray says, remains a completely new form of capability for the Australian Defence Force. "One of the things about establishing a brand new capability is that you don't have a customer and you don't have any system employment knowledge and it has been a long time since the ADF has had to do that.

"We tend [to approach acquisition on the basis that] if you have got a fighter, you get a new fighter. Sure, it is different, much better technology, but you know the basics and you are adapting to new technology. It has been a long time since we established a brand new capability from scratch, so we need to develop the system employment knowledge, we need to develop doctrine."

The knowledge required to transition the new aircraft successfully, Gray says, cannot be imported from other airborne radar aircraft such as the Boeing E-3 Sentry because the Wedgetail system, based on the Boeing 737-700 airliner and equipped with the Northrop Grumman multirole electronically scanned array (MESA) radar "is quite a different capability". The need for a more intimate knowledge of the Wedgetail aircraft at an early stage, Gray says, will become critical during the acceptance and operational test and evaluation (OT&E) phases of the project. "You can't do an OT&E on an aircraft just by knowing how to switch the switches. You actually need to understand what it is meant to do so you need to have that basic understanding of the capability."

Wedgetail already forms a critical element in the RAAF's vision of a networked aerospace combat environment, serving as both a co-ordination and communications node. Houston says that one of the immediate ramifications of the JSF decision is the requirement for the inter-relationship of the two capabilities to be mapped out.

"I need to understand how the JSF will fit in with AEW&C, and the likely environment we are going to have here in Australia in the future." Battlefield experimentation, Houston says, represents the best possible way "to explore the concepts that we develop, to prove them, or disprove them. In other words, to validate the concept because if we can make the mistakes there, it means when we introduce the JSF into service, hopefully we will know where all the challenges lie and we will have overcome most of the issues."

A case in point is the communications function Wedgetail is expected to play in a fully networked environment. RAAF plans require the Wedgetail aircraft to provide sufficient bandwidth to co-ordinate F/A-18 and Lockheed Martin AP-3C Orion "shooter" operations in its own right.

Whether this will also be readily translated to the JSF and other new platform types such as the proposed high-altitude long-endurance UAV and replacement maritime patrol aircraft remains to be determined. Houston says that, by around 2020, "I would hope everything we have got airborne is linked up and I would hope that everything that we have out there on the sea is linked up with us and essentially we will have a complete system of systems here in Australia".

Seeking bandwidth

Gray says that "certainly until JSF comes along, Wedgetail is the hub of the whole thing. We have put this, the requirement, together on the basis that we want to be able to conduct two air defence tasks and one non-air-defence task simultaneously and we need sufficient radios and bandwidth to do that."

The RAAF's present platform communications architecture plan includes fitting Link 16 tactical datalink to the F/A-18s as part of ongoing upgrade work, acquisition of a passive Link 16 system as part of its replacement in-flight refuelling tanker project, and an existing Link 11 system aboard its AP-3Cs. The Australian Army's Eurocopter Tiger armed reconnaissance helicopters entering service from late 2004 will have their own proprietary data modem for communications to a ground station, which in turn has its own Link 16 node. The RAN is also introducing Link 16 within the next two to three years as part of an upgrade for its FFG7 frigates, adding a surface-to-air element to the initial networked system.

Evolving architecture

The communications architecture is also required to evolve to support the potential demands of high-altitude long-endurance UAVs by late in the decade, with the addition mid-way through the following decade of a replacement maritime patrol aircraft. The JSF is set to enter service from 2012.

There will also be the communication demands of ground-based command and control and sensing systems, including JORN. The overall result, he acknowledges, will be bandwidth intensive. "It is a huge problem and that is the challenge. What we have to do is to design a command, control, communications, computers, intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) system that can handle all the capabilities that we are bringing into service.

"In the past, we tended to have a platform-centric approach to the way we did capability development and we need to get away from that because the most important capability of all is to pull together the command and control system. That is where I think the priorities have got to be in the years ahead and we have to design a system that makes full use of the capabilities we are bringing into service."

Houston says that the next 18 months - the rest of his term of office - will be crucial to sorting out the battlefield experimentation process and starting to generate solutions to the problems that lie ahead. "If we want to design a decent system, we have got to do the experimentation first and then once we have got a good concept, we can design the organisation we require to get maximum effect. I think it is very important that we get away from the platform-centric approach. AEW&C, JSF, tankers, even the AP-3C, they all need to be integrated in a horizontal sense."

Source: Flight International