Australia's Super Hornet purchase is overlapping local participation in the Joint Strike Fighter industrial programme - but could give it a bigger role

Australia's A$6 billion ($4.7 billion) purchase of 24 Boeing F/A-18F Block II Super Hornets, announced last week, will underpin the country's aerospace industrial capabilities and could help lead to wider industrial involvement in the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) project. In the near term the Super Hornet deal is being eyed as a vehicle to creating in southern Queensland a regional support centre for the type, including US Navy aircraft during deployments.

© RAAF   
F/A-18/Fs will provide commonality with the RAAF's A/Bs already in service

Established at the Royal Australian Air Force's Amberley airbase, west of Brisbane, the centre could form the basis of an expanded regional support facility handling multiple military aircraft types, says Australian defence minister Brendan Nelson. The centre could also factor into long-term plans for supporting Australia's future F-35 fleet. Lockheed says that it is discussing with the Australian Department of Defence the option of setting up a support centre for JSF customers in the Asia Pacific region.

Australian industrial involvement on the JSF programme could be worth up to $9 billion over 30 years, according to Lockheed. Its agreement with the Australian government for the F-35 production, sustainment and follow-on development (PSFD) phase depends on a 100-aircraft purchase, and the Super Hornet acquisition is not expected to change Australia's eventual JSF purchase, although it may affect its scheduling.

Dave Scott, director of Asia Pacific business development for Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, says: "We are fully confident in the F-35 programme and its development progress to date and where we project it to be a few years from now when Australia might consider purchasing the aircraft. The government's decision on how they risk it considers that factor as well as a variety of others, including their ability to maintain the capability over a period of time while they transition the force."

Final numbers

A firm Australian order in the near term would see first JSF deliveries in the 2012-14 period, Scott says, but Lockheed is awaiting decisions on final numbers and scheduling from Australia. Nelson says Australia is currently planning for initial deliveries of a three-squadron order from 2013 with decisions on a fourth squadron due in 2014. "The government should essentially on-sell the Super Hornet back to the USA in around 2020 and acquire the fourth squadron of Joint Strike Fighters," he says. However, he concedes that "Australia could choose to fly three squadrons of JSF and continue to fly the Super Hornet".

Chief of the RAAF, Air Marshal Geoff Shepherd, notes that by 2020 the Super Hornets will need upgrading. "The modern development cycle of electronics will demand that. So that would be part of that business case for a decision for the government of the day."

With the RAAF's General Dynamics F-111s to be phased out of service in 2010, the main driver behind making the Super Hornet purchase decision now is to maintain the RAAF's strike capability, says Nelson. The fighters will leverage existing RAAF F/A-18A/B "systems and technical support, as well as strong relationships with suppliers. This makes the Super Hornet the greatest capability available today, at least risk, which ensures that Australia's edge in regional air combat capability is maintained, at a time of major equipment renewal and change for the air force."

The Australian acquisition includes guarantees on technology release: "We have had nothing but 100% co-operation and support from the US Navy in terms of data and technology access. We have had complete access to everything that we need, including the fifth-generation AESA [active electronically scanned array] radar system," says Nelson.

The Australian Super Hornets will have a similar configuration to the USN aircraft, Nelson says, and will be "an 'off the shelf' product, with minimal changes - similar in many ways to the nation's Boeing C-17 acquisition. Support options are being developed which could see the joint future development of the Super Hornet. We intend to use the same software in the combat systems. There will be high levels of commonality between sensors and weapons in the Super Hornet and our upgraded Hornets, further simplifying and de-risking the acquisition."

RAAF Amberley is the base for Australia's General Dynamics F-111C/Gs, and Boeing 737 Wedgetail airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft. The base also supports the RAAF's Boeing 707 tankers, soon to be replaced by new Airbus A330 multirole tanker transports, and will be the home for Australia's C-17 strategic airlifters. Boeing Australia operates a large maintenance, repair and overhaul facility there, dominated by ongoing F-111 support but also including the fitting of four out of Australia's six Wedgetail AEW&C aircraft.

Nelson says: "The Super Hornet will not require the same degree of industry support as the F-111, as it is a vastly more modern aircraft. However, the defence department and Australian industry are planning the transition of the F-111 workforce to support a wider range of aircraft platforms." Boeing is reviewing the workforce impact on the Amberley site to account for the F-111 withdrawal, the Wedgetail modification programme, completion of the last 707 tanker deeper maintenance work, and the stand-up of C-17 support arrangements and a Super Hornet acquisition."

Assessing the mix

The minister says that the full scope of support work for the new fighters and associated acquisition strategy will be finalised over the coming months. "The DoD will investigate the best mix of support from Boeing as the original equipment manufacturer and small to medium enterprises."

That planning remains "preliminary at this stage" Nelson says, but with the regional support centre concept to be used as the foundation of a 20-year "investment regime which progressively enhances local industry capability based on the level of business activity and the long-term nature of the commitment to Boeing."

Given the commonality between many of the Boeing platforms in use by the Australian Defence Force (ADF) and US military the minister says, "the strategic investment plan is to work towards the establishment, within Australia, of a regional support centre that could handle multiple Australian [and] US military aerospace platforms. Such a centre would provide the ADF with a broad level of indigenous capability as required in support of ADF operational capability and self-reliance."

Australian industrial participation in the JSF system development and demonstration phase has generated workshare to date worth $100 million for the 20 companies taking part. Another $1.6 billion worth of work is expected to flow to those 20 firms in the PSFD and production phases, provided they continue to meet programme performance targets.

A further $3.3 billion is being effectively reserved for follow-on production phases and includes second-sourcing requirements. The latter amount also includes opportunity for new Australian firms to participate in the programme.

Abhay Paranjape, Lockheed's JSF international programme manager for Australia and Canada, says there will be further opportunities available to Australian industry over the full life of the programme potentially worth another $4 billion. This, he says, is based on a JSF production run of 3,000 aircraft over the programmes' 30-year life. However, sourcing selection would be on the basis of pre-identified industrial capability rather than open competition. Projections specifically exclude engine and sustainment phase opportunities. Lockheed will continue to develop Australian workshare on the basis of a nominal 100 aircraft JSF purchase, Paranjape says: "In the PSFD agreement between the two governments, Australia has given a specific quantity and timeframe which is what we rely on when we develop our plans."

Source: Flight International