An upsurge in Royal Australian Air Force activities in support of US-led operations has highlighted the service's need to modernise its combat aircraft

Increasing government willingness to deploy the Royal Australian Air Force in support of US-led warfighting campaigns has highlighted the necessity for the service to continue with its fighter-modernisation programme, as well as the need to explore combat capability for future operations.

The upsurge in operational activities by RAAF fighters – which went from no combat deployments since the end of Australia's participation in the Vietnam War in 1972 to three such deployments in the past three years – has also sparked a rethink of its approach to expeditionary operations.

These requirements have been further driven home with the impending need to integrate Australia's first-ever airborne early warning and control aircraft into the overall Australian Defence Force structure from 2007; a government requirement to achieve significantly higher levels of interoperability with the USA; and a need to withdraw its ageing General Dynamics F-111 fleet from service in 2010. The expeditionary requirement has also seen a decision by the Australian government to acquire five new Airbus A330-200 Multi Role Tanker Transports to replace its four Boeing 707s in a move that will provide significant enhancement of the expeditionary ambition from their initial entry into service in 2009.

On top of this, RAAF fighter force planning is being radically reshaped by the expected acquisition of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) later this decade, with key funding decisions on the purchase – designated "first pass" – to be made by the Australian government during 2006. Total government spending allocations for the JSF project are capped at A$206 million ($160 million), with A$66 million already spent and a further A$53 million expected to be spent by the end of the current Australian financial year on 30 June.

Australia's combat role in "Operation Iraqi Freedom", which saw RAAF Boeing F/A-18 Hornets perform 600 missions during the course of the conflict, highlighted problems with the aircraft's aged electronic warfare and ground targeting systems. Remediation work on both systems is under way, while the ongoing Hornet Upgrade Programme is at an advanced stage, with the entire RAAF fleet now equipped with the Raytheon APG-73 radar. The upgrade of avionics to include the Joint Helmet-Mounted Cueing System, digital moving map and Link 16 datalink is under way, with one prototype completed late last year. Acceptance testing of two prototypes will be carried out this year and, pending a successful outcome, modification of the rest of the fleet will start early next year.

An initial seven Hornets have been induct­ed into the parallel Hornet Structural Refurbishment Programme, involving the replacement of the aircraft's centre fuselage barrel and other major structural assemblies. The initial modification programme has an approved cost cap of A$118 million, with A$31 million spent up to 30 June 2004 and another A$27 million to be spent by the same date this year. The RAAF is relying on the refurbishment to give the Hornets enough life to enable a smooth transition to the JSF from 2012, although the total number of aircraft to be modified is not expected to include the full fleet.

Radar warner

The Australian government last month announced the formal selection of the BAE Systems Australia ALR-2002 radar warning receiver as the core of the F/A-18s' upgraded electronic warfare self-protection systems, while scoping work continues on the acquisition of an airborne jammer for the aircraft. Trials of the Saab BOL countermeasures dispensing system aboard a modified Hornet are due to start this week at Australia's Woomera weapons range, with decisions on standardising the system aboard the aircraft due late this year. Australia ordered a small number of BOL units midway through 2004 to support the trials programme. The order also contained options for 250 more units to support a four-per-aircraft fit.

The existing Loral NiteHawk targeting pod is to be replaced, with tenders for a restricted competition between Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman with Rafael closing on 15 March, the opening day of the Australian International Air Show. Raytheon is offering its ATFLIR pod, while Lockheed is proposing Pantera and Northrop Grumman/Rafael the Litening II.

The intensive use of precision weapons by the RAAF in Iraq has also provided the catalyst for the long-delayed Project Air 5418 Follow-On Stand-Off Weapon competition. A restricted tender was released on 4 December to Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Taurus Systems. A closed-door industry briefing for the project was held in mid-January, with formal responses due on 20 April. A source selection is due late this year, although the tender makes clear that this will be made by the government rather than the Australian Defence Materiel Organisation. The tender also retains the option of a shortlisting decision rather than selection of one outright winner, with this seen as opening the way for a two-weapon acquisition.

Love me tender

The new tender requirements essentially replicate the original Air 5418 competition held in 1999-2000 – which was won by Lockheed Martin offering the AGM-158 JASSM – but with requirements for an anti-radiation capability reduced in overall importance. Integration requirements for RAAF F-111s have also been dropped, reflecting the decision to phase the aircraft out of service.

Boeing is offering its AGM-84H SLAM-ER, now in US Navy service, arguing that as a derivative of the RAAF's existing Harpoon missiles, and as a common coalition weapon, integration risks would be reduced. Lockheed is again offering JASSM.

The status of the Taurus Systems bid is unclear, with the strong possibility that the company will not respond to the new tender because it gives immediate priority to the integration of the new missile aboard RAAF Lockheed Martin AP-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft, then the F/A-18.

Too heavy

Taurus finished second in the original Air 5418 tender process with a bid based on the KEPD-350 missile, but that basic weapon is too heavy to be carried on the wing pylons of RAAF AP-3Cs. The original competition included AP-3C integration, but as a lesser priority compared with the F-111 and F/A-18 fit. Taurus had proposed a lightweight version of KEPD-350 for the AP-3C requirement in its initial tender, but Australia would be the sole customer for that variant, with this perceived to drive up bid costs and risk.

The Taurus bid also faces considerable pressures from requirements in the new Air 5418 tender for a growth path for the selected weapon from existing RAAF aircraft to the JSF, which the RAAF hopes to introduce into operational service from around 2012-14. JASSM is already pre-selected as a standard weapon for that aircraft, while SLAM-ER is intended to be phased out of USN service at the same time JSF is introduced. The KEPD-350 lacks a sponsor to offset the costs of JSF integration, raising additional risks to an Australian purchase.

Australia's sole operational stand-off strike weapon carried by F-111s, F/A-18s and AP-3Cs is the Harpoon, now being replaced by Harpoon IIs through a US Foreign Military Sales deal initially worth up to A$50 million.

Long-standing problems with the integration of the PGSUS AGM-142 Popeye missile aboard RAAF F-111s are nearing final resolution, with flight testing beginning last year and continuing. The overall cost for that project is now capped at A$439 million, with A$329 million spent to 30 June 2004 and another A$30 million to be spent this current Australian financial year. Deliveries of AGM-142 and AGM-142E weapons are now well advanced, and the RAAF is planning to upgrade its F-111 simulators from this year to support operational aircrew training. Acquisition of a separate mission rehearsal system for aircrews is also under way.


Source: Flight International