Richard Pawloski wrote:
“OK Gregor - well put, and since you are "...at large", I think it would be a good time to speak up. How do you see all this - are there any "winners" first of all, if Australia throws its treasure at an inferior fighter how do you make do? If the argument is all wet, then still, how do you deal with the rising tide of challenge in the Pacific. Is doing nothing going to work? What is your view... I'd sure like to know
Richard, I hope this answers your question…
The campaign being run by Air Power Australia, of which Peter Goon is one of the principals, is aimed at displacing the F-35A Lightning 2 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) from the Australian Defence Force shopping list. There seem to be a number of reasons for this. It is clear that Air Power Australia believes the RAAF should be equipped instead with the F-22A Raptor, and also that the RAAF should keep its F-111C strike aircraft in service for up to another 10 years, and possibly longer (they’re currently due to retire at the end of next year).
These aircraft, so the argument goes, would provide the air defence and strike capabilities Australia needs to deter or defeat a direct attack on its soil or its paramount interests.
Air Power Australia (APA) has questioned the F-35 on three main points: whether or not it is survivable and effective against current and anticipated Russian-developed fighters, air-air missiles and ground-based air defence systems; secondly, whether or not it has the payload and range to be an effective strike aircraft; and thirdly, as a consequence, whether or not the F-35 is the right aircraft for Australia.
These are all separate though inter-related questions and I’ll deal with each in turn.
The air combat tactics and fighter design revolution wrought by John Boyd during the 1960s and ‘70s resulted in the design of (relatively) lightweight, agile fighters such as the F-16 and F-15, leading eventually to the development of the formidable MiG-29 and Su-27/30/35 family. His emphasis on agility and acceleration was driven by the need to get into an adversary’s “six o’clock” and either launch an air-air missile or fire a gun at him from relatively close range.
Assuming a 1 v 1 engagement, in Boyd’s day the advantage lay with the superior platform – once close enough, the pilot of the better aircraft could engage or disengage almost at will.
Boyd also pointed out that “combat always starts at subsonic cruise speed and almost never reaches supersonic speed. Never mind that the trade-offs necessary for an airplane to reach such speeds would seriously degrade dogfighting performance. As for range, there is no faster way to degrade performance on a fighter than to ask for too much.” [“Boyd – The fighter pilot who changed the art of war”, p227: Robert Coram, Back Bay Books – an imprint of Little Brown & Co]
However, Boyd’s thesis may have been overtaken by emerging technologies: by his reasoning neither the F-22A nor the Flanker are designed correctly for the sort of battles he envisaged. In any case, improved seeker heads on air-air missiles can offset platform advantage, and so can a well-integrated weapon system. The crucial ability to engage or disengage at will has become increasingly a function of missile seeker and kinetic performance.
Over 15 years ago I was warned by an air defence analyst at the Defence Science & Technology Organisation (DSTO) in Melbourne that Within Visual Range (WVR) air combat was to be avoided, if at all possible, because the speed, agility and seeker head capabilities of modern WVR missiles meant there was no escape from them: a dog fight between two fighters equipped with modern WVR missiles would become the proverbial knife fight in a telephone booth – mutual death was virtually guaranteed.
To the extent that WVR combat is inescapable (owing to rules of engagement), or the adversary is genuinely inferior, nose pointing ability is as important as sustained turn rate: get your nose even close to the right direction and all-aspect WVR missiles with a high off-boresight engagement capability, and especially those integrated with something like the Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing Device (JHMCD), enable accurate and lethal snap shots which couldn’t be contemplated even a decade ago.
Of course, the picture is clouded by developments such as signature management technologies (IR as well as RF) and the employment of Electronic Counter Measures (ECM). You could analyse these issues to death, but suffice to say that WVR engagements don’t take place within the comfort zone of modern fighter pilots.
This means that air forces necessarily favour engaging adversaries at medium and long range.
The technologies and tactics employed to engage air targets at Beyond Visual Range (BVR) are somewhat different from those required for a WVR engagement. Situational awareness across the entire battlespace is critical, and so is sharing this between elements of a fighter force. So also are new rules of engagement that acknowledge the dangers inherent in WVR combat and seek to employ network-enabled technologies to ensure friendly forces can maintain the initiative and the option to engage at BVR distances.
As the fighter jocks keep saying, the aim is ‘first look, first shot, first kill’. In a BVR engagement thrust to weight ratios, wing loadings, specific excess thrust, and instantaneous and sustained turn rates matter a lot less than they might in a WVR engagement.
The critical determinants of air combat success now include missile performance, the integration of key enablers such as airborne early warning and tankers, and mastery of the electro-magnetic and IR spectra: RF and IR sensors, stealth and countermeasures; low probability of intercept radio communications; Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR); and shared situational awareness.
The F-35 is designed to be networked and extremely stealthy, in both RF and IR domains. It doesn’t dogfight like a Flanker or an F-22A, but nor do many other aircraft out there, and it does have other unique qualities. Its performance is respectable rather than mind-blowing: think clean F-16, but that’s important, too. With internal fuel and weapons it suffers far less parasitic drag than the vast majority of 4th generation jet fighters and so in combat configuration its acceleration, fuel consumption, range and endurance (and combat persistence) are not degraded as much as an adversary’s (or an ally’s) would be in both cruise and combat.
Did I mention that the internal fuel capacity of an F-35A is roughly the same as the combined internal and external fuel capacity of a Flanker? And that a Flanker carrying nine tonnes of fuel is extremely g-limited?
Air combat isn’t like mediaeval jousting or putting two boxers into a ring to slug it out mano a mano. If you want to use a sporting analogy, you’d want your opponent to have to complete a triathlon before he even comes close to you, so that he arrives after dark in an unfamiliar neighbourhood where you can sneak up and shoot him in the back from a safe distance without laying a glove on him.
We could argue the fine detail on this, in one different scenario after another until Kingdom Come (and I’m sure Peter Goon would be happy to do exactly that); the point I want to make is that for me the old measures of combat capability are relatively less important than they were a generation ago. The complexities of modern air combat provide plenty of opportunities to fight to your strengths and hide your weaknesses.
The Falklands War of 1982 highlighted many of the untidy asymmetries and discontinuities of modern air combat. Despite lacking airborne early warning, and super-cruise, and even a supersonic dash capability, and despite being hamstrung by a high wing loading the Fleet Air Arm’s Sea Harriers destroyed over 20 Argentine Mirages, Skyhawks, Daggers, Canberras, Pucaras and C-130s for no loss – the Sea Harriers had superior AIM-9L Sidewinder missiles, good airborne radars, adequate radar coverage from air defence picket ships (which suffered a terrible toll from the Argentine air attacks), good intelligence from sources well to the west of the Falkland Islands and good tactics. They never once resorted to their party trick of thrust Vectoring in Forward Flight, or VIFF-ing, to out-manoeuvre an opponent.
The Fleet Air Arm’s crushing victory over the Argentine Navy and Air Force in the Falklands was ultimately one of force over force, and this was true also of the RAF’s victory over the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain in 1940.
I’m sure students of air power know all this – I just want to provide some background to my reasoning.
Is the F-35 designed with all that in mind? Yes, I think it is. Is it as agile or fast as a Su-27 or F-22A? No. Does that matter? Good question.
Anybody who argues that the ultimate determinant of a force’s air dominance is platform agility in a 1 vs 1 canopy-to-canopy dogfight has far too narrow an understanding of air power.
The great big bogeyman cited by Goon (among others) is the Su-27/30/35 Flanker, a massive aircraft – maximum take-off weight is over 60,000lb - with long range and a M2+ top speed. Yet it is also incredibly agile – in airshow configuration, at least. To impress the crowd it performs maneuvers that would get it shot down in a heartbeat in a real war. But in combat configuration is it as effective as its advocates suggest? Plenty of western fighter pilots who don’t fly the F-22A believe they still have the goods on the Flanker at present; I’m surprised more commentators and analysts don’t ask their opinion.
Air combat superiority is so contextual and so dependent on a range of critical enablers that attempting to compare one aircraft directly with another can be meaningless, unless specific conditions and scenarios are set out. In air combat Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats are not always obvious or intuitive. They frequently emerge only after considerable scenario-based modelling and operational analysis.
Instead of trying to appreciate a situation, there’s a danger that the observer will instead situate his appreciation and draw false or misleading conclusions.
Much of the above applies also to the strike/attack domain. Stealth matters in this area and even its critics concede the F-35 is well suited to this role.
The issue of range is important: its critics claim the F-35 lacks the payload/range capability of the F-111. But nothing has the much-vaunted payload/range capability of the F-111 – not even the F-111 itself, once it starts turning and burning in reheat at low altitude to evade threats while carrying heavy, draggy bombs and missiles on its underwing pylons.
The F-35 carries more internal fuel than the F-22, more than a Super Hornet carrying external fuel tanks – and much more than a Flanker that’s in combat configuration. Given the typical payload/range of contemporary 4th generation fighters, frankly I’m surprised this is considered to be an issue.
The F-35 was conceived as a strike fighter so not surprisingly it’s designed to perform well and to be survivable against current and anticipated surface-air threats.
There has been some debate recently, triggered by an Air Power Australia analysis, over the F-35’s stealth capabilities and potential vulnerability to new and emerging Russian air defence sensors, fire control systems and missiles. I’m no radar expert but it doesn’t take a doctorate in radar engineering to spot some fairly obvious gaps in the analysis and modelling carried out by critics of the F-35 such as Dr Carlo Kopp.
This isn’t to disparage Kopp gratuitously – he does a conscientious job of trying to analyse the RCS of the F-35 and doesn’t try to conceal the fact he’s working with incomplete and not necessarily accurate data on its shape and surface treatments. It’s reasonable to assume that stealth technology has advanced considerably since the F-22A was designed nearly 20 years ago. So I wonder if he is able to identify, analyse and measure the contribution to the F-35’s RCS from every low-observable treatment or technique embodied in the aircraft? And does his operational analysis take into account air combat tactics which employ the RF and IR spectra and networking technologies in new and unusual ways?
Where I have a problem is with Air Power Australia’s assumption of infallibility: its principals, Kopp and Goon, present the results of their analysis as the definitive judgement on the capabilities of the F-35.
They have disparaged operational analysis and research carried out by others and present their findings as sufficient reason in themselves for Australia to cancel the purchase of the F-35A and instead acquire the F-22A. To see my more detailed examination of their work check out my Blog - http://rumourcontrolblog.blogspot.com/2009/01/happy-new-year-same-old-argument.html.
So how good is the F-35, really?
If it’s not good enough, then nine (and possibly soon eleven) customer governments are in for an embarrassing and very expensive shock.
And that’s the difficulty with the current debate over the F-35: its manufacturer, the Pentagon and the eight international partners can’t really address the detail of much of the criticism levelled against the aircraft without giving too much away. They either tell us too much about the strengths of the aircraft or, if they’ve all been lying to all of their taxpayers about the true capabilities of the F-35, they incriminate themselves.
That sounds like a cop-out on my part, but it’s not. I have asked the questions and got the very same not-very-detailed answers from the RAAF, the Australian department of defence and Lockheed Martin that I’m sure have been provided to people like Kopp, Goon and the Australian Liberal MP Dr Dennis Jensen. These unclassified responses are general, not very informative and can seem simplistic enough that they don’t really inspire much confidence.
Except that I do know people, including sceptics, who’ve had a classified brief on the JSF, and without exception they have all said the briefing answered any criticisms they may have had, and they were confident they weren’t being lied to or manipulated. And they’ve said no more than this, because they are not able to disclose the content of those briefings.
That’s frustrating, and especially so for reporters whose time-honoured modus operandi is to ask a direct question and try to extract a direct, honest reply. In attempting to assess the true capabilities of the aircraft and the integrity of the people building it and contemplating purchasing it, it’s been necessary to do so indirectly, by triangulation and inference rather than direct observation and measurement.
One of the most important indicators is this: I haven’t come across anybody who’s been briefed on the full capability of the aircraft who has subsequently said for any reason that they consider it inadequate in either a general sense or for Australia’s specific needs.
What I’ve heard suggests to me that my earlier thesis about the changing nature of air combat is robust and accurate; that older measures of air combat performance are less important (though not entirely invalidated). What I can’t do is put a hard measure on specific performance or capability parameters.
In the end it comes down to this: whom do you trust? I don’t need to take the word of Lockheed Martin or the RAAF; I’ve got other sources who’ve been sceptical and hardnosed and who’ve had access to classified information. They haven’t shared it with me, but I trust their independence and honesty and have no reason to doubt them when they tell me the F-35 is a very stealthy, capable, survivable combat aircraft.
Air Power Australia argues the exact opposite, and makes no secret of its agenda. To promote the F-22A for Australia and mount a case for retaining the F-111 in RAAF service means, in effect, highlighting every real or perceived shortcoming of the F-35A and every other potential contender, including the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet Block 2.
The asymmetry here is this: there’s a lobby determined that the RAAF shall have the F-22A and most of what its supporters say and do seems directed towards this end. I don’t have an agenda or goal or desired outcome beyond the security of Australia and I’m relatively agnostic about how that’s achieved. The pro-F-22A lobby is also concerned with the security of Australia but defines the issue so narrowly that it can advocate only one paramount capability solution, regardless of cost, regardless of any distorting effect on Australia’s defence budget and broader force structure this solution might have.
Finally, the F-22A isn’t available to Australia, and in my opinion probably will never be. Arguing for a force structure built around an aircraft we may never be allowed to buy is as pointless as buying an aircraft to carry out a job we don’t need it for.
Cost and Schedule
The Eurofighter Typhoon program typifies the delays and difficulties encountered by most modern jet fighter programs. Multi-national programs move at the pace of the slowest and poorest team member. They accrete unnecessary costs through an insistence on uneconomic and inefficient workshare arrangements and multiple final assembly lines: there are no less than four Typhoon final assembly lines for a build of barely 700 aircraft.
By comparison, the F-35 will be assembled on just two lines, in the US and Italy, and its production run is expected to exceed 5,000 units.
More importantly, the project is structured to pursue unit cost reductions compared with previous aircraft, and to hit development and production milestones on time, or as close as possible.
For the first time the focus has been not just on developing the capability of the platform, but doing it in an affordable and timely way. The consequences of designing an aircraft that’s late and too damned expensive, regardless of its capabilities, are illustrated by the B-2 bomber and F-22A Raptor programs.
People outside the aerospace industry simply don’t realize how different the JSF program is from almost every major fighter program that’s gone before.
The Pentagon’s response to Norway’s 2008 Request for Binding Information (RBI) provides a very rough pointer to the costs of the JSF.
Norway’s 48 F-35As would cost US$58.7 million each in 2008 dollars, with deliveries to begin in 2016. The deal includes an initial batch of spares, training and support worth a further US$668.2 million, giving a package price of US$3.486 billion.
However, the JSF program includes a global logistics support and training system and the Pentagon has reportedly quoted a life cycle support cost to Norway of US$2.27 billion, on top of the US$3.486 billion purchase price. So by that reckoning Norway’s 48 JSFs would cost US$5.75 billion over a notional 25 years, or $120 million each including through-life support – all at 2008 dollar values.
Australia plans to order 100 aircraft, so you need to double the figures provided to Norway and add a sizeable chunk for inflation: Australia’s acquisition chief, Dr Steve Gumley, CEO of the Defence Materiel Organisation (DMO) reckons inflation will push up the 2013 unit price to around US$70-75 million an aircraft, and I’d estimate an approximately pro rata increase for the other components. That’s a very rough and imperfect estimate, but it helps calibrate expectations.
That’s a pretty good price for a modern fighter; for a 5th generation fighter, if it delivers its full potential, it represents very good value for money. The JSF Joint Program Office (JPO) in Washington doesn’t help its case politically by stating prices in constant 2002 dollars, or whatever – these are meaningless to most people, the actual figures they cite are unrealistic and the impression is they’re trying to hide something. What matters are the numbers on the cheques the customers will sign.
Without wanting to be a Pollyanna, I firmly believe the JSF project has the best chance of any jet fighter program in recent times of getting close to its cost and schedule targets (we already know it won’t actually meet them). The biggest threat to the project schedule at present is probably the prospect of Congressionally-mandated delays or budget cuts.
That said, the flight test program has now entered the high-risk phase and the potential for delays and difficulties associated with software development and integration for the avionics and sensor suite is enormous. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to understand things can still go pear-shaped.
Back in 2002 the Australian Department of Defence was working up its New Air Combat Capability (NACC) project, code-named Air 6000. Among the platforms it was studying closely were the Typhoon, Rafale, Super Hornet Block 2, Joint Strike Fighter and Saab Gripen. The F-22A was not then, and is not now, available for export.
To the surprise of many people (including myself) the government announced in June of that year Australia would join the System Design and Demonstration (SDD) phase of the JSF program.
It’s arguable that it made this decision after insufficient analysis of its own needs and the alternatives available, and exposed the Australian taxpayer to considerable risk.
It’s also arguable that the US government and Lockheed Martin were able to convince the RAAF and the Australian government (and seven other governments) that the technical, operational and cost advantages of the F-35 were significant enough that the decision was quite an easy one to make.
However, the Australian government hedged its bets by ordering an interim fighter, the Super Hornet Block 2, and delaying a final purchase decision until later this year.
So does the F-35A satisfy Australia’s needs, or does the RAAF really need the F-22A?
The F-22A is designed for high-end air dominance. It’s the 800lb gorilla of air combat. But it’s expensive to buy, requires a lot of maintenance (due to its low observable treatments) and it’s also not the world’s greatest strike aircraft, which is one of the reasons the USAF started developing the F-35A.
Why would you need an 800lb gorilla? Advocates of the F-22A for Australia argue that the regional threat demands it. Threat scenarios in which Australia comes under direct attack by a country whose air forces are equipped with significant numbers of Flankers and the full range of modern Russian air-air and air-surface missiles conjure up visions of a bloody, Battle of Britain-type air battle fought over the Arafura Sea or Indian Ocean.
But are these realistic? Nobody with the power to mount a direct attack on Australia could do so without first taking into account the ANZUS Treaty and the certainty that the US would come to Australia’s assistance, and the political, diplomatic and economic consequences that would result from such an attack.
The only two regional powers with the sheer mass to contemplate a direct assault on Australia are India and China. It’s very hard to imagine circumstances in which India and Australia would come to blows; if such a tragedy were to occur, and the US was unable to assist (again, something that’s extremely difficult to imagine) India would need to reach out right across the Indian Ocean to strike at Australia’s mainland. The difficulties in achieving this, and even of mounting a sustained attack on Australia’s offshore territories or oil and gas installations in the Indian Ocean and Timor Sea should not be under-estimated, regardless of the level and intensity of Australia’s own military response.
Similarly, it’s hard to imagine circumstances in which Australia and China would go to war with each other; but if China did want to mount a direct attack on Australia it would need first to conquer or neutralize in some way the United States and then every sovereign state between Hong Kong and Darwin.
As I said earlier, air combat superiority is very context-dependent. Based on what I’ve read, seen and heard, I’m pretty confident that a force of F-35As armed with the right weapons and backed up with airborne early warning, tankers and an effective ground-based air defence command and control system (and great and powerful allies) will be sufficient to deal with any credible contingency – with emphasis on the word credible.
A direct attack on Australia would be what the strategists call “a war of necessity” – that’s the kind of war you absolutely must win. Other conflicts, such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, can be characterized as “wars of choice” – that is, the Australian government is able to choose, to a very significant degree, the level and duration of Australia’s engagement in such a conflict and the conditions and mechanisms for entry and disengagement. Such a war would almost by definition involve Australia acting as part of a coalition, probably one led by the US. If the threat demanded a capability such as the F-22A then that’s probably what Uncle Sam would deploy.
You could write a book on the broad strategic issues and the fiddly details (and many people have), but in my humble opinion there are no credible scenarios for a war of necessity which would compel Australia to acquire the F-22A; and absolutely no conceivable scenario for a war of choice which demands that Australia buy the F-22A.
Oh, and by the way US law forbids the export of the F-22A in any case; the chances of getting the law changed look pretty slim from where I’m sitting and it’s been said the cost of re-working the F-22A so that it might be exportable (always assuming the production line is still open when this is being deliberated) could be up to US$1 billion over and above the cost of the aircraft themselves – and the US Government isn’t going to pay that out of its own pocket.
Like I said earlier, lobbying for a force structure built around an aircraft we may never be allowed to buy is as pointless as buying an aircraft to carry out a job we don’t need it for.
The debate over Australia’s future air power requirements is important, because Australia’s important. It’s also important because there’s a lot of money at stake.
The late, great Bill Bedford, the test pilot who flew the first successful VSTOL aircraft, the Hawker Siddeley P.1127 Kestrel, once told me, “The perfect is the enemy of the good enough.” That’s a useful maxim to bear in mind when trying to reconcile your needs, wants and resources.
Somebody else (whose name I can’t remember, unfortunately) warned me, when trying to appreciate the situation, not to make the mistake of situating the appreciation.
So what does this mean for Australia’s air power?
In my humble opinion the F-35A will almost certainly be good enough to defend Australia against any credible direct threat and to be deployed to good effect where necessary in support of Australia’s broader interests.
Reservations? The F-35 needs to work – it must negotiate its avionics and software development and flight test programs successfully. It needs to arrive on time and at an affordable cost. And while the claims made for its low observable and electronic warfare performance are credible I have reservations over the nature and mechanism for technology transfer in these areas; this will be controlled by the US government International Trade in Arms Regulations (ITAR) regime which seems designed to confound and insult the intelligence of America’s defence industry and the integrity of America’s allies.
But who gives a damn what I think? I’m not trying to sell anything - I’m just a journalist trying to take a rational approach and make sense of big, complex issues while negotiating my way around agendas, conspiracy theories and the wiles of the military-industrial complex.
Richard, I hope this answers your question: this isn’t an exhaustive march through the theory and practice of air power but some thoughts on why I’m pretty comfortable with the choice of the F-35A, subject to the reservations stated above. I’m not a radar, or propulsion, or EW, or aerodynamics or stealth expert – but I’m a taxpayer in a wealthy country: I have people who do those things for me. I reserve the right to examine, question, report and comment, so far as my knowledge, experience and insight allow, and I do. And I shall continue to do so.