Unlike the other Services, the Royal Australian Air Force entered the new era of regional and global instability with a secure workforce and an already in place expeditionary structure. For the previous role of defence of northern Australia the RAAF would deploy to a series of ‘bare bases’ across the north from the peacetime training locations near Australia’s major cities. This expeditionary force structure has been able to transfer its deployment destination from the outback to the Middle East.
The RAAF’s air combat force is evolving from a mix of tactical fighters and dedicated strike aircraft to an all strike fighter force with the impending retirement of General Dynamics F-111C, modernisation of the Boeing F/A-18A/B and acquisition of both the Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet and the LockheedMartin F-35A Lightning II. This will enable better flexibility in mission sourcing and enable all fighter aircraft to provide the kind of high assurance precision strike needed for close air support (CAS) in contemporary counter insurgency operations.
The fleet of legacy Hornets have received the most extensive upgrade in the world under AIR 5376 with new mission systems, weapons and airframe life extension. While on average over 20 years in age these aircraft now have new radars (Raytheon APG-73), advanced targeting pods (Northrop Grumman/ RAFAEL Litening AT), advanced radio frequency jamming pods (Elta EL/L-8212/22), cockpit displays, helmet mounted displays, mission computers, countermeasure dispensers, LINK 16 secure data links and Raytheon ALR-67(V)3 radar warning receivers (the later currently being integrated). Their weapons include the proven lock on after launch (LOAL) for high off bore sight (HOBS) capability MBDA AIM-132 ASRAAM and the long range Raytheon AIM-120C AMRAAM air to air missiles. For air to ground use both the GPS guided Boeing JDAM and laser guided Raytheon Paveway precision guided bombs are available with the new LockheedMartin AGM-158 JASSM(Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile) stealthy cruise missile coming into service.
To provide an assured capability and technology bridge the RAAF is currently converting Its No. 82Wing to 24 Super Hornets. These aircraft have the Block II mission systems with technology sourced from the same project as the F-35A including the Raytheon APG-79 Advanced Electronically Scanned Radar (AESA), tactically significant radar cross section (RCS) low observability (LO) and a rear seat for a mission systems operator. The last 12 Super Hornets will be fitted with the basic wiring to enable their conversion to the EA-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft to support the F-35As through their life of service. The Super Hornets will operate with similar weapons to the upgraded Hornets but with Raytheon AIM-9X Sidewinders and AGM-154 JSOW glide bombs.
Boeing C-17 Globemaster III (photo : Airliners)In late November 2009, the Australian Government committed to contracting for the first 14 F-35As with a decision on a second batch of 58 to be made in 2012. The first F-35As will be delivered from2014 with the first operational squadron ready in 2018. AIR 6000 Phase 3 will consider a suite of air to ground weapons for the F-35A including new gun ammunition and decoys with Phase 5 to acquire a future air to air weapon for the F-35A and F/A-18F. Both weapons projects will be contracted between 2014-17, with a new maritime strike missile for the F-35A to be considered around 2020.
Boeing P-8A Poseidon (photo : Aviation Week)
The RAAF is also transforming its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) fleet from the legacy Lockheed AP-3COrion to a mix of manned and unmanned aircraft. This complexity of balancing the introduction of new systems while retaining all ISR capability types has resulted in further delay to the RAAF’s long held ambition of acquiring a high altitude long endurance (HALE) unmanned aerial system (UAS) for maritime surveillance. While seven of the Northrop Grumman RQ-4N Global Hawk for the US Navy’s Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) project was initially selected its introduction will have to wait until the RAAF has acquired another three types of new ISR capability.
Heron UAV (photo : Australian DoD)
The first new capability is a theatre level overland UAS in the form of leased flight hours of IAI-Malat Herons commercially operated in Afghanistan. The RAAF’s Heron capability will be operational in 2010 as Australian personnel have been serving with a similar service provision for the Canadian Forces. The centrepiece of the RAAF’s future ISR capability will be the eight Boeing P-8A Poseidons acquired in partnership with the US Navy. While acquired as a replacement maritime patrol aircraft with anti-submarine capability they will be extensively used as airborne command posts in both overland and maritime roles. Because the P-8A baseline capability does not include a force level electronic intelligence (ELINT) capability the RAAF will keep several of the specially modified AP-3Cs in service to sustain this capability. They will eventually be retired when the P-8A can be modified for this role freeing the workforce needed to operate the HALE UAS.
(Asian Military Review)