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JSF acquisition answers some questions, raises others

written by WOFA | November 25, 2009

27_04605Remember November 25, it’s an historic day for Australian military aviation. It is not every day that the Australian government commits to buy a new fighter, but today it did just that in committing to buy 14 Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighters – JSFs – for the RAAF.

Apart from the 2006 buy of 24 Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet ‘bridging’ fighters, the last time Australia announced a fighter acquisition was the October 1981 decision to buy 75 (then) McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A/B Hornets to replace the RAAF’s Mirages in a deal then valued at $2.5bn.

Interestingly, today’s decision to buy just 14 F-35s (valued at $3.2bn including spares and support – which very crudely works out to be $228m per aircraft!) is a much lower number than either of the Hornet acquisitions, and reflects both current federal government budget restrictions and continued uncertainties with the still relatively immature JSF program. The 14 F-35A jets will be enough to equip a single squadron, which will spend its initial years in the US for “initial training and test activities”, according to the Defence Minister’s announcement.

So this announcement is both at once a decision to buy the JSF, and a decision to defer the purchase the bulk of the JSF fleet, up to 86 aircraft – ie the further minimum of 58 jets to meet the White Paper requirement for an initial JSF force of “no fewer” than 71 aircraft to replace the ‘classic’ Hornets, then the final batch of 25 or so aircraft to replace the Super Hornets.

The decision to buy the bulk of the F-35 force, which will allow the RAAF to operate three operational squadrons and a training unit, has been put off until 2012, while a decision on the final batch for a fourth squadron to replace the Super Hornets “will be considered at a later date” – on the ‘never never’, in effect.

These are very long timelines here – the first squadron is not due to become operational with the JSF until nearly a decade from now in 2018, while, according to the ministerial statement, “All three operational squadrons are planned to be in service in 2021.”

With those long timelines, it seemingly presents some challenges for the RAAF fighter force transition. Will the last of the classic Hornets, which is already known to have fatigue issues, last in service as long as late next decade to allow for the transition to the JSF (the youngest airframe will be 30 years old in 2021)? Will the classic Hornets have to be managed under an expensive ageing aircraft program, like with the F-111, to nurse them through?


With the JSFs entering service between 2014 and 2021, for how much of that seven year timeframe will the RAAF be operating three fast jets – classic and Super Hornets and JSF – side by side, when one of the selling points of the original JSF decision was the efficiencies from a single type fighter force?

And what of replacing the ‘bridging’ Super Hornets? They were acquired to replace the F-111 with the intention of being in service for a 10 year period before they themselves were replaced by JSFs. That may yet happen, but doesn’t look likely. More probably, they’ll remain in service for 20 to 30 years like every other RAAF fighter, and eventually be replaced by something like a UCAV, or perhaps a ‘Super’ JSF (which may well be unmanned).

Here’s a final thought – the junior fighter pilots flying the JSF when the last of the JSF squadrons becomes operational are only in primary school today!


  • Mike Simpson


    Although I know this will not be popular on this thread, I really want to pose the question, why do we require fighter aircraft at all? I have lived in Australia for the past 40 years or so, and do not believe that in that time a single Australian fighter has had to fire its guns in anger in the defence of the nation.

    This does not mean they have not been used in the police actions in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, but none of these were protecting Australia. This would appear to be just another government spending spree with the backing of the military and the American weapons industries, and would appear to be a further extension of the spending on items which are of no use to anyone like the Collins class submarines.

    We live in a country with a tiny population who can’t find money to spend on our railways/roads/water etc, yet continue to spend billions on toys for the boys. With the population estimated to expand to 35 million in the next 20 years or so, This money must be spent on infrastructure to make the country liveable and on the intelligence agencies so that they can root out terrorists etc in our midst, not on old fashioned ‘defence’ items which are way past their sell by date.

  • Roger


    65 years ago they were. Not being involved in directly defending the nation may well be proof of their effectiveness as a deterrent. I’m sure our Asian neighbors would be interested in our resources if we gave them opportunity…there’s no point spending on infrastructure if someone else can simply take it at their will.

  • Kevern


    Good Grief.. does Mike Simpson not appreciate the value of deterrents? Has he learnt nothing from history?

    I served in the military for many years and have traveled extensively overseas. Believe me when I say that there are many countries in our general region who are not as “nice” as us, or as nice as we like to think of ourselves.. Just look at how some of them treat their own citizens and largely ignore fundamental human rights in many cases, what makes Mike think for a minute that they will only ever behave in a totally friendly manner towards us?

    Do not underestimate the lure of our abundant natural resources and the attractive and very comfortable lifestyle enjoyed by Australian citizens which these resources currently provide. Having such a small population, and therefore a corresponding small military, Australia’s only hope of presenting a reasonable deterrent is a technically superior military, no matter what it costs. Money well spent methinks..

    I certainly do not want any Australian to experience another war or even a “police action” as I did in the past if it can be avoided by spending a few dollars on deterrents. If this means that I have to do without some infrastructure then so be it.

  • Damian


    Some good points Gerard. Looks like another purchase/lease of more Super Hornets will be on the cards in a few years time…….

  • Dave


    Mike, the world is facing a falling production of fresh food, not caused by climate change ( although Rudd would like you to belive it ) but by increased population, and wealth in Northern Asia, Western Asia etc., As a result this country of ours will eventually be targeted as future “Food Bowl” for a hungry nation.
    Enter the F-35 factor, and future defence modernisation as a deterent.

  • Mark Rowe


    Mike, you answer your own question. The best fighter force is the one that does not have to fire it’s guns in anger because of its deterrent effect. And what makes you think that those “police actions” as you call them were not in defence of Australia? The idea is to fight the fight on the other guys territory, so yours remains pristine. If you leave it until he’s kicking at your fence, you’re probably too late.

  • David Bentley


    Mike has a point insofar as a simplistic approach may be held but with respect, I haven’t ever heard the Police having to fire their guns or even sound their sirens in my nice quiet leafy Brisbane street but I wouldn’t even consider not having them as well paid and well equipped as I can afford.

    Human nature has not changed that much…

  • Bruno Watt


    While all the points here are valid I think the two most important factors being overlooked are 1) the Su-30s and 35s which many of or neighbours have (or for the latter want) in their air forces and 2) the JSF is designed to work in tandem with the Raptor. Personally I do not think the second issue will ever be remedied unless the US gets into serious financial difficulty and is forced to pull a post cold war Russia and hand out technology like candy.

    While some argue that there are issues with the Russian avionics you cannot argue that the 30s are a brilliant air superiority platform. Also those flown by India have home grown and Israeli avionics that make them far superior (look at shocking simulation successes of Israel vs US). Combine that with the far greater range the 30s have over the JSF and we have a problem, they can simply wait till our birds run home to a refueling platform and good night. What is going to provide CAP operations? um nothing. We simply cannot rely on AWACS and other passive technologies, we simply don’t have the numbers to survive an airborne war of attrition with what seem to be inferior aircraft intended to perform on all platforms. Utter madness.

  • Charlie M


    Bruno,It seems you have been reading the so-called ‘informed’ words of Carlo Kopp, I take it that you are also a believer in putting supercruise engines on F-111s and filling them up with AMRAAMs??? The Su-30 family of fighters are considered a Gen 4, or gen 4.5 fighter at best. The JSF is easily considered a Gen 5 fighter, a fighter with intergrated stealth (unlike some advocates claim, stealth needs to be built in for it to be truly effective, not added on at a later date), an advanced weapons suite with a highly capable radar, the list could go on and on and on.

    On the issue on the Su-30 waiting until our birds ‘run to a tanker’ and then striking is ridiculous, any basic understanding of air to air combat complete nulifies that comment, besides how will the Su-30 drivers and their poor ISR assets ‘know’ when the JSF aircraft have left for the tanker anyway, especially if they have aboslutely no ability to see them on the radar?? A war of attrition was WWII, only two nations have enough aircraft for a war of attrition and that is China and USA, and both do not have the ability to attack a remote nation such as Australia with a air war of attrition strategy.

  • Albert. US


    Bruno Watt, my US is not only in serious financial difficlty, it is broke. Buying the JSF seems like a pay-off to someone.

  • Peter Hughes


    It may sound trite but the reasons we buy the F-35 are not strategic, not even based on what is affordable, practical, logical etc, they are based on maintaining our most important strategic alliance, nothing more, nothing less, we are a very good ally supporting a US economy and defence industry in desparate need. Personally I think the F-35 purchase is extraordinarilly risky, never mind that the F-111 was in many respects a success, it was very risky at the time. Unfortunately you don’t get lucky (apologies to those who made the F-111 decision, but you were flying by the seat of your pants) in acquisitions of this nature all that often, and in terms of the ADF defence buy this commitment to purchase is unprecedented.

  • David Bentley


    Boy this discussion hits some sensitive spots. Here are some points to consider: The F-111 was the original stealth aircraft (low alt high speed, TFR) and is still arguably the best medium range strike aircraft in the world. I believe that they were retired too early but that is a moot point. For a nation with a small defence force who cannot access the F-22, the F-35 even with it’s range issues is the only choice. Whether it was a political decision or not, is a side issue. There is no other LO aircraft on the market. If you can’t have numbers, you have to have he best. Remember this is a deterrent.Also remember that this aircraft is part of a modern system. Datalinked to our ISR assets, can act as a mini AWACS itself using LPI radar, it’s electronic capability is second to none and will only get better as it matures. If any nation is considering a strike they do so in the face of an aircraft that cannot be seen by their radars until it is too late. LO is a force multiplier and as lovely as the SU series is, they are not stealthy and will be detected and shot in the face a long way out over the deep blue. The agility of the aircraft is only relevant in WVR combat. The practical reallity is that this is an aircraft that wil make people think twice about losing valuable assets. Finally, no-one is going to invade us. We have a Sea/Air gap that is too easy to defend. Noone in the region has enough assets to deploy the number of troops and equipment that this would require without having their force decimated in the crossing (Can you say Operation Sealion?) This aircraft will allow us to carry out our UN policing and expeditionary actions with a higher dgree of force projecton than anything else that is available. For that reason alone is it essential.

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