Thursday, March 29, 2012

Australia Buying 24 Super Hornets As Interim Gap-Fillers

Australia’s Super Hornet purchase began life in a storm. Australia’s involvement in the F-35 Lightning II program have been mired in controversy, amid criticisms that the F-35A will (1) be unable to compete with proliferating SU-30 family fighters in the region, (2) lack the range or response time that Australia requires, and (3) be both late and very expensive during early production years. The accelerated retirement of Australia’s 22 long-range F-111s in 2010 sharpened the timing debate, by creating a serious gap between the F-111’s retirement and the F-35’s likely arrival.

In December 2006, therefore, The Australian reported that Defence Minister Brendan Nelson was discussing an A$ 3 billion (about $2.36 billion) purchase of 24 F/A-18F Block II Super Hornet aircraft to fill the fighter gap. The move came as “a surprise to senior defence officials on Russell Hill”; but quickly became an official purchase as requests and contracts were hurriedly submitted. Australia’s new Labor government’s later decided to keep the Super Hornet purchase, rather than pay cancellation fees, but added an interesting option to convert 12 into electronic warfare planes. Ministerial statements place the program’s final figure at A$ 6.6 – 7.0 billion, which includes basing, training, and other ancillary costs.
This DID Spotlight article describes the model chosen, links to coverage of the key controversies, and offers a history of contracts and key event’s from the program’s first official DSCA requests to the present day.

RAAF Super Hornets: Variants and Variances

APG-79 AESA Radar
AN/APG-79 AESA Radar
The 2-seat F/A-18F sacrifices some range, carrying only 13,350 pounds of fuel – 900 fewer pounds than the F/A-18E. In exchange, it adds a second crewman with an advanced attack station cockpit to assist in strike roles. The F/A-18F Block II adds a number of enhancements, but all are electronic rather than aerodynamic. The most significant improvement is its AN/APG-79 AESA radar; Australia will be the first country outside the United States to receive it, and only the third country (UAE APG-80 in F-16 Block 60, Singapore APG-63v3 in F-15SGs) to receive AESA fighter radars in a US sale.
After the failure of Australia’s own “ALR 2002” electronic countermeasures program, some of its early-model Hornets and all of its F/A-18F Super Hornets will mount Raytheon’s AN/ALR-67v3 instead. This is a radar warning receiver that provides visual and audio alerts to F/A-18 aircrew when it detects ground-based, ship-based, or airborne radar emissions hitting the aircraft. It is the modern self-protection standard for F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet aircraft, and has also been incorporated into a number of earlier model Hornets flown around the world.
EA-18G Systems
EA-18G: key systems

For operators who need much greater electronic defense and even offensive capabilities, the EA-18G Growler electronic warfare version is a derivative of the F/A-18F Block II that removes the internal gun, adds electronics within the aircraft to help it detect and jam enemy radars, and mounts 4 specialized ECM (Electronic CounterMeasures) pods under the wings. They will replace the EA-6B Prowler, which is based on a Vietnam-era airframe and has become the only Western electronic warfare aircraft capable of accompanying fighters into combat.
A “lite” version without the advanced AN/ALQ-99 jamming pods is being offered for export, and as of February 2009, 12 of Australia’s 24 F/A-18Fs will receive the additional wiring required to allow future EA-18 conversions.
The Australian order will also include training simulators, which come in 3 key variants of their own.
Tactical Operation Flight Trainers (TOFTs) are for advanced pilot tactical training. Each one is a Boeing/ L-3 Link collaboration including L-3 Link’s 360-degree SimuSphere visual display, SimuView image generator, and Boeing Training Systems & Services’ mission computer emulation; simulated radar, electronic countermeasures, and Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System; and high-fidelity crew station controls.
The Boeing-built Low Cost Trainers (LCT) runs a mission computer emulation, and provides pilot and air combat officer training for navigation, weapons, radar, and electronic countermeasures.
The Integrated Visual Environment Maintenance Trainers (IVEMT) is a maintenance trainer that includes an interactive 3-D model environment, test/support equipment and realistic aircraft responses. Students can perform more than 500 routine troubleshooting procedures using the device.

Additional Readings

  • DID – Retired RAAF Vice-Marshal: Abandon F-35, Buy F-22s (updated). Has grown to be out spotlight article for the entire F-35 controversy in Australia, and is public access. Includes criticisms and alternative force proposals being floated by the opposition Labor Party, as well as link to materials outlining the position of the government, DoD, opposition party, and independent defense analysts & associations in Australia. It is updated on an ongoing basis.
  • Flight International (March 13/07) – Ultra Hornet. Describes the updates to create the Hornet Block 30/Block II+; the performance enhancements are all electronic rather than aerodynamic. Interestingly, among future Flightplan enhancements is a limited electronic attack function for all APG-79 AESA radars.

Appendix A: RAAF Super Hornet Controversies

F-18 Australia
RAAF F/A-18B Hornet

Liberal Party defense minister Dr. Nelson reportedly decided to opt for the Super Hornet without a detailed study of alternative aircraft types, such as the longer-range F-15E Strike Eagle, advanced air superiority options like the Eurofighter Typhoon, or even an export version of the USA’s F-22 Raptor. Despite its name, the Super Hornet is a larger aircraft that offers only 25-30% commonality with the Australian air force’s existing F/A-18A/B Hornets. What is does share, is the same support structure.
Justifications advanced for this buy include service as a gap-filler to the F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter after the F-111’s retirement in 2010, and also the ability to boost aircraft numbers while existing F/A-18A Hornets rotate through year-long center section replacements, designed to lengthen their service fatigue life. The Super hornet buy had significant impacts on the 2006-2016 Defence Capability Plan, and reportedly cut the number of F/A-18A Hornets undergoing the A$ 1+ billion HUG mid-life upgrade program to 42. It may also result in cuts to other programs, unless additional funding is provided to cover the interim fighter purchase.
RAAF F-18F armed
RAAF F/A-18F, armed

For a detailed account of the Super Hornet’s origins and its specific differences vs. the earlier model F/A-18 A-D Hornets, plus an in-depth first-person flight report, see “Flying the F/A-18F Super Hornet,” originally published in the May/June, 2001 issue of Australian Aviation. Whether these attributes will be enough to deal with present and future SU-30 family aircraft on even terms remains a matter of controversy.
For a more detailed account of the ongoing controversy around Australia’s F-35 Lightning II/ F/A-18F Block II purchases, as well as links that shed more light on the F-111 program at RAAF Amberley, see DID’s Spotlight article “The Australian Debate: Abandon F-35, Buy F-22s?, especially the updates and readings sections which include Super Hornet related news. See also DID’s follow-up: “Australian Air Power Controversy: F-35 and Super Hornets Under Fire,” which has been updated to reflect subsequent DoD speeches and defenses of their purchase, as well as follow-ups by those who believe that the F/A-18F is the wrong aircraft for Australia.
Those controversies may be of historical interest, but the issue has now become moot. Large signed contracts turned the buy into a fait accompli. After a review of the aircraft and the likely costs of canceling the contract, the new Labor Party government decided to continue with the buy. The last plane from that order arrived in October 2011.

Original article:

Pic of the day: F-35 refueling at night

That awesome picture shows the first ever nighttime air-to-air refueling performed by the F-35 Joint Strike Figther.
The image shows F-35A AF-4 flying just behind a KC-135 Stratotanker in the skies around Edwards Air Force Base, California during a three hour flight to qualify the JSF to tank from the KC-135 at night.