ASPI’s decades: Betting, fretting and getting—buying and flying the F-35

ASPI celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. This series looks at ASPI’s work since its creation in August 2001.

When ASPI began its work, the F-35 joint strike fighter was Australia’s biggest and most expensive program ever. (Now that label has passed back to the submarines.)

The F-35 arrived 10 years late. (The Attack-class submarine program exhibits similar tardiness.)

The F-35 is now slowly delivering what Australia wants. Because of the delay, Australia spent $6 billion on an ‘interim’ Super Hornet capability, later topped up with another $3 billion on Growler electronic-warfare aircraft. The ‘interim’ has become more like a 20-plus-year force structure element.

Australia decided to work with the Pentagon’s F-35 Joint Program Office to develop the F-35s to replace its fleets of F-111s (due to leave service in around 2010) and F/A-18s (due to retire between 2012 and 2015).

The bet was ‘a big deal’ for Australia’s future air combat capability, as Aldo Borgu explained in 2004; it was the biggest of calls and a deal with many elements. Joining the JSF project was partly motivated by the chance to develop the nation’s aerospace industry, to have Australian firms supplying individual components as part of a global supply chain.

The JSF was still a ‘paper plane’, Borgu wrote, a US program ‘driven by costs and not by requirements’.

To confront the key question—‘Is the JSF good enough’?—the chief of the Royal Australian Air Force, Air Marshall Angus Houston, published an ASPI paper arguing for ‘a true fifth generation, stealthy, multi-role, single-seat, single-engine, fighter aircraft’. In explaining why it was a better bet than other candidates, such as the F/A-22, he argued that the F-35:

  • promised ‘the margin of capability we require for the tasks we intend for it’
  • was ‘the most “network-enabled” capability on offer’
  • would be ‘truly multi-role, giving us great operational flexibility and cost effectiveness’
  • could be ‘acquired in operationally meaningful numbers within the available budget’
  • would be ‘able to be supported in service at lower cost than any alternative’
  • had ‘the best growth potential, at lowest on-going cost to us, … because of its large production base’
  • offered ‘the potential for a significant and long-term industry program that should exceed in value and benefits the conventional offset arrangements of any alternative’.

Houston’s final line was: ‘The conclusion is clear.’

The RAAF’s course was set. And in all the dogfights that followed, the service seldom wavered from that conviction.

By 2006, though, Canberra was starting to worry about the unacceptable risk of a ‘capability gap’ arriving before the F-35. The eventual answer was to buy 24 F/A-18F Super Hornets, the successor to the RAAF’s F/A-18A/B Hornet fleet.

Australia would ‘spend in excess of $4.1 billion to acquire this fourth generation “stopgap” aircraft’, Andrew Davies wrote in 2007, yet the big risk of a generation gap remained: ‘We could conceivably find ourselves faced with a difficult decision towards the end of next decade. We could have a mix of Super Hornets and barely viable Hornets and be desperately waiting for JSF capability to become affordable and mature.’

In 2014, Canberra was about to decide whether to spend between $8 billion and 10 billion on the new F-35, cementing it as the main instrument of Australian airpower for decades into the future. ‘After several false starts,’ Davies and Harry White wrote, ‘we’re now reaching the main decision point.’ Despite management issues, enormous complexity, and significant cost and schedule overruns, the plane seemed to be on track to come into service by the end of the decade.

The government had only two options: buy more F-35s, accepting a mixed fleet of three types (F-35, Super Hornet and Growler) for at least the next 15 years, or decline the F-35 purchases and consolidate the existing fleet with additional Super Hornets. Turning to the Hornets would hurt Canberra’s relationship with Washington and provide less capability in a rapidly modernising region. ‘On balance,’ wrote Davies and White, ‘the decision that appears to meet government priorities for capability, industry participation and alliance management with the US seems to be a further purchase of the F-35.’

The first two operational F-35s arrived in Australia in December 2018. Explaining the situational awareness they offered compared to previous generations of jets, the RAAF chief told The Strategist the F-35s turned night into day: it was the difference between driving a car at night with no lights and driving a car with very effective night-vision goggles.

Air Marshal Leo Davies said an F-35 pilot could characterise an adversary’s aircraft, land forces and ships and then choose how to react to them. Sometimes that would mean not reacting and just monitoring the enemy’s movements. Sometimes it would mean ‘cuing’ another asset such as one of the RAAF’s F/A-18 Hornets, or an air warfare destroyer or, in due course, a ground-based air-defence system. Ordinary aircraft operated like instruments in a band; the F-35 became the conductor: ‘The F-35 won’t send a package of data and then forget about it. It will orchestrate the operation.’

Marcus Hellyer considered the sustainment challenges of the F-35; the range of the plane in projecting power; and the advantages of operating it from off-shore bases on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands in the Indian Ocean, Butterworth in Malaysia, and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.

The F-35s are due to achieve final operational capability by the end of 2023. Malcolm Davis noted that the force structure plan allocates funds for ‘additional air combat capability’ between 2025 and 2030, so the period between 2035 and 2040 is the time for considering a replacement for the F-35.

The US was no longer speaking about ‘sixth-generation’ fighters, Davis wrote, recognising the risks of slow, decades-long acquisition cycles for a future fighter. The focus of its next-generation air-dominance program was now on a ‘digital century series’ approach of rapid development of small numbers of several types of airframes over short periods of as few as five years.

The Davis conclusion:

It would be a mistake for the RAAF to embark on another 20-year acquisition project to eventually replace the F-35 from the late 2040s, yet that’s exactly what the force structure plan implies. Waiting until 2035 to begin developing a replacement ignores the clear trends that suggest a desire for faster capability acquisition.

The F-35 has taken two decades to develop, at great expense, and the approach of a common airframe for multiple tasks means it can’t be optimised for a single role. Going back to platforms optimised for a specific role—air dominance, long-range strike and electronic attack, or intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance—that can be acquired faster might be a better path.

The RAAF shouldn’t wait until 2035 to get started on developing these types of capabilities. Its plans to complement, and then replace, the F-35 can be accelerated, and it would make sense to promote collaboration with the US and the UK in this endeavour to boost the RAAF’s air combat capability sooner.

As the F-35 showed, buying and flying involves much betting and fretting in the getting.