F-35B JSF for the ADF—a viable option in the 2015 White Paper? (Part 2)
30 May 2014|

Three F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, fly in formation during fixed-wing aerial refuelling training over eastern California, Aug. 27, 2013. In my last post, I considered the operational and technical challenges of Australia acquiring F-35B STOVL Joint Strike Fighters and operating them from the Canberra class LHDs. In an ideal budget environment, were the decision to acquire the F-35B in the 2015 Defence White Paper to be made, the Abbott Government would also acquire two or three dedicated aviation support vessels to support them, and leave the LHDs purely for undertaking amphibious operations. But as the May 2014 budget has made clear, Australia doesn’t live within an ‘ideal budgetary environment’ and it seems unlikely additional ships will be forthcoming. If Australia does acquire the F-35B, they’ll have to operate from the LHDs (with all the technical and operational challenges that that would involve) or from forward land-bases as part of an expeditionary operation.

I also raised the issue of how the F-35B would be used in relation to the declared Principal Tasks in the 2013 Defence White Paper. In considering the actual implementation of the Principal Tasks, the question of where the ADF might operate, against which powers, and under what conditions is important. Strategy is practical—not theoretical—and Australia’s maritime strategy has to have utility in the real world if it’s to be credible. Despite the 2013 White Paper’s rather rosy view of China’s role in Asia, it’s becoming clear that China’s rapid military modernisation, its assertive behavior in the East and South China Sea, and the growing regional security dilemmas emerging in the form of regional military modernisation, will increase the risk of conflict in the future. In that future, the risk must be that Australia will be drawn into a regional conflict involving the United States and China.

In that scenario it’s likely that US military forces would have access to Australian military facilities in the north and west. It also seems plausible that the ADF, working alongside US air and naval forces, would be required to respond to Chinese attempts to deny US forces a sanctuary in Australia from which to conduct operations against China. That could involve Chinese forces seeking to contest Australian air and sea approaches, and launch attacks on US forces operating from Australian facilities. Based on language in the 2013 White Paper, the ADF’s response to such a challenge would be to ‘…deter attacks or coercion against Australia by demonstrating our capability to impose prohibitive costs on potential aggressors and deny them the ability to control our maritime approaches’. Furthermore, the ADF might also ‘…undertake operations against adversary’s bases and forces in transit, as far from Australia as possible. … using strike capabilities and the sustained projection of power by joint task forces, including amphibious operations in some circumstances’.

Does the F-35B STOVL JSF operating from Canberra class LHDs offer a viable capability in this scenario? The technical and operational challenges noted in my first post are real and can’t be ignored, and would need to be resolved for the F-35B/LHD combination to be effective. More broadly, a more serious risk is surface ship survivability in the face of growing antiship cruise missile threats from submarines and aircraft. The strategic geography of Asia makes anti-access warfare even more effective, especially for naval mines, missile-armed fast attack craft, and missile-armed submarines that the Chinese Navy is highly proficient with.

It’s in countering the advantages bestowed by strategic geography on an adversary practising anti-access operations where a small force of F-35Bs deployed on LHDs might play a significant role. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter’s key advantages are purported to be stealth, integrated avionics and an ability to network with off-board sensors—all of which contribute to the pilot in the F-35 having an information advantage over an opponent, whether that opponent is in the air, on land or on the sea. If the F-35B is seen as a key node in an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) network that contributes towards an expeditionary force gaining a knowledge advantage at the tactical level, then a force of F-35Bs on board LHDs will add to the joint task force survivability. Information gathered by the sensor systems can be exploited by the F-35B to attack detected targets, or the F-35B can act as a sensor in a ‘sensor to shooter’ link, with the ‘shooter’ being a naval vessel or a submarine. Furthermore, the F-35B can exploit austere bases on land—known as forward arming and refuelling points (FARPs)—to operate in support of naval task forces in archipelagic waters, thus easing operational challenges and risks for the LHDs.

Certainly, if the LHDs are to be sent forward, with the F-35B on board as part of an Australian effort to ensure air and sea control within our maritime approaches, they would need to be well protected by an accompanying naval task force. The risk is that much of the RAN’s existing operational strength could be absorbed by such a role, reducing its operational flexibility, or demanding greater investment in additional ships such as more AWDs. Suddenly, the 2% of GDP spending aspiration of the Abbott Government mightn’t be nearly enough, and so the fundamental challenge of matching strategic ends with national means becomes critical. Australia should begin its consideration of F-35B JSF for the LHDs fully aware of the potential follow-on costs.

In conclusion, there are risks associated with pursuing the F-35B STOVL Joint Strike Fighter for the ADF. The LHD/F-35B combination is certainly not a match made in heaven. Of the three variants, the F-35B is the least effective in terms of performance and payload, and the most expensive. Only a small number could be carried onboard the LHDs, and at the expense of other important capabilities. But an F-35B acquisition could offer the ADF a more flexible way to undertake the Principal Tasks, even in the face of growing threats from an adversary’s anti-access ability.

Malcolm Davis is assistant professor in International Relations and post-doctoral research fellow in China-Western Relations at Bond University. Image courtesy of Flickr user Marines.