Flight Path
3 Mar 2015|

This week reviews all the news from the Avalon international Airshow and Biennale IDEX events, the latest on drones, fifth-generation fighters, China’s military capability, and a debate on the US Long Range Strike-Bomber.

The Avalon Airshow and Exposition closed over the weekend after hosting over 600 companies from more than 20 countries. Like many companies that used the show to promote their products to buyers in the region, Bell Helicopter targeted the ADF, pitching their AH-1Z Viper helicopter as an alternative to a marinised Tiger as a maritime-attack platform for Australia’s two landing helicopter dock (LHD) amphibious assault ships.

At Avalon, DMO expressed plans to enter into an agreement with the US Navy to influence the future development of the Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton maritime-surveillance unmanned aerial system. The announcement fits in with a broader RAAF strategy to use Triton UAVs alongside the P-8A to patrol Australia’s northern maritime regions. More details on this and Australia’s plans to purchase $300 million worth of armed ‘Reaper’ drones are expected in the upcoming Defence White Paper.

Still at Avalon, Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss announced last Friday that Air Services Australia and the Department of Defence will work with Thales Australia to begin building the next phase of Australia’s new joint defence and civilian air-traffic control system (estimated at $600 million). Despite initial resistance from Defence, Australia will be the first country to integrate civil and military air traffic control systems. The project has been described as a ‘one-in-a-generation’ opportunity simultaneously to update both systems and give Australia ‘the most advanced and integrated air-traffic control system in the world’.

Avalon’s notable foreign guests included US Commander of Pacific Air Forces General Lori Robinson and the and the Australian Department of Defence agreed to cooperate on the development of the Joint Strike Missile (JSM). The plan seeks to introduce an advanced maritime-strike weapon for the F-35 by 2020.

Claims of a Chinese cyber attack on the F-35 have been in the headlines again. New documents released by Edward Snowden revealed Chinese cyber spies had stolen ‘many terabytes of data’ relating to the JSF. However, the US head of the Joint Strike Fighter program, Lieutenant General Christopher Bogdan responded stating China ‘failed’ to steal classified information about Australia’s new JSF program.

Iran was recently implicated in a similar data-smuggling case. Last Thursday, 60 year-old Mozaffar Khazaee, pleaded guilty to stealing technical data relating to the engines for the F-22 Raptor and F-35 with the intent to ship the information to Iran. Khazaee was apparently ‘looking for an opportunity to work in Iran, and…transferring my skill and knowledge to my nation.’ See here for the FBI report.

Heading back home, Australia’s 72 F-35 JSFs are to be complemented by $55 million worth of ‘Tony Stark-like’ flight helmets. Valued at $770,000 each, the 2.25 kg carbon fibre-shelled Helmet Mounted Display System (HMDS) pumps observational data into the helmet, turning the visor into a display screen, able to gain 360-degree ‘situational awareness’. The Sydney Morning Herald reports, it takes a four-hour sitting to custom fit the helmet, with the optics package on the display visor set to line up within two millimetres of the exact centre of each of the pilots’ pupils.

Shifting to China, a new Rand Corporation report titled ‘China’s Incomplete Military Transformation‘ has found ‘that the PLA suffers from potentially serious institutional weaknesses [corruption, quality of personnel and outdated command structures] and limited combat capabilities’. The report argues insufficient strategic airlift capabilities, limited numbers of special-mission aircraft, and deficiencies in fleet air defence and antisubmarine warfare, significantly limit the PLA’s ability to execute key missions in the region.

Finally, over at War on the Rocks, US National Defence University’s T.X. Hammes and former US Marine Corps officer Robert Haddick have been debating the merits of the US Long Range Strike-Bomber (LRS-B) program. In his article, Hammes called for a reconsideration of a manned LRS-B, suggesting instead autonomous drones and standoff missiles. He further urged policymakers to learn from the B-2 and F-35 programs, and to avoid the risks associated with costly procurement. Haddick however disagreed, arguing long-range strike capability provided much needed deterrence in an environment with an increasingly effective anti-access weapons system. He added that missile-only alternatives were not only technologically more risky, but also much more expensive than the LRS-B. (Andrew Davies will be writing on this topic for The Strategist, and thinks that Haddick’s costings are questionable.) Whilst the healthy debate is welcomed, the debate appears delayed given a Congressional Research Service report suggesting a new bomber may have already been designed and nearing production.

Palmo Tenzin is an intern at ASPI. Edited image courtesy of Flickr user Brian Neudorff.