Flight Path
17 Feb 2015|

A Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) F/A-18F Super Hornet aircraft refuels from a RAAF KC-30A Multi-Role Tanker Transport aircraft as the sun sets over Iraq.We’re excited to launch a new weekly update, Flight Path, that’ll chart the major developments and debates in airpower and space technology. Opening this week’s post is news on the F-35.

On 27 January, RAAF Squadron Leader Andrew Jackson became the first Australian to begin training for his first F-35A flight at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. In preparation for the arrival of the F35s in 2018, the Defence Minister Kevin Andrews confirmed BAE Systems and TAE (formerly Tasman Aviation Enterprises) have won contracts to manage regional maintenance, repair, overhaul and upgrade responsibilities. The news comes as F-35 manufacturers Lockheed Martin reported the program for the A-variant lagged behind 2014 goals due to the prioritisation of the F-35B. The F35-B program however achieved significant progress, passing the halfway point. Despite this, the project continues to attract criticism, with the US Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert last week expressing ambivalence about the stealth and speed of F-35s. In his speech, Greenert called for a consideration of technologies using ‘unmanned systems—or employing electronic-warfare payloads to confuse or jam threat sensors rather than trying to hide from them.’

An Australian National Audit Office report on 5 February revealed the Defence Department lost millions of dollars after selling its B707 air-to-air refueller fleet to the US company Omega Air for $6.2 million, down from the initial $9.5 million agreement. After the sale, the Defence Department then had to lease one back (for $24 million) because they no longer had tanker aircraft. The report raises serious questions about Defence’s handling of the event.

Another domestic issue attracting attention is the recent Senate committee inquiry into the Australian Defence Force’s use of UAVs (see here for the full list of submissions). An Australian Federal Police submission (PDF) called for the domestic use of unmanned vehicles,  describing UAVs as providing a ‘unique advantage’ in law enforcement in the Torres Strait and rural areas of northern Australia. Despite the attraction, others like Clinton Fernandes over at ADFA (PDF) and the Human Rights Law Centre (PDF) warn of the risks of infringing on privacy and civil liberties, whilst ASPI’s Andrew Davies noted (PDF) the potential risk of alarming Australia’s neighbours. The Australian discussion continues, while the US seeks to increase spending on major unmanned aerial systems.

Heading overseas, big news in the aerospace arena a few weeks ago was the release of a Northrop Grumman promotional video screened during the extravagant Super Bowl half time. The ad—which has had over 1.3 million views—was targeted at the US government, who’ll soon open the tender process for a $55 billion contract to build the Long-Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B). The ad offered a sneak peek of Northrop Grumman’s newest LRS-B design and was seen as a slight against its biggest competition, Boeing–Lockheed Martin. The projected 80–100 bombers at $550 million each, are slated to replace the ageing US fleet of B-52s, B-1s and B-2s, and has reignited debates over US government spending. Speculation about the ‘Next Generation Fighter’ (to replace F/A-18 Super Hornet and EA-18 Growler) has also begun. Meanwhile, on 4 February, the US completed a successful flight test of the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM), for the first time navigating pre-planned obstacles. The LRASM program comes in response to demands for counter anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) technology. The LRASM is claimed to ‘deliver game-changing capability’ and will be integrated on to the Air Force B-1 in 2018 and the Navy F/A-18 thereafter.

The United States Air Force (USAF) Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) has also been focused on new air force technology. The independent federal committee that met on 27 January, provided advice on the feasibility and timeline of new ideas. This year’s SAB tech picks were focused on improving quantum systems (rapid encryption, decryption, and better electro-optical infrared sensors), developing silver-bullet solutions to cyber vulnerabilities, and improving the survivability of unmanned systems.

Shifting focus to Europe, there are increasing reports of Russian military planes disrupting or approaching foreign airspaces. So far, France, the United Kingdom, and the Baltic Air Commission have reported Russian disruptions to civil aviation. Tensions are growing with the Russian military set to receive 200 new aircraft. The Russian Ministry of Defence also expressed its resolve to build Russian hard power, announcing that Russia would not allow anyone to ‘get a military advantage over Russia’.

Elsewhere, although the UK initially had concerns over Russia supplying Argentina with military support, it seems that China has stepped in. China and Argentina began preparations for a working group to look at the possible introduction of new Chinese fighters into the Argentine Air Force service. Also expanding its military is Iran which announced the delivery of its new second generation’ indigenously developed Saeghe-2 (Thunderbolt) jet. The Saeghe-2 jet is modelled on the twin-seat F-5F operational trainer.

Finally, Jordan and most recently Egypt have demonstrated the utility of airpower in responding to Islamic State (IS). In the wake of IS attacks on their citizens, Jordan’s fighter jets commenced airstrikes in Iraq and Syria on 5 February, with Egypt joining the fight over the weekend targeting IS training camps and weapons stockpiles in Libya.

Palmo Tenzin is an intern at ASPI. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.