Plan ‘B’ for the F-35
29 Jan 2019|

The Australian Defence Force’s equipment is good and getting better. But the ADF’s current and planned force structures have some significant limitations in their ability to deliver some crucial military effects. In an era of strategic uncertainty, both in the threats we will face and in the capacity of our allies to help us face them, it’s useful to think about ways to address those limitations sooner rather than later. As always, the perfect (particularly when delivered sometime off in the never-never) is the enemy of the good. Also, given the strategic uncertainty, a future government will need to increase defence spending, or at least realise that its current investment plan needs some serious reviewing.

So what are those limitations? First, we are acquiring the conventional ‘A’ variant of the best tactical aircraft in the world, the F-35 joint strike fighter. But its range is limited even with air-to-air refuelling, particularly if we want a sustained presence in an area, rather than one that involves flying out, launching munitions and flying home. Once a naval or amphibious taskforce is more than 1,000 nautical miles (1,852 kilometres) away from our air bases, it’s pretty much on its own. A thousand nautical miles isn’t very far in the Indo-Pacific, or even in our patch of it in the South Pacific.

Second, our amphibious taskforce has only limited ability to provide fire support to lodged land forces. The short range of naval gunfire means that ships have to get close to enemy defences, leaving them vulnerable to the land-based anti-ship missiles we ourselves are interested in acquiring. The navy’s landing helicopter docks, Canberra and Adelaide, can carry the armed Tiger helicopter, but experience in Afghanistan and the Middle East shows that even relatively unsophisticated adversaries can make life very difficult for helicopters.

Third, our fleet has a very limited long-range land-strike capability. The Harpoon missile has some ability to strike land targets, but even our air warfare destroyers can carry only eight of them. We could put a true long-range strike weapon on one of the AWDs, but it will always be competing with air defence missiles for a home in the ship’s vertical launch cells. The future frigate will have more cells, but the first ship won’t be operational until at least 2030 and then they’re scheduled to come only every two years. The future submarine is not being optimised for strategic strike.

Fourth, our fleet has some ability to strike surface maritime targets. But Russian and Chinese anti-ship missiles have longer ranges than the Harpoon. The integrated investment program contains a project to acquire a more modern missile, but the number of vertical launch cells will always be a limitation, and ships can reload only back in Australia. Plus, if our missile can reach them, theirs can probably reach us. Submarines certainly have a serious anti-surface capability, but we’ve only got six of them and won’t get more for at least 15 years.

Fifth, adversary aircraft armed with long-range anti-ship missiles can launch them from outside the range of our defensive missiles. Our fleet can try to shoot down missiles coming at it, but it can’t stop enemy aircraft from repeatedly launching, returning to base and rearming.

All of this may not really matter if we’re confident that all we’ll need to do is plug into a US-led taskforce and rely on it to provide all of those missing elements. But if the challenge we’re now facing is that we may not be able to always and absolutely rely on the US to provide that support when we need it, then our force structure has a problem.

All the effects outlined above can be delivered by the F-35: close air support; defensive and offensive counter-air; and maritime and (with the right missile) long-range land strike. The problem is we can’t necessarily deliver the F-35 to where we need it.

How do we get the F-35, with its sensor suite, its data-sharing capability and its weapons load, into the fight—and, by doing so, allow the rest of the ADF to fight where we need it to?

One approach would be to get access to more airbases. But there aren’t many airbases capable of supporting the F-35 in our immediate region, and we’d always be reliant on host-nation support. Operating from an established land base also means the adversary knows where you are and, with the help of a spotter with a mobile phone sitting by the airbase, when you’re coming.

You know where this is going. Put the F-35 on a ship. But that’s only part of it. The suggestion is to acquire a squadron of the short take-off and vertical landing variant of the JSF, the F-35B, and a third LHD optimised to support air operations. What does that give the ADF? The bottom line is, a lot more options that the adversary has to deal with. Even in an age of space surveillance and electronic warfare, it’s harder to deal with an enemy airbase that’s moving.

Moreover, the F-35B doesn’t need to operate from a ship and can use a lot more airfields than the conventional JSF. It will be interesting to see where the resourceful US Marine Corps takes its F-35B as it learns to operate it. Is a Swedish approach, of operating from highways, on the cards?

I’m well aware of the threats posed by Chinese anti-access capabilities, and I’m not suggesting that having F-35Bs will mean that the ADF can go up against the Chinese fleet alone in the South China Sea. But I can’t see how a maritime or amphibious taskforce that includes an LHD with an F-35B is somehow more vulnerable than one without it. And if it’s too dangerous to send an F-35B–equipped LHD to sea, then it’s certainly too dangerous to send an LHD without the F-35B but with over 1,000 troops on it to sea. Moreover, the F-35B, whether operating from land or from an LHD, gives a lot of capability in scenarios short of full-scale war against China. A dozen F-35Bs flying two sorties a day, each with 24 guided 250-pound bombs on board, would provide a lot of close air support in an insurgency situation like that which unfolded in the Philippine city of Marawi, for example.

And in terms of options, if we’re in a scenario where we’re mainly concerned with a submarine threat, the third LHD could operate as an anti-submarine helicopter carrier and at the same time retain much of its original amphibious capability.

There are certainly other options Australia could consider, but it’s hard to think of alternatives that are available now. The new US bomber, the B-21 Raider, will provide a lot of the effects described above when it enters service, but it’s likely to cost around A$1 billion per aircraft. Unmanned combat aerial vehicles are coming, but they can’t do the whole job yet. A third Spanish-built LHD and F-35B squadron could be delivered in around five years (even with the modifications that allow it to carry all of those munitions and aviation fuel), well before the navy’s new frigates and submarines arrive.

Yes, the F-35B has a shorter range and a lower payload than the conventional variant the RAAF is already getting. But it has exactly the same sensor suite, sensor fusion and data-sharing ability. These make every asset in a taskforce better. When you really get down to it, the question is, would we prefer to have an F-35 with slightly less capability in the fight, or no F-35 and potentially no ADF in the fight at all?