Et tu, Cobber?

The latest air force to start looking at “beyond the F-35” options is… Australia?

Steve Trimble reports in Aviation Week:

A missing piece in Australia’s fighter inventory will be filled in the short term by extending the life of the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet for at least another decade and then afterward will be opened up for competition as a new generation of air combat aircraft are scheduled to arrive in service.

Since the early days of the F-35 program, Australia has planned to replace all its combat aircraft with 100 F-35s. So far it has bought 72, the balance of the force comprising 28 F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, ordered as an interim replacement for the F-111 due to the F-35’s late arrival. But that hasn’t dented Australia’s firm support for the program, nor Australian officialdom’s impatient dismissal of any criticism, with particularly withering scorn leveled at Air Power Australia, the think tank headed by academic Carlo Kopp and former flight test engineer Peter Goon. So that makes this report interesting.

Why might Australia be holding its options open? Consider that when Australia originally committed to the F-35, China’s air force resembled a Russian Cold War museum, rather than the peer threat it presents today. In response to the AW&ST story, Australian Strategic Policy Institute senior analyst Malcolm Davis, certainly a mainstream defense thinker, tweeted:

I’d be in favour of us jumping on board with sixth generation programs, rather than simply defaulting to more F-35As. We need longer range and endurance, greater air dominance and greater ability for longer-range strike…. Certainly, that can be achieved through a mix of F-35As and autonomous systems, but I think RAAF would be missing a valuable opportunity if it ignored sixth generation capabilities that will emerge in the 2030s.

“Longer range and endurance, greater air dominance and greater ability for longer-range strike”. Where have we heard that before? From APA, that’s who. Their original idea was to upgrade the F-111, but the very standard tactical fighter reach of the F-35, and its need for refuelling within the reach of Red air, was the core of their criticism.

There are other factors that will be influencing Australian planning. The RAAF has been blessed with a lot of acquisition money since 2000, with F-35s and Super Hornet, the E-7 Wedgetail, tankers and a new C2 system, and now it’s the Navy’s turn, with new surface ships and the ambitious and expensive AUKUS nuclear submarine project. The F-35 fleet will need the Block 4/TR3 avionics and the new engine core to remain compatible with the global fleet, at a unit cost that nobody wants to estimate in public, which is never a good sign. And Australian planners may have been holding out hope that a late-2020s batch of F-35s would have an all-new engine and a useful range increase, but that doesn’t look likely now.

What is significant in the bigger picture is that, like the UK, Australia seems willing to contemplate a multi-type fighter force in the long term. Regardless of the F-35 program’s performance, the interesting question is whether and at what point the “one size fits all” approach to specifying and building combat aircraft ceased being optimal. That approach first materialized with the F-4E Phantom and became near-universal at the end of the 80s with the cancellation of the GD/McDonnell Douglas A-12 and the Grumman A-6F Intruder II. From what we hear of the USAF’s Next Generation Air Dominance project, it represents a break of some sort with that concept, albeit at a frightening cost and in a non-exportable form.

But if I was in the combat aircraft business, I would be looking hard at the world beyond the F-35, and I would not be thinking in terms of a sixth-generation fighter, or any other constraining label. It might be something very different.

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