AVALON, Australia — Although no major orders for military equipment were announced at the Australian International Airshow at Avalon last week, officials revealed that two Australian defense aerospace projects have achieved important milestones, and they also detailed progress on other programs.
Despite unseasonably wet weather, the three trade days of the show were reasonably well patronized, yet the effects of shrinking defense budgets were apparent with the absence of primes such as Boeing and Raytheon from the expo halls.
The U.S. Air Force was a major participant, flying the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor — one of only a handful of displays set to be performed by the Raptor this year if sequestration takes effect.
Defence Minister Stephen Smith opened the show by announcing that the Royal Australian Air Force’s Airbus KC-30A tanker had achieved initial operating capability (IOC) and its Boeing Vigilare network-centric command-and-control system had been granted final operating capability status.
For the KC-30A, it means the ability to refuel the Air Force’s “classic” F/A-18A/B Hornet fleet day and night.
“For Air Force this is an incredibly important event because it now starts to give our Air Force some global reach across the world,” Air Marshal Geoff Brown, Australia’s chief of air force, said after the minister’s announcement.
“Vigilare is also important to our overall defense force. It takes 245 inputs from 45 different systems and integrates it into one air picture that takes us across the whole north of Australia,” he said.
Smith also told reporters that he was confident the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program would succeed despite the recent fleet grounding caused by a crack found in one of the aircraft’s Pratt & Whitney F135 engines, but reiterated that he would not allow an air combat capability gap to occur between Hornet retirement and F-35A introduction around 2020.
“I’ve always been confident that in the end the joint strike project would get up, that it would be successful, and that’s because the entire weight of the United States is behind it,” he said. “I remain confident that the Joint Strike Fighter will get up, but the risks continue to be schedule and cost.”
One day after Smith reaffirmed his confidence in the F-35A, up to 100 of which will be acquired to replace the Hornet force, Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, head of the U.S. JSF Joint Program Office, told local reporters at Avalon that he thought Lockheed and Pratt & Whitney would perform better if they had more skin in the game.
“What I see Lockheed Martin and Pratt & Whitney doing today is behaving as if they are getting ready to sell me the very last F-35 and the very last engine,” Bogdan told a media roundtable. “They are trying to squeeze every nickel out of that last F-35 and engine.”
Australian Aerospace CEO Jens Goennemann briefed reporters at Avalon about the status of the Australian Army’s two major helicopter projects, the Eurocopter Tiger armed reconnaissance helicopter and 90 multirole helicopters (MRHs).
Australia has 22 Tigers in service and is in the process of receiving 46 MRH 90s — which will be used by both the Army and the Royal Australian Navy. Both helicopters have had a troubled introduction to service and the MRH 90 is on the government’s Projects of Concern list.
“I am confident Tiger will declare IOC shortly,” he said. “MRH 90 will be presented to the Airworthiness Board in March and I am confident that we’ve ticked all the boxes for it to be awarded its Military Type Certificate at the end of the first quarter this year.”
Australian Aerospace is a subsidiary of Eurocopter and has delivered 19 of the 46 MRH 90s.
Major projects in the Australian Defence Capability Plan include new rotary and fixed-wing training programs, known as AIR 9000 Phase 7 and AIR 5428, respectively. Australian Aerospace is bidding its EC135 helicopter for the former and Goennemann said his company was expecting the down-selection of two bidders shortly.
The Pilatus PC-21 and Beechcraft T-6C Texan II are vying for the fixed-wing trainer project and although both aircraft were at the show, company presence was low-key.
The next major air project will be the replacement of the Air Force VIP fleet of Boeing 737 BBJs and Bombardier Challenger 604s in the 2016-2017 timeframe. Although a request for information has yet to be released, Airbus Corporate Jets had an example of its ACJ319 at Avalon for the first time and Gulfstream Aerospace premiered its latest G650 and G280 business jets. These aircraft were on display alongside executive jets from Bombardier, Dassault and Embraer.