MELBOURNE, Australia — One of the United States’ most steadfast allies, seen widely as a lynchpin of security in the Asia-Pacific region, is in the process of recapitalizing its own air power capabilities and developing a local defense industry that it hopes will be globally competitive in the near future.
Although Australia is somewhat geographically isolated from the rest of the world (with a former Australian prime minister reportedly referring to it as the back end of the world — although he used a more colorful term), the country is very much connected to the world and rather dependent on seaborne trade with Asia, thus it is invested in regional security.
Its armed forces have also deployed as part of coalition forces to Afghanistan and Iraq as well as helped in the fight against the Islamic State group. There is strong support across the Australian political spectrum for its alliance with the U.S. and for maintaining the global rules-based order.
The country, which is hosting the biennial Avalon Airshow in the southern state of Victoria later this month, recently welcomed the first of its Lockheed Martin-made F-35A fighter jets in-country — part of a transformation aimed at modernizing the Royal Australian Air Force into a service that will be networked to its Army and Navy counterparts.
A fifth-generation air force
Under Plan Jericho, the Royal Australian Air Force, or RAAF, seeks to transform itself into an integrated, networked force that can deliver air power effects in the information age. A key part of this is by realizing the potential of the increased data and situational awareness that will be made available as the service brings a range of modern aircraft into service. These include 72 F-35As, which will replace the F/A-18A/B Hornet as the service’s main combat aircraft, backed by 24 Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornets and 11 EA-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft.
The F/A-18A/B fighters, which are known as Classic Hornets in Australia, are being progressively withdrawn from service, with the last aircraft to be retired around 2022. Canada will buy 25 of the Classics; it will field 18 and keep the rest for spares. The first aircraft will reportedly arrive in Canada as Defense News goes to press and will enter Canadian service in the middle of this year.
Australia is also replacing its Lockheed Martin AP-3C Orion anti-submarine maritime patrol aircraft, with the Boeing P-8A Poseidon and the Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton high-altitude, long-endurance UAV taking over the maritime domain awareness mission.
Delivery of the P-8As is ongoing, with seven of 15 aircraft already in Australia, while the six Tritons will start arriving in 2023.
The P-8As have carried out missions enforcing United Nations sanctions on North Korea, with an aircraft beginning operations in December from the Japanese island of Okinawa.
Meanwhile, Australia has conducted connectivity trials on its airlift fleet as part of Plan Jericho. Working with industry, one of the RAAF’s Lockheed Martin C-130J Super Hercules airlifters was fitted with wideband satellite communications equipment and wing drop tanks, and will eventually be equipped with the Litening AT electro-optical targeting pod as a means to improve its tactical capability.
Procurement road map
Australia’s last defense whitepaper, published in 2016, provided insight into future procurement programs, some of which include a fast medevac platform and a fleet of special operations helicopters.
The latter would need to fit onboard the RAAF’s Boeing C-17 strategic airlifters; and according to the whitepaper, the helo will be used to “insert, extract and provide fire support for small teams of Special Forces undertaking tasks ranging from tactical observation through to counter-terrorism missions, or hostage recovery.”
The investment plan released alongside the whitepaper said the chosen type needs to be small enough so that “three or four” can fit inside a C-17 as part of a small force element.
The whitepaper also flagged the potential replacement of the RAFF’s lead-in fighter training system. The replacement program was expected to begin in 2022 and last until the end of the next decade. The service is currently operating the BAE Systems Hawk 127 as its lead-in fighter trainer, with the fleet nearing the end of an upgrade program to keep the type relevant for training pilots who will go on to fly advanced fighters.
The Hawks are expected to continue service in Australia until around 2026. But Steve Drury, BAE Systems Australia’s director of aerospace and integrated systems, told Defense News that the service life of the aircraft could be extended by another 10 years.
During an interview last year, the chief of the RAAF, Air Marshal Leo Davies, told Defense News that the service was considering several different options for a future fighter trainer, and that extending the Hawk’s service was also under consideration.
Australia is also seeking unmanned aircraft to operate from Royal Australian Navy ships. The service is conducting trials with the Schiebel S-100 Camcopter, and under phases 4 and 5 of Project SEA 129 it will look to acquire more aircraft for forthcoming offshore patrol vessels and frigates.
A larger role for industry
The current Australian government has prioritized the development of a sustainable local industry and has made substantial efforts to ensure local industry is heavily involved in production and sustainment.
Several Australian companies have secured a healthy slice of F-35 manufacturing work, with components for the vertical tail, weapons bay and skin panels among a host of components manufactured in Australia as part of the jet’s global supply chain.
In addition, Australian companies will be involved in the F-35 sustainment program, with BAE Systems Australia serving as the south Pacific regional airframe depot and the Asia-Pacific regional parts warehouse for the program. In 2016, four Australian companies secured regional depot maintenance responsibility for 64 of the first 65 tier 1 F-35 components.
The next step for Australian industry could be to grow its share of the global defense market.
Last year, Britain chose the Boeing E-7 Wedgetail for its airborne early warning fleet — an aircraft already in use by Australia. Steven Ciobo, Australia’s minister for defense industry, sees an opportunity to work with Britain through cooperative development and industry collaboration.
“Australian industry, including the more than 200 Australian companies that have contributed to our own Wedgetail acquisition and sustainment, stands to benefit from what could become one of Australia’s most significant defense exports,” he said in October.
The Australian government has made boosting defense exports a priority. Last year it released its defense export strategy that provided a system to plan, guide and measure defense export outcomes.
The government has also provided $14 million in additional annual funding from 2018-2019 to support defense exports, and it will set up a new defense export office within the Defence Department to drive implementation of the strategy, with the goal of growing Australia’s defense industry into a top 10 global defense exporter by 2028.