defence connect logo



Top 5 – Defence Connect’s best Strike & Air Combat stories

Top 5 – Defence Connect’s best Strike & Air Combat stories

2020 was a big year for the nation, with Defence and defence industry playing an important role in the nation's post-COVID recovery. In this top five, we will cover the most popular Air domain stories of the year.

2020 was a big year for the nation, with Defence and defence industry playing an important role in the nation's post-COVID recovery. In this top five, we will cover the most popular Air domain stories of the year.

It has been a massive year for the Royal Australian Air Force, which has seen major progress across the acquisition cycle including on some of Australia's largest Defence projects, with the growing fleet of fifth-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighters and announcements around Australia's acquisition of an armed remotely piloted aerial system (RPAS).

2020 has also seen major progress and advancements across the Air Force's fleet of E-7A Wedgetail airborne early warning command and control aircraft, KC-30A Multi Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) and air lift aircraft fleet. 


However, it was a year dominated by a focus on air combat and strike capabilities with public conversation focusing on the F-35 and America's decision to cancel the F-22 Raptor, with concerns about Australia's long-range strike capability gap becoming increasingly topical talking points. 

1. Japan’s next-gen fighter progress responds to China’s fifth-gen evolution

It has been a long road. Japan’s Ministry of Defense has revealed that progress was gathering pace on the nation’s next-generation air dominance fighter program as Asia’s rising superpower, China, continues to enhance its own next-generation air dominance capabilities.

The current global and regional transition from fourth to fifth-generation fighter aircraft, like the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter platforms, is reshaping the role of fighter fleets and the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region.  

The increasing capability of the specialised Russian and Chinese platforms, the Japanese government has long committed itself to developing a comparable fighter capability, with a focus on air superiority – in response developing the X-2 Shinshin concept design, drawing on design cues from the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor.

It is envisaged that Japan’s next-generation fighter, now named the F-X, will fill the role of the retiring F-15J air superiority fighter aircraft currently operated by the Japanese Air-Self Defense Force (JASDF), with the F-35A and B variants providing the low-end air-combat capabilities currently assigned to the F-16-based F-2 aircraft.

As China has fielded increasing numbers of the J-20 and FC-31, combined with the continued capability enhancement programs for the Su-series of fighter aircraft operated by both the Russian and Chinese air forces, respectively, the Japanese Ministry of Defense recently confirmed they had upped the ante with the formal preparations for a “partnership framework”

It is aimed that the planned Future Fighter Development Office was first mentioned in the 30 August budget request for FY2020.

In the budget request, the Japan Ministry of Defense (MoD) urged the Japanese government to approve the launch of a Japan-led aircraft development program that can play a crucial role in the development of the country’s next fighter aircraft.

It has been revealed that the JASDF and MoD will determine a preliminary partnership framework for the development of the F-X fighter aircraft. While details remain light, it is expected that the formal draft will be finalised by December 2020. 

Additionally, it has been revealed that funding for the F-X development program will reach about JPY28 billion (US$256.5 million) in FY2020.

A total of JPY16.9 billion of this funding (60 per cent) will be spent on “F-X related research projects”, said the spokesperson, with the remaining JPY11.1 billion (40 per cent) allocated for “conceptual design in Japan-led development” activity. 

2. ‘A truly generational leap in capability’: Air Combat Group Commander spruiks JSF

The F-35 has suffered its fair share of criticisms, but Australia’s growing fleet of fifth-generation super jets appears to have shrugged this off to integrate with the rest of the Royal Australian Air Force to demonstrate its lethal capabilities.

It is designed to be the most lethal, technologically advanced air combat capability ever fielded by the Royal Australian Air Force. The F-35 combines low observability, unprecedented levels of sensor fusion and computational power, and a suite of next-generation weapons to boot, but it hasn't been without its teething problems. 

Exercise Lightning Storm provided the RAAF with the opportunity to develop, study and train at a truly national scale, despite the limitations imposed by COVID-19, and was specifically designed to put the F-35 through its paces as the fleet in Australia continues to grow. 

Speaking exclusively to Defence Connect, Commander Air Combat Group (ACG), Air Commodore Tim Alsop, shed some light on the training program and the performance of the F-35, as the RAAF put its new wonder jet through its paces. 

"To say that the F-35 performed wonderfully is an understatement, it truly is a generational and transformational capability for the Royal Australian Air Force. Throughout the exercise, JSF really came into its own," AIRCDRE Alsop said. 

Exercise Lightning Storm saw a spectrum of RAAF assets combined around the nation, ranging from the E-7A Wedgetail Airborne Early Warning & Control (AEWC), the F/A-18A Hornets, F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, KC-30A Tankers and Hawk Lead-in fighters all combine with the F-35. 

The exercise also provided an opportunity for the Air Force ground elements, particularly support elements from No 3 Squadron, combined with the No 3 Control and Reporting Unit (3CRU) utilising their TPS-77 radar capability to provide an essential surveillance picture which was transmitted by satellite to the unit's control and reporting centre (CRC) at RAAF Base Williamtown.

AIRCDRE Alsop explained, "The exercise was designed from the ground up to validate the deployability and interoperability of the F-35 - this emphasised 'deploying' the F-35 and its support infrastructure 'away from barracks', which we were able to do in an 'expeditionary' manner despite not actually leaving the base."

Originally planning to travel to RAAF Base Tindal to conduct Exercise Lightning Storm, No 3 Squadron instead put its personnel and systems to the test by conducting a simulated deployment in their own hangars at RAAF Base Williamtown.

"The nationwide effort required to support the exercise is testament to the air combat group, paired with aerial refuelling, E-7 Wedgetail AEW&C and the people around the country who worked to provide proof of concept," AIRCDRE Alsop added.  

In addition to 3CRU's assets, Exercise Lightning Storm included RAAF No. 114 Mobile Control and Reporting Unit's deployable Mobile Control and Reporting Centre (MCRC) operating out of Oakey in Queensland, the E-7A Wedgetail, KC-30A multi-role tanker transports, F-35A Lightning and other fighter aircraft from Williamtown and Amberley airbases.

AIRCDRE Alsop added, "The whole exercise really enabled us to bring together the entire spectrum of capabilities delivered by F-35 and the rest of the RAAF's inventory, the extra day really expanded this and showed off what this impressive piece of kit is capable of."

3. Startling Raptor availability raises the question, please sir, can we have some more?

There are those who say it will never happen, but with the revelation that the US Air Force is only capable of deploying 33 combat coded F-22 Raptors at any one time in the face of rapidly modernising peer competitor air forces begs the question, can allies like Australia and Japan push the US to overturn both the export ban and the end of production?

Throughout history, military operations have favoured those who occupy the high ground. Command of the skies empowers both offensive and defensive operations, while also providing powerful deterrence options as part of the broader implementation of power projection and national security doctrines.

Air dominance reflects the pinnacle of the high ground, where both a qualitative and quantitative edge in doctrine, equipment and personnel support the unrivalled conduct of offensive or defensive air combat operations.

Retired US Air Force General, Lieutenant General David Deptula has declared that the US can now only rely on 33 F-22s to be ready to fight at any one time, shedding a rather startling image of the US Air Force's capacity to establish and maintain air dominance against a peer competitor. 

"In 2018, the F-22 mission capable rate was 52 per cent. In 2018, the F-22 mission capable rate was 52 perc ent. Real-time mission planning assumes 1/3 in the fight; 1/3 preparing to launch; 1/3 recovering [returning/landing]. So one could count on about 21 F-22s airborne in a fight at any one time … across the entire USAF F-22 inventory," Lt Gen Deptula states. 

"A surge with adequate preparation could certainly increase this number. When deployed for combat, mission capable rates average well above 80 per cent, so bump up the number to 98 mission-capable aircraft available with about 33 in the fight at any one time.

"We’re already past the point of being uncomfortable with the numbers. There are zero attrition aircraft in the current fleet. Every airplane that is lost has a significant impact on the force."

The limited number and availability of the Raptor, explained by LGen Deptula, was expanded upon by US Air Force Colonel Brian Baldwin, Group Commander 13th Air Expeditionary Force, who was in Australia to participate in the 2019 Exercise Talisman Sabre, who set tongues wagging with statements made to the Australian media regarding allied access to the formidable air dominance platform. 

"I wish we had more of them. I wish all of our closest friends could have some. We obviously have to take care of where we take the jet so we keep it as a special capability and it’s a pleasure to be able to bring it down to Australia," Col Baldwin is reported saying at RAAF Base Amberley in south-east Queensland last year. 

4. Well on the way to developing a ‘world-class Air Force’: Chief of Air Force

The Royal Australian Air Force is in the midst of a well-publicised transformational recapitalisation and modernisation program designed to deliver an integrated, fifth-generation air combat capability. For Chief of Air Force, Air Marshal Mel Hupfeld, AO, DSC, this modernisation is part of developing a “world-class” capability.

Throughout history, military operations have favoured those who occupy the high ground. Command of the skies empowers both offensive and defensive operations, while also providing powerful deterrence options as part of the broader implementation of power projection and national security doctrines. 

Speaking exclusively to Defence Connect's Phil Tarrant, Chief of Air Force, Air Marshal Mel Hupield, AO, DSC, explained the importance of this transition, telling Defence Connect, "I'm so thankful and privileged to lead an Air Force as we have and I gain the enduring legacy from those that came before me to deliver an Air Force with world-leading capabilities.

"The F-35 coming into service now as we continue to transition, we've got P-8s, E-7 Wedgetail, it's truly a world-class Air Force. What that's given me is really some luxury in time and ability to think about how I can better use that Air Force, how I can better integrate it as a part of our Joint Force and the capabilities that are represented by those platforms, supported by a very capable, intelligent, and skilled workforce, allows me to actually deliver airpower effects."

One of the primary focus points of the unprecedented level of modernisation and capability development transforming the RAAF is the focus on developing Air Force as a critical component of the 'Joint Force', a concept designed to have each of the respective branches of the ADF developing and operating complementary capabilities seamlessly in support of the tactical and strategic objectives. 

The full Defence Connect Insight podcast with Chief of Air Force, Air Marshal Mel Hupfeld, AO, DSC, is available here 

5. Op-Ed: The Loyal Wingman for Singapore’s air force?

The Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) is in the midst of a far-ranging transformation that constitutes a larger effort by the city-state to transition its military to the next generation, with the teaming of traditional manned and unmanned platforms expected to play a pivotal role, explains Ben Ho.

In fact, the vision of the Singapore Armed Forces a decade and beyond from now, or SAF 2030, is one underpinned by cutting-edge capabilities that are highly network-capable, and recent procurements are exactly that.

In the airpower realm, Singapore announced in January that it will purchase four Lockheed-Martin F-35B Lightning jets, with an option for another eight. The fifth-generation Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) is slated to replace the F-16 Falcons currently in service as the latter will approach obsolescence in the next decade.

Going forward, the RSAF should perhaps explore the feasibility of the “Loyal Wingman” unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) concept that is currently being developed for the Royal Australian Air Force and with the export market in mind.

This is an idea that Peter Layton of the Australia-based Griffith Asia Institute first broached in a 2019 Interpreter article on Singapore’s F-35 decision and is worth exploring in much more depth.

All in all, the Loyal Wingman is arguably a suitable fit for the future RSAF, however, it is still very early days as the concept itself surfaced only last year.

Though its prototype flight is slated for this year, this remains to be seen given the travails of Boeing during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. Nevertheless, the RSAF should – at the very least – do well to monitor its development going forward.

When the Loyal Wingman program becomes more mature, Singapore could perhaps request for a role in it akin to that during the early years of the JSF program.

Ben Ho is an associate research fellow with the Military Studies Programme at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. 

You need to be a member to post comments. Become a member for free today!