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Top 5 for 2019: Defence Connect’s best Air domain stories

2019 was a big year for Defence and defence industry, with major projects kicking off across the three branches. In this top five, we will cover the most popular Air domain stories of the year.

2019 was a big year for Defence and defence industry, with major projects kicking off across the three branches. 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).

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2019 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, 2019 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 in the mid-2010s, with concerns about Australia's long-range strike capability gap becoming increasingly topical talking points. 

1. US 'Raptor regret' raises questions and possibilities

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A US Air Force combatant commander in Australia for Exercise Talisman Sabre 2019 has seemingly expressed regret from within the USAF about allied access to the world’s leading fifth-generation fighter aircraft, the F-22 Raptor, raising questions about the possibility of a combined allied push to reopen and modernise the Raptor line.

The world's first fifth-generation aircraft, the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor was first introduced in the mid-2000s and designed to replace the US Air Force's fleet of ageing F-15C/D Eagles.

Incorporating full spectrum, low-observable stealth characteristics, super cruise, and super manoeuvrability in an air frame designed to fight, win and maintain US and allied air superiority against even the most advanced enemy integrated air-and-missile defence systems and air combat capabilities.

Shrinking defence budgets in the aftermath of the Cold War, a lack of credible peer adversary to US air superiority and a Congress-implemented export ban despite requests from Japan, Australia and Israel hindered even America's ability to field a credible fleet of these technological marvels – with an original order of 750 units cut to 195, the unit price rose beyond what was sustainable, paving the way for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter family to fill the role. 

Despite this, US Air Force Colonel Brian Baldwin, Group Commander 13th Air Expeditionary Force, who is in Australia to participate in the 2019 Exercise Talisman Sabre, has 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. 

The export ban on the F-22 was driven largely by US-concerns about the possibility of Israel exporting the top secret technologies present in the F-22 to potential adversaries like Russia and China

This ban subsequently left key US-allies like Australia, Japan and the UK with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, while also placing the increasing burden of establishing and maintaining air superiority and air dominance on a limited number of American Raptors and fourth-generation fighter aircraft. 

2. BAE announces upgrades to F-35 EW systems 

BAE Systems announced the successful insertion of new technology into its F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) electronic warfare (EW) systems that will "improve warfighters’ ability to conduct critical missions in contested airspace".

BAE has upgraded its AN/ASQ-239 system, which creates a smaller footprint, reducing volume and power requirements, as well as creating space for Block IV modernisation updates.

The AN/ASQ-239 system protects the F-35 with "advanced technology for next-generation missions to counter current and emerging threats", and is equipped with offensive and defensive EW options for both pilot and aircraft by integrating radar warning, targeting support and self protection, in order to detect and defeat surface and airborne threats.

The Digital Channelized Receiver/Techniques Generator and Tuner Insertion Program (DTIP) technology was introduced by BAE in 2018, with the first deliveries starting in July.  

BAE has the capability to deliver 11 monthly systems for the F-35 thanks to their $100 million manufacturing space and increased employee intake.

3. New era for Australia air combat and industrial capabilities 

Former defence Minister Christopher Pyne and former defence industry minister Steven Ciobo have announced a major step-change for Australia’s air combat and defence industrial capabilities with the unveiling of the Boeing Airpower Teaming System.

Designed for global defence customers by Boeing Australia, it is the company’s largest investment in a new unmanned aircraft program outside the US. The aircraft will complement and extend airborne missions through smart teaming with existing military aircraft.

A model of the Boeing Airpower Teaming System was unveiled at the Australian International Airshow by then-minister Pyne and Australia’s Chief of Air Force, Air Marshal Leo Davies, AO, CSC.

As a research and development activity, the Australian government and Boeing will produce a concept demonstrator called the Loyal Wingman – Advanced Development Program that will provide key learnings toward the production of the Boeing Airpower Teaming System.

The Boeing Airpower Teaming System is expected to:

  • Provide fighter-like performance, measuring 38-feet long (11.7 metres) and able to fly more than 2,000 nautical miles;
  • Integrate sensor packages onboard to support intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions and electronic warfare; and
  • Use artificial intelligence to fly independently or in support of manned aircraft while maintaining safe distance between other aircraft.

Defence will invest around $10 million per year, up to $40 million, to evolve development of this concept.

4. Defence announces down-selection of AIR 7003 platform

The federal government’s $1.3 billion program to deliver a cutting-edge armed remotely piloted aircraft system to Australia is one step closer after the announcement of the down-selection of the General Atomics' MQ-9B 'Sky Guardian' as the preferred platform for the AIR 7003 project.

Minister for Defence Linda Reynolds said this project will deliver Australia’s first armed medium-altitude long-endurance remotely piloted aircraft system.

"Cutting-edge technology of this kind, with advanced sensors and systems, would complement advanced aircraft such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and ensure that Australian Defence Force maintains state-of-the-art capability," Minister Reynolds said.

"Local companies that provide a range of innovative sensor, communication, manufacturing and life-cycle support capabilities will have the opportunity to showcase their capabilities throughout this development process," Minister Price said.

"Australian defence industries are world-class and are extremely well-placed to be involved in projects like this."

5. Lockheed Martin responds to F-35 performance concerns

Following another Pentagon report raising concerns about the capability of the F-35, Lockheed Martin has responded to reassure operators like the RAAF.

From its inception, the Joint Strike Fighter program has been plagued by problems, with the successful design, the Lockheed Martin F-35.

Frequently serving as a lightning rod with concerns about operational capability and aerodynamic performance, air frame corrosion and service life, low observability performance, and cyber espionage identified by uniformed personnel, academics and industry pundits. 

A recent report and review conducted by the US Department of Defense and the Pentagon into the F-35 has only added fuel to the fire, raising a number of concerns about the F-35 across each of the individual variants, including:

  • The service life of the F-35B variants adopted by the US Marines, UK Royal Navy and Royal Air Force and recently announced by the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) "may be as low as 2,100 [hours]", a significant shortfall of the expected service life of 8,000 hours. 
  • "Interim reliability and field maintenance metrics to meeting planned 80 per cent goal not being met", resulting in fewer aircraft being available to train translating in reduced readiness levels for pilots. 
  • Cyber security testing raised concerns about a number of vulnerabilities that "still have not been remedied", raising concerns given the growing concerns about complex, state-backed cyber attacks. 
  • US Air Force testing highlighted "unacceptable" accuracy when the F-35 was used in air-to-ground attack roles. 

In response to these concerns, original equipment manufacturer Lockheed Martin has responded to reassure operators of the F-35 and to correct the record yet again. 

A Lockheed Martin spokesperson told Defence Connect, "The F-35s operating today are delivering exceptional capability, lethality and connectivity around the globe. While we await the full details of the ongoing operational test phase, we are actively enhancing all aspects of the F-35 to ensure it exceeds warfighter demands and outpaces evolving threats."

Top 5 for 2019: Defence Connect’s best Air domain stories
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