While the ‘new car smell’ is still fresh in the Royal Australian Air Force’s new F-35s, ASPI senior analyst Malcolm Davis has set the RAAF and decision-makers a serious challenge – get started on planning to replace the F-35s now, before it’s too late.
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.
The concept of air dominance proved influential as a tactical and strategic operating concept, with the use of tactical fighters providing air dominance, close air support and strategic bomber escort essential to the Allied triumph in the Second World War.
Designed to establish and maintain air superiority or air dominance, fighter aircraft have evolved from relatively simple wood and canvas airframes during the First World War to the highly manoeuvrable, long-range aircraft that dominated the skies of Europe and the Pacific during the Second World War; the latest two generations of fighters are the pinnacle of these earlier designs.
Indo-Pacific Asia's fighter fleets are made up of fighter aircraft ranging from third to fifth-generation aircraft, each with unique capabilities and roles within the regional balance of power.
Prior to diving into the concept of the 'high-low' fighter mix, it is critical to understand the differences between the generations of aircraft operating in the Indo-Pacific.
Fighter aircraft, like every facet of military technology, are rapidly evolving. 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 growing success of Russian and Chinese fifth-generation fighter aircraft like the Su-57, J-20 and JF-31 – combined with reports of Russia offering the Su-57 for export to the Chinese People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) – is threatening to serve as a repeat of the air combat battles over Vietnam that saw dedicated Soviet-designed and built air superiority fighter aircraft severely challenge US air superiority despite the advances in air-to-air missiles promising the "end of traditional dog fights".
Further compounding these issues, China's development of the next-generation J/H-XX, F-111 style tactical bomber is further limiting the responses available to Australia, the US, Japan and other key regional and global allies.
Fighter aircraft are also limited by their limited range and dependence on aerial refuelling and airborne early warning, command and control platforms that are becoming increasingly vulnerable to a proliferation of advanced ground, sea and air-based anti-aircraft missiles, significantly hindering the air combat capability of modern air forces.
Meanwhile, the advent, development and increasing proliferation of unmanned and autonomous aerial combat platforms is adding a further variable into the ever-evolving equation that is contemporary air combat planning, operations and capability development.
Recognising these existing and emerging challenges to Australia's air combat capability, ASPI senior analyst Malcolm Davis has penned a piece calling for the Royal Australian Air Force to begin planning for the replacement of its F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to avoid a repeat of costly and dangerous capability gaps.
Dr Davis sets the scene: "Australia’s 2020 Defence Strategic Update and accompanying Force Structure Plan outline the next 20 years of development for the Royal Australian Air Force’s strike and air combat capability. Some notional funding streams are provided in the force structure plan that define the priorities for capability development and raise some intriguing questions for future planners to consider.
"At the centre of the plans for the RAAF, of course, are the F-35A fighter jets, which are due to achieve final operational capability by the end of 2023. The Force Structure Plan also allocates funds for ‘additional air combat capability’ between 2025 and 2030. It doesn’t specify what that additional capability will be, though it says that the government ‘is committed to … support of the F/A-18F Super Hornet strike aircraft, and acquiring enhanced air-launched munitions’."
Adding to this, Dr Davis states, "Defence’s 2016 integrated investment program contemplated acquiring a fourth squadron of F-35s, stating that the Super Hornet fleet has been extended beyond its initial bridging capability timeline and is now planned to be replaced around 2030. Its replacement could include either a fourth operational squadron of Joint Strike Fighters or possibly a yet to be developed unmanned combat aerial vehicle. The decision on the replacement of this air combat capability will be best undertaken post-2020 when technology and emerging threat trends are better understood."
The 'manned/unmanned' interface
Australia's world-leading development of autonomous and unmanned, 'teaming' platforms like Boeing's Airpower Teaming System or BATS is identified by Dr Davis as one of the key force multipliers within the makeup of Australia's future air combat capability.
These developments, combined with similar such programs currently underway across the world, but particularly in the US with its SkyBorg program, of which the BATS is a contender, also provides opportunities for the nation and the Air Force to adequately meet the growing range of airpower missions, fill capability gaps and maximise the available platforms and capabilities available to military planners.
Dr Davis also believes such platforms have significant margins for growth and development, stating, "The 2020 plan doesn’t mention a fourth F-35 squadron, but elevates support for what it calls ‘teaming air vehicles’. It anticipates their acquisition between 2025 and 2040, which would fit in with decisions being made on the future of the F/A-18F versus an additional squadron of F-35s.
"Boeing’s loyal wingman drone for its ‘airpower teaming system’, being developed in Australia, could emerge as a good solution to the RAAF’s long-range-strike requirements by the end of this decade. It could be evolved into a more capable platform, with greater range, payload and speed, from its current prototype design. It wouldn’t be the equivalent of acquiring the B-21 Raider stealth bomber, but an evolved loyal wingman would represent something closer to a true long-range-strike platform than simply purchasing another squadron of F-35s, without all the political, financial and strategic challenges associated with the B-21."
Dr Davis adds, "The 2020 plan also suggests that the RAAF must consider a replacement for the E/A-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft between the late 2020s and 2040. Keeping the Growlers operating alongside the Super Hornets makes good sense.
"But if the Super Hornets are retired by the mid-2030s, that would be an ideal time to explore new approaches to electronic warfare and attack. Once again, the sensible solution would be to take full advantage of unmanned systems wherever possible. One option might be for Australia to team up with the United States to develop a stealthy and highly survivable variant of the loyal wingman, with the US supplying the complex and classified electronic warfare payload onboard."
International collaboration and towards 'next-gen air dominance'
The race for 'sixth-generation' fighter aircraft to succeed the F-35 and F-22 is well and truly underway, with nations around the world currently in the concept definition, design and early technology demonstration phase of the capability life cycle.
Programs such as America's Next Generation Air Dominance fighter program, Britain's Team Tempest, the European FCAS and Japan's highly publicised F-3 program are powerful reminders that technology and capability don't stop, rather the development of the next generation of capabilities is constantly in the forefront of other powers' minds.
For Dr Davis, this should serve as a powerful motivator for Australia's own strategic planning, long-term development and capability acquisition plans.
He explains this, stating, "Looking further into the future, the plan mentions the period between 2035 and 2040 as the beginning of a process for considering a replacement for the F-35.
"In fact, something would be amiss if the RAAF weren’t discussing the F-35 replacement right now and thinking about how Australia could work with the US, the UK and other allies on fielding new types of air combat platforms much sooner.
"For example, the US is no longer speaking about ‘sixth-generation’ fighters, and recognises the risks of slow, decades-long acquisition cycles for a future fighter. The focus of its next-generation air dominance program is now on a ‘digital century series’ approach of rapid development of small numbers of several types of airframes over short periods, as few as five years.
"It would be a mistake for the RAAF to embark on another 20-year acquisition project to eventually replace the F-35 from the late 2040s, yet that’s exactly what the force structure plan implies. Waiting until 2035 to begin developing a replacement ignores the clear trends that suggest a desire for faster capability acquisition."
In finalising his remarks, Dr Davis is particularly pointed in his assessment, stating, "The RAAF shouldn’t wait until 2035 to get started on developing these types of capabilities. Its plans to complement, and then replace, the F-35 can be accelerated, and it would make sense to promote collaboration with the US and the UK in this endeavour to boost the RAAF’s air combat capability sooner."
The increasingly challenging operating environment emerging on Australia’s doorstep – combined with similar concerns developing among allies, including the US, UK and, more broadly, the European Union – raises questions about the Royal Australian Air Force’s plans to adequately defend Australia’s airspace against increasingly capable threats.
Accordingly, is it time for Australia to be involved with the development and introduction of a highly capable, high-speed, low-observable, air superiority-focused platform to complement the low-end capability of other platforms, future-proofing the capability and enhancing the interoperability of the Royal Australian Air Force and allied air forces?
For Australia, the future operating environment to the nation’s immediate north will necessitate investment in a highly capable, long-range, air dominance fighter aircraft to complement the F-35 Joint Strike Fighters and replace the ageing F-18 E/F Super Hornets by the mid 2030s.