The Big Airpower Question: What Comes After the F-35?
Despite continuing challenges with the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) development, the F-35 program forms the core of Australia’s future airpower. Australia remains committed to the JSF program, with the F-35A expected to reach initial operational capability sometime between financial year 2019–20 and 2022–23. The acquisition of the F-35A JSF, alongside the Super Hornets and the acquisition of 12 E/A-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft, form the shape of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF)’s main ‘strike’ component of its future force structure through to the late 2040s or even early 2050s.
Yet 30 years is a long time in the development of modern airpower. The defense policy community should therefore be considering now how Australia can best sustain the military-technological advantage of planned future air combat capabilities, including the JSF, through their life of type. Advances in adversary C4ISR, air combat capabilities, and ground-based air defense technologies are certain to occur over the life time of those platforms in a manner that could erode their effectiveness, notably in anti-access area denial environments. Military technological advantage is always transitory and unless policy planning looks at capability development, the loss of that advantage will likely occur.
For example, a clear opportunity exists for Australia to forge closer involvement with the United States over the development of a sixth generation air combat capability. U.S. plans for the sixth generation fighter are gathering pace, even to the extent of promoting ideas for such aircraft during the recent Super Bowl! The U.S. Navy’s F/A-XX could field a successor to the F/A-18E/F as early as 2035, while the U.S. Air Force F-X project, known as ‘Next Generation Air Dominance,’ may formally begin as early as 2018 with the aim of replacing the F-22 by the 2030s. In another perspective on the future, unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAVs) clearly have a role, perhaps controlled from a larger stealthy manned aircraft acting as a mothership. France and the UK continue their Dassault Neuron and BAE Systems Taranis demonstrator projects.
Conversely, the U.S. Navy has opted to convert the Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) platform into an airborne tanker and extend the life of the F/A-18E/F. Although a step back from an unmanned future, the Carrier Based Aerial Refueling System (CBARS) capability could forge the path for more advanced platforms. All those options are worth considering in any policy analysis on where to take ADF air combat capability in the 2030s and beyond.
The ADF’s 2012 Defence Capability Plan refers to follow-on development for the F-35A through the life of type that could include block upgrades and technology refreshes through collaboration with the private and public sector. One option in that regard is that as the United States moves to update the F-35A, as a key international partner in the JSF program Australia would be well placed to benefit from such efforts as part of a joint collaborative effort.