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The Big Airpower Question: What Comes After the F-35?

February 16, 2016 Topic: Security Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: F-35TechnologyDefenseSecurityAir Force

The Big Airpower Question: What Comes After the F-35?

It’s a decades-long process to get new fighters operational.

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.

A more capable F-35 (an ‘F-35E’) may be an option in the future but so much investment is going into the JSF program as it is currently configured, that any move to develop an ‘E’ is unlikely to occur soon, and updating an ‘A’ to an ‘E’ may be challenging in an engineering sense. If updating is possible, the focus of that process should be on software, sensors and weapons. The potential for powering cutting edge technologies such as directed-energy weapons and countering adversary ‘counter-stealth’ sensors; acquiring advanced standoff weapons; and enhancing the aircraft’s networking and data fusion capabilities against adversary EW and cyber-attack is another likely requirement. But real advances in aerodynamic performance and maneuverability, speed, range and payload are likely not possible in the F-35 airframe.

Other potential partnerships might emerge to help Australia sustain a capability edge in its future air power requirements. Japan recently unveiled its X-2 technology demonstrator which will serve to test concepts and capabilities for a future Japanese F-3 fifth generation fighter that could begin production by 2027. Although Japan’s past record of manufacture of fighter aircraft has been spotty, there’s much greater incentive now for Tokyo to get the F-3 right, given its highly challenging security environment—a rising China challenging a United States whose power is declining in relative terms, and the problem of an erratic North Korea—as well as increased commercial competition with South Korea that’s pursuing its own ‘KF-X’ fighter project. Australia and Japan are pursuing closer defense relations, and if Japan wins the Competitive Evaluation Process for SEA 1000, that will deepen the strategic partnership between Tokyo and Canberra to an even greater degree.  If Tokyo can produce a viable product that meets Australia’s requirements, there’s no reason why Australia shouldn’t also collaborate with Japan in other areas of military capability, such as air combat capabilities, which will integrate with US sensors, weapons and networks.

The final point, as always, is money. The Abbott Government committed to growing defense spending to 2 percent of GDP by 2023, although it remains unclear whether that commitment will be carried forward after the upcoming election, whichever party wins. Although Government must balance fiscal responsibility with responding to security risks, the future strategic outlook is increasingly challenging and a strong argument can be made that the 2 percent GDP commitment shouldn’t be an aspirational ceiling but become a mandatory floor. That would better enable capability choices beyond the scope of Force 2030 to be considered sooner rather than later. The JSF project dates back to the 1980s, and it wasn’t until 1997 that Lockheed Martin was chosen to produce the F-35. Nearly 20 years later, the aircraft is yet to achieve initial operational capability.

If new air combat capability options for the RAAF are to be viable by the 2030s, thinking about those options needs to begin as a process emerging from the upcoming Defence White Paper. That wouldn’t be to challenge the choice of the F-35A, but to ensure ADF air combat capabilities remain credible even in the face of military developments that overtake past assessments or assumptions.

 

Malcolm Davis is a senior analyst at ASPI. This article first appeared in the Strategist.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Department of Defense.