The 12 months since ADM last reviewed Defence’s Air programs has seen significant progress towards respective major milestones and this tempo looks set to continue throughout 2019.
Arguably the major event of 2018 was the arrival of the first two Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning Joint Strike Fighters (JSF) on December 10, as this issue of ADM went to press. The aircraft are the first of at least 72 to be permanently based in Australia and their arrival represents a major step towards Initial Operational Capability (IOC) at the end of 2020.
The first two aircraft are the 9th and 10th aircraft to be accepted under Defence’s Project Air 6000 Phase 2A and 2B and will be used for a two-year period of validation and verification (V&V) testing, which will begin in early 2019 and lead up to IOC.
The eight jets previously delivered will remain at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona in the interim and will continue to support international JSF Training, as part of the US Air Force’s JSF International Pilot Training Centre.
Further deliveries to Australia will occur throughout 2019 as the first operational RAAF fighter squadron (3 Sqn) begins to work up on the 5th generation fighter.
In the meantime, infrastructure and training aids are now in place at Williamtown to support the arrival of the first aircraft, which will also be the first to be hosted on Australia’s sovereign version of the F-35A’s Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS).
The first two aircraft will also be on display at the 2019 Australian International Airshow at Avalon and an in-depth analysis of Australia’s F-35 program will appear in the February issue of ADM.
Australia is acquiring both manned and unmanned maritime surveillance capabilities under two major phases of the overarching Air 7000 program and both notched up significant milestones during the course of 2018.
On June 26, then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced that six Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton high-altitude long endurance (HALE) unmanned maritime surveillance aircraft will be acquired under Project Air 7000 Phase 1B.
Initial investment in the program is $1.4 billion with the total cost – including whole of life sustainment costs – estimated to be $6.9 billion.
The announcement represents the Gate 2 milestone in the acquisition phase of the project and confirms Australia’s intention to purchase the Triton capability, which had earlier been flagged in the 2016 White Paper. The first aircraft will be delivered in 2023 and the last in 2025 and they will be based at RAAF Bases Edinburgh and Tindal, with other forward-deployed locations around the north and north-west of Australia yet to be announced.
Deliveries of the manned Boeing P-8A Poseidon multi-mission maritime surveillance platform under Phase 2B of Air 7000 continued during 2018 and the eighth of the original 12 aircraft on order was being prepared by delivery as ADM went to press.
The Poseidon achieved IOC in March, five months ahead of the original schedule and Final Operational Capability (FOC) is on track to occur in 2022. Although not a milestone towards FOC, an RAAF P-8A successfully fired an inert ATM-84J Harpoon anti-ship missile during RIMPAC 2018, held off Hawaii in July.
On the debit side of the ledger, the RAAF’s ageing but effective Lockheed AP-3C Orion will be withdrawn from service in December, 50 years after the first entered service.
Although it didn’t surprise anyone, an announcement in November also confirmed that Defence will acquire the General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. (GA-ASI) MQ-9 Reaper to fulfil its requirement for an armed medium altitude lone endurance (MALE) remotely piloted aircraft system (RPAS).
The $1-2 billion Project Air 7003 Phase 1 had been flagged in the 2016 White Paper and between 12 and 16 aircraft will be acquired, depending on negotiations with General Atomics. The exact variant of the Reaper/Predator family has not yet been decided, but it will be either the MQ-9 Block 5 Reaper currently in production for the US Air Force, or the MQ-9B Skyguardian (previously known as the Certifiable Predator B) now under development for the UK.
The Reaper will be acquired through the sole-source supply methodology outlined in the recent First Principles Review because (according to Defence Minister Christopher Pyne) it was best-suited to Defence’s needs.
No decision has been made on where the aircraft themselves will be based, but the ground control segment will be located at RAAF Edinburgh. The first Reaper is expected to arrive in the 2020-2021 period, with an entry into service in 2022-2023.
Defence’s Battlefield Airlift Aircraft project, Air 8000 Phase 2, celebrated an important achievement in February, with the delivery of the 10th and last Leonardo (formerly Alenia Aermacchi) C-27J Spartan to Australia.
A further milestone was set to occur in the December 2018/January 2019 timeframe, with the relocation of 35 Sqn from Richmond to its new home at Amberley. Significant infrastructure works have now been completed at Amberley to accommodate the 10 Spartans and the project is on track to achieve FOC by the end of 2019.
Although it doesn’t have an ‘Air’ label any longer, the ADF’s Helicopter Aircrew Training System (HATS) Joint Project 9000 Phase 7 began the first ab-initio courses for Army and Navy pilots and aircrewmen and Navy Aviation Warfare Officers (AvWOs), in January 2018.
The industry prime for HATS is Boeing Defence Australia and training is conducted at Nowra by the Joint Helicopter School within Navy’s 723 Sqn, using the Airbus Helicopters EC135 T2+ helicopter.
The courses, which began in January (pilots and aircrewmen) and February (AvWOs), formed part of the Validation and Verification testing and the successful candidates graduated during September. The V&V activity will lead up to the declaration of IOC by the end of 2018, but an announcement to this effect had not been made by the time this edition of ADM closed for press.
The fixed-wing equivalent of HATS is Project Air 5428 Phase 1 (Pilot Training System), which is replacing civilian-operated CT-4s in the Basic Flying Training and the Pilatus PC-9/A in the Advanced Flying Training roles with a new all-through training system.
The PTS will make increased use of synthetic training aids and simulators and the live component is based on the Pilatus PC-21. Although the project was running at least six months behind its published schedule earlier this year, Defence and an industry team
(Team 21) led by prime contractor Lockheed Martin has now managed to claw this time back and Air 5428 is again on schedule for the first ab-initio course to begin at East Sale in January 2019.
By the end of November Pilatus had delivered 26 of the 49 PC-21s on order and the first aircraft painted in the new ‘Roulettes’ markings were formally unveiled by the Chief of Air Force Air Marshal Leo Davies in Canberra in October. The Roulettes are scheduled to undertake their final major public display with the PC-9/A at Avalon, before converting to the PC-21 during the course of next year. A detailed account of the Air 5428 program will also appear in the February Avalon issue of ADM.
The Boeing EA-18G Growler airborne electronic attack capability being delivered under Project Air 5349 Phase 3 also recorded milestone events during 2018, including the first appearance at a Pitch Black air combat exercise.
Three Growlers participated in Pitch Black 2018, held in the Top End in July and August as part of their progression towards IOC, which was due to be announced before the end of the year. Final Operational Capability will follow in 2022, but the program suffered a setback in January with the loss of one of the 12 aircraft in the US. The Growler was participating in a Red Flag exercise at Nellis Air Force Base, when an uncontained engine failure led to a high speed rejected take off and the aircraft was damaged beyond repair by the subsequent fire. A decision on whether the aircraft will be replaced had not been announced by the time ADM closed for press.
The RAAF’s BAE Systems Hawk Mk.127 Lead-In Fighter Capability Assurance (LIFCAP) program achieved what is arguably its penultimate milestone on October 25 with the induction of the final aircraft into BAE Systems’ upgrade facility at Williamtown.
Formally known as Project Air 5438 Phase 1A, the LIFCAP began in 2016 and adds simulated radar and electronic warfare capability, digital mapping, ground proximity warning system (GPWS) and traffic collision avoidance system (TCAS) to the RAAF’s 33 Hawk Mk.127 aircraft.
In the new configuration, the RAAF’s Hawks are upgraded to a similar configuration as the UK’s Hawk T.2 Advanced Jet Trainer (AJT) aircraft. The final aircraft to be upgraded will be handed back to the RAAF during 2018.
Although most of Defence’s major acquisition projects will be in the Sea domain in future years, there will still be plenty of activity in the Air projects world in the short-term and 2019 will be see more milestones achieved.
This article first appeared in the December/January 2018-19 edition of ADM.