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The RAAF is in the process of bedding down an array of new platforms and processes, building on the gains of the last 12-18 months in particular. With the first F-35 set to arrive at the end of the year, ADM's Managing Editor Katherine Ziesing caught up with the Chief of Air Force to get an update on all things RAAF.

ADM: 2017 was a year of delivery for RAAF in many ways while 2018 looks to be a year of transition. Can you walk us through what that looks like for RAAF across the Force Element Groups (FEGs)?

Davies: 2017 was, as you say, largely about the acquisition programs that were set up through the first part of this decade, if not the back end of the last. From a maritime FEG perspective, we now have four P-8s on the ramp at RAAF Edinburgh. We’ve already flown our first real search and rescue mission with them. We have flown our first OP Resolute sorties. We’ve flown our first Gateway sorties.

What I see at Edinburgh now is a very quick shift from P-3 to P-8, and it’s happening faster with greater fidelity than we thought it would. I’m seeing already a fifth generation approach to maritime because of what the system brings and the ability of our young airmen and airwomen to get hold of that and go with it faster having moved from a mechanical to an electronic version.

The infrastructure that comes with that that is still on track but although lagging a little, they are on track. We are still looking good for an IOC in 2019.

The next piece to come for us, of course, is Triton. That will go through to Government next year for a decision. We will base Triton at RAAF Edinburgh. But what we’re getting our heads around and planning for is the ability for it to be forward deployed at some point. We are going to ‘super-base’, if that’s right term but at least maximise the effects of the Air Force order of battle at major bases.

My point is not about the airframe, it’s about the effect. It’s about the ability to have fifth generation P-8, Triton, JORN, ISR assets, EW squadrons – all those pieces in one place so that a young raffie can go from Flying Officer to Group Captain in a meaningful transitional career without having left Edinburgh. So if mum’s doing that career, dad can stay at the bank or be the coach of the sports club, or the kids can go to school – they can build social networks. This a real factor to our future air force demographic that doesn’t move as much as the old one did.

Within Air Mobility Group (AMG), the last two C17s are now bedded in. I would expect FOC for those quite soon. I would think C-27J has had a couple of logistics issues to manage but that’s really been a result of the US divestment of C-27J as we transfer from what was ostensibly an FMS case to a direct commercial sale approach for management of C-27J. We’re building the infrastructure at RAAF Amberley for them to transition early 2019 now.

The KC-30A is going great. The fact we’ve offloaded 90 million pounds of fuel in the Middle East out of one tanker is just an absolutely amazing feat; a great effort from the team. But I think it’s a part of that air mobility piece that we don’t think of much – as defined by MRTT (multi role tanker transport). The transport part of that is going to become quite an important element as we manage the movement of large elements of fighter force and deployment of squadrons north.

We are basing out of Williamtown, Amberley, and Edinburgh; if we want to move something forward to Darwin, Townsville, or Learmonth, we’re going to take a couple of tankers, load everything up and get people and bits there in large quantities quickly.

C-130J is going great guns, getting Link-16 fitment, and fitting of EW self-protection – almost a third of the fleet is done now.

I’d like to throw the Chinook into that air mobility piece. The F model is a battlefield air lifter and we've done a couple of trials now moving pallets from Chinook to C-27J, C-130J, C-17 in what would be a strategic inter-theatre/intra-theatre context. It makes sense. Air mobility is growing to beyond just carrying the pallet or just carrying a bit of equipment to being an integrated part of the battle space.

In terms of Air Combat Group (ACG), I had a chance to fly the LIFCAP simulator (Lead In Fighter Capability Assurance Program Hawk) over at Pearce recently. It’s quite a step up from the Hawk we bought originally. About half the fleet is done; the rest will be completed by the middle of 2018.

It is a different simulator. It’s a different aircraft setup. It has better comms, better computing, more options for training and doing that mission rehearsal piece as we will do on F-35 much earlier in the Lead In Fighter Program. So at 79 Squadron straight out of what will become PC-21, it is a really rapid shift now to what will be an expectation from a Super Hornet, Growler or an F-35 crew.

Logistics Analyst, Site Activation, F-35 Lightning II, Mr Keith McGhee (centre), engages with Defence and Industry representatives, from Australia and the US, during a redevelopment tour of the Joint Strike Fighter Facility at RAAF Base Williamtown.

With the F-35, from a technical point of view, there is still some work to do on the logistics management. There is also some work to do on how we go about feeding the ones and zeros that will be required for the mission data, and at what rate.

Everyone has to feed into this data bucket to be able to make F-35 viable, and it’s not just F-35. Wedgetail will need that, Growler will need it, also Super Hornet, DDGs, future submarine, future frigate, and the future land force. Battle Management System for Army will need these elements to be able to maximise their effect.

In a country the size of Australia, we are an expeditionary force. We are seeing at the moment more maritime ops in the Indian Ocean being launched from Learmonth. We find ourselves needing a combat support element that is flexible and dynamic. Combat Support Group is vital; it’s the nerve centre, the blood flow, that Air Force needs to be rapid in response but it also has to be quite broad in the type of response.

Air Commodore Ken Robinson up at Combat Support Group headquarters is going through the modernisation of our combat support response. We had some very positive correspondence back from Talisman Sabre on how Air Force set up a base that allowed Army and Air Force ops to occur. That’s everything from turned the light on and the light came on; needed to get comms out and the comms worked; and needed to get people fed, the deployable kitchen was at hand.

We’re demonstrating our ability to establish a base to support air mobility, to support Army ops, to support overland ISR or a search and rescue. That dimension of Combat Support Group has grown a lot in the last couple of years and we’ve learnt a lot from a large number of deployments and rotations for CSG folk into the Middle East on OP Okra and OP Accordion.

ADM: Can you give us an idea of how Triton planning is coming together at this stage (timing, basing, squadron details etc)? There was some talk at one stage of basing some of them at Tindal but you spoke before of all being at RAAF Edinburgh now?

Davies: It depends on your characterisation of basing. For something like C-27J, you could say they’re based at Amberley but the C-27J is going to spend more time in Townsville, Puckapunyal, Cairns, or more time in Edinburgh supporting Cultana. It’s based out of Amberley but the aeroplane will rarely be there. It will spend a lot of time in lots of places. I think Triton will be of a similar model.

The home base of Triton – where we control it, where we plan it, where we do the major maintenance – will be Edinburgh, but it will spend time at other bases and one of those will be Tindal. We will take it to a place to operate and that is part of our model for utilisation of Triton. It stays airborne a long time. It covers a lot of territory. Some of the operations will be Indian Ocean – we’ll fly it out of Tindal. Some of the operations will be Pacific Ocean, so we’ll fly it out of Amberley. And Southern Ocean operations will be conducted out of Edinburgh.

ADM: What is happening with the King Air fleet in terms of the rationalisation, why are you replacing some aircraft, can you provide details?

Davies: We’ve had a King Air fleet now for some time at 32 Squadron doing the School of Air Navigation, now 1FTS role. When we retired the Caribou we needed an interim light tactical transport. So we got some extra King Airs, took the three Army King Airs that were doing the survey work, then added to them to be able to provide 38 Squadron with enough of a resource to be able to continue training while evolving the Tactical Transport Group.

Once C-27J came online we assessed how many King Airs we needed. Part of the reason for the shift has been because the original King Airs were Proline 2 cockpits and analogue. We wasted, weeks if not months, getting pilots up to speed on glass cockpit. The aircraft we got to go to 38 Sqn were Proline 21. We are simply bringing 32 Sqn up to Proline 21.

In an end-to-end captaincy continuum, the King Air gave us a faster end result than sending pilots directly to C-17 or C-130J. But because of that capacity we argued that retaining the four aircraft from 38 Squadron into 32 was valid and we’ve basically paid for that through sustainment.

ADM: In terms of Air 7003, the armed medium altitude long endurance (MALE) UAS program, can you give us an update o the approach, for instance will there be a competition and an updated timeline?

Davies: From my perspective there already has been a competition. We looked at what an armed overland ISR MALE UAS would need to deliver and that hasn’t changed from day one. We have completed an evaluation that was against that criteria and was, in what I would term to be a contemporary acquisition model, a Smart Buyer profile. In that Smart Buyer profile there are a number of elements that we made an assessment against and have formed a view on the preferred solution.

What we have done recently however is, quite appropriate. One company provided us information that said ‘We don’t believe you’ve included all the latest elements of what we would offer you and we would like you to do another assessment’.

We spoke to government on that option and said, ‘Look, we can include these, it’s not an unfair question and we can do it in a time that won’t delay IOC’. So we did. We sent a team to do a separate updated evaluation of what is on the table and compared those, and that is just about complete now.

By the time this edition hits the streets, that comparison in a Smart Buyer profile will be completed and we’ll then be able to go to government around Easter this year with our recommendation and get them to agree to that, or not, and progress 7003.

ADM: How is Plan Jericho progressing? What milestones are you hoping to reach in 2018?

Davies: When former chief of Air Force Air Marshal Brown released Jericho in 2015 it was a case of ‘let’s get a couple of the tactical wins on the board and have folk understand that we can really do something with a Jericho mindset’. I think you’ve heard me say before, some folk are probably sick of me saying, it has changed our culture to the point where the art of the possible is expanded.

It’s okay to have an opportunity but it’s now better that you explore that opportunity and find out it didn’t work and back out, rather than never explore at all.

The second bit has been to deliver on some of those. Those have been largely around communications, they’ve been around education and training. So people look at Jericho and say it is the Gateway we spoke of earlier, it’s about Link-16, it’s about improving combat effect. Some of the largest movements we’ve had in Jericho are around a contemporary training environment.

Why? Because part of the Jericho-isation of our training continuum has been teaching resilience, it’s about better preparation of the candidates, it’s about changing the way our instructors instruct. One cookie cutter isn’t the right method, as different people learn differently. A tailored one-on-one approach has seen immense changes in this space.

We’ve found that to be much more efficient, as opposed to the ‘You have failed in whatever it is you’re doing and you're scrubbed’ approach – which means finding another candidate and taking them through the whole process again from scratch. However I would like to emphasise that we are not lowering standards. If you don’t make the standard you can’t stay. But if we can find a better way to get you to meet the standard, then let’s explore that.

That’s why I’m really excited about the pilot training system. If we get this training continuum right, all of the men and women that get to fly these aircraft and operate these systems will be of a higher standard. It will be a better way to assimilate to these new systems than what I would unfortunately say has been a rather antiquated system for too long.

ADM: The first F-35s will arrive at the end of the year. What still needs to happen for that to be successful?

Davies: Not much. The vector for that to happen is on track. The facilities at Williamtown are coming along nicely. If you haven’t been to Williamtown for a little while, I’d go and have a look. It is an amazing transformation and hats off to the contractors and the F-35 team that have brought that together, CASG and E&IG. It’s been amazing.

So all of the hardware, the bricks and mortar and things we need are there on track for the arrival of the first F-35s. F-35 number three is off the production line and the next eight will come very quickly.

When you look at the manufacturing line in Fort Worth at the moment, there are several RAAF jets in that line now. That is all timed for the end of the year, when the first pair will arrive. Several of those aircraft that come off the line will stay at Luke Air Force Base to be part of the international program, which we are benefitting from in terms of pilots and maintainers.

This article first appeared in the February 2018 edition of ADM

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