The initiatives recently announced by Prime Minister Scott Morrison under the AUKUS agreement have raised more questions than answers.
The exact timing for the entry into service of the new nuclear-powered submarines will not likely be known until the current study is completed in 18 months – and possibly not even then. As detailed in the recent Senate Estimates hearing, this has had an effect on the acquisition of long-range strike weapons, three of which were also mentioned by the PM in his AUKUS announcement.
In turn, this will arguably have an effect on the composition of the RAAF’s air combat force between now and 2040, but it’s all a question of timing.
Defence has a need for a long-range maritime strike capability that is growing in urgency, as noted in the recent Defence Strategic Update (DSU2020) and Force Structure Plan (FSP2020). One of the initiatives already announced (and reaffirmed by the AUKUS announcement) is the acquisition of the Lockheed Martin AGM-158C Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM), initially for use by the RAAF’s Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet force.
Further into the future, a new maritime strike missile will be acquired for the RAAF’s Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning IIs, but this is where the crystal ball starts to get murky.
Sources have indicated that the RAAF is considering a further purchase of F-35As and a new squadron will be raised to operate them, possibly based at RAAF Tindal in the Northern Territory. While this is conjecture at this point, there was provision in the 2016 Defence White Paper for up to 28 more F-35s, to replace the Super Hornets from around 2030.
However, the recent FSP2020 document does not specifically mention F-35s, instead referring to an ‘additional air combat capability’ from around 2025. The funding for this capability is projected to be between $4.5 and $6.7 billion, but is separate to funding for the RAAF’s Teaming Air Vehicles (Boeing Loyal Wingman) program, which will see between $7.4 and $11 billion spent from around 2027.
Last year, Head Air Combat Capability Air Vice-Marshal Cath Roberts explained to ADM: “A capability edge in the air is critical for Australia. The future air fleet will be focussed around the F-35A Lightning II, the F/A-18F Super Hornet and the EA-18G Growler. Despite our confidence in these aircraft, it is important that we continue to look for opportunities to expand our air combat capability,” AVM Roberts said.
“The Force Structure Plan provisions for the development of additional air combat options, especially in remotely-piloted or autonomous systems. This is an area of development where we expect to see rapid change in years to come, and it is important we stay abreast of technology. A number of options will be considered, including teaming systems, loitering munitions, and a future electronic attack capability.”
For its part, Defence told ADM this week that no decision has been made to acquire any additional F-35As. “Defence is continually evaluating force mix options in line with the 2020 Force Structure Plan, which includes funding for an additional air combat capability in the 2030 timeframe,” a Defence spokesperson said.
“The ability to consider multiple options for the additional air combat capability allows Defence to tailor any future acquisition to the contemporary environment, complementing the current air combat fleet to provide additional advantage, and take advantage of the latest technology,” the Defence spokesperson said.
But the now-urgent need for a long-range maritime strike capability may mean that weapons, rather than platforms, drive future air combat decisions.
The LRASM weapon has a range of around 560km and is currently being integrated with the US Navy’s Super Hornet fleet. Due to the commonality between US Navy and RAAF Super Hornets, Defence says it will first roll it out to the RAAF F/A-18Fs and consider it for other platforms in future
Although its design is optimised for low-observability, LRASM is too large to be carried internally in the F-35A’s weapons bay and Defence has yet to mention publicly whether it intends employing the weapon on its Joint Strike Fighters.
“The weapons integration schedule for the F-35 program is managed by the Joint Program Office (JPO), the US Government representative for implementing F-35 production, sustainment, and follow-on development, with input from international customers, a Lockheed Martin Australia spokesperson explained. “LRASM is currently being evaluated by the JPO and F-35 customer community and plans are being made for its integration.”
So, what are Australia’s plans? “Defence will look to select the F-35A maritime strike weapons around FY2023/24, as part of Air 3023 (Phase 2),” a Defence spokesperson said. Australia has long been involved with the development of the Kongsberg Joint Strike Missile (JSM), which can be carried internally by the F-35A, and BAE Systems Australia is developing the Passive Radio Frequency Sensors (PRS) for the weapon.
However, a maritime strike capability has not been a priority for the US and several other F-35 partner nations, so its integration is still ongoing and Australia will have to wait until the next major software upgrade (Block 4) is available.
“The Joint Strike Missile is part of the Block 4 suite of capabilities being added to the F-35, which are currently being integrated into the F-35 fleet,” the Lockheed Martin Australia spokesperson said. “It has entered into the flight test phase of its development with first in-flight release of JSM from the F-35 occurring in February 2021.”
And here it all comes back to timing. When will Australia’s F-35s gain a maritime strike capability? Will the Super Hornet/LRASM combination be required to continue beyond the aircraft’s 2030 planned withdrawal date? Is a greater maritime strike capability now required, in terms of numbers of weapons and platforms - and how will this affect the future force mix? Finally, when will autonomous platforms become mature enough to take on some of these roles?