• (Equipment repair technicians at RAAF Base Amberley)
    (Equipment repair technicians at RAAF Base Amberley)

Introduced by the recent Defence Industry Policy Statement (DIPS), the Sovereign Industry Capability (SIC) Policy identifies capabilities that are vital to Australia’s defence interests.

While some of these capabilities have a higher public profile than others – submarine sustainment and the Naval Shipbuilding Strategy being but two examples of those, others remain firmly out of the spotlight.

One of these strategically crucial capabilities is the Sovereign Defence Aviation Structural Integrity capability currently being delivered by a ‘tripartite’ of Defence and industry partners, including the Defence Aviation Safety Authority (DASA), DST Group and QinetiQ.

Aviation Structural Integrity is defined by Defence as, “The ability of all constituent parts of an aircraft structure and propulsion system to withstand normal operating loads within approved flight limitations, without failure.”

Almost all (if not all) of the ADF’s aircraft operated over the last 30 years have remained in service beyond their original lifespan and in modern times, when it is the norm for aircraft mission systems to be designed with continuous upgrade in mind, this trend will certainly continue. It is therefore vital to maintain the sovereign Structural Integrity Capability (SIC) to enable the ADF to safely operate aircraft independently of overseas original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) or foreign military organisations.

Australia’s ability to design and manufacture military aircraft in its’ own right was allowed to atrophy over the decades following the end WWII and this decline resulted in the focus of engineers and scientists across Defence and local industry on niche capabilities, including accident investigation, aircraft structural and propulsion system safety assurance and advanced repair initiatives.

In the 1990s fatal accidents involving the Macchi MB326H jet trainer and GAF Nomad resulted in the establishment of management arrangements to protect the specialised expertise, however despite its recent acknowledgement as a SIC, there are concerns that its ongoing importance may become taken for granted, or overlooked altogether, in the future.

Why do we need an Aviation Structural Integrity Capability?
Director of Aviation Engineering at DASA, Group Captain Joe Medved, explained to ADM that the capability requires a broad range of technical competencies including, but not restricted to, aerodynamics, aircraft loads analysis, stress and fatigue analysis, aeroelasticity and dynamics, metals and composites expertise, both full- and small-scale testing capability and non-destructive inspection and test methods.

“The use of Structural Integrity technologies for aircraft structures and propulsion systems allows Australia to operate military aircraft independently of limits imposed by aircraft manufacturers or by other nations, particularly when aircraft have been procured from foreign military sources,” GPCAPT Medved outlined. “The structural integrity technologies allow Australia to independently risk manage aircraft platforms in accordance with national interests.”

Some examples of the value of such a capability includes the provision of specialist advice during the procurement phase of a programme to ensure that the historical lessons learned have been addressed in the process. In recent times, the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter and P-8A Poseidon projects are an illustration of this.

In the case of the C-27J Spartan battlefield airlifter program, the C-27J Structural Substantiation Program has allowed Defence to procure and operate the aircraft safely even though type certification was not complete.

When a platform is in service, the capability allows Defence to fly aircraft which have significant structural defects, while ensuring that risk to personnel is minimised. Examples of this include the provision of advice on the ‘Classic’ Hornet inner wing step lap joint, an engine risk underpinned management strategy for the AP-3C Orion’s T56 engines and, more recently, an engine risk management strategy for the RAAF’s Growler fleet, following the uncontained failure of one of the aircraft’s F414 engines earlier this year.

Other benefits include the ability to provide advice when a platform is required to change operating role and environment without recourse to the OEM or foreign military (KC-30A, F/A-18A/B Hornet, S-70A-9 Black Hawk, MH-60R Seahawk); the ability to minimise or avoid expensive structural refurbishments (AP-3C, F/A-18A/B); develop Life Of Type Extension (LOTE) programs (Hawk Mk.127, F/A-18A/B, C-130J, AP-3C, PC-9/A); and the ability to investigate incidents and accidents through forensic analysis of components.

A tripartite approach
The core sovereign Defence Aviation Structural Integrity capability is provided by DASA, DST and QinetiQ, but with significant ‘reach-back’ into the OEMs, other industry service providers and academia.

DASA’s specialist engineering capability provides stewardship of the sovereign capability and DST provides scientific assessments, analysis, test and technology research and development in the specialist structural integrity space. Industry partner QinetiQ has been working with Defence for more than 20 years and is responsible for the provision of specialist engineering services in structural integrity technical disciplines.

“It’s important to note that, when we talk about industry, there are actually two parts. We have QinetiQ, which is a high-end engineering company and then we have other industry partners who are supporting individual platforms,” GPCAPT Medved explained. “QinetiQ performs the high-end engineering which can then be transitioned to the Through Life Support (TLS) contractors, so we see a gradual shift over time. When a technology is new it is transferred to QinetiQ first, as the high-end industry provider, and when it becomes well-understood and routine, it is then transferred to the primes.”

The importance of preserving the capability
The sovereign Structural Integrity Capability is formally recognised in the 2018 Defence Industry Capability Plan (DICP), under the Test, Evaluation, Certification and Systems Assurance SIC priority, but GPCAPT Medved cautions against complacency.

“The loss of the capability would substantially limit Australia’s ability to undertake these activities or undertake the independent research, design, modification and maintenance of aircraft configurations for unique ADF roles and environments,” he said to ADM. “Our success in the past has arguably caused people to take it for granted. What they forget is that safety is but one dimension of the benefit of this capability. The benefit is actually to deliver cost of ownership improvements and capability options that are safe.

“Cost of ownership benefits in the form of minimising unscheduled refurbishment of aircraft or engines and enabling Defence Integrated Investment Program (DIIP) flexibility by enabling fleet withdrawal options that would otherwise not be feasible.”

This article first appeared in the February 2019 edition of ADM. 

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