The final RAAF Hawk Mk.127 aircraft to be upgraded under the Lead-In Fighter Capability Assurance Program (LIFCAP) was handed back to Air Force in a ceremony at BAE Systems Australia’s Williamtown facility on March 7.

Performed under Project Air 5438, the LIFCAP program was delivered by BAE Systems Australia, in partnership with BAE Systems (UK), the RAAF, CASG and industry partners including CAE and Cubic Defence Applications.

The upgrade is intended to retain the Hawk’s relevance as a Lead-In Fighter trainer as fast jet candidates graduate from the RAAF’s new Pilot Training System (PTS) flying the new glass-cockpit Pilatus PC-21 and prepare them for operational conversion to a fifth-generation platform such as the Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II. Also included in the LIFCAP program was the replacement of legacy simulators and training aids by three full mission simulators (FMS) supplied by CAE.

The upgrade is very similar to the Hawk T.2 (Mk.128) now in service with the Royal Air Force, but with the important difference that the Australian jets retain the original aircraft’s ability to employ live weapons. British Hawk T.2s have a simulated weapons capability only and additional software development and certification had to be undertaken under Air 5438, therefore adding complexity and risk to the undertaking.

Today, the Hawk is used as a Lead In Fighter with No.76 Squadron at Williamtown and No.79 Sqn at Pearce, as part of No.78 Wing.

Completion ceremony
Work began on the LIFCAP program at Williamtown in September 2014. The 33rd and final aircraft was handed back to the RAAF one month earlier than originally scheduled and within budget, according to BAE Systems Australia Director of Aerospace Steve Drury.

Drury was one of the keynote speakers at the ceremony, which was conducted in the hangar where the work had been carried out and two Hawk aircraft, including A27-24 the last to be completed, served as a backdrop to the proceedings. Following the official part of the ceremony, guests were invited out onto the tarmac to witness a solo handling display.

“The RAAF’s fleet is now among the most capable in the world following this major capability upgrade,” Drury told invited guests.

“The modified aircraft provides RAAF with a Lead-In Fighter that is comparable to the RAF’s Hawk T.2 Advanced Jet Trainer and ensures the Australian Hawk aircraft is suitable for a fifth-generation air force, preparing pilots for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

“The enduring partnership we have built in that time with 78 Wing, 76 Squadron, 79 Squadron and the Tactical Fighter Systems Program Office (TFSPO) is one we are extremely proud of and has helped deliver milestones for the air force like the completion of over 100,000 accident-free flying hours on the Hawk.”

Other speakers included Air Vice Marshal Cath Roberts, Head Aerospace Systems Division for CASG, who described the problems which had to be overcome during the development and certification of the Australian software.

“The LIFCAP journey actually began back in 2011 and no-one would characterise it as an easy journey,” AVM Roberts told guests. “But the pitch seemed easy, ‘let’s just simply mirror the Hawk 128 capability in the Australian fleet’. But like many of our programs, with the challenges of operating and sustaining a unique fleet, we realised early that it would require a completely new software build that would need tailoring for Australia.”

AVM Roberts said that Second Pass approval was achieved in 2013, but the software challenges reached a point where there was doubt whether they could be overcome.

“One of my most uncomfortable moments in my time in Air Force was delivering concerns back to the Project Office in 2015 of the possibility that this project might be cancelled, because we were unable to certify the new systems,” she recalled.

“But there was never any doubt in my mind that this team, that we have here today, would be able to ultimately deliver for RAAF. The Hawk sustainment and LIFCAP programs represents the best in collaboration between Defence and industry, I’ve always placed my trust and faith in BAE Systems, CAE and Cubic Defence to deliver the best capability and now, as the head of Aerospace Systems Division, I’m very proud to report that this important program has delivered to an extraordinary level.”

LIFCAP described
The LIFCAP has added a new mission computer and Operational Flight Program (OFP) software package to the Hawk 127 which includes a radar emulator capability, electronic warfare (EW) systems, a digital mapping system, enhanced ground proximity warning system (EGPWS) and a traffic collision avoidance system (TCAS).

Other changes to the baseline British aircraft include the aforementioned ability to employ live weapons and the addition of a proprietary datalink, which does not have ‘Link 16-like’ functionality but nevertheless introduces students to the concept of using off-board data at an earlier stage of their training.

The Australian LIFCAP introduced further complexity compared with its UK counterpart, because all RAF Hawk T.2s are new-build aircraft, with the new hardware and software installed during production, whereas a ‘LIFCAP kit’ had first to be developed and then the installation tested on two Australian jets. The first of these validation and verification aircraft was inducted into BAE Systems’ facility at Williamtown in March 2014.

LIFCAP isn’t just about the Hawk aircraft itself however and one of the key enablers of the new training system is the package supplied by CAE, which includes three Full Mission Simulators (FMS), two at RAAF Base Williamtown and one at RAAF Base Pearce.

New capabilities
The first RAAF weapons and tactics course to be undertaken on the post-LIFCAP aircraft began at Williamtown at the beginning of 2018 and, in an early test of the new fixed-wing training regime, the first graduates from the PC-21 advanced flying training course at Pearce, will begin flying the Hawk around the end of the first quarter of 2020. The first graduates of the PC-21/Hawk LIFCAP training continuum are also likely to progress onto the F-35 in the not too distant future.

As the Hawk fleet transitioned to the LIFCAP standard aircraft, some of the Wing’s non-pilot training tasks, such as Army and fleet support, were dropped for a period of time, and which aircraft each student flew during their training was carefully managed. This meant that students remained on either pre or post-LIFCAP jets during their entire course.

Instructors at 76 Sqn at Williamtown, who had to also ensure that training throughput continued at the same time, developed the post-LIFCAP syllabus in-house.

The inclusion of an embedded radar emulator and datalink allows air-to-air combat training to be extended from the within visual range (WVR) to the beyond visual range (BVR) domain. Together with a (simulated) AMRAAM capability, this training is intended to reduce the cognitive load on a student when they get to the operational conversion phase of their training, flying the Super Hornet or F-35A.

Another big advantage of the post-LIFCAP training system is the fidelity of the synthetic training aids and, in particular, the three FMSs. This allows training to be immersive, consistent and repeatable in the synthetic environment, better preparing the student in the first instance and reducing the burden on the live aircraft in the second.

The Hawk training syllabi will also be adjusted to provide a seamless and continuous transition of students from the PC-21 to the Lead In Fighter role and this will continue to be adjusted as future adjustments are made in turn to the basic and advanced flying training courses.

What the Hawk LIFCAP program has also done is to buy RAAF time; time to work out what the next iteration of Lead-In Fighter should look like, or even if there should be one at all.

These future decisions will be informed by the experiences gained as both the PC-21 PTS (under Air 5428) and the F-35A operational conversion training regimes gain maturity in the decade to come. It is also no doubt helpful from a budgetary perspective, as projects in the Air domain will largely take a back-seat to shipbuilding programs for the foreseeable future (see Budget coverage from P30 for more on this).

Speaking with ADM at the end of 2018, Chief of Air Force Air Marshal Leo Davies explained the RAAF’s current thinking on the future of the Hawk in its post-LIFCAP form.

“We absolutely need the Hawk and for a little while, we will have the luxury of not needing to make a decision on its replacement. Currently, the Hawk is going to the back end of the 2020s, so we would really not be having to make an extend Hawk/replace Hawk/not have Hawk – the three real broad options – decision until the early to mid-2020s, somewhere in that bracket,” AIRMSHL Davies said to ADM.

“I think there are a number of nations already starting to explore that for us. We’ll know about PC-21 and its ability to be upgraded by then. We’ll also know whether Hawk is, in a resource sense, able to be extended. CASG, BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce will have to help us understand (that) if we did make a decision to extend it, what that would cost us. What we would have to do now to make that happen? That’s another resource impact for us that will come into play.

“Or indeed, what’s the thing we don’t know about yet? In a fifth-generation context, do we actually need to go flying at that point, or is it virtual? I think with all of those, we shouldn’t limit ourselves to a decision matrix in a 2018 mindset, when we can make a decision in 2024 – and six years in aviation is a long time.”

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

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