SPOTLIGHT: Australia’s next jet fighter
AUSTRALIA’S NEXT JET FIGHTER
The Federal government will spend more than $12 billion on new fighter jets with the purchase of another 58 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, taking the Australian fleet to 72 by 2020.
WHY DOES AUSTRALIA NEED NEW JET FIGHTERS?
The RAAF has operated F/A-18 Hornets for more three decades but they are due to finish service by 2022. Since 1999 the Hornets have been put through a series of upgrades to improve their effectiveness. However, the aircraft are becoming increasingly difficult to operate and are at risk of being outclassed by the fighters and air-defence systems operated by other countries.
The last of Australia’s 43 F-111 retired from service in 2010.
WHAT IS THE F-35 JOINT STRIKE FIGHTER (JSF)?
Described as a fifth-generation jet fighter, superior to anything available to us now. Comes with all-aspect stealth function even when armed. That means there’s a low probability of it being picked up by radar. Comes with highly-integrated computer systems capable of networking with other defence elements.
Its manufacturer Lockheed Martin is developing three versions for conventional take-off and landing (which Australia wants); short take-off and landing (which the US and UK want) and; carrier based (US).
It features two internal weapons bays and external hardpoints giving it capacity for up to 10 air-to-air missiles. It can also carry air-to-ground bombs.
Australia with Norway is funding an adaption of the naval strike missile for its version of the JSF.
WHY IS IT REGARDED AS THE FIGHTER FOR AUSTRALIA?
Lockheed Martin predicts it will be four times more effective than existing fighters in air-to-air combat; eight times more effective in air-to-ground combat and; three times more effective in reconnaissance and suppression of air defences.
The JSF does does not need to be physically pointing at its target for weapons to be successful. Sensors can track and target a nearby aircraft from any orientation, provide the information to the pilot through his helmet (and therefore visible no matter which way the pilot is looking), and provide the seeker-head of a missile with sufficient information.
“This aeroplane is built on the premise that it will see first, it will shoot first and kill first,” says Lt-General Chris Bogdan, the US Air Force officer heading the Pentagon’s JSF program office.
Defence Minister David Johnston says the JSF will give Australia a technological edge in the region out to 2050. “This is the aircraft for us,” he says.
BUT IS IT THE BEST AVAILABLE?
No. Lockheed Martin is also developing the F-22 Raptor but the US wants to keep that fighter for itself, denying even friendly nations like Australia access. It was designed primarily as an air superiority fighter, but has additional capabilities that include ground attack, electronic warfare, and signals intelligence roles. Estimated cost is $150 million for each plane.
Former Australian Defence Force chief Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston predicted 10 years ago the F-22 would be the most outstanding fighter plane ever built.
WHO HAS BEEN INVOLVED IN DEVELOPMENT OF THE JSF?
The US mostly, but also 10 other nations including Australia, the UK, Italy, Canada, Norway, Denmark the Netherlands and Turkey.
The JSF took its first test flight in December 2006 and, so far, about 100 have been produced.
The total program cost is estimated at about US$850 billion over 55 years. Australian firms are involved in component development and manufacture and are expected to reap $1.5 billion in business from a local order.
The F-35 program has experienced a number of cost overruns and developmental delays. Concerns have been expressed about its rising cost.
Each plane is expected to cost about $90 million, depending on the production run. The more produced lessens the unit cost.
Critics of the JSF point out that it comes up short on many basic fighter characteristics – it doesn’t turn as quickly as the Hornet for instance – but if it works properly it won’t need those traits.
WHAT AUSTRALIA PLANS TO BUY.
Australia plans to acquire 72 fighters by 2020. That’s enough for three squadrons based at Williamtown (NSW), Amberley (Qld) and Tindal (Northern Territory). The longer-term ambition is to have 100 fighters.
The $12.4 billion price tag includes weapons, spare parts and maintenance facilities. It will be Australia’s most expensive defence acquisition.
In RAAF service, the JSF will be part of a network comprising Growler electronic warfare aircraft, Wedgetail early warning aircraft, Poseidon and Triton maritime surveillance aircraft, KC-30 tankers, Vigilare and over-the-horizon ground radar systems and new air warfare destroyers.