The RAAF has commenced the transition from the F/A-18A Hornet to the F-35A Lightning II
The RAAF has commenced the formal transition process of its units and personnel from the Boeing F/A-18A/B ‘classic’ Hornet to the Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II, with the Williamtown-based 3 Squadron completing classic Hornet
operations on December 8 2017.
The end of flying operations was followed on December 14 by the disbandment of 3SQN as a Hornet operating unit, and the ‘new’ 3SQN was then re-established as an F-35 unit at Luke AFB in Arizona with newly qualified F-35 pilot, WGCDR Darren ‘Clarey’ Clare in command.
“I took command on the Thursday at Williamtown, on Friday I flew back to Phoenix, and then on Saturday we stood up
No 3 Squadron F-35 with a small function there,” WGCDR Clare said. “And then as of 1st of January, our people (were) wearing the 3SQN patches, hats, and T-shirts, and will continue 3SQN’s proud history with the F-35.”
But until 3SQN builds up a critical mass of F-35 aircraft, pilots and maintainers, the majority of its personnel and all of its Hornets have been transferred to an augmented 77SQN which has stood up an additional ‘C’ Flight to accommodate them.
For the time being the RAAF will continue to have 71 classic Hornets in its inventory, and this will likely continue to be the case at least until 3SQN achieves an initial operational capability (IOC) with the F-35 in 2020/21.
“We’ll still be meeting all our requirements for government,” Air Commander Australia (ACAUST), Air Vice-Marshal (AVM) Steve ‘Zed’ Roberton said. “And this includes all the preparedness and joint training commitments we have with Army and Navy, apart from meeting operational commitments that the government directs.”
The F/A-18 ‘classic’ was the last of the American ‘Teen Series’ of 4th generation fighters which included the Grumman F-14A-D Tomcat, McDonnell Douglas F-15A-D Eagle, and the General Dynamics F-16A-D Viper. Contemporaries elsewhere
in the world include Sweden’s Saab JAS-39A-D Gripen, the MiG-29 Fulcrum, the Sukhoi Su-27/30/33 Flanker series, the
Eurofighter, and the Dassault Rafale.
Australia was the third customer for the F/A-18A/B after the US Navy and Canada after an order for 57 F/A-18As and 18 F/A-18Bs was placed in 1982. The first aircraft, F/A-18B A21-101, first flew in 1984, and it and -102 were delivered to RAAF Williamtown on a nonstop 15-hour ferry flight from NAS Lemoore in California in May 1985.
Four of the F/A-18s were built by McDonnell Douglas in St Louis, with the remainder being built at Avalon in Victoria, initially from knock-down kits until local content gradually increased. The Hornet replaced the Dassault Mirage IIIO in RAAF service, with the last Mirage retiring in 1989 and the final Hornet being delivered in 1990.
For the RAAF, the Hornet has flown with 2 Operational Conversion Unit (OCU), 3SQN and 77SQN, all based at Williamtown, and with 75SQN based at RAAF Tindal in the Northern Territory. Four RAAF Hornets have been lost in accidents in the 32 years they have been in service, a remarkably low figure considering the original attrition estimate was that 11 aircraft would have been lost by the type’s half life-of-type in the late 1990s This is a reflection of its forgiving handling and systems redundancy.
“I’ve seen Hornet aircraft that have had horrible bird strikes, and we’ve had mid-air collisions resulting in a Hornet missing a third of its wing,” said AVM Roberton. “But this jet gets you home. And touch wood, for a few more years it’s going to continue to do so. I’m very impressed with the safety record.”
And compared to its 3rd generation predecessors, the Hornet’s longevity in service is a further testament to its rugged design as well as, for its day, its comparatively ‘open’ systems architecture and airframe capacity which has allowed it to be continuously upgraded. For the first half of its service life, the upgrades mainly consisted of new weapons, flight control system (FCS) software and other minor enhancements, and were generally performed in parallel with those of the US Navy.
But when it became apparent that potential regional adversaries were starting to close the capability gap to the classic Hornet, a more comprehensive multi-phase Project AIR 5376 Hornet Upgrade Program (HUG) was conducted from 2002 to 2013 which saw new sensors, avionics, communications, cockpit displays, structural enhancements, and precision guided weapons added, keeping the Hornet at the forefront of its potential 4th generation rivals.
AVM Steve Roberton has an enviable RAAF Hornet and Super Hornet operational resume. Since 1992, he has flown both the classic and the Super Hornet in RAAF service as a line pilot, been an exchange pilot weapons officer in the US Marine Corps, served as commanding officer 75SQN and part of Operation Falconer in the Middle East in 2003, was Super Hornet project lead and Officer Commanding 82WG, was the first Commander of the RAAF’s Air Task Group (ATG) in the Middle East in 2014, and had a stint as Commander Air Combat Group.
“One of the great privileges of this command is that I get to fly in pretty much everything across Air Command,” he said. “I’ve done my C-17 short course, I’ve flown P-8 and PC-21, P-3, Super Hornets, Growler, and Hawk.
“I’m still theoretically current on the classic, and it’s still my first love,” he added. “It is amazing looking back at the development of it and what a workhorse it has been. So, two and a half decades ago when I started flying it, it was the leading edge of multirole fighters – certainly within the region it had the capability edge – day, night, all-weather and multirole.
“And today it’s still super capable, the way that it has been maintained and upgraded in partnership with the US Navy and through the Boeing industry team. The jet we fly now doesn’t operate anything like what it did two and a half decades ago. And yet, it still starts the same, and flies the same, and once you get the thing to the holding point, it feels very, very familiar. It’s just an amazingly responsive jet, and it’s wonderful to see it having proven itself in operations so effectively.”
The generation gap
Despite the origin of the fighter generation definitions (most commonly attributed to a Lockheed Martin JSF marketing executive), they seem to have stuck in modern western parlance. But with such a big gap from 4th generation to 5th, some of the upgraded 4th generation models seem to have settled into what is commonly referred to as 4.5 generation.
Almost all of the Hornet’s contemporaries have received significant upgrades which have bridged the gap between the original 4th generation and the newer 5th generation of fighters represented by the F-22 and the F-35. The classic Hornet grew into the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet Block II, the Eagle has been vastly improved into the later multi-role F-15E/I/K/S/SA/SG series, and the F-16 has spawned enhanced export models such as the UAE’s F-16E/F Desert Eagle, and the Block 70/72 F-16V upgrade currently being marketed.
In Europe, the earlier Gripen has been developed into the larger JAS-39E/F, the multi-role Eurofighter FGR4 is now in RAF service, and the Rafale continues to receive block upgrades. In Russia, the MiG-29 has evolved into the MiG-35, and the Flanker series is now represented by the mighty Su-35.
While all of these types have retained their 4th generation airframe heritage, they have received enhancements which have been leveraged from 5th generation developments. Subtle shaping, materials enhancements, and panel gap and electromagnetic interference management have seen tactically significant reductions in radar cross-sections. Inside, new mission computers, secure communications, passive sensors such as IRST and advanced EO/IR pods, AESA or PESA radars, helmet mounted cueing systems and displays, and the partial fusion of sensor data on enhanced cockpit displays have been added.
But where 5th generation really comes into its own is the aircraft are designed from the ground up to be very low observable. It’s not just the airframe shape and materials used, but more subtle but no less important engineering challenges such as internal structure, edge alignment, panel overlap, rivet heads and fasteners, conformal sensor arrays, infrared signatures and EMI management, internal weapons carriage which all serve to make the design of these aircraft more challenging than ever before.
Add to that offboard support systems such as datalinks, electronic warfare support, AEW&C, and the way the 5th gen aircraft and all of these support systems are employed are key.
Arguably the most important attribute of a 5th generation capability is the consistent production quality and tolerances in its manufacture, and the ability of an air force and industry to support and sustain not just the aircraft, but to maintain its signature during operations.
All of these go to show that, at the end of the day, all the added-on signature management in the world through materials and shaping will never come close to making a 4th gen airframe comparable with an F-22 or an F-35.
For the RAAF, the Classic Hornet to F-35 transition will be far from a traditional one-for-one replacement, despite the current and planned fleet numbers of both types currently being near identical.
Because of the revolutionary capabilities the F-35 will bring to the joint battlefield of the future through its low observability, situational awareness, advanced sensors and communications, the biggest mistake the RAAF or any operator could make is to treat the jet as a one-for-one replacement of an existing 4th generation capability.
Indeed, this is a risk path the RAAF has already been down with the Super Hornet. Despite being acquired as a
“bridging capability” in 2007 due to delays with the F-35 program, and even though it numerically replaced the 3rd generation F-111 one-for-one in the RAAF inventory, the Super Hornet has opened up a whole new world of operational capabilities and possibilities for the RAAF.
“Really, it has proven to be a prescient decision to go with the Super Hornet,” AVM Roberton explained. “I think there
are three areas where it has prepared us well. One, it has exposed us to a whole new level of security operations and operating mindset that we needed to get to, not just for F-35, but all of our other 5th gen (enablers) that are coming on.”
These platforms include the EA-18G Growler, the P-8A Poseidon, E-7A Wedgetail, MQ-4C Triton, and the Gulfstream/L-3 MC-55 (G-550) SIGINT aircraft, as well as the RAN’s Hobart class DDG air warfare destroyers, Canberra class LHD amphibious assault ships, SEA5000 Future Frigates, and Army’s new LAND 400 armoured vehicles. But it also includes the advanced communications suites being installed on transport aircraft such as the C-130J, C-17 and KC-30 as well.
“The second thing is, the straight tactical employment and the operational outcomes that you get,” AVM Roberton added. “Super Hornet is a genuine 4.5-generation aircraft, and you fly it differently. You can leverage its strengths like the sensor suite, to improve the rest of the force. It’s not just the classic Hornets and other 4th generation fighters which benefit, but the Army and Navy joint capabilities as well. It truly makes them a lot better.
“And the third area is just in the infrastructure and mindset for the broader Defence organisation. We would not have been as prepared and, I would argue that many of my peers from other nations are being surprised as they step into 5th generation capabilities, just what a big leap that is.
“It’s not just buildings and infrastructure, but it’s also the operational mindset, tasking, IT systems, even the workforce itself. You need a different shaped workforce to support and maintain a 5th generation capability than you did for an older P-3 or F-111 type workforce.”
3SQN will start to take delivery of aircraft at Luke AFB in Arizona in early 2018 alongside the RAAF’s first two F-35As (A35-001 and -002), which wear 2OCU livery. The first 3SQN jet (A35-003) flew for the first time in late November, and -004 and -005 followed in December and January respectively. These and five more RAAF F-35As will be delivered to Luke AFB in 2018.
But rather than stand up the new 3SQN as a complete unit with all its personnel but only a handful of aircraft, AVM Roberton explained that the build-up of the new unit will be a gradual one. “As part of the transition plan they have
been absorbed into the consolidated classic Hornet 77SQN for now,” he said. “Then as we need them, we will bring technical, aviation and support people across to 3SQN in the US as we start building it back up.”
As of late November, “we have six pilots and 25 maintenance people training at Luke. And we have others who will not go to the US for training, but instead will start looking after the facilities and readying 3SQN, Air Combat Group and the wider Air Force for when the first F-35s turn up in about 12 months.”
As RAAF F-35 deliveries continue in the first half of 2018, they will continue to go into the USAF’s 61st Fighter Squadron
which is Australia’s partner unit at the F-35 training centre at Luke. “Later in the year around the August-September timeframe we’ll get two jets which won’t go into the American training system,” explained WGCDR Clare.
“They will just stay on the Australian system and we’ll fly them, initially from a shake-down point of view at Luke with Australian maintainers, and with procedures under an Australian airworthiness banner and our own pilots operating out of Luke. That’s just basically a shake-down of the aircraft before we fly them home at the end of next year.
“So, what we’re working on in the next six months is, taking all our knowledge of the F-35 that we’ve gained from flying it over the last few years, taking that and presenting this to what’s called an Airworthiness Board,” WGCDR Clare added.
“This will happen in August, and is where we make sure our processes and procedures are all in place. We currently operate under the US Air Force airworthiness system, and Lockheed Martin is currently looking after our aeroplanes. Even though the 25 or so maintainers I’ve got over there do a lot of the work, it’s under a Lockheed banner in accordance with US procedures and publications.”
The 61st FS arrangement is likely to continue until 2OCU achieves IOC with their F-35s in 2021/22, after which RAAF F-35 maintenance and pilot training will commence in Australia. “Working with the US and in particular the 61st FS is great,” WGCDR Clare continued. “The CO of the 61st has flown with Australians before on the F-22 so he’s got a bit of a history there, and he’s really, really supportive of our activities – they’re actually quite proud to be part of Australia’s history in standing up F-35. They’re at the forefront of generating F-35 fighter capability and training.”
In fact, Australian F-35 pilots already hold key roles in the 61st FS. “We’re going to have 10 to 12 instructors in there soon which will be almost half the squadron, so we’re a fairly large part of the organisation,” WGCDR Clare said. “And we’ve got guys in pivotal roles within the squadron – one is a flight commander now and another is going into a flight commander role soon, plus one of the other pilots fulfils the essential FCI/weapons officer role in the squadron.”
Facilities at RAAF Williamtown are also going through some massive changes to accommodate the new aircraft. “There’s a combination of new works there,” AVM Roberton said. “I would argue that since I walked onto the base in December 1990, Williamtown really hadn’t changed much. We had some new facilities for Surveillance Response Group, but that’s about it. But more recently it has fundamentally changed shape, and it’s really exciting.”
The new F-35 facilities are being built north of the airfield, and will comprise new hangars for each of the three squadrons, a state-of-the-art training centre, new covered hard stands and ramp area, and a new ordnance loading area (OLA). The runway is also receiving a 1,000ft (340m) extension to allow for derated or non-afterburner takeoffs and displaced threshold landings from the west.
All of the new facilities are designed to support the higher classification and security requirements of the F-35, and as such have multiple access layers and more compartmentalised work areas compared to the current Hornet facilities. “It’s not a small undertaking,” said AVM Roberton. “Clearly, if the buildings weren’t ready we could still operate, but not nearly as effectively from the old buildings. The aim is to have the infrastructure in place so that there’s no impediment to getting that first generation of F-35 and our people up and operating.”
New F-35 facilities and a runway extension will also be built at RAAF Tindal as that base is transformed to also operate the MQ-4C Triton and better accommodate the planned increased numbers of US military aircraft. The ‘bare’ bases at Scherger, Curtin and Learmonth will also receive upgrades to their operational areas.
Current planning sees 2OCU relinquish its Hornets next year after 3SQN has returned with its F-35s and the requirement for classic Hornet crew conversions and upgrades ends. 77SQN is scheduled to retire its Hornets in 2020-21, with 75SQN following a year after that.
The consolidated Hornet fleet will start to be drawn down in steps to roughly align with each squadron achieving IOC with their F-35s. “There are lines in the sand, but they are soft lines by necessity,” explained AVM Roberton. “We need to retain the option and flexibility to meet any contingency or government-directed tasking. But while the classic Hornet is an older airframe it is still a very, very capable jet. It’s dropped a couple of thousand weapons in the Middle East over thousands of missions, so it’s proven to remain a very capable platform.
“We will retain the classic Hornet until the last point and, at government direction, and when we’ve got sufficient confidence that the F-35 and support system is ready, we’ll let it go. We’re looking at about a squadron a year, but we’ve got flexibility according to what other tasking we might receive or whatever direction government might take us.”
One of those government directions was the sale of 18 classic Hornets to Canada. Defence Minister Senator Marise Payne confirmed on December 13 that Australia had agreed to sell 18 jets to Canada to bolster that country’s own classic Hornet fleet until it can decide on a more permanent replacement.
The Minister’s release said the first two aircraft would be transferred in early 2019, subject to “country of origin (i.e. US) export approvals.” But all 18 aircraft are unlikely to be delivered in a large group over a short period of time, due to Australia’s requirement to maintain a viable air combat capability until 3SQN achieves IOC with the F-35.
Said AVM Roberton before the Canadian announcement: “So, there are soft gates, and we will retain at least one squadron available through until the end of 2022. But we’ll hit a tipping point with 75SQN Tindal being the last one designated to transition.”
The F-35 will form the backbone of the RAAF’s fighter and strike force for the next 30 years, and as such, the whole air force is being restructured to accommodate what will be a new way of doing business.
The RAAF now has five F-35s flying, there are another five to follow in 2018, and then deliveries will ramp up at roughly 15 jets per year until 2022 when the initial order of 72 aircraft is due to be completed. “We’re very confident in the aircraft,” said AVM Roberton. “All the feedback through the US, the joint exercises that we’re seeing. There are also a couple of hundred aircraft now flying, and more than 100,000 flying hours on the jet now, so we’ve got some really good data on how it’s performing.
“The support system and infrastructure is still maturing, and our readiness for that is still maturing,” he added. “But we don’t have to get there yet. We’re not expecting government declaring an IOC before the end of 2020, so we’ve got three years. We can leverage off the significant experience of the US and other nations.”
A former classic Hornet pilot, WGCDR Clare provides an interesting comparison between the old and new aircraft. “The F-35 actually flies very, very similarly to the Hornet, both classic and Super,” he related. “In fact, it’s probably more like the Super in the way it feels. The alpha (angle of attack performance) and the power is similar to a Super Hornet, although it’s got a little bit more power down low.
“But the situational awareness is quite amazing, the way the information is presented and what the jet is seeing around you,” he added. “It’s to the point where, you can almost get information overload, so you’ve got to know what you’re looking for and know how to find it. You’ve got to know what the little tricks are that could throw you off.
“And the networking between the aircraft is really important to the way we operate tactically. The helmet is quite interesting with respect to all the information … there’s no HUD (head-up display), so all the information is presented
in the helmet.”
The pilots’ helmets are individually fitted. The pilot gets a laser map of their head made, and then the helmet is built around that map. “It takes a little while to get used to because it’s projected in front of both of your eyes, so it takes a couple of flights to actually make sure those are lined up properly and you’re not seeing double and giving yourself a headache.”
All of this information ‘harvested’ by the F-35 will feed into a new system and culture being established under the RAAF’s ambitious Plan Jericho which will be a key enabler for the 5th generation capabilities the F-35 will bring to the ADF.
“I think the 5th generation part through Jericho is more than just the mindset, it’s actually the agility and the speed of
response,” AVM Roberton explained. “We need to be far more agile in our thinking and empowering smart young operators – the women and men that don’t just fly them, but maintain them and seek alternative solutions.
“The way we used to do business might not be the best way to do it in the future, and we just might not be able to afford to,” he said in closing. “Our Air Force has no more squadrons and no more people than it has for the last 20 years. But I would subjectively submit we have nearly two and a half times the air combat power of that same size air force from 20 years ago. That’s a considerable undertaking for a medium sized air force, and I think we’re looked upon with some envy by our peer air forces.” #
From the Editors of ADBR:
FOLLOWING THE DECEMBER 2018 ARRIVAL OF THE RAAF’S FIRST TWO F-35 FIGHTERS IN AUSTRALIA, WE THOUGHT WE’D REVISIT THIS ARTICLE WHICH WAS PUBLISHED 12 MONTHS AGO IN THE JAN-FEB 2018 ISSUE OF ADBR.
AUTHOR ANDREW MCLAUGHLIN WAS AWARDED THE 2018 AUSTRALIA-NZ AVIATION PRESS CLUB FEATURE STORY OF THE YEAR FOR THIS ARTICLE.