Australian Air Power Controversy: Super Hornets Under Fire
After a controversy over the F-35A Lightning II’s suitability for Australia’s strategic needs – amidst a flurry of criticism from opposition party critics, the media, and even retired military officials – Australia’s government went ahead and signed the F-35 Production MoU in November 2006, which did not commit them to buy the aircraft just yet. Then it went ahead and submitted a USD $3.1+ billion order without a competition process for 24 Super Hornets, in order to address Australia’s air capability gap until the F-35As arrive.
Controversy continues in Australia regarding the government’s plan to purchase the F-35 Lightning II as its next-generation fighter, and it has now spread to target the sudden F/A-18F Super Hornet Block II purchase as well. Australia’s Liberal Party government faced widespread criticism in Parliament and in the media, and began to respond – but in November 2007, that government was replaced by the opposition Labor Party. A full formal review of Australia’s Air Combat Capability plans is now underway, in light of expected regional airpower developments to 2045. A major political kerfuffle targeted squarely at the Super Hornet erupted soon thereafter, but the new Labor government ended up looking at the aircraft, and the cancellation costs, and decided to keep the F/A-18F.
Australia has said that it will pursue export permission for the F-22, but that doesn’t represent a decision yet. The F-35A remains controversial, however, with charges and counter-charges flying around the F-35’s air to air performance against modern aircraft like Russia’s widely-exported SU-30 family. In recent weeks, that controversy has drawn in both Australian political parties, Lockheed Martin, and the RAND Corp…
Regional Airpower Issues
Issues of procurement protocol are playing into these debates. So, too, are regional purchases of superior SU-30 family long-range air superiority and strike fighters. Air Power Australia’s July 2006 submission to Parliament [PDF, 6.7 MB] focused very squarely on this issue.
This question has assumed new prominence in light of the new Labor government Air Combat Capability Review, which explicitly notes expected regional air power trends to 2045 as the frame for their analysis and re-evaluation of both the F/A-18F contract and the proposed F-35 buy.
Range concerns have been another issue raised by critics in light of Australia’s airpower doctrine, which forms the linchpin of its national defense. That doctrine relies on deep-patrol and deep-strike capabilities backed by regional air superiority. Unfortunately, the difference between the F-35 and F-22’s range is not huge, and both suffer by comparison to the F-111. The F/A-18F is especially hampered by that charge, however, since it sacrifices fuel and range to accommodate its second pilot.
The Liberal Party (ex-)Government’s Position
Some government documents arguing aspects of their case have come to light since this article was originally published.
While outside analysts like Stratfor noted the F/A-18’s shortcomings and proposed longer-ranger F-15E Strike Eagles with higher ordnance capacity as a better F-111 replacement, Defence Minister Nelson argued in a speech to the Australian Defence Magazine conference that the F-15 lacks the requisite stealth, and has insufficient commonality with the current Hornet fleet and weapon set:
“The reality is the F-15 is about 30 to $40 million more expensive than the Super Hornet. It is approaching the end of its life. It also has a low observable profile which is not attractive to our country’s needs. It also has limited transferability in terms of weapons. We are a Hornet country.”
With respect to the F-22A, he said:
“…We still expect the US military however to acquire about two and a half thousand of the aircraft in contrast to the 183, or thereabouts, F-22s that they will have. We are not prepared as a country of 20 million people requiring a hundred aircraft to sign on for 20 per cent of the global on costs of an F-22, and knowing that as brilliant an air-to-air combat aircraft that it is, that it is not specifically the right aircraft for Australia.”
Other than cost issues, he did not elaborate further on why the F-22 was not right. That argument was taken up at a different speech by Air Vice-Marshal John Harvey, the Director General New Air Combat Capability, on Feb 22/07:
“The Joint Strike Fighter has a wider range of sensors. It can carry larger weapons, a wider range of weapons and a total carriage of more weapons than the F-22.
I guess those who ask the question… there’s been discussion in the press again about why shouldn’t we just have an all F-22 fleet. I think it’s pretty obvious if the F-22 could do everything, the USAF wouldn’t need the JSF as well. So they recognise the F-22 can’t do everything.
AVM Harvey is correct in citing the F-35’s larger weapon capacity and variety, but not total carriage. The F-35 has a larger internal weapon capacity, and can fit larger weapons in its bays, giving it a larger capacity and variety at full stealth effectiveness. That’s why the MBDA Meteor long range air-air missile may be adapted for internal carriage on the F-35A, for instance, but not the F-22A. The F-22 Raptor is a larger aircraft, however, with more weapon pylons and carrying capacity if weapons are also carried externally.
On the weapon variety front, the F-35 will also have an advantage. Having both the USAF and US Navy as customers ensures a wider range of weapons integration all by itself, and the “network effect” of so many aircraft in service with so many countries will also be a contributing factor. The Kongsberg-Lockheed Martin partnership to integrate the new Naval Strike Missile with the F-35 is a good example of that dynamic in progress. This network effect means that the F-35A’s weapon variety advantage is likely to grow over its service life.
Unfortunately, the rest of AVM Harvey’s quote either badly misunderstands, or misrepresents, the actual US debate and procurement approach behind the F-22A/ F-35 force mix.
The F-35A was designed to be a cheaper and less capable aircraft than the F-22A, one still good enough for the USAF’s general future needs but available in larger numbers. The tradeoff is found in less range, less maneuverability and combat speed, and less stealth. This less expensive aircraft would, it was imagined, provide the “low” in the “high-low mix.” This would offset (but not eliminate) a drastic shrinkage in projected TacAir numbers, owing to replacement aircraft costs that continue to rise faster than inflation. It is similar to the rationale that developed the F-16 in the 1980s as a less-expensive, less broadly capable counterpart to the F-15.
This has been a very well known and well understood public debate in the USA. The US choice was explicitly not about an F-22 that “can’t do everything,” unless one is talking about the carrier-capable F-35C or vertical-landing F-35B STOVL – variants which Australia is not proposing to buy. Indeed, the F-22A retains the USAF’s “Global Strike” missions alongside the B-2 stealth bomber, in order to attack targets whose defenses or range make other aircraft including the F-35 a marginal choice.
Of Fighters and Costs
AVM Harvey added in his Feb 22/07 speech:
“And for those who argue that the F-22 would actually be a cheaper solution, again, you can ask the question did the USAF plan to buy ten times as many JSF as they do F-22s.
Our assessment is the F-22 costs around twice as much as the Joint Strike Fighter and that assessment was supported by a recent ASPI report.”
Here is the exact ASPI report that AVM Harvey cites: “The generation gap: Australia and the Super Hornet.” Like many other recent ASPI publications, it was not a favorable review of the DoD’s plans.
With respect to cost, that comparison is likely to be true if measured over a program’s lifetime, but the AVF’s lack of specificity hides some critical facts one must know in order to understand defense procurement.
When buying weapons, average production cost may not be what a buyer pays – especially if they propose to buy during the much more expensive Low Rate Initial Production (LRIP) phase, as Australia does with its intended F-35A delivery date of 2013. For instance, let’s say that 3,000 F-35As are produced. That number could include 80 LRIP aircraft averaging $110 million each, another 500 early production phase aircraft at an average of $75 million each, followed by 2,500 more aircraft at an average of $50 million each. Average F-35A cost in this scenario: $55.6 million – but some buyers would have paid less, and others would have paid double.
The F-22A, meanwhile, has been cited for average costs of anywhere from $180 – $330 million. Its program manager cites a current production cost of about $137 million per plane (flyaway cost), as opposed to the $170 million cited by ASPI. Maj. Gen. Richard B.H. Lewis adds that costs could drop to $116 million each if another 100 F-22s were ordered.
It should be added that global weapon cost, as opposed to production cost, includes program R&D costs. This explains the stratospheric $330 million per F-22 figures, based on 183 F-22s bought instead of the 700-800 originally planned. It is therefore not technically accurate for the Minister to say with certainty that Australia would assume 20% of global F-22 costs, since export buyers typically pay a figure much closer to production cost. They may pay for modifications, however; a factor the Minister did not cite in support of his case, but which would almost certainly be required for the requisite “downgrades” before F-22A export approval would be given.
Updates & Developments
March 17/08: Australia to keep the Super Hornet. Australia’s new defence minister announces several decisions in the wake of Part A of Australia’s Air Combat Capability Review. One is that the decision to retire the F-111 by 2010 was made in haste, but is now irreversible. Another is that an air capability gap will exist due to the F-111s’ retirement, and the decision to pursue the F-35. Meanwhile, “No other suitable aircraft could be produced to meet the 2010 deadline the former Government had set.” In interviews, the Minister cites data from classified briefings he has received when he vouches for the planes’ ability to handle any threats in the region. His release adds that:
“The analysis also highlighted additional capabilities such as specialist electronic warfare variants (the F/A-18G) [sic – it’s the EA-18G] that will be considered as part of the Super Hornet acquisition. These additional capabilities will be more fully considered under the second stage of the Air Combat Capability Review.”
Sources: Australian DoD | Opposition Liberal Party release | ABC news [with video of the announcement and an interview] | The Age | News Australia | Sydney Morning Herald | Aviation Week | Defense News | Flight International.
Feb 27/08: The Australian Liberal Party, now the loyal opposition in Parliament, vigorously disputes a Labor Party argument that the government paid too much under the contract. Liberal Party release:
“The fact is Australia will pay the best possible price for the Super Hornet. In Senate Estimates, 20 February 2008, Dr Stephen Gumley CEO, Defence Materiel Organisation said “We get the same unit prices as the US government. I know no way of getting better prices than the US government, particularly in the home market; therefore I am confident that the price we are paying for the aircraft is as good as Australia is going to get.”
This is true. Of course, if one believes the Super Hornet is the wrong aircraft; $1 is too much. The Liberal Party alludes to this in their Feb 26/08 release, which states that: “Labor set up an Air Capability Review presumably as a pretext to scrap the Super Hornet contract.”
Feb 26/08: In an Australia Broadcasting Corporation interview, Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon offers an outwardly confusing statement re: the F/A-18F purchase, which he has opposed to date. The key is to strip away the statements re: ‘want’; a politician can always say that circumstances force something unwanted. Note, instead, what they say they will do, and under what conditions. Full quote, as reported by news.com.au:
“I will follow the advice of the experts who are doing the capability review. If they come to the conclusion or recommend that the Super Hornet isn’t up to the job, I will have no hesitation in cancelling it… I’m really hoping that the air combat review recommends that we retain the Super Hornet. It’s a pretty rude, if you like, thing for us to do now to move in and cancel the project and I’ll be very, very happy if we don’t have to.”
Feb 25/08: Australia’s The Age newspaper reports that US Secretary of Defense William Gates, when asked if there was any reason why Australia could not be trusted with the F-22, replied: “Absolutely not.” He also believes that it is the Pentagon’s responsibility, and his, to press Congress to lift the plane’s export restrictions, rather than a subject for direct communications between Australia and Congress. Mr. Gates has been around politics long enough to know that back-channel discussions are quite likely, regardless.
Feb 20/08: Reuters says that Australian Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston told Australian Senators that the government is considering buying F-22 Raptors:
“It comes back to the question of whether you go for one multi-role platform to satisfy all your needs, or whether you go for a mix. If we bought some F-22s, we’d probably end up with some F-35s… I guess that’s what the new government wants us to have a look at [in the ACCR]. I think nobody is suggesting F-22 or F-35.”
Feb 18/08: Australia’s new government formally announces its Air Combat Capability Review. Extension of the F-111s’ lives, re-evaluation the F-35 and F-18F buys, and the desirability of the F-22 Raptor will be discussed in light of regional air power trends to 2045. Read “Australia Unveils Comprehensive Airpower Review.”
Nov 24/07: Australian Election results in a change of government. In the aftermath of the Nov 24/07 election, John Howard’s Liberal Party coalition loses its majority in Parliament, and Labor gains one. In a Parliamentary system, this means that Labor Party leader Kevin Rudd automatically becomes Prime Minister, and the Labor party forms a majority government – albeit one that can have legislation blocked by the Liberal Party majority in the Upper House: ABC summary results. Some counting is still ongoing in certain ridings, but the overall margin (80-86 seats, 76 required for a majority) means that Rudd is sworn in as Prime Minister on Dec 3/07. Former defence minister Dr. Brendan Nelson is now serving as leader of Howard’s center-right Liberal Party, in the wake of ex-Prime Minister Howard’s resignation as party leader.
Oct 26/07: Australian DoD:
“Defence rejects claims to be aired tonight by the Four Corners [television] program that suggest Australia is conceding its crucial air superiority in the region by purchasing the F-18F Super Hornet…”
Aug 9/07: Australian Senator John Faulkner rises to make a speech that highlights the minister – department relationship, and the decision process behind Australia’s Super Hornet purchase. He says [full speech, MS Word format]:
“Evidence provided during Senate Estimates Hearings in February this year confirmed that there had been no specific Defence recommendation to the Minister on the Super Hornets – so without doubt, both the CDF and the then Secretary to the Department of Defence Mr Rick Smith, must have been stunned at the Minster’s actions at that NSC meeting.
There is much we do not know about what happened at that strange meeting, but it was clearly a remarkable – possibly unique – occasion. The NSC decided to buy a new fighter without advice from Defence or the RAAF. I have been told by very reliable sources that neither the Secretary nor CDF even knew the issue was on the agenda, let alone what their Minister was going to propose…”
Aug 6/07: Australia’s The Age newspaper reports that the Auditor General may investigate the F/A-18F purchase decision. From “Probe likely into Defence’s Super Hornet purchase“:
“Ian McPhee said he would consider examining the circumstances surrounding Defence Minister Brendan Nelson’s decision to spend $6.6 billion on the Super Hornets. If he did investigate, it would be in the 2008-09 financial year. In response to a request for an investigation from Opposition defence spokesman Joel Fitzgibbon, Mr McPhee said the Super Hornets were a major defence aquisition. If an investigation were held, it would focus on governance issues related to the decision to buy the jets.”
July 9/07: The cost per aircraft controversy returns like a recreational boomerang, as an article in Australia’s The Age Newspaper places the total per-aircraft cost at A$ 131 million in order bring each aircraft to full readiness for operational service. “Jets dearer than admitted” also explains the difference between “flyaway cost” to roll another aircraft out the door, and the “average procurement unit cost” which includes documentation, training, support systems and initial spares.
July 9/07: In response, the Australian government’s “JSF: Setting the Record Straight” says that:
“The estimated average flyaway cost for Australia’s JSF aircraft is currently estimated to be about $A80 million. Total project costs, however, will also include the acquisition of facilities, spares, initial training, support systems and weapons.
Typically the cost of these broader project elements adds about 50 per cent over the cost of the acquisition of aircraft, providing an approximate per aircraft total cost of around $A120 million.
For a fleet of 100 aircraft this would mean a total project cost of around $A12 billion which is well within the project cost published in the 2007 Defence Capability Plan of $A11.5 to $A15.5 billion.
The specific numbers used here are for illustrative purposes only.
The New Air Combat Capability project team is conducting very detailed analysis of costs leading up to a Second Pass decision on the JSF in late 2008.”
Note that A$ 80 million is still significantly higher than the USD $45-55 million (USD$ 55.0M currently = A$ 63.7M) officials had quoted in response to previous questions. As noted above, however, these costs will not be constant throughout Australia’s buy. Pentagon documents show that low-rate initial production (LRIP) F-35As bought in 2013, which is when Australia wants to begin buying aircraft, would cost USD $108.8 million each as the flyaway cost, and reductions or delays in American LRIP buys would increase that figure.
fn1. Readers should be aware that APA has taken clear sides in the debate, against the F-35 (see their in-depth analysis). With that said, the listed media links offer a number of non-APA stories and editorials, and APA analyses on that page can be evaluated by readers on their own merits.
fn2. The $110 million LRIP cost and $55 million average cost numbers are both within the respective ranges cited for the F-35A variant. Indeed, US budget documents filed in February 2007 gave the unit procurement cost of each F-35 as $243.6 million in 2008 (6 built) and $108.8 million in 2013 (48 built). See this PDF attachment for FY 2006-2013 [497kb). The exact numbers of aircraft built at each stage in DID’s example above, and early full production aircraft average costs, were picked for illustrative purposes. DID used realistic but notional ranges to show how the stated average could be reached over a full production run.
- DID (Feb 18/08) – “Australia Unveils Comprehensive Airpower Review.” Australia’s new government formally announces its Air Combat Capability Review. Extension of the F-111s’ lives, re-evaluation of the F-35 and F-18F buys, and the desirability of the F-22 Raptor will be evaluated in light of regional air power trends to 2045.
- Australia DoD – “Our Future Defence Force” 2000 White Paper. The main site uses frames, and includes the 2003 and 2005 updates. It may be found here. It will be replaced by a 2008 White Paper from the Labor government and Department of Defence.
- DID Spotlight – Australia Unveils Airpower Doctrine. Underneath procurement decisions, however, lie the more fundamental issues of doctrine and threat assessments. The one cannot be understood without the other, and so DID also excerpts the Australian DoD/ governing Liberal party offering their projections and doctrines.
- DID FOCUS Article – The Australian Debate: Abandon F-35, Buy F-22s?. A DII Q.V> article, which means it’s full public access. Full coverage of ongoing developments re: the F-35, F/A-18s, and F-22EX possibilities. Note that some graphics and links may be broken due to bugs in DID’s publishing system.
- DID FOCUS Article – F-22 Raptor: Profile, Procurement & Events. DII subscriber-only.
- DID FOCUS Article – F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
- Australia’s Parliamentary Library (June 9/06) – “The F-35 (Joint Strike Fighter) Project: progress and issues for Australia” [PDF].
- DID Spotlight – Australia Buying 24 Super Hornets As Interim Gap-Filler to JSF. Full coverage of the Super Hornets and contracts. DII subscriber access only.
- Australia Security Policy Institute (Feb 13/07) – The generation gap: Australia and the Super Hornet. The report is not supportive of the interim F/A-18F Block II buy, and recommends that Australia rethink the F-35A decision entirely if delays are expected. See also the ASPI news page, which contains other relevant releases and reports.
- Australia DoD submissions to the Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade (July 2006) – Submission #15: authorized response from Minister of Defence Brendan Nelson; and Submission #33: Department of Defence Response to Mr. Hatton’s Questions. Note that F-35 average cost is not the same thing as what Australia will pay for a particular aircraft bought at a particular point in the production cycle (early = more expensive), a point the paper acknowledges.
- Air Power Australia’s strategic procurement analysis of the F-35A, cited above, was submitted to this same committee (submission #20).
- Air Power Australia – Media Page re: F-35 and F/A-18F purchases
- Air Power Australia – Sukhoi Flankers: The Shifting Balance of Regional Air Power. Excellent program history, details, regional procurement notes, and analysis of the SU-30 family’s current capabilities and likely future upgrades. It concludes with a look at how the F-35 will stack up. They are not optimistic.