Air Combat Operations 2025 and Beyond: The Williams Foundation Seminar


2014-05-14 In March 2014, the Sir Richard Willliams Foundation held a one-day seminar examining the future of air combat.

Senior RAAF personnel, MOD personnel, two USMC aviators and the head of the Joint Strike Fighter program were among the presenters.

The report addressed the overall impact of fifth generation aircraft on the Royal Australian Air Force, and upon the Australian Defence Force.

The step change in capability the F-35 will bring was a recurring theme throughout the seminar presentations.

Speakers consistently pointed to the aircraft’s advanced sensors, LPI communications, low observability, improved situational awareness, and other advanced systems as the key attributes that differentiate the F-35 from its predecessors.

To emphasize the advances in sensors and other systems, AIRMSHL Brown explained how the classic Hornet which was developed in the 1970s is a very different aircraft today to the one the RAAF initially acquired.

In the last decade the Hornet has undergone a massive mid-life upgrade program which has seen it equipped with a more capable APG-73 radar, Link 16 and ARC-210 comms suite, enhanced cockpit displays, an advanced electronic warfare suite, a helmet mounted cueing system with new high PK active and high off-bore sight air-to-air missiles, and precision guided and stand-off air-to-surface weapons.

He related a recent experience he had when flying an upgraded Hornet in a training mission.

Despite being in a dominant position against a relatively new Hornet pilot, he was ‘killed’ by an over the shoulder ASRAAM missile shot which had been ‘spiked’ and uncaged by the pilot’s helmet mounted cueing system.

He remembers that event as a “technological development that had fundamentally changed my mind as to what was offensive and what was defensive.”

Held on the sidelines of the RAAF 2014 Airpower Conference in Canberra, the William Foundation seminar sought to identify the many opportunities and complex issues that ‘5th generation’ air combat capabilities will bring to the Royal Australian Air Force and to those of Australia’s allies and regional partners.
Held on the sidelines of the RAAF 2014 Airpower Conference in Canberra, the William Foundation seminar sought to identify the many opportunities and complex issues that ‘5th generation’ air combat capabilities will bring to the Royal Australian Air Force and to those of Australia’s allies and regional partners.

RAAF Fighter Pilot Matthew Harper offered a clear insight by comparing his experiences in flying the 4th generation classic Hornet and the 4.5 generation Super Hornet in the RAAF, and the 5th generation F-22 Raptor while on exchange with the USAF.

He told the audience that, despite the advances which have made the classic Hornet “one of the best 4th generation aircraft out there”, the aircraft is still very limited.

He spoke of the mechanically scanned radar which needs to be “driven by the pilot” and which is restricted in the number of targets it can see and track, and of the limitations of the Link 16 network and the compromises that need to be made when “everyone wants to use it”.

He also explained that the Hornet is “not low-observable in any way”, that its mission computers are at 100 per cent capacity, and that sensor performance is very sensitive to the operator’s skill levels.

Sensor fusion for a Hornet pilot essentially means looking at multiple displays, each one displaying a different sensor picture which may not be up-to-date due to Link 16 limitations, and often means having to make a best-guess decision based on poor situational awareness. He said with the Hornet, in the decade ahead “it’s increasingly obvious we don’t have the systems capability to offer a meaningful contribution to the fight.”

With the Super Hornet, RAAF Fighter Pilot Harper said the improvements brought by the AESA radar, integrated electronic warfare features, some low observable enhancements, the advanced mission computer, and better sensor fusion which provides greater ability to manage complex EW & targeting, have made a “fantastic jet” even better.

He said the improvements were “designed to a sensible point which made financial sense”, and would mean the Super Hornet is survivable and upgradeable into the 2020s.

But he said the Super Hornet was still limited by being confined to a Link 16 network which isn’t LPI, and despite the better sensors the lack of real sensor fusion “adds a layer of complexity” which can result in task saturation.

“It’s still very challenging to determine what the best way is to track an adversary and maintain SA against advanced threats,” he said

By comparison, SQNLDR Harper said the 5th generation F-22 was built from the ground up to optimize its capabilities, and that there is a real impression that the platform was “built in collaboration with engineers, scientists, fighter pilots, and warriors.”

He said the most important feature of 5th generation is its integrated avionics, and that “all the sensors are built into the jet” and are all controlled by a central core processor, which means the pilot doesn’t need to manipulate them.

He explained that the cockpit displays promote an “evolved level of pilot interaction with the platform,” and that the HMI is “incredibly intuitive – It wasn’t long at all to go from the previous mindset, to looking at the displays and working with the picture to set up a work flow.”

RAAF Fighter Pilot Harper said the fusion is the “key enabler” for 5th gen.

He said because the sensors require little or no manipulation means it “frees up huge amount of brain space for the pilot.”

He said all the relevant information is presented in sync “not just your own aircraft, but with the entire formation.”

LtCol Berke described the fusion offered by 5th gen platforms as “an overwhelming advancement in breadth and depth in terms of the spectrum in which it operates.” He said it’s unlikely we fully understand what that breadth and depth will allow pilots to do yet due to the vast differences to the capabilities offered by legacy platforms.

“It’s not just a matter of being able to function in a wide array of information – if we can’t fight in a particular spectrum, whether it’s RF, IR, laser, EO, the F-35 has the ability with the agility on the platform to live in whatever spectrum it thinks it needs to be in…..”

The key messages from the seminar were that 5th gen is here to stay, that it will mean a whole new way of doing business for the RAAF, that the F-35 will require a number of key enabler capabilities in order to maximize its potential, and that it has the potential to make not just the RAAF but key elements of the whole ADF better.

RAAF Air Commander AVM Mel Hupfeld, representing CAF in the closing Q&A session, wondered whether enough thought had gone into the key enablers.

He said the RAAF was currently “trying to ask the right questions and then find the means of answering them.”

Attending as a delegate, the RAAF’s Director Air Combat Transition Office (DACTO), GPCAPT Phill Gordon offered that he thought the ADF’s “capability development process is particularly stove-piped along platform lines, so we’re trying to break down those barriers.”

To this end, he said the Chief of Air Force was currently writing an air combat capability intent “that will talk about how he wants the air combat force to work with everything else, and that will be a guiding document.”

For the full summary see the following:

Air Combat Seminar summary-AndrewMcL

For other Williams Foundation recent publications see the following: