Australia and F-35Bs: Examining an Option for the Australian Defense Force


2014-11-08  When a country has joined the F-35 global enterprise, whatever variant they start with they can clearly mix and match going forward.

The commonality of the combat systems and the cockpit makes flexibility an inherent capability.

Australia has made a clear commitment to the F-35 and to reshaping its airpower approach as expressed in the Chief of Staff of the RAAF’s Plan Jericho.

Air Marshal Brown has set in motion an effort to reshape the RAAF around its modernization efforts designed to become inextricably intertwined with the overall transformation of the Australian Defense Force.

Notably, Australia has made its basic air platform modernization decisions for the period ahead. This means that for defense industry working with Australia it is not about selling the next platform; it is about the ability to connect and enable the force.

Air Marshall Brown speaking at the Fort Worth based event July 24, 2014. Credit Photo; Lockheed Martin
Air Marshall Brown speaking at the Fort Worth based event July 24, 2014. Credit Photo; Lockheed Martin 

This is how the COS of the RAAF put it in a presentation on May 29, 2014:

I intend to release Plan Jericho, the RAAF transformation plan, in early 2015. It will guide our force transformation, enabled by our new 5th Gen capabilities, over the next decade.   

I will also be engaging closely with industry in the development of the plan.   

It is the technology that is being developed by industry that affords us the opportunity to transform our force.  It is essential that we partner with industry to explore how we can maximize the opportunity offered by 5th Gen systems. I ask you to consider how you can work with us, not just at the platform level … but in helping us think through and design our overall future force using the 5th Gen capabilities you develop and will help us sustain in the future.”

In other words, industry working with the Australian MOD is expected to shift its approach from selling the next platform to shaping capability enhancers.

In an input to the Defence White Paper process, David Baddams has had his paper on F-35Bs published on the Australian Ministry of Defence website.

The title captures the core argument about operating F-35Bs off of the Canberra-class LHDs: Proximity Means Capability.

This paper has explained some of the merits of embarked air power. It is stressed that it does not argue that embarked air power is a substitute for, or superior to, land-based air power in all circumstances.

Rather, it seeks to establish the fact that embarked air power has unique qualities that are ideally suited to the ADF and GoA.

It would also deliver air power that is more immediately usable. The UK’s experience may be considered. Since the end of WWII the RAF has not destroyed – or even engaged – an aircraft in air-to-air combat. Every air-to air kill has fallen to embarked fighters.

This is not because embarked aircraft or pilots were better. The simple fact is that in nearly all the UK’s post war operations, geography has meant that embarked strike-fighters were the first and closest to the battle.

The GoA, ADF and their advisers need to consider this fact.

F-35Bs_on Australian_LHDs

Ed Timperlake has provided a number of focal points on the role and impact of F-35Bs, which reinforce Baddams paper but expand on it as well.

The F-35B and Empowering Flexible Insertion Forces

In the not two distant future the US Navy/Marine and USAF team may have to establish presence from the sea in a potential combat theater. The threat will be great: friendly forces can be intermixed with opponents who will do what ever it takes to win.

From placing IEDs, to employing small unit ambushes, to spotting for artillery and Multiple Launch Rockets, the enemy will be unforgiving and aggressive. In addition there is a large land Army with armor and land-based precision weapons nearby to attack.

The opposing forces also have a tactical aviation component of Fighters and Attack Aircraft, along with Unmanned Aerial Systems and some proficiency in offensive “cyber war” ready to engage. To make it even more difficult the enemy has located and identified potential airfields that could be occupied and has targeted them to be destroyed by terminally guided cruise and intermediate range ballistic missiles.

Italy is buying Bs, As and has built a FACO facility which can be used as a sustainment facility.  Credit: Italian Navy
Italy is buying Bs, As and has built a FACO facility which can be used as a sustainment facility. Credit: Italian Navy 

Finally, the fleet off shore is vulnerable to ship-killing missiles.

The problem for US war planners is to secure a beachhead and build to victory from that beginning.

Traditionally, the “beachhead” was just that on a beach but now it can be seizing territory inland first and attacking from the back door toward the sea to take a port and also grab an airfield.

But the Marines do the unexpected and land where the enemy does not have ease of access –a natural barrier perhaps, mountain range, water barrier, very open desert or even on the back side of urban sprawl.

Once established, logistical re-supply is a battle-tipping requirement.

Once ashore the one asset that can tip the battle and keep Tactical Aviation engaged in support of ground combat operations if runways are crated is the F-35B, because every hard surface road is a landing strip and resupply can quickly arrive from Navy Amphibious ships by MV-22s and CH-53K.

The Ability to Insert and Withdraw Combat Power

When most military authors write about amphibious operations they do not focus at all on the “withdrawal” dynamic, and certainly with no consideration of coalition engagement and “leave-behind” obligations to support allies shaped within engagement operations.

Normally, analysts of amphibious operations tend to focus on the offensive or the insertion of force.  Some describe historical failures such as Gallipoli, Zeebrugge and Dieppe.  While the majority go into great detail appropriately describing unbelievable courage and, at times, costly success, Guadalcanal, and all USMC island hoping campaigns in the Pacific and USMC landing at Inchon in the Korean war are excellent historical examples.

In the World War II European Theater, the U.S. Army, British, Canadians, Free French and other allies liberated a continent from Nazi tyranny starting with one of the most successful amphibious operations in history at Normandy.

Offensive operations from the Sea are complex and dangerous, because you literally begin with one Marine or Trooper and build from that person.  “Defensive” operations are even more complex and dangerous because your forces are declining as you withdraw, not building up for insertion.

Historically, “the Miracle at Dunkirk” is often looked at as the epic operation to evacuate a force to the sea while under fire.  The saving of the British Army be Royal Navy and civilian ships was a key building block for the eventual return to Europe and to the defeat of the Nazis. Dunkirk would not have been possible without two elements coming together: sealift and air superiority provided by the RAF over the withdrawal area.

Growing Salience of Insertion Forces: Expanding the Toolbox

It is clear that the future for insertion forces is expanding, not contracting.

It is also clear that Australia wants to have both a self-deployed force and one that can operate effectively with allies.

This has already been demonstrated in the ongoing engagement against the ISIL, where the RAAF flew with a tanker, lift, fighter contingent based on their own organic capabilities.

The F-35B added to the fleet would provide an additional tool in the toolbox.

The strategic deterrence, with tactical flexibility, of the F-35B is in the recovery part of an air campaign when they return from a combat mission, especially if the enemy successfully attacks airfields.

Or is successful in hitting the carrier deck when the deck is damaged. The enemy does not have to sink the Carrier to remove it from the fight just disable the deck.

War is always a confused messy action reaction cycle, but the side with more options and the ability to remain combat enabled and dynamically flexible will have a significant advantage.

With ordinance expended, or not, the F-35B does not need a long runway to recover and this makes it a much more survivable platform — especially at sea where their might be no other place to go.

A call by the air battle commander-all runways are destroyed so find a long straight road and “good luck!” is a radio call no one should ever have to make.

But something revolutionary now exists which enables the pilot to sustain operations.

In landing in the vertical mode the Marine test pilot in an F-35B, coming aboard the USS Wasp during sea trials put the nose gear in a one square box.

Thee unique vertical landing/recovery feature of landing anywhere provides an option to save the aircraft to fight another day.