Australian International Airshow 2017 – Avalon, Victoria
Avalon 2017 was characterised by the involvement of the Australian Defence Force – led by RAAF – the Royal Australian Air Force. Avalon provides the alternate venue for the ADF’s airshow presence.
Air Force’s Plan Jericho, now well established, involves its’ transformation into “a truly fifth-generation enabled force that is capable of fighting and winning in 2025”, utilising a modern, fully-integrated combat force. Fifth generation refers to the latest technological evolution of aircraft and is a fully-networked air force that exploits the combat multiplier effects of a shared battlespace picture to deliver lethal and non-lethal air power.
Into this scenario, Avalon plays a significant role if only to introduce to the Australian public, the newest platforms (we will concentrate on the flying ones here). Illustrating the rapid pace of Australia’s military aviation re-equipment, several key platforms made their public debut this year, none ever so dramatically as the Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II CTOL.
PHOTORECON was present to record the progress, and indeed history, of this biennial marquee event.
RAAF/NAVY ORDER OF BATTLE AS SEEN AT AVALON 2017
F-35A Lightning II
In 2009, the Australian Government announced its selection of the conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL) F-35A Lightning II under Project AIR 6000 to replace its classic Hornet fighter fleet. 72 aircraft are being built, according to RAAF planning, to equip two operational fighter squadrons (3 and 77) and training unit, 2 Operational Conversion Unit (OCU) at RAAF Base Williamtown, near Newcastle NSW. 75 Squadron at RAAF Tindal, NT will also convert onto type. In future, additional aircraft (up to a total buy of 100) to equip a fourth operational squadron, to be based at RAAF Base Amberley, may be considered in balance with a continuing RAAF Super Hornet fleet. According to RAAF: The F-35A is characterised by a low profile design; internal weapons and fuel carriage; advanced radar; electro-optical and infrared sensors with advanced voice and data link communications; and the ability to employ a wide range of air-to-surface and air-to-air weapons. While the aircraft is yet to be accepted into RAAF service, the first two RAAF F-35As were released from service at Luke AFB (where they are part of the international pilot training capability), to attend Avalon having ferried via Hawaii, Guam and Amberley.
PHOTORECON attended an F-35 project update featuring Lieutenant General Chris Bogdan, Program Executive Officer – F-35 Lightning II Program and Air Vice-Marshal Leigh Gordon, Head, JSF Division – Australia.
Gen Bogdan discusses: USAF believes the F-35 is combat-ready. Regarding availability, reliability and maintainability of the whole fleet, this aspect is not getting a whole lot better fast. The 200 planes in the field are performing ‘fairly well’, unfortunately our older planes that came off production lines (we include the RAAF early deliveries in this) are not performing as well. The comparison shows newer planes are improving availability/maintainability. You separate the newer planes out- they are getting better, faster but not including the older airframes. According to Gen Bogdan when Australia declares Initial Operational Capability (IOC) in 2020 it will be with airplanes delivered just prior (in December 2019 – lot 10) as Block 3F combat system-capable F-35As with full weapons, full (operational) envelope and systems capability. Modernisation to improve aircraft may however preclude a sub- $80m airplane (cost is an ongoing bugbear for the program).
According to AVM Gordon: The next 6 aircraft on the RAAF order (part of lot 10) are coming down the production line. We can expect the first two aircraft to be permanently based in Australia from December 2018, ramping up to IOC in December 2020. This will occur when there is the ability to operate 12 aircraft in the first operational squadron (believed to be 3 Sqn) in Australia with 6 at the training school (2OCU). Final Operational Capability by December 2023 sees all 72 aircraft delivered plus some of the follow-on modernisation upgrades delivered. FOC Includes all sustainment and full logistics support. Four Australian pilots are current on the aircraft, with another to go over in a few months. The first 25 maintainers are completing ground school in the US before relocating to Luke AFB for hands-on training. This is the start of the ramp-up to service. Loading mission data (reprogramming) inspections are happening at Eglin AFB to prepare for building mission data files by Australians. Expansive new F-35 specific facilities costing around $1.5b are being constructed at Williamtown. These will include new training areas for 2OCU – a number of simulator bays, 7 aircraft hangars, 2 hangars for 3 and 77 Squadrons, 2 x 5 aircraft bays and extensive tarmac with parking and carports for aircraft parking below. AVM Gordon stated that F-35 is the right aircraft for Australia with a combination of stealth, sensors (distributed aperture systems), fusion of systems and sharing of data. AVM Gordon would not be drawn on the question (from a comment by CAF, AM Davies) revisiting a potential F-35B STOVL buy for the balance of the RAAF fleet of 100 airframes. The first two Australian airframes, A35-001 (AU-1) and A35-002 (AU-2) appeared before the Australian taxpayer for the very first time and performed brief passes and impressive breaks over the crowd during the Friday trade day. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Defence Minister Senator Marise Payne and Defence Industry Minister Christopher Pyne joined CAF to welcome the pilots to Avalon.
Growler is based on the proven F-18F Super Hornet airframe and designed to replace the EA-6B Prowler in US Navy EW squadrons. It is described as an airborne electronic attack aircraft capable of providing force level electronic warfare support by disrupting, deceiving or denying a broad range of military electronic systems, including radars and communications. The full-spectrum electronic warfare suite would provide detection and jamming against all known surface-to-air threats. As well, the Growler possesses a communications receiver and jamming system that will provide suppression and electronic attack against airborne communication threats and the aircraft will carry a range of short- and medium- range air-to-air as well as anti-radiation missiles. Intense consideration was given to rewiring a number of the RAAF’s 12 existing “pre-wired’ -F models to Growler standard. However it was announced by the Australian government in May 2013 that the 24 RAAF Super Hornets as operated by 82 Wing at RAAF Base Amberley, Qld would be retained and an additional 12 of the electronic warfare version ordered under Project AIR 5349 Phase 3. This capability is unique to the US and Australia’s RAAF. The new serial prefix A46 (previously the WWII CAC Boomerang designator) was therefore allocated to this distinct purchase – A44 being retained for the Super Hornet. The first two RAAF growlers delivered to Australia arrived at Avalon on the first trade day immediately following the Super Hornet’s handling display. The Growlers, which will be operated by 6 Squadron at Amberley are expected to have been delivered by mid-2017. 6 Sqn’s Super Hornets have already been passed on to 1 SQN as the sole RAAF Super Hornet operator.
KC-30A accompanied the RAAF F-35As which is the first time an Australian tanker has delivered an Australian first-of-type aircraft. Defence signed in December 2004 for 5 Multi-Role Tanker Transport aircraft, simulator, engineering service and to establish customer support at RAAF Base Amberley. 4 out of 5 Conversions were manufactured at Brisbane 2008-2012. Introduced to service in 2011 and operated by 33 Squadron, IOC was achieved during 2013. Testament to its reliability and the professionalism of RAAF operations, the KC-30A delivered fuel to 7 countries on Operation OKRA in the Middle East Area of Operations (MEAO) whilst still in IOC. An additional two tankers are being acquired, providing long-range Government and VIP transport options (likely to be delivered in the standard grey the fleet currently carries).
The tanker has the ability to tank 4-6 fighters up to 5,000kms (2500 miles) with a 20 tonne useful payload (equipment and personnel on board), refuelling in two legs with one stop. The aircraft achieves 97% operational reliability. During the airshow, Air Marshal Leo Davies (Chief of Air Force, former 11 Squadron Orion and 1 Squadron F-111 driver) declared the KC-30A has achieved Full Operational Capability in RAAF operations,(which) signifies that our boom refuelling capability is now fully operational”.
Launch of “Smarter” MRTT was announced. This provides collaborative support for an automatic air-to-air refuelling (A3R) capability for KC-30A’s boom. (KC-30A currently has an electronic boom, driven by software, which reduces crew load.) RAAF acknowledges this is of the highest priority. A3R automates the process for boom refuelling without the need for control by the on-board air refuelling operator. This improves the ability to make refuelling contacts with “customer’ jets in challenging conditions as well as the accuracy of contacts and avoiding damage to receiver aircraft. Ultimately this reduces the crew size on the aircraft.
Air Commodore Richard Lennon – Commander Air Mobility Group at RAAF Richmond, briefed specialist media on operations: KC-30As deployed for 2 1/2 years in MEAO with 1 tanker at any one time. The aircraft rotate every 4-6 months for servicing back home. Crews rotate every 3-4 months with a number having had two or three deployments in MEAO. Taskings over this period were 930. The team is averaging 8 sorties per week, flying every day and offloading over 74 million pounds of fuel to coalition aircraft, achieving 95% of taskings.
In practice, the 2+ available crews fly every second day or so. Usual practice has been to fly to an assigned position and receivers come up to meet it. Crews have a list of customers and can modify the flight path to meet receivers near the mission entry point. KC-30A can use links and radio communications to aid planning to see where customers are and make the most of the availability and proximity of the tanker, avoiding fruitless travel to the rendezvous point. Favourable comparison is now made by coalition partners in-theatre.
Air Commodore Philip Tammen – Director General, Defence Airlift and Tanker Systems, commented that RAAF Sought to fly the tanker up to 3000 hours per annum: it has been well received by partner nations and is exceeding 6000 hrs per year and achieved FOC at more than double the tanking hours sought. The KC-30A is cleared or about to clear to refuel a list of RAAF and international aircraft including Growler and of course, the F-35A.
Boeing is building 12 P-8A Poseidon Maritime patrol aircraft for the RAAF which together with the MQ-4C Triton UAS will replace the venerable Lockheed AP-3C Orion and with the first two aircraft delivered to 11 Squadron at RAAF Base Edinburgh, SA, one can be expected every three months until all are in service here in 2021. Per the 2016 Defence White Paper there is the further option of 3 airframes but the decision when to build is yet to be made and there is plenty of time given the 2021 delivery timeframe. Enhanced best practice early warning, surveillance and response capability combined with sustainability challenges is the reason the government has chosen to replace the venerable AP-3C Orion airframes. (The Welcome to Service of ship A47-001 on 25 November last, was fully covered in December 28 PHOTORECON). P-8A is based on the proven commercial design of Boeing’s 737-800 fuselage, but is substantially structurally modified to include a weapons bay, under wing and under fuselage hard points for weapons, as well as increased strengthening to allow for continued low level (down to 200ft) operations and high angle of bank turns. The aircraft have an extensive communications suite that includes radios and data links across the VHF, UHF, HF and SATCOM spectrums. An internal fuel capacity of almost 34 tonnes, gives the P-8A the ability to remain on station conducting low level anti-submarine warfare missions at a distance of greater than 2,000 kilometres from base. The P-8A will be compatible for air-to-air refuelling with RAAF KC-30A.
Flown by 35 Squadron (“Wallaby Airlines“), this is the long-awaited “Caribou replacement” for which former DHC Caribou operator, 35 SQN was stood-up again after having transferring its’ Cariboux to 38 SQN and reducing to “paper only” status for a decade and a half. Alenia’s C-27J is also known as the baby Herc due to its selection as battlefield airlifter for commonality with the Hercules C-130J already in RAAF service. Powered by a similar pair of Rolls-Royce AE2100 turboprops, similar cockpit layout and multifunction displays and fitted with Head-Up Displays, Spartan features a slightly smaller cargo cross-section capable of carrying 3 military 463L pallets. The aircraft may be configured for troop transport, medical evacuation, paratroop airdrop, cargo transport and airdrop. Procured via a Foreign Military Sales (FMS) arrangement with the US Government in May 2012, 10 aircraft have been ordered. With four delivered, it was gratifying to see three ‘tail numbers’ represented at Avalon.
Project AIR 5428 replaces the RAAF fleet of PC-9 and CT-4B trainers due to be withdrawn in 2019 and in September 2015, the $1.2billion PC-21 “Team 21” consortium was announced as the successful tenderer with 49 PC-21s to be delivered, winning primarily over the Beechcraft T-6 Texan II offering. Airframes A54-001 (HB-HWA) and -002 (HB-HWB) attended Avalon with the manufacturers, Pilatus.
Heron/ MQ-9 Reaper UAS/ MQ-8C Fire Scout
Israel Aerospace Industries’ Heron Medium-Altitude, Long Endurance (MALE) unmanned aerial vehicle or UAV, has been in operation with RAAF 5 Flight in Afghanistan since 2009 under Operation Slipper and is now based in Australia. The UAV on display outside the IAI tent display at Avalon is a larger TP (Eitan) version, in active service with Israel’s Air Force since 2010. Also on display and part of the sales pitch for the AIR 7003 Phase 1 RAAF MALE UAV was General Atomics’ MQ-9 Reaper/Predator B. This created quite a stir on Melbourne news stations during the airshow. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute professes: There has been public discussion for over two years about adding armed UAVs to the ADF’s inventory, and a future acquisition seems likely and may appear in the Defence White Paper. The ADF has recently acquired experience with these systems, embedding personnel into a US Air Force Reaper squadron at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. Australian Defence Minister, Senator Marise Payne commented: It’s really about extending the impact of what we can already do in Air Force, minus issues like fatigue or those sorts of things, and ensuring that we have an Air Force that is as capable as it can possibly be.
Meanwhile, Northrop Grumman had its mockup of the shipboard VTUAV or Vertical takeoff/ landing tactical UAV (based on the Bell 407 helicopter) on display again. The Royal Australian Navy may become a customer for this UAV for operation off Future Frigates and OPVs – Offshore Patrol Vessels, along with smaller UAVs like Scan Eagle, in an effort to increase situational awareness for the fleet vessels.
MH-60R Seahawk Romeo
The Australian Government in 2011 approved the acquisition of 24 MH-60R (SH-60R) Seahawk ‘Romeo’ naval combat helicopters at a cost of over $3 billion for the Royal Australian Navy (RAN). The helicopters are largely military off-the-shelf built by Sikorsky and Lockheed Martin and were acquired through the Foreign Military Sales process from the US Navy, Australia being the first FMS case with US Navy. Deliveries began in 2013 with the final delivery in September 2016, gaining the Defence Project Office an Aust Institute of project Management award – project of the year 2015. AQS-22 dipping sonar is operated by RAN, reintroducing the dipping sonar to the fleet – this capability had been retired along with HS.817 Sqn and the RAN Westland Sea King Mk.50 since December, 2011. The MH-60R and its mission systems will replace the fleet’s embarked S-70B-2 Seahawk helicopters. The main armament is AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-surface missiles and the Mark 54 anti-submarine torpedo. RAN 816 Squadron has been recommissioned as the Seahawk operational combat helicopter unit, while 725 Sqn will introduce the helicopter to service and remain the training unit for Romeo.
THE CURRENT FLEET
F/A-18F Super Hornet
During 2007, a contract was signed for 24 airframes which were purchased to maintain Australia’s air combat capability after the retirement of the RAAF F-111s and until the arrival of the F-35A – circumventing a so-called “capability gap”. A 2030 withdrawal date is anticipated so the two types could work together for many years.
RAN 808 Squadron flies the NH Industries MRH-90 replacement for the six Sea King helicopters of HS.817 retired in 2011 (Project AIR 9000 Phase 6) on a one-for-one basis. 46 were ordered for Army and Navy use. In November 2010 the first MRH-90 was delivered to the Navy’s Fleet Air Arm.
S-70B-2 Seahawk Bravo
Delivered to Navy Fleet Air Arm between 1989 and 1992, 16 were acquired with the first 8 manufactured at Sikorsky Aircraft division of United Technologies in 1989, with a second batch of 8 assembled at Avalon by ASTA (AeroSpace Technologies Australia). Fitted with a CAE Electronics MAD system and Barra sonobuoys, X-Band radar and anti- shipping missiles, it was a tough system to provide protection to the fleet by detecting and sinking warships and submarines. The RAN’s original Seahawks will likely be retired in December, 2017 with a small number preserved in museums, the balance will most likely be offered for disposal in the Australian Military Sales Catalogue.
Tiger ARH/ AH-64E Apache/ NSA 407MRH
Defence signed a contract in December, 2001 with Eurocopter for 22 of its ‘Tiger’ variant helicopter at $1.1billion. Problems have emerged, with the type taking incredibly long to reach FOC in April 2016. The main reasons were given in a 2016 Australian National Audit Office report: the aircraft was judged to be still in development and yet to reach maturity, while the limited international fleet of 119 aircraft created challenges of sustainment within a limited supply chain. The Tiger ARH is based primarily in Darwin, NT with 1 Aviation regiment (161 and 162 Squadrons) and at Oakey, Qld (Army Aviation Training Centre) including 1 instrumented test article. Despite improvements on the part of the contractor and Army, higher than budgeted costs and very low serviceability plague the program. A review is under way looking into sustainment of the current fleet or replacement in preference to an (expensive) mid-life upgrade under the LAND 9000 Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter Capability Assurance Program. Hence, Boeing flew AH-64E Apache (63112) into Avalon aboard a chartered AN-124 freighter, RA-82046. The Bell Helicopter/BAe Systems AH-1Z Viper is also mooted for the requirement but was not seen at Avalon this year where a virtual cockpit demonstrator instead turned heads, highlighting the Viper’s killer AIM-9 sidewinder AAM capability. With a Head office in Abu Dhabi, NorthStar Aviation sought to innovate and have presented their 407MRH modification, off-the-shelf Multi-role light attack version of the Bell Helicopter 407.
C-17A Globemaster III
With a fleet of 8 C-17As operated by 36 Squadron at RAAF Amberley, Qld, Air force possesses a powerful strategic airlift capability to deploy significant forces to distant places like the MEAO. However the RAAF may regret the passing of an option for a further two airframes as the production line is now closed. An initial four aircraft were delivered from December, 2006 and two more in 2011 and 2012. The final pair were delivered during July and November, 2015.
With the changeover to Poseidon at 11 SQN, many of the previous 19-strong Orion fleet out of Edinburgh have been allocated to 10 Sqn to maintain operational requirements, sent for scrap or allocated to museums. It was therefore with mixed feeling to see one arrive at Avalon for static display for the final time. During the airshow days, a P-3 would make a display of passes with the first P-8A in the “maritime strike” theme.
Based on the 737-700 airframe with Multi-Role Electronically Scanned Array (MESA) radar and 10 mission crew consoles, six airframes were purchased to provide the RAAF with its first Airborne Early warning and Control (AEW&C) capability and completed in Seattle by Boeing. Delivered from November 2009, the last was accepted by the RAAF in June 2012. Based at RAAF Base Williamtown, NSW they are operated by 2 Squadron with a permanent detachment at RAAF Tindal, NT. FOC was achieved in May, 2015. RAAF’s Wedgetail had already gone active over Iraq in October, 2014, supporting the Coalition air strikes against Daesh (AKA Islamic State).
F/A-18A/B Hornet “classic”
RAAF has operated the “classic” Hornet since 1984 as its principal multi-role fighter aircraft. Originally 75 were delivered (57 F/A-18A and 18 F/A-18B trainers). 71 remain in service. They are operated by 3 and 77 Squadrons and 2OCU (Operational Conversion Unit) at RAAF Base Williamtown, with 75 Squadron permanently deployed to RAAF Base Tindal near Katherine, NT. As stated earlier, the plan is for these units to begin transition to the F-35A from 2018.
Beech KA-350 Super King Air
Eight King Airs are utilised by 38 Squadron at Townsville, Qld as a light tactical transport, while 8 KA-350s of 32 Squadron are also utilised by the School of Air Warfare at RAAF Base East Sale, Victoria, to provide training for Air Combat Officer, Maritime Aviation Warfare Officers and in navigation as well as air logistics support.
Hawk 127 LIF
The BAe Systems Hawk 127 lead-in fighter prepares qualified Air Force pilots for operational conversion to F/A-18A and F/A-18B Hornets and F/A-18F Super Hornets – the cockpit closely resembles that of the “Classic” Hornet. 33 Hawk 127s were ordered in 1997. The Hawk is operated by Number 76 Squadron at RAAF Base Williamtown and Number 79 Squadron at RAAF Base Pearce, near Perth WA. 79 Sqn reformed in 1998 and operates 14 Hawk aircraft.
Australia has a long and significant history of C-130 operations, commencing with the C-130A in 1958. 12 Lockheed-Martin C-130J-30 Super Hercules medium tactical airlifters are operated by 37 Squadron from RAAF Base Richmond, NSW. These replaced the C-130Es which were transferred to Lockheed in part payment. Ordered in 1995, they were delivered from 1999 to 2000.
AS-350BA Squirrel AND EC135T2+ HATS
AS-350BA has been Utilised by 723 Squadron RAN at Nowra NSW, as a two-crew pilot training and general purpose helicopter for many years. The 723 Sqn Squirrel pair demonstration team are also known variously as the “Taipans”, taken from the aircraft callsign. The Squirrel’s role is to be passed over to the Airbus Helicopter EC135T2+ Helicopter Air Training System (HATS) under JP 9000 Phase 7 HATS Project. Deliveries of EC135s were between March 31, 2016 and November, 2016.
The Pilatus PC-9/A is primarily an advanced trainer with 2 supplied by Pilatus, 17 kitsets assembled in Australia and 48 built under licence from Pilatus in Switzerland by Hawker de Havilland in Australia. The aircraft are based at 2 Flying Training school at RAAF Base Pearce in WA where they are used to undertake the Advanced Flying Training Course and at Central Flying School, East Sale Vic, where they are flown to train qualified RAAF pilots as instructors. These in turn may qualify to fly with the RAAF Roulettes elite formation display team. 63 of the fleet of 67 PC-9/As delivered from 1987 likely remain in service at the time of publication.
The Pacific Aerospace Corporation CT-4B Airtrainer is built in Hamilton, New Zealand as a single engine basic trainer aircraft (originally designed and in production in Australia for the civilian market). BAe Flight Training Australia at Tamworth, NSW, utilises 12 for commercially-contracted, initial flight screening for military pilots.
Lockheed Martin F-22A-30-LM Raptor
05-4090, 07-4139 and 07-4151 are Elmendorf, Alaska (AK) – based F-22As of the 90th Fighter Squadron “The Dicemen”. They were flown down from RAAF Base Tindal, NT during Avalon week. Visitors were treated to their awesome handling display (and thunderous takeoffs).
Rockwell B-1B Lancer
86-0123 9th Bomb Squadron, 7th Operations Group, Global Strike Command, USAF Dyess AFB, Texas
Boeing KC-135R Stratotanker
62-3561, 909th ARS “Young Tigers”, Kadena, Japan
63-8018, 173rd ARS, 155th Air Refuelling Wing “Hustlin “Hustlers”, Nebraska Air National Guard (ANG)
s/n 753, 112 Sqn, Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF)
Boeing KC-767J Tanker
97-3603 Japan Air Self-Defense Force, 1st Tactical Airlift Wing, 404 Hikotai, Komaki, Nagoya. This aircraft had previously visited Avalon
Airbus A400M Atlas C1
ZM401 A400M of 24/70SQN Royal Air Force, RAF Brize Norton, UK. Crossed the Tasman from New Zealand where it was on display at the RNZAF Air Tattoo at Ohakea the previous weekend. Airbus is to market this aeroplane to the RAAF as a potential replacement for the C-130Js.
McDonnell Douglas F-15SJ
s/nos 8321 and 8323. 149SQN (Strike) “The Fighting Shikras”, Republic of Singapore Air Force, Paya Lebar Air Base
Lockheed C-130H Hercules
s/nos 731 and 734, 122 SQN RSAF
NZ7004 C-130H (NZ), 40 Squadron, RNZAF base Whenuapai
Lockheed CC-130J-30 Super Hercules
130601 436SQN “Canucks Unlimited”, CFB Trenton, Ontario, Canada
065 “52-1C” France: Armee De L’Aire Esc. ET00.052, Noumea, New Caledonia
General Dynamics F-16CM-50-CF
91-0422 and 92-3887 13th Fighter Squadron “Panthers”, Misawa, Japan