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This is the third in a series of posts by Air Vice-Marshal Brian Weston (Retd.) describing the RAAF’s transition through five generations of fighter aircraft. In this post, Weston outlines how the RAAF plans to transition from the F/A-18A to the F-35A without the loss of combat capability.  

Australia’s first Lockheed Martin, F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter on its inaugural flight on 29 September 2014. [Image Credit: Lockheed Martin]

Australia’s first Lockheed Martin, F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter on its inaugural flight on 29 September 2014. [Image Credit: Lockheed Martin]

Following the earlier RAAF fighter transitions from Avon-Sabre to Mirage IIIO, then to F/A-18A, the RAAF, as evidenced by the deployment of its first two F-35A fighters across the Pacific for the 2017 Avalon Airshow, has already commenced its transition from a fourth generation to a fifth-generation capability. Like the two previous fighter transitions, each with their unique characteristics, the introduction of the F-35A will pose some new problems especially given the large step-up in capability.

Like previous transitions, this change will also require the RAAF to maintain a credible level of combat capability throughout the change, and possibly require it to sustain concurrent operational deployments. But aside from this, most of the issues arising from the transition can be categorized as related to either the management of the increased resources and personnel needed for the transition, or to the introduction of significantly increased levels of technology and capability.

Previous transitions certainly have stressed both resources and personnel during the phase out of the preceding fighter, the phase in of the new fighter, and during the period of overlapping operations and sustainment of the two types. However, unlike earlier fighter transitions, the RAAF now can exploit the availability of overseas F-35A training rather than conduct all of the transitional activities in Australia.

No 3 Squadron will be the first RAAF unit to convert to the F-35A with some personnel already in the USA for training. This progressively expanding group will further consolidate their F-35A training by remaining in the USA for some time, with some pilots gaining further experience as instructional pilots (IPs in USAF jargon) in the USAF F-35A training unit.

Soon after, personnel earmarked for future Australian-based F-35A fighter instructional duties will join 3 Squadron personnel in the USA. As this cohort of Australian F-35A instructional staff builds overseas, 2 Operational Conversion Unit (2OCU), the RAAF’s dedicated fighter training unit, will cease F/A-18A operational training.

Once 3 Squadron has built to a critical mass it will return to Australia where it will further mature into Australia’s first operational F-35A unit. Shortly after, the cadre of instructional staff, that had also been building in the USA, will return to Australia to reconstitute 2OCU as the dedicated Australian F-35A training unit. From this US-trained cadre, 2OCU will build its F-35A training capacity and expertise, at a measured rate, until the unit takes on the responsibility for converting pilots from the remaining two F/A-18A squadrons onto the F-35A, as well as commencing the training of pilots direct from the RAAF Lead-in Fighter Program.

With the phase out of the F/A-18A, and with 6 Squadron becoming an EA-18G Growler unit, there also will be consequences for the training of Australian F/A-18F and EA-18G aircrew. The option of including a training organization for F/A-18F and EA-18G aircrew, within both 1 and 6 Squadrons, would come at the cost of eroding the operational capabilities of both squadrons. Hence the decision to train future Australian F/A-18F and EA-18G aircrew in the US, with ‘C’ Flight of 1 Squadron being tasked only with the conduct of RAAF F/A-18F refresher and standardization activities.

Apart from managing the personnel and resource aspects of the transition, the RAAF must also manage the technological advances which are core to the operational effectiveness of the F-35A. Stealth, sensors, sensor fusion and connectivity, all involve technological leaps which will be periodically advanced through software and hardware upgrades.

These evolving technologies will generate substantial changes in roles, operational doctrine, tactics, and procedures which will impinge on not just other air force capabilities, but also on army and navy capabilities. The evolutionary expansion of the unparalleled connectivity of the F-35A to other ADF capabilities will presage an expansion of F-35A roles well beyond the roles traditionally espoused for combat systems with a ‘Fighter’ (F) designation.

So the Air Force seems well-placed in its transition to a new air combat capability, which is not surprising given Australia’s long and deep involvement with the JSF program as a Level 2 Partner Nation, as was evident by the presence of the two Australian F-35A aircraft, and their RAAF pilots, at Avalon. The transition from F/A-18A Hornet to the F-35A Lightning II is well underway, with the RAAF on the verge of a new operational era, with its combat force of three F-35A squadrons, an F-35A operational conversion unit, one squadron of F/A-18F Super Hornets and one squadron of EA-18G Growlers.

It would seem to be a good time to be a junior air force Australian Defence Force Academy cadet, with the prospect of earning wings on the spirited Pilatus PC-21, followed by lead-in fighter training on the capable Hawk, and then converting directly to the F-35A.

This article was first published in the August 2017 issue of Australian Aviation

Air Vice-Marshal Brian Weston (Ret’d) was Commander of the Tactical Fighter Group from July 1990 to July 1993.  He is currently a board member of the Sir Richard Williams Foundation.