Warplanes: Why Australia Went With the F-35

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November 18, 2005: The Royal Australian Air Force's decision to go ahead with buying the F-35 might be surprising, but not when one looks at what the alternatives had been. The Australians had been considering ten options for the future of the RAAF. These options were a mixture of proven capability (like the F-15E and F-16), and the cutting edge (like the Eurofighter, F-22, and robotic warplanes, or UCAVs). Yet, not all of them made the cut. What is unique about the RAAF competition is the frank discussion of the pros and cons of the contenders that emerged. Usually, not a lot of information is released, either for the sake of the country doing the buying (in order to avoid tipping off potential opponents) and the companies involved (in order to preserve a chance at future sales by keeping competing aircraft firms from knowing weaknesses in another design).

Australia is planning to replace both its F-111s and F-18s with the F-35. The F-35 is a stealthy multi-role aircraft with a top speed of 1,900 kilometers per hour, and a combat radius of over 1,100 kilometers. The aircraft comes in at anywhere from $37 million (the U.S. Air Force's version) to $48 million (the U.S. Navy's carrier version). Why was the F-35, which is not yet in service, chosen over other aircraft, some of which have been proven in combat (like the F-15 and F-16), or which have had most of the bugs worked out (Rafale, Su-30MK, Gripen, F/A-18E/F)?

The answer is what Australia was looking for - they wanted a modern, multi-role fighter that could last a long time (the planned retirement date is 2040). They also wanted stealth, good sensors, and long range. Looking these requirements over helps explain why some planes did not make the cut.

The F-15 and F-16 were state of the art through the 1970s and 1980s, but fell behind the Rafale and Eurofighter, and are slated to be replaced with the F-22 and F-35, respectively. To an extent, the F-18E/F also fell victim, even though it had much in common with RAAF F-18s currently in service.

The Rafale had two problems. The biggest was interoperability. Australia and the United States have fought together in a number of major conflicts dating back to World War I. There is very little expectation that this will change, and Australia wants to simplify matters like logistics. What also plagued the Rafale, as well as the Gripen and Eurofighter were issue with stealth (not enough), and sensors (the small radomes raised concerns). The Gripen also failed on range.

The F-22 was one of the planes considered. Performance and logistics were not issues - cost was. The F-22 was coming in at $150 million a plane, and it was optimized for the air-to-air role, with the attack capability added on after many of the parameters were set. The most expensive variant of the F-35 comes in at $48 million. So, for the price of one F-22, one could get three F-35Cs or close to four F-35As (the variant Australia is purchasing). One F-22 can beat one F-35, but one F-22 would have a much difficult time beating three F-35Cs or four F-35As - and it cannot be in three or four places at once.

Two the competitors were never serious possibilities. The first was the Su-30MK, which was non-stealthy, had serious inter-operability issues, and would have been extremely controversial. In essence, there were some questions as to why it was even considered despite its range and powerful sensor suite. The other competitor quickly wiped out were unmanned air combat vehicles (UCAVs). The Australians figured that UCAVs would eventually supplement manned combat aircraft, but would not suffice as replacements.

The last aircraft standing was the F-35. While it is a paper airplane, it is well under way, and Australia will be able to get a version of the F-35 that will meet its requirements through 2040. Other countries will also be buying at least one variant of the F-35, including the United Kingdom, Norway, Turkey, and the Netherlands. The F-35 will likely be the F-16 of the early 21st century. - Harold C. Hutchison (hchutch@ix.netcom.com)

 


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