Thursday, November 15, 2007

Four Corners, Flying Blind indeed

On the 29'th of October this year the ABC current affairs programme Four Corners aired an episode named "Flying Blind" which addressed Australia's recent decision to purchase the F/A-18F super hornet as a replacement for the RAAF's ageing F-111C/G fleet. The ratio of "critics" to "defenders" seems to havebeen stacked in favor of the negative camp at the number of 5 to, um none (not including the three lines an RAAF pilot was afforded), which pretty clearly shows the programmes intent. It was basically a hatchet job. Accordingly there was a distinct lack of objectivity in the analysis presented, which seems to be a common theme on both "sides" of this debate, so i will try to provide some. The programme, and the discussion that has followed on other defence blogs and forums, centered around three major points; that the F-111 did not need to be retired and could/should be retained until the introduction of the F-35A , that the F/A-18F is incapable of replacing the F-111 in the strike role, and that the F-15E should have been procured instead, I will address these points in turn.

F-111's wrongful retirement.

The F-111 Aardvark, or "pig" as it is affectionately known, was introduced into the RAAF ORBAT in June 1973 after a much belated decade long wait, and have now been in service for 35 odd years. One of the primary reasons for the decision to retire the "pig", in addition to the fear of an availability and capability gap arising post 2010, was a wing stress test conducted by the DSTO which indicated that under certain, high stress conditions the wings would be prone to failure. This is of utmost importance for the F-111, which fly's most of its strike profiles at high speed and low altitude (-50 meter) altitude, which puts huge stress on the airframe. Understandably the notion of the wings falling off while scooting along at 600 knots scraping the tree tops was not a palatable one for the DoD or DefMin. However a claim was made on 4 Corners by Air Vice Marshal Criss (ret) that an unnamed person had informed him that the test had been conducted by the DSTO under incorrect parameters. This has been lauded by the "pro F-111" camp as evidence that the pig has been retired under false pretences. Now whether or not this claim is indeed true, and there has been no conclusive evidence of such apart from hearsay, that does not change the fundamental problem with the pig. It is not simply a question of a single flaw in the platform which renders it unsafe or incapable, looking at the problem in such a simple context does not do the RAAF or the Australian public justice in my opinion.

an F-111C at low altitude

The retirement of the pig needs to be looked at from a cost to benifit analysis perspective, which is not the view portrayed 4 corners. It was stated by Wing Comander (ret) Chriss Mills that the F-111 could be kept in the air "virtually forever" due to the availability of spares in USAF boneyards. While this technically may be the case it is in reality a moot point. We could keep spitfires flying "virtually forever" if we decided too, and even if there wasnt abundent spare parts we could conceavably manufacture what we needed. Anyway there is also a problem with a lack of spare parts with the rocket ejection system, and the current stocks will decay in the 2010~2012 timeframe. If there is a catostrophic accident after that time the crew will not be able to bail out. Now again we can make the stuff if we realy wanted to, but as an esteemed member of the defence community eloquently put it "Its not weather you can make a replacement widget, its wether the cost/benefit analysis, public interest, platform investment and risk analysis all make sense". As is invairiably the case with airframes the older the platform the higher the maintinance costs, the lower the mean time between failure rates and higher maintinance manhours per flight hour. The F-111 fleet is therefore becoming more expensive to run by the day and it is becoming harder to maintain adequate numbers of operational aircraft. This is the same problem the USN faced with the F-14D Tomcat. That platform arguably offered much more capability in contemporary terms than the F-111, however it was retired (much to the discust of 'cat lovers) due to the masive maintinance costs, in both manhour's per flight hour and cold hard cash. At the end of its career the F-14D needed a stagerring 40 maintinance man hours per flight hour just to keep the platform operational. If we intend to keep the F-111 flying "forever" or post 2010 the RAAF will be looking at a similar picture. So is the much vaunted "strategic deturrence" and jaw droping capability of the pig worth the ever growing maintinance, availability and monetary costs? Well unfortunatly in the 21st century threat environment, the F-111 just does not deliver the same capability it did in the 1970's.

F-14D, 40 maintanence man-hours per flight hour has a drastic effect on availability rates

F-111 vs F/A-18F

On papaer alone the F111 is a better strike platform. Longer range, heavier payload, higher flat out sprint speed (it still holds the record of the fastest platfrom in the region, just) and plain sex apeal all go to the pig. Its almost like the platform that all by itself elevates Australia to a major power. Well it may have 25 years ago, but the sad truth is in the current threat environment it has LESS range, LESS usable payload and its speed no longer holds the tactical significance it used to (Still has the sex apeal though). Under current RAAF operational doctorine an F-111 can not conduct a strike mission in a theater were there is any air threat without an F/A 18C escort, simply because the pig is not survivable in the modern threat environment. The F-111's forte is high speed low altitude penitration which it achieves by utilising terrain following radar, which was state of the art in the 1970's. However in the face of an SU 30 air threat, equiped with the BARS PESA radar system & R77 missile, flying low and relatively fast (the pig can not fly super-sonic while at low altitude while the Flanker can hit Mach 2 higher up) will not allow you to avoid being shot down in droves. Modern radar/missile combinations can easilly handle a low flying aircraft, moveing at high, sub-sonic speeds which has a radar cross section the size of a barn. Sending in F-111's alone against any of the regional air forces would be a suicide mission. In the modern battlespace unless you have a comprehensive VLO strike platform like the B-2 or F-117, local air superiority needs to be established for conventional strike platforms (aka the pig) to effecteivly operate in the battlespace. Hence the change in doctrine. Therefore the in real terms F-111's range is useless because it is tied to the escort platforms. For the last 7+ years, our strike range has been limited to the refuled range of our legacy hornet fleet. The reality of the RAAF's situation is the F/A-18C/D HUG hornet is our most potent strike platform, considering its ability to employ J sersies PGMS (JDAM, JDAM-ER) and the Lightning IR targeting pod. The F/A 18F on the other hand can "self escort" effectively. The same (single) platform can establish local air superiority, strike high value well defended targets at stand off ranges, do an accurate battle damage assesment at stand off range, all at further range than a F-111/F-18C package (because F/A 18F has a much larger range than legacy hornets), in addition to being much more survivable than the F-111. It can even act as a taker for other super bugs. As you can see a platforms performance on paper means nothing without considering how it can be used in a realistic environment, and sadly the F-111 is a shadow of the long range striker most of us have loved for the last 3 decades.

left: an F/A-18C, F-111C package
right: an F/A-18D equiped with JDAM-ER

But what about the huge payload advantage i hear you ask? Again reality is somewhat diferent from the comparison on paper. The F-111 can lift and carry some 14300kg of payload in comparison to 8050kg for the F/A-18F, which is pretty impressive. However its realistic payload in an actual strike configuration is not so jaw droping. The F-111 has 5 weapon hardpoints (a spot were you can hang a weapon off the aircraft), one in the weapons bay on the belly and 2 on each wing. When carrying the pigs primary weapon, the Paveway II laser guided bomb, the belly hardpoint is taken by the Pave Tack pod which is needed to identify and lase targets for the LGB's, the outer two wing harpoints are taken by a single AIM 9M self defence missile and a Jamming pod. This leaves the two inboard weapons stations for the Paveways, which are usually 2000lb LGB's. Just two weapons, hardly jaw dropping is it? Even if the F-111 was using its most sophistocated weapon, the 1990's vintage AGM 142 Popeye stand off missile, it would still need a AIM 9M and jamming pod, allowing 3 at most, there is a similar story for the Harpoon anti-ship missile. This load of 2/3 weapons with no BVRAAM capability is juxtaposed to the 11 available hardpoints on the F/A-18F. A strike configuration for a super bug would see two AIM 9X WVRAAM's on the wingtips, an ATFLIR (Advanced Targeting Forward Looking Infra Red) pod on one sholder with an AMRAAM on the other, external fuel on the belly and inbound hardpoints (the USN does not use a fuel tank on the same side as the ATFLIR because of the obstructed view but it is unclear as to wether the RAAF will do the same, legacy hornets do use an inboard fuel tank). This leaves 4 hardpoints for a combination of strike weapons, either 4 larger Paveways, JDAM's, JSOW's or Harpoons, or smaller 500lb weapons on double racks. Therefore in real terms super bug brings more weapons to the fight and can strike more targets. In adition to the super bugs payload advantage, it uses much more sophistocated and capable weapons systems. The pigs primary weapons are the Paveway/Pave Tack laser guided bomb combination, the AGM 142 'popeye' stand off weapon and the Harpoon anti ship missile. The super hornet uses paveway and harpoon (although ATFLIR is much more sophistocated, smaller and capable than Pave Tack which was developed in the 1970's), it uses the J series PGM's which are a generation better than anything the pig offeres. The JDAM (Joint Direct Attack Mnition) free fall weapon is a GPS/INS guided weapon whcih has all weather fire and forget capability, with similar accuracy to the paveway series. JSOW (Joint Stand Off Weapon) is a GPS/INS guided glide bomb that offeres the same all weather, fire and forget capability, with extended stand off range and low RCS. Allthough not currently in the RAAF's plans, there is a possibility of JASSM (Joint Air to Surface Stand-off Missile, which is being purchased for the RAAF's legacy hornet and F35 fleet, assuming the missile is compleated) being intergrated onto the F/A-18F. This weapon has 370km+ range, a passive anti shipping capability and very low RCS. These weapons give the super bug a high altitude, stand off, all weather, fire and forget capability which the F-111 can not match.

left: F111C with Pave Tack pod
right: F/A-18F's weapons package

In simple terms the F/A 18F can strike at further range, with more weapons that are more capable than the F-111's, with a much better EWSP suite, and ISR capabilities thanks to the SAR (Synthetic Apature Radar) capabilities of the APG 79 radar. In real terms F/A-18F is a better strike platform. Additionally, the Rhino (super bug) provides us with a world class 4.5th gen air superiority fighter that is significantly more capable than our F/A-18C/D HUG fleet. One has to wonder as to the wisdom of a small to medium sized air force investing in a specialized platform that constitutes a quater of the RAAF's order of battle (ORBAT), which due to the limitations of size is usually the rhelm of large (10+ squadrons) air forces. Multi-role platforms in effect give the RAAF 4 squadrons of air superiority fighters and 4 squadrons of strikers.

Left: ATFLIR pod (left sholder) on an F/A-18C

Right: An AGM-154 C JSOW vertical attack

So why dont we just upgrade the F-111? Well in order for it to be worth it we would need to upgrade the pig to a point were it could self escort (that means BVR missile capability), lower its RCS and IR signature and upgrade its avionics so it can accomidate the latest weapons systems. Basically the aircraft would have to be striped to the bone and a new one rebuilt on its skeliton. Dr Carlo Kopp made such a proposal to the RAAF (which was flatley rejected). It inlcuded, replacing the current radar with the APG 80 (from the F-16E/F), replacing the whole avionics suite with the super hornet's, replace the engines with the F119's from the F22, replace the skin with the Radar Absorbant Material from the F35A, install the IR supression system from the F35 and the engine nozell. Such a drastic upgrade is needed because anything less would be a waste of time. Quite simply this is a bad idea on so many levels i'm not sure were to start. Assuming the US would allow all of these technologies to be purchased, which is doubtfull considering the F-22A export ban, we would effectively be manufacturing a new, orphan, platform. Such an undertaking would incur huge monetary costs (I dont care what APA says about it), and massive completion and budgetary risks for the RAAF and the taxpayer. A much smaller and simpler project has been atempted on the navies seasprite helicopters, were a new avionics and weapons suite has been partially installed in an old airframe. The project is 8+ years late and $500m over budget, and that is practically an order of magnitude LESS complicated and risky than such a huge upgrade of the F-111. And what would we recieve for the massive cost and massive risk to a 1/4 of the RAAF's ORBAT, a longer ranged, supercruising F-111 (which would not change much tactically) with anh RCS the size of a house (instead of a barn), that could to an extent self escort (any AIM 120 carriage would compromise the strike payload), but would still not be able to go toe to toe with an Su-30, which a super bug can. Remember that cost/benifit and risk analysis? If we took this path we would likely have the pigs in the shop for a decade, spending billions, and then end up with a platform thats capabilities are borderline obsolete when compared to the F35. Does that make sense?

F/A-18F Block II vs F-15E Block II

Lets face it, the F-15E Strike Eagle Bk II is a remarkable aircraft and a formidable platform, and like the F-111C paper comparison the Eagle apears to be far better. It can fly further, carry more weight of weapons, self escort, is AESA equiped, has a higher sprint speed and has superior super sonic maneuverability (and has that sex apeal). So why didnt we follow Singapore and South Korea's lead and buy the eagle? To examine the purchase properly, a comprehensive comparison or realistic use and capability is needed, in adition to cost, maintinance requirements, weapons package and risk. In raw performance eagle is a better on paper performer. In combat configuration with AAM's and 4 PGM's, F-15E enjoys a 16% range advantage over the super bug, which equates to 1270km's to 1095km's. Although this is an advantage, in a realistic strike profile both would be equally reliant on AAR (Air to Air Refueling) assets, and due to the nature of a combat strike profiles (the platform would not fly in a streight line and may fly at various altitudes and bearings relative to the target) an extra 200km's may not be as usefull as it sounds, although it is a definite advantage. This range advantage is offset to a degree by the drouge and shoot refuleing system used by the Super Bug, which is more efficent than the boom system used by the Strike Eagle, simply because two platforms can be refuled at once. In terms of payload, an F-15E can indeed put more bombs on target. If carrying a Mk 82 500lb JDAM load, it can carry 12 such weapons in adition to 4 AAM's, which is much more than the 6~8 500lb JDAM's the super bug can cary with a similar AAM & fuel load. However the only time such a load would be carried, and the only time a single platform would need to strike 12 or even more than 4 targets at a time is during a CAS (close air support) mission. However the F/A-18F can carry a lager missile load, with 10~12 AAM's being possible, compared to 8 on the Eagle. The mission the F/A-18F~F-15E is being purchased to fulfill is a regional strategic strike capability curently held by the F-111C which would require a combat load of ~4 PGM's, which both can achieve with external fuel and a sufficient AIM 120D load. They both fulfill this capability better than the F-111C, and can put sufficient stand off PGM's on target at the range required. Kinematically the F-15E is a significantly better performer, with a higher top sprint speed and better thrust to weight ratio. Aerodynamically its a split desision, the F-15E has a lower wing loading (which dictates your turn radius) and is a better performer in the super-sonic and trans-sonic flight regime, however at low speeds, due to the super bugs wing sweep and leading edge wing extentions, the F/A-18F is a much better performer. This is also the case for the very high alfa (angle of attack) performence envilope.

left: F-15E with a JDAM load

Right: an F/A-18E with a Paveway II/Maveric load, note the ATFLIR pod on the left sholder.

It is clear that in raw performance terms the eagle is a better performer, but as discussed in a previous post, the defining factor in BVR combat and SAM survivability is the avionics package. The extraordinary capabilities of the AN/APG 79 radar system have been discussed earlier, however in comparison with the F-15E Bk II this is actually not a real advantage. Part of the package offered to Singapore with its F-15SG purchace was the AN/APG 63(v)3 AESA radar system. The APG 63(v)3 is an entirely new radar system (apposed to the APG 63(v)2 which is simply an AESA antenna on the APG 63(v)1) which Beoing has evolved to a similar state as the APG 79, incorporating its advanced features and modes. The two systmes are comperable in most aspects, so for most the most part the only advantage the F/A-18F holds in terms of detection and track radii, is it LO charecteristics. By no means is F/A-18F a stealth platform, although it has significant LO features that drastically reduce its frontal RCS. It has been claimed to be between 1m2 and .1m2 which is a signifant adavntage over the F-15E Bk II or SU 30. Many F/A-18E/F critics point out that the fact that the super bug carries all of its weapons and external fuel (funnily enough) externally means this advantage is wasted. While this view holds some merit, external weapons mean that only a partial RCS reduction is possible, it still means the super bug will be detected and tracked later, which effectes the who see's who first question (aka, first look, first shot, first kill). The EW suite is comperable, both having fully digital RWR's (the Super Bugs ALR 67(v)4 bieng integrated on all of the RAAF's legacy Hornet fleet improving commonality) with a similar EA capability provided by the AESA radar. The real avionics advantage the F/A-18F holds over F-15E is its fiber-optic data bus, open architecture design allowing COTS (Commercial Off The Shelf) prosessing improvements and a "5th generation" combat management system and human interface (which benifited from Boeings work on the JSF programme with the X32). The effect of these 5th generation capabilities combined with the APG 79 and comprehencive EW suite gives the super bug a real advantage over F-15E specifically in the ability to employ these systems and information distribution, even though the AESA radar and EW suite are comperable. They are effectively "force multpliers" for the information gathering and distribution sub-systems and the offencive EW suite, allowing the pilot and RIO/WSO to more effectively employ these capailities and make better tactical desisions.

above: a super bugs coackpit

So from a pure capability standpoint, they are pretty evenly matched contenders, with Strike Eagle holding a small advantage in realistic raw performance (i.e. ability to actually employ performance advantages in real strike profiles) and F/A-18F holding a small advantage in avionics capability. However this is only a small element of decision the making process. The government must balance capability with risk, ease of integration, availability, maintenance considerations and above all cost. From this perspective it is easy to see why F/A-18F was chosen over the F-15E. The F/A-18F Bk II provides 95% of the capability (considering realistic operational configurations and the super bugs comprehensive avionics package) at 60~70% of the acquisition cost (recent acquisition costs for F/A-18E $78.4m, F-15E $108.2m, although the actual price would increase or decrease with the particulars of the agreement), lower maintenace requirements in both manhours and cash, 10% commonality with the RAAF's legacy hornet fleet, a complete weapons package (AGM-84 would have to be integrated on the Strike Eagle at the taxpayers expense adding to the cost and risk) and operating an identicle platform to the USN which allows us to plug into any block upgrade's and utilize the world wide logistics structure in place (F-15AU would be in some respects a unique platform, complicating logistics and maintenance requirements). As for the F/A-18F Bk II not being competitive when facing evolved SU-30 variants, refer to the previous article. In simple terms super bug offers ample capability at significantly less cost, less trouble, less risk with easier maintince and logistics considerations. From a cost/benifit analysis viewpoint F/A-18F is the far superior platform. It may not be the sexiest choice, but it is definatly the smart choice.

A few loose ends...

I just thought I'd address a few points of fact, implications or analysis presented in the programme that I thought was factually wrong, misleading or just plain stupid. This is a statement mad by Wing Commaneder Chriss Mills when refering to the SU-30 "It's a formidable weapon, it can fly higher, faster,.... its got better weapons". In a point of fact that statement is simply false. The Su-30's weapons package is distinctly inferior to the Super Hornet's, in fact even our legacy hornet fleet. The Flankers strike weapons are a generation behind the Hornets, relying on the KAB 500/1500L family of laser guided bombs, KH 29 "Kedge" laser guided missile and KH 59 TV guided missile. All of these systems are of the same technological generation as the F-111C's Paveway/Pave Tack combination. They are simply outclassed by the J series PGM's utilized by the hornet family, which provide an unmatched all weather, fire and forget stand off capability. The only strike weapon used by the Flanker which is even competitive is the KH 31 Krypton anti-ship/anti-radiation missile, with over 100km maximum range, it is a very capable ARM. Its range and kinematics are slightly better than the AGM 88 HARM anti radiation missile although is apparently less capable in terms of ECCM. As for the air to air stuff the situation is the same. The Flankers WVR missile is the R73, which is outclassed kinematically, aerodynamically, in seeker performance, off-broadsight capability, range and IRCCM by the AIM 9X which was specifically designed to outperform the R73. The primary BVRAAM is the R77, which again is completely outclassed by the AIM 120D. AIM 120D is a better performer in terms of range (>180km compared to >90km), ECCM, has a more capable 2 way datalink and better seeker performance. As you can see Super Hornet clearly has a superior weapons package.

left: KH 31 "Krypton" ARH
right: the much troubled but very capable and stealthy AGM 158 Joint Air to Surface Stand-off Missile (JASSM)

Four Corners "asked" Air Vise Marshal Criss and Wing Commander Mills to do a "hypothetical" simulation of an air strike on Indonesia by a squadron of F/A-18F's in 2012. i can say without hyperbole that this was one of the most ridiculous and unrealistic simulations i have ever seen. Where was JORN or Wedgetail and the information dominance these systems provide? Who in their right mind would use strike profiles designed for a pig, i.e. a low and fast sprint to get to weapons release point when you have a HUGE EW advantage to exploit? There was only one outcome that was going to come out of that "hypothetical" but thank god these men are no longer in running strike missions for the RAAF. Lets look at a more realistic scenario with similar assets: 16 SU 30's are on CAP (combat air patrol) above Java in 4 packets of 4. All of these platforms are tracked by JORN as soon as they took off. A squadron sized package of 16 Super Bug's takes off from RAAF Tindell or RAAF Learmouth for their targets, 4 with a mixed JSOW AAW load and 8 with a full AAW load. They are preceded by a Wedgetail AEW&C aircraft (escorted) and 2 A330 tankers. The Wedgetail sets up shop several hundred kilometers out into the Indian ocean, its radar footprint extending throughout the battlespace, which remains undetected due to the MESA's LPI capability (and the fact that it remains outside of the Flankers/ground based radars detection radii). The 8 AAW equipped super bugs move towards their individual flanker flights as they turn to the north in their orbits, allowing them to stay out of the flankers radar footprint. The pairs of Super Bug's make super sonic runs toward their targets while staying emissions cold, all target information being provided by the Wedgetail via Link 16. When the Bugs reach ~150km from the Flankers they launch missiles, 2 at each Flanker, still emitions cold. At this point the Indonesians may still be unaware they are even being attacked, while there are missiles in the air. As the AMRAAM's leave their hardpoints the flankers are hit with an electronic attack, disrupting their datalinks and severely reducing their radar performance (the SH's EA capability is claimed to be effective in the 150km+ range bracket). While the Indonesian pilots are still trying to figure out why they cant contact command & controll their RWR's light up as the AMRAAM's start pinging. At this stage (within the NEZ and with ample energy) the AIM 120D's kill probability is 90%+, with 2 inbound the chances of survival are minimal. ALL 16 FLANKERS ARE SHOT DOWN. Strike designated bugs move in to weapons release range and hit 16 individual targets throughout centrell Java with JSOW C's. Sound too easy? RAAF picks when to fight and how to fight because it see's the enemy, in addition to effectively blinding him. That is an advantage that no realistic ammount of raw performance will change. That is what information dominance allows you to achieve, and when you bring the ADF's actuall capabilities into the simulation, information dominance is virtually guarenteed.


The 3 major points of contention put foreword by 4 corners and several other commentators have all been addressed above. Even if there is no problem with the structural integrity of the F-111's wing and the DSTO is lying to the public, and only hearsay indicates that is the case, there is a real case for the retirement of the pig simply on return on investment, cost/benefit and availability grounds. Put quite simply its more trouble than its worth. The F/A-18F is a far superior strike platform than the pig, in addition to being a far more capable ISR platform, a far more capable air superiority fighter, far more reliable, far cheaper to run, will achieve far better availability rates and is much more survivable in virtually any scenario. While the F-15E may be slightly more capable in some aspects, the F/A-18F is a much more cost effective solution offering ample capability for less than 70% of the acquisition cost with virtually no extra work or risk. Basically F/A-18F is the right choice for the NACC bridging capability.

This episode of 4 corners was quite simply a shonky, sensationalist and biased piece of journalism which did little more than attack the government by presenting incorrect assumptions and making implications that are at odds with the reality of the platforms concerned and their capabilities. This flawed and politically motivated analysis basically does not stand up to any sort of realistic scrutiny. Hopefully more members of the interested public will look beyond the hyperbole and make a balanced decision based on realistic and logical analysis free from emotional attachment.




Four Corners