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Is ‘A’ really better than ‘B’? – Jenna Higgins

‘Flexibility is the key to air power’ is one of the favourite clichés of the professional airman. In this post, Flight Lieutenant Jenna Higgins asks if, in light of the USMC’s recent successful proof of concept demonstration of the F-35B VSTOL, the ADF should demonstrate flexibility in reviewing the decision of whether to acquire the F-35B to operate off its newly commissioned Canberra Class LHDs.

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, 29 September 2014. [Image Credit: Lockheed Martin]

Australia has committed to buying 72 F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters. These platforms fulfil the essential role of providing a potent strike and air combat capability required to deter attempts to coerce or attack Australia and our national interests. As a strike platform, they are also expected to ‘seize the initiative, and defeat potential threats as far from Australia as possible’; a direct quote from page 94 of the 2016 Defence White Paper. The F-35A is to achieve this role with a combat radius of 550nm – not exactly a sizeable buffer. Further, this range barely covers the Indo-Pacific region; the emergent centre of global economic and strategic power.

Fortunately, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) has embarked on a journey to introduce an amphibious warfare capability as part of the ADF repertoire, which may enable the ADF to extend the reach of its soon to be acquired air combat capabilities. The two Canberra Class LHD vessels, both now commissioned, are based on Spain’s Juan Carlos I, which was designed with the AV-8B Harrier STOVL (Short Takeoff/Vertical Landing) ‘jump jets’ in mind. The Canberra Class LHDs enable the ADF to, amongst other things, more readily address emergent threats in the broader Indo-Pacific region. With that said, it is well understood amongst the Defence community that the induction of these platforms is just beginning of the quest for an amphibious warfare capability.

This Canberra Class LHD HMAS Adelaide departing Sydney Harbour in early November 2016 to take part in Exercise OCEAN RAIDER. [Image Credit: Commonwealth of Australia]
HMAS Adelaide, the Royal Australian Navy’s second Canberra Class LHD, departs Sydney Harbour in early November 2016 to take part in Exercise OCEAN RAIDER. [Image Credit: Commonwealth of Australia]

A heated discussion has previously occurred regarding the merits of the F-35B VSTOL variant and its subsequent integration to assist ADF’s future amphibious capability. However, on the back of a recent US Marine corps (USMC) exercise, it may be worth reigniting this conversation and asking: Did we get it wrong?

The USMC are currently preparing for its first overseas operational deployment of the F-35 in January 2017. Given that they will be operating in our area of strategic interest, they are perhaps the best example for Australia to model an amphibious concept of operations (CONOP). But up to this point, the manner in which the USMC would operate with their new platforms in the region has been largely theoretical. However, over the period 18-20 November the USMC successfully conducted a ‘Lightning Carrier Proof of Concept Demo’.

This exercise demonstrated the beginnings of an efficacious shift in CONOP which recognises the potential of enhanced connectivity and a more robust fixed-wing capability. While the USMC uses different platforms, with a combination of the F-35B and MV-22 Osprey, it is the F-35B and Carrier CONOP that holds the most telling lessons for Australia. Using this new CONOP, the USMC are able to penetrate enemy defences, deliver a force to an undefended area, and attack outwards as opposed to ‘attacking the enemy at its teeth’. Precisely what the 2016 Defence White Paper outlines as Australia’s defence strategy – protecting our shores while taking the defence away from our borders. Using the advanced connectivity of the F-35, the Carrier is no longer removed from the mission whilst the aircraft are on task. In the final phase of the exercise, the USMC demonstrated the ability for the F-35 to integrate with the Aegis combat system aboard a US Navy Cruiser in order to provide targeting data to an anti-air ballistic missile-defence weapon system on board the ship.

So what does this mean for Australia? While the purchase of the F-35B variant has previously been discussed and subsequently dismissed on the grounds of cost and complexity, it is a discussion that should not be shelved completely. Yes, expense needs to be considered; however, the concept is not a flawed one. Capability costs money. And when the money is being directed towards an unknown entity or a theoretical concept it can be a tough ask. But we now have a clear intent for amphibious operations, a clear intent for the Indo-Pacific region, and a real-time framework (based in our operating area) provided by the USMC to track. Yes, modifications for the LHD would be required, and re-think of how we conduct amphibious, but perhaps the future purchase of the F-35B wouldn’t be so silly?

Flight Lieutenant Jenna Higgins is a currently serving Royal Australian Air Force Air Combat Officer. The opinions expressed are hers alone and do not reflect those of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Defence Force, or the Australian Government.


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