The RAAF Hornets: Why the Indecent Haste?
by David Archibald
22 April 2020
The story so far: The Howard government some 20 years ago opted for the F-35 as our replacement for the RAAF’s fleet of F-18 Hornets. The Hornet was a good fighter aircraft for its time. You need a good fighter in your force structure, otherwise the rest of the military enterprise gets bombed at will by the enemy.
But the F-35 was designed as a light bomber to deliver two 2,000 bombs to enemy anti-aircraft missile sites. One USAF general said that an F-35 that engages with an enemy fighter “has made a mistake”. A 2015 report from the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation stated that would need to “avoid threat engagement” – in other words, to flee at the first sign of an enemy. So it is not a fighter aircraft despite the ‘F’ designation.
Delivery of the F-35s became delayed, so the Howard Government decided to buy some F-18 Super Hornets to make sure that Australia did not have a capability gap. The Super Hornets have the same shape as the Hornets but are 25% larger and more of a light bomber than a fighter aircraft. If the Super Hornets went up against the Russian (or Chinese) Su-35s, it is calculated that eight Super Hornets would be shot down for each Su-35 lost. The F-35 does a little better at 2.4 F-35s shot down for each Su-35 lost. The F-35 is still a loser’s aircraft.
Many years passed and now, in the third decade of the 21st century, some F-35s have arrived in Australia. We are now getting a total of 72 and the rest are supposed to arrive in the next couple of years. War with China might start in the same timeframe.
When we acquired the Hornets, 50 of the RAAF Mirage IIIs they were replacing were sold to Pakistan. Some of these are still flying in the Pakistani Air Force over 50 years since they were built in the Government Aircraft Factory at Fisherman’s Bend in Melbourne.
We used to have good bombers -– the F-111s also acquired during the 1960s. In 2011 these were declared obsolete, and buried in a pit near Ipswich. The chief of the RAAF at the time, and thus responsible for the wanton destruction of our F-111s, was a loon by the name of Geoff Brown. Last year he and another retired RAAF grinning loon, Leo Davies, stated that Australia needed a long-range strike capability. Well we had one until they buried it in a pit near Ipswich.
History keeps repeating itself and repeating itself. With the F-35s due to arrive but yet to arrive, the RAAF has sold 25 Hornets plus spares to Canada for $95 million, or $3.8 million each. News comes that the current crop of loons running the RAAF have sold the rest of our Hornets to a bloke in Illinois.
If Mr Kirlin is paying the same per aircraft as the Canadians, then that is 46 aircraft for $175 million. From the article:
Although the terms of the deal have not been disclosed, the purchase does include all of the RAAF’s F/A-18 spare parts inventory and test equipment, valued at over a billion dollars alone, according to Kirlin.
So he is getting more than US$1,000 million worth of spares too. And:
As for the condition of the surplus Hornet fleet, Kirlin says they are in incredible shape and show little signs of corrosion — likely a result of their often hot and dry operating environment down under as opposed to the salty conditions aboard aircraft carriers that U.S. Navy Hornets have had to endure.
10 of the fighters have had their center barrel sections replaced — a critical structural upgrade that is necessary once Hornets hit a certain level of fatigue — but the rest of the fleet shouldn’t need them. Kirlin says that since the aircraft have never trapped (landed) aboard or launched off a carrier, which causes extreme stress on the airframes, they should be able to operate continuously through 2035 and possibly even beyond.”
Our RAAF says the Hornets are clapped out and we have to get rid of them as soon as possible, but Mr Kirlin expects to keep them flying for at least another 15 years? I know who I would believe, and it is not the grinning loons of the RAAF. Of the 46 Hornets, 10 are currently not flying because the RAAF has not bothered to inspect them. Mr Kirlan’s take:
Those parts will be incredibly valuable as Air USA is planning on putting every single airframe it receives back into service — not just the 36 aircraft that are flyable today, but the other 10 that are not, as well.
Those jets just need inspections and are not parted out or grounded for any other reasons.
Why would the RAAF keep aircraft in a non-flyable condition? It is not for a lack of spares. Is it laziness, stupidity, some self-loathing malaise? The RAAF is also allowing Mr Kirlin to pick over the training fleet:
In addition to the Aussie Hornet purchase, Air USA also acquired five hand-picked PC-9 turboprop trainers from the RAAF.
The PC-9s are not clapped out; Mr Kirlin expects to keep them flying for ages too. As Mr Kirlin says, he is “buying an air force in a box”.
The sale price of about A$175 million wouldn’t pay for one F-35. Until all the F-35s arrive and are bedded down with stable operations, Australia has a potential capability gap. The other way of looking at it is that, for $175 million, Australia has an option of keeping the Hornets parked up in storage until the F-35s are a known quantity.
All this wouldn’t matter if Australia has another couple of decades with no major conflicts. But we are likely to go to war with China. US wargaming results have most of their air force shot down in the first week, including their F-35s, which will mostly be destroyed on the ground. They might still win the war but at great cost in men and material. Then there will be a great rush to rearm and it will take years to make the replacement fighter aircraft.
It will be the same for us. We will lose most if not all of our F-35s and their pilots. After the Falklands War, it took the Argentinian Air Force 10 years to recover. It would be good if we had an “airforce in a box” of parked-up Hornets in pristine condition as a backup. And some PC-9s also parked up to train the replacement pilots. But we are giving both of these things away. With indecent haste, for some reason.
One of the reasons we are buying the F-35 is for their supposed stealth. Mr Kirlin has an interesting observation on stealth:
Kirlin hopes to fit their F-5s with Infrared Search and Track Systems (IRSTs), which will be a huge force multiplier for other aggressors flying alongside them and a real threat to stealthy “blue air” jets, like the F-35, F-22, and B-2.
The F-5 is a fighter produced by Northrop that entered production in 1959, so it is a design that is over 60 years old. And by fitting a few kg of IRST system on the nose, it can become a real threat to the F-22 and F-35? Methinks Mr Kirlin speaks the truth and that stealth is overrated. From the comments on the article:
Stealth also has proven not to be the unbeatable silver bullet its proponents insist it is. In their first competition meeting, the Eurofighter “killed” the F-22s at range because the F-22 drivers didn’t realize the Eurofighters had the Pirate IRST system, which meant they could see and attack the stealthy F-22 at ranges when the F-22 drivers thought they were “invisible”.
One of the reasons the F-35 is such a kludge is the compromises made to get the vertical takeoff F-35B version for the US Marine Corps to work. While the immediate predecessor of the F-35 was the Yak-141 made for the Soviet Navy, the original idea was a Nazi design from 1930, which I found while looking through German patents of the early 1930s:
That design had three pulse jet engines, numbered on the diagram, to provide vertical thrust, including from the wings as per the F-35. By comparison, the Harrier jet rotates nozzles on the main fuselage to produce vertical lift.
As a result of wargaming a fight with the Chicoms, the US Marines have had a ‘come to Jesus moment’ and are parking up all their main battle tanks. Not that they don’t like their tanks anymore or that tanks won’t be useful on the battlefield, it is just that on a contested landing they won’t be able to get ships close enough to unload them. The landing ships will be great big missile magnets.
On the F-35B the Marines were circumspect in that report, saying that their utility on the battlefield needs more study but that the maintenance demands of the aircraft might be a showstopper. Their Harriers were too much of a burden on the logistic train to be taken ashore, and the F-35B will be the same. The Marines will now concentrate on using shore-based missiles to sink Chicom naval ships as their raison d’etre.
All this was evident years ago but a Marine general, one Joseph Dunford, declared Initial Operational Capability for the F-35B in 2015 while it was still a bag of bolts. The plane’s maker, Lockheed Martin, credits this declaration with keeping the F-35 program going when it was likely to be killed off. Four months and eleven days after his retirement last year, Dunford took a directorship with Lockheed Martin. Retiring Defense Department staff are required to wait four months before accepting positions with suppliers. Dunford sold his troops down the river for a seat on one of Lockheed’s Gulfstreams, and now those troops won’t have air cover in combat.
The same goes for our troops. The RAAF is throwing away perfectly good aircraft before we are 100% sure that the F-35 is operating stably from Australian bases. The cost of this mistake, being made with such unseemly haste, will be measured in blood.
David Archibald is the author of The Anticancer Garden in Australia
He is also the author of American Gripen: The Solution to the F-35 Nightmare.