Australia’s 2020 defence strategic update and accompanying force structure plan outline the next 20 years of development for the Royal Australian Air Force’s strike and air combat capability. Some notional funding streams are provided in the force structure plan that define the priorities for capability development and raise some intriguing questions for future planners to consider.
At the centre of the plans for the RAAF, of course, are the F-35A fighter jets, which are due to achieve final operational capability by the end of 2023. The force structure plan also allocates funds for ‘additional air combat capability’ between 2025 and 2030. It doesn’t specify what that additional capability will be, though it says that the government ‘is committed to … support of the F/A-18F Super Hornet strike aircraft, and acquiring enhanced air launched munitions.’
The Super Hornet remains an important capability, given that it will be the initial primary launch platform for the AGM-158C long-range anti-ship missile, or LRASM.
The F/A-18F fleet could be upgraded to ‘Block III’ standard, allowing the jets to remain in service into the mid-2030s. That makes sense from a risk-management perspective, because the government wouldn’t be betting everything on the long-term effectiveness of the F-35’s stealth. China’s continued development of quantum sensors and use of artificial intelligence could erode that advantage in coming years.
Defence’s 2016 integrated investment program contemplated acquiring a fourth squadron of F-35s, stating that:
the Super Hornet fleet has been extended beyond its initial bridging capability timeline and is now planned to be replaced around 2030. Its replacement could include either a fourth operational squadron of Joint Strike Fighters or possibly a yet to be developed unmanned combat aerial vehicle. The decision on the replacement of this air combat capability will be best undertaken post-2020 when technology and emerging threat trends are better understood.
The 2020 plan doesn’t mention a fourth F-35 squadron, but elevates support for what it calls ‘teaming air vehicles’. It anticipates their acquisition between 2025 and 2040, which would fit in with decisions being made on the future of the F/A-18F versus an additional squadron of F-35s. (end of excerpt)
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