Joint Strike Fighter purchase tops Australian defence priorities

By Siva Govindasamy

Australia’s long-awaited defence White Paper has committed the country to a massive modernisation programme. This includes the purchase of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, tactical transports, multirole and transport helicopters and maritime patrol aircraft.

Published on 2 May, the document says Canberra plans to increase its A$22.7 billion ($16.6 billion) defence budget by 3% a year until 2017-18, and then by 2.2% annually until 2030 to rectify current “shortfalls and underinvestment”, says defence minister Joel Fitzgibbon.

Worth more than A$300 billion over the next 20 years, the commitment will come as music to the ears of foreign contractors and Australian suppliers, and enable Canberra to step up to contain possible future threats including China after the USA has reduced its military presence in the Asia-Pacific region.

“As the Asia-Pacific region becomes more prosperous, we will see an increase in the region’s military capability,” says Fitzgibbon. “Intra-state conflict will be an enduring feature in the period to 2030, and the Australian Defence Force needs to be prepared to play its part in dealing with such contingencies.”

Lockheed Martin
© Lockheed Martin

Air power is central to Australia’s modernisation aims, and the government has maintained its plans to buy around 100 F-35s. It will order no fewer than 72 of the fifth-generation aircraft in the third quarter of 2009, by which time the developmental type’s delivery schedule will have become clearer, the White Paper says.

A fourth squadron of JSFs will be bought later, based on the timing for the withdrawal of the Royal Australian Air Force’s interim batch of 24 Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornets. To enter service from later this year, these will “remain effective until at least 2020”, it says.

With airlift to also remain a vital element of Australian defence capability, the White Paper reveals that the RAAF is to acquire a further two Lockheed Martin C-130Js, increasing its fleet to 14. Up to 10 new battlefield transports will also be purchased to replace its remaining de Havilland DHC-4 Caribous.

To meet its maritime surveillance requirements, Australia will buy eight new maritime patrol aircraft and seven high-altitude, long-endurance unmanned air vehicles to replace its Lockheed AP-3C Orions. Canberra has already signed a memorandum of understanding to jointly develop an Australian variant of the US Navy’s Boeing 737-based P-8 Poseidon.

Despite development delays, the RAAF will field six 737-based Wedgetail airborne early warning and control system aircraft from 2011, with the government to investigate upgrading these with Co-operative Engagement Capability equipment. This will “enable it to more effectively cue weapons systems and perform other functions in an air warfare information ‘grid’,” Fitzgibbon says.

In the rotorcraft sector, seven Boeing CH-47F transport helicopters will replace the army’s current six CH-47Ds, with Fitzgibbon saying the Chinook will remain “a critical component of the Army Aviation fleet”.

The Royal Australian Navy will get a further six NH Industries NH90 multirole helicopters to replace its Westland Sea Kings, plus at least 24 new naval combat helicopters equipped with dipping sonars and torpedoes. “This project will be pursued as a matter of urgency to overcome the current deficiencies in the navy’s aviation fleet,” says Fitzgibbon, referring to the government’s cancellation of a previous deal for Kaman SH-2G(A) Super Seasprites.

Some commentators say Australia’s plans will start an “arms race” in Asia, especially as they are targeted at countering China’s massive military modernisation efforts and “blue water” naval expansion. Beijing swiftly criticised the White Paper, while Australian opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull says: “It makes no sense for Australia in 2009 to base its long-term strategic policy on the highly contentious proposition that Australia is on an inevitable collision course with a militarily aggressive China.”

However, Paul Dibb, a former Australian deputy secretary of defence and the author of its 1987 defence White Paper, describes the new publication as a “hedging strategy”, and counters: “You do not plan against incredible contingencies, such as a direct military threat from China, but you do prepare for contingent operations with your allies. And you do aim to be able to expand to defend yourself.”

Others question whether it is realistic to outline force structure and funding plans out to 2030. “This is ambitious and not entirely convincing,” says Richard Brabin-Smith, a visiting fellow at the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre. “Who knows how much of the nation’s wealth future governments might want to spend on defence? And forward estimates of defence costs tend notoriously to undershoot.”


French army seeks Tiger enhancements for Afghan debut

By Craig Hoyle

The French army is conducting a series of urgent modifications to its Eurocopter Tiger HAP attack helicopters, in advance of receiving an order to deploy the type operationally for the first time, to Afghanistan.

“We are waiting for formal initial operational capability status, and for a decision from the Joint Staff to deploy,” says Lt Col Jean-Baptiste Pouret, the army’s Tiger programme manager.

Enhancements to be made ahead of a combat deployment include the addition of improved air particle separators, rotor blade protection and secure communications equipment.

The aircraft will also receive additional ballistic protection for its pilots, a digital mission data recorder and combat external fuel tanks. The army has assessed but rejected adapting the Tiger’s ferry tanks for the latter requirement, and is now seeking an off-the-shelf solution, says Pouret.

Environmental training for the Afghanistan deployment has already been conducted in Djibouti and in the French Alps at altitudes up to 5,000ft (1,520m), and the service has developed an immediate extraction technique that could see a downed pilot rescued by sitting on one of the Tiger’s main wheels.

Eurocopter
© Eurocopter

Procedures to transport the Tiger in the Dassault-Breguet C160 Transall and Lockheed Martin C-130 have also been validated, and are being finalised for Antonov‘s An-124.

Separately, the army in January conducted a test campaign using six MBDA Mistral air-to-air missiles fired from Tigers against drone targets.

While declining to speculate on when a detachment could begin, Pouret suggests “the decision-makers could be encouraged by Le Bourget”, referring to June’s Paris air show. “The [French] land forces are waiting impatiently for it,” he adds.

Speaking at IQPC’s Military Helicopter conference in London, Pouret said the army will require technical assistance from deployed Eurocopter personnel, for example during the repair of damage caused by small arms fire.

France has logged more than 5,250 flight hours with its first 19 of 40 HAP-configured Tigers, based in Pau, Valence and at a joint French/German training school in Le Luc. The type had been expected to receive initial operational capability clearance in April, with full operational status to follow by late 2010, says Pouret.

Only four of France’s current Tigers are in the Standard 1 configuration, which incorporates more than 270 modifications from the first Step 1 aircraft, delivered from April 2005. Its 15 older examples will be retrofitted to the operational configuration.

Eurocopter is meanwhile expected to perform the first flight of a multirole Tiger HAD for France in June using more powerful MTRI MTR390-E engines. The aircraft – the first of 40 on order for the French army – will begin firing trials with Lockheed’s AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-surface missile from September, says Pouret.

Spain’s army will also receive 24 6.6t Tiger HADs, including an interim batch of six HAP-configured aircraft that will later be modified to the enhanced standard.


RAF C-17 fleet reaches 50,000h milestone

By Max Kingsley-Jones

The UK Royal Air Force’s fleet of six Boeing C-17 airlifters, based at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire, has reached the 50,000 flight hour milestone after eight years in service.

“We are proud to have reached this figure at a faster rate than the US Air Force,” says Wg Cdr Simon Edwards, officer commanding of the RAF’s sole C-17-equipped unit, 99 Sqn. Some 80% of the squadron’s current tasking is to support operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, he says.

The RAF’s first of four leased C-17s was delivered in May 2001. These were purchased at the end of their lease term and were by two additional aircraft in April and June last year.

Max Kingsley-Jones/Flight International
© Max Kingsley-Jones/Flight International

“I can’t imagine operating without them,” says RAF Air Marshal Kevin Leeson, assistant chief of the defence staff for logistic operations.

The bulk of the 200 C-17s in service worldwide are operated by the USAF, which has a fleet of 186 aircraft. Along with the UK, other international operators include Australia and Canada, while the first examples are also close to delivery for Qatar and a 12-member Strategic Airlift Capability consortium formed of NATO and Partnership for Peace nations. The United Arab Emirates is Boeing‘s latest customer for the type, and plans to acquire four aircraft.

Although the RAF has no further C-17s on order, Edwards says he is waiting to hear whether the acquisition of a seventh aircraft will be approved following the UK Ministry of Defence’s Planning Round 2009 process.

Max Kingsley-Jones/Flight International
© Max Kingsley-Jones/Flight International

There are no plans for the C-17 to supplement the RAF’s Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules fleet in the tactical in-theatre role, but Edwards hints that this could change. “We are always considering how we use the aircraft. On current plans the A400M will do that role [replacing the C-130K], so we are tied to the what happens to the A400M,” he says.

Max Kingsley-Jones/Flight International
© Max Kingsley-Jones/Flight International

The European project is the subject of continued discussions between Airbus Military and its seven launch nations via the OCCAR procurement agency. The RAF had been due to receive its first of 25 A400Ms this year, but deliveries of the type have slipped by an estimated three years, with the first flight test example also yet to fly.


Boeing 787 makes swift progress towards first flight – at last

By Jon Ostrower

The Boeing 787 is finally making swift progress towards its maiden sortie with several key milestones being passed that clear the way for it to fly by the end of June.

Boeing‘s prototype 787 (ZA001) saw the light of day on 3 May, when the aircraft was officially moved to the Everett flightline’s fuel dock for fuel quantity system verification, ahead of the first starts of its Hamilton Sundstrand APS 5000 auxiliary power unit and Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 engines.

This appearance marked the end of almost two years of factory seclusion for the prototype after the ceremonial roll-out on 8 July 2007 that preceded the programme’s rash of part shortages, production problems and design changes.

In recent weeks ZA001 has completed a closed-loop simulation of the first flight with chief project pilot Mike Carriker at the controls. The 20 April “factory gauntlet” was completed faster than planned, as the aircraft moved into final gear swing tests.

Boeing
© Boeing

In these trials, Boeing experienced a glitch on 25 April when switching power sources from ground to internal mid-swing, causing the aircraft systems to shut down. Boeing quickly restored power and returned the gear to the down position.

The airframer has opted to carry out the final testing while on the flightline to ensure this condition of functionality is satisfied ahead of first flight. The second aircraft, ZA002, completed ground vibration testing on 1 May, another key prerequisite for the first flight.

The aircraft, having completed early validation of the flutter stability of the wing, will now remain in the paint hangar until mid-month before returning to the factory for final preparations before joining ZA001 on the flightline.


Boeing 787 makes swift progress towards first flight – at last

By Jon Ostrower

The Boeing 787 is finally making swift progress towards its maiden sortie with several key milestones being passed that clear the way for it to fly by the end of June.

Boeing‘s prototype 787 (ZA001) saw the light of day on 3 May, when the aircraft was officially moved to the Everett flightline’s fuel dock for fuel quantity system verification, ahead of the first starts of its Hamilton Sundstrand APS 5000 auxiliary power unit and Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 engines.

This appearance marked the end of almost two years of factory seclusion for the prototype after the ceremonial roll-out on 8 July 2007 that preceded the programme’s rash of part shortages, production problems and design changes.

In recent weeks ZA001 has completed a closed-loop simulation of the first flight with chief project pilot Mike Carriker at the controls. The 20 April “factory gauntlet” was completed faster than planned, as the aircraft moved into final gear swing tests.

Boeing
© Boeing

In these trials, Boeing experienced a glitch on 25 April when switching power sources from ground to internal mid-swing, causing the aircraft systems to shut down. Boeing quickly restored power and returned the gear to the down position.

The airframer has opted to carry out the final testing while on the flightline to ensure this condition of functionality is satisfied ahead of first flight. The second aircraft, ZA002, completed ground vibration testing on 1 May, another key prerequisite for the first flight.

The aircraft, having completed early validation of the flutter stability of the wing, will now remain in the paint hangar until mid-month before returning to the factory for final preparations before joining ZA001 on the flightline.


Superjet the biggest casualty as Russia slashes airliner output plans

The production plan for the Sukhoi Superjet 100 over the next four years has been slashed by more than two-thirds as part of a wider response by the Kremlin to adjust the country’s airliner output in response to the global financial crisis.

The move, which has been approved by state-owned aircraft manufacturing umbrella organisation United Aircraft (UAC), will see Russia’s overall planned airliner deliveries between 2009 and 2012 cut by more than 50% to fewer than 190 aircraft.

All the in-production airliner programmes being built by Russian plants are affected. Production over the 2009-12 period had been planned to exceed 400 aircraft – over half of which would have been the Superjet. UAC says the adjustment is necessary because of the impact of the global financial crisis and resultant weakening in demand for new aircraft following the reduction in passenger and cargo traffic. The company, however, asserts that military aircraft production plans remain unchanged.

Marina Lystseva
© Marina Lystseva

Planned output of the all-new Superjet 100 regional jet – which is currently in flight-testing – has been slashed from 230 units to 74. Plans to expand the production capacity of the Superjet assembly line at the KnAAPO plant to make it capable of producing 70 units a year from 2011 have also been suspended.

One beneficiary of the revisions is the KAPO plant in Kazan, where the increased gross weight version of the Tupolev Tu-204, the Tu-214, is assembled. The plan for KAPO to curtail final assembly activities and switch to being a supplier of wings for a centralised Tu-204 assembly line at Aviastar in Ulyanovsk has been postponed. The plant will now produce a further 12 Tu-214s before transitioning to being a wing supplier.

Meanwhile, the revised output looks to have scuppered any near-term revival of the Tupolev Tu-334 regional jet and the Antonov An-124 freighter, with no production plan for either type during 2009-12.