Charting out any kind of an air power roadmap for Australia has to go with the idea that anything is possible if you are willing to lower your expectations.
There was a very good plan submitted to government with the F-111 and F-22. That opportunity is now over. And, with that, so too goes the possibility of fielding anything other than a second-tier air arm that will still need F-22s deployed by the U.S. to deter any large threats.
What kind of fighter aircraft do we have today? What kind are available for the future?
First, we need to bring something close to long-range strike back into our ability. The replacement for this won’t have quite the range of the F-111 that was retired prematurely.
Along with that, our plan for air-launched stand-off weapons needs to be re-evaluated.
And then there is the attitude of how we do long-range strike. First, any ship or submarine will always be a sub-standard solution for using long-range strike as a deterrent. Any aircraft can drop a stand-off weapon within hours and return to base for more; rinse and repeat. A submarine or ship cannot do this on a strategically useful scale.
Defence made the decision to get the JASSM cruise missile. This system has some problems in a number of areas yet we may just have to accept it as a “good enough” solution. The goal of the JASSM was to be an “affordable” weapon around $400K U.S. per war-shot. What happened for the U.S. is that (not counting research and development) it has ended up being a weapon over $1 million U.S. each.
So if the targeting and fusing issues with this weapon get solved, that is what Australia is looking at for an air-launched cruise missile. A huge problem here is that Defence wants to drop this weapon from the short-legged Hornet family. There has to be another way.
Australia should consider getting a squadron of 24 F-15E strike eagles. This aircraft as sold to Korea and Singapore (convenient allies to joint exercise with) has a lot of range and capability. Here is a look at the specifications for the Korean F-15. It could carry the JASSM a long way. It could also carry the HARM and SLAM-ER a long way. The HARM and SLAM-ER are currently not in the Australian inventory but would make a nice compliment in strike capability. HARM, while not used by the USAF F-15s, is cleared on this aircraft. There are even menu setups in the USAF aircraft; just that the HARM mission is not on their training schedule.
How would we pay for a squadron of F-15s and their associated weapons and support? Easy. First ; by using money slated for the F-35. The F-35 has no tactical relevance for Australia. The F-15 would replace F-18s in one of the current squadrons. This would also allow the RAAF to retire its worst (in age and sustainment problems) legacy F-18s.
The idea that the RAAF needs only one kind of fighter sounds nice, but given that the F-35 plan causes more problems than it attempts to solve, a proper fix means this is just not going to happen.
What other air power assets does Australia need today? Predator/Reaper class UAVs. This would be to have a better surveillance over our waters to the North. This would allow us to have a better tactical picture of illegal boat traffic near Christmas Island and other locales. It would also give extra eyes to our P-3s and other patrol assets.
Next, Australia needs to get involved in performing a study to stand up a squadron of Avenger UCAVs and if possible, the UCAS-N class of UCAVs planned by the U.S Navy. These can also be given strike instructions from aircraft like the F-15 and Wedgetail-or even the Super Slow Hornet. A warning about UAV; they still have a higher mishap rate than manned aircraft. A balance has to be reached in this respect.
The above layer of UAVs would provide excellent IRS for not only Australia but a coalition effort. With good sound thinking, this can be not only affordable but practical.
Any sensible decision maker has inherited a mess with the fast-mover RAAF road map that is for sure. Working our way out of that mess and becoming something other than a very expensive flying club will be the challenge.