Lightning Strikes, Growlers Arrive and Spartan Milestones

Hot on the heels of the delivery of its first P-8A Poseidon last November, the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) will record two significant milestones in February, with the delivery of its first EA-18G Growlers and the first visit of an F-35A Lightning II to Australia. The service has also recently declared initial operational capability of its C-27J Spartan battlefield airlifter.

The RAAF’s 35 Squadron received its initial operational capability declaration on December 16, 2016. Sgt Michael Formosa/Royal Australian Air Force

The RAAF’s F-35A, Growler and Spartan, together with the Pilatus PC-21 and P-8A, will all be making their debut at the Australian International Airshow, held at Avalon between February 28 and March 6. The line-up of new aircraft is intended to highlight the transition of the RAAF to a fifth-generation capable integrated force where, by the end of 2023, the oldest platform in the inventory will be the C-130J-30 Hercules.

F-35A Milestones

Australia’s first two F-35As (A35-001/ AU-01 and A35-002/AU-02) are part of the US Air Force’s 61st Fighter Squadron at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, where they form part of the international F-35 Pilot Training Centre (PTC). They are visiting Australia specifically to attend Avalon 2017 and will return to Luke immediately after the show, to resume their training duties.

A35-002 also made news in December, when it became the first Australian F-35A to release a weapon, a 500lb GBU-12 Paveway II laser-guided bomb on the Barry M Goldwater Range. The weapon test was conducted two weeks after the two RAAF Lightnings were updated with the initial warfighting capability Block 3i software.

Deputy Director of Australia’s JSF Transition Team and F-35 Operational Requirements Manager, Wing Commander Steven Bradley said: “This particular upgrade enables incremental expansion of [the] aircraft performance envelope, increased mission systems functionality and initial weapons capability, which includes the GBU-12. From here, the Australian F-35 programme will continue to certify weapons in preparation for Block 3F software release, which provides the aircraft a significant weapons capability increase in the lead up to initial operational capability.”

Also by the middle of January, the centre fuselage sections for Australia’s next eight aircraft (A35-003/AU-03 to A35-010/AU-10) were in production at Northrop Grumman’s facility in Palmdale, California. The first (AU- 03) is due to be delivered to the Fort Worth final assembly line in March and all eight will be delivered in 2018. Six of these will go to and serve with the PTC at Luke until 2020, and two will be delivered to Australia in late 2018 to begin Australian Suitability and Effectiveness testing. Initial operational capability is due to be declared at the end of 2020 and final operational capability (FOC) at the end of 2023.

Growler Deliveries

Australian Defence Minister Senator Maris Payne announced the visit of the F-35As in Canberra on February 7 and she also used the opportunity to announce the delivery of the first EA-18Gs to Australia, beginning later in the month.

The RAAF is acquiring 12 Growlers, to be operated by No.6 Squadron at Amberley, south-west of Brisbane. When operational, they will represent the first force-level electronic warfare capability the air force has ever operated.

All 12 aircraft are due to ferry from Naval Air Station Whidbey Island in Washington State, where No.6 Squadron crews have been training with the US Navy, in three batches of four aircraft, supported on the trans-Pacific flights by an RAAF KC-30A tanker. The first batch is due to arrive at Amberley in late February, followed by further ferry flights in April and June this year.

Director of the Growler Transition Office, Group Captain Tim Churchill, explained: “We’re planning on doing initial operational test and evaluation [IOT&E] in the United States for the first six months, so Australians won’t see Growlers actually flying [after Avalon] until July or August this year. Our IOT&E will be based at Whidbey Island and a large part of that will be validating out transition course, transitioning from US Navy to RAAF flying standards. In May, we’ve actually got a live weapons shoot at China Lake, so we will be working up to that, which will involve both air-to-air and air-to-surface weapons.”

Australia’s Growlers differ from their US Navy counterparts in that they are also capable of carrying AIM-9X Sidewinder heat-seeking missiles and the ASQ-228 Advanced Targeting Forward-Looking Infrared pod. IOC is due to be achieved in the middle of 2018, with FOC to follow in the middle of 2022.

Even before the first Growler is delivered, however, the RAAF is looking to a future capability upgrade programme, under the aegis of Project Air 5349 Phase 6, also known as the Advanced Growler programme.

Elements of Advanced Growler are likely to include the Next Generation Jammer to replace the existing ALQ-99 jamming pods. Australia is also seeking to join the US Navy development programme as a co-operative partner, in much the same way it has done with the P-8A Poseidon and intends to do with the Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton, which will be acquired early next decade.

Spartan IOC

The first of ten C-27Js on order for Australia arrived at RAAF Base Richmond, west of Sydney, back in 2015, but the aircraft will be making its debut at the Australian International Air Show (in RAAF markings, at least) at the end of February.

The air show appearance follows the recent IOC milestone, which was announced by Marise Payne on December 16 last year.

Chief of Air Force, Air Marshal Leo Davies, calls the C-27J the ‘missing’ piece of the Australian Defence Force’s tactical air mobility matrix. He said: “The arrival of the Spartan greatly increases the mobility and flexibility for local commanders, allowing intra-theatre airlift that bridges [our] C-130J Hercules and CH-47F Chinook operations.”

However, Air Commodore Richard Lennon, Commander of the RAAF’s Air Mobility Group, said the Spartan should be regarded as a ‘fixed-wing Chinook’, rather than a ‘twin-engine Hercules’. He said: “Its cargo compartment is slightly larger than a Chinook and the environment it will be operating in will be the same environment as army aviation; it’s a battlefield airlifter.”

Four aircraft have been delivered to 35 Squadron so far and another two are with L-3 Communications in Waco, Texas, where they are being used to support training of Australian crews. All ten aircraft will be delivered by the end of 2018.

Three 35 Squadron C-27Js parked on the flight line at RAAF Base Amberley. WO Glenn Lyons/Royal Australian Air Force