October 30, 2007
Plane Politics

Robert R. gets a no-prize that can spot a cruise missile a hundred miles away for bringing us news of a military controversy down under:

Aviation analyst Dr Carlo Kopp told the Four Corners program on ABC TV that the Super Hornet would be far outclassed by the new generation of advanced Soviet-built aircraft being acquired by China, Indonesia and Malaysia.

"In most of the engagements scenarios that we could postulate the Super Hornet would get shot down. It's as simple as that," he said on the program.

The defence department rejected the claims as Four Corners went to air.

Aviation Week has been covering the Australian purchase of F/A-18E/F Super Hornets (as well as the aircraft itself) extensively over the years. If the information in linked the article accurately summarizes what was in the show, this program, and this gentleman in particular, should not be taken seriously.

It is true that the Super Hornet is somewhat slower than the C/D variant it is replacing. This does make it somewhat less maneuverable, and therefore somewhat more vulnerable in air combat. However, this is not "just" an airplane; it's a weapon system. And as a system, the E/F variants are extremely capable. Perhaps not as capable as an F-22 (it also doesn't cost as much), but nonetheless extremely effective, much more so than the C/D variant.

Most damming of all is that the film in question does not seem to mention the AESA radar system at all. Short for Active Electronic Scanned Array, these systems are far more powerful than their predecessors. Indeed, they're so powerful and so new, their full capabilities are still being explored, and what has been figured out is highly classified. What is known is they work very well, allowing a force multiplication that often makes them a deciding factor in any engagement in which they participate*.

As to the comparison with and retirement of Australian F-111s, well, it is true that, on paper at least, the Super Hornet does not compare all that well to the older system. That said, the F-111 was a remarkable platform whose performance statistics will most likely never be equaled again. However, the Aardvark's design is forty years old, it is becoming increasingly difficult (and therefore expensive) to maintain, and adapting it to newer and more effective munitions may not be possible for much longer. Almost nobody expects it to last long enough for the F-35 to directly replace it, hence the Super Hornet purchase.

True, the Russians are beginning to roll out some worryingly capable weapon systems of their own. However, none are available in large numbers, and their capabilities have not been proven in anything close to combat situations. It would be interesting to find out what the opponents of this purchase are proposing as an alternative strategy.

Because, from everything I've read at least, there really isn't one.

* Indeed, it was the lack of AESA-equipped radars that is most often seen as the reason why a flight of four F-15s was not able to defeat an Indian opposition force four times its size a few years back.

Posted by scott at October 30, 2007 12:07 PM

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Whats behind them purchasing the F/A 18 at all?? It's primarily a carrier born fighter and the Aus have no carriers.

Why not purchase either purchase the latest mark F-16 or even F-15Es (Wonder if you can buy them factory refurbed or used) to bridge the gap between the F-111 retiring and the F-35 going live??

Posted by: jeff on October 30, 2007 01:50 PM

Probably cost/benefit ratio. As much as I love the F-16, the Super Hornet is a damned good plan.

And I'm unsure about the comparisons between the F/A-18 and the F-111. Weren't their missions and capabilities so completely different such that comparisons are kind of apples/oranges?

The F/A-18 should be able to accomplish all of those missions, but it may need to do so with different tactics.

Posted by: Ron on October 30, 2007 04:17 PM

Plus, carrier-borne fighters are about as close as you can get to mass-produced, modular fighter jets. They're probably easier to store and maintain than any other of our notoriously high-maintenance military hardware.

Of course, Russian hardware would be even lower maintenance, and cheaper besides, normally. Maybe Howard and Putin aren't on speaking terms any more.

Posted by: Tatterdemalian on October 31, 2007 11:48 AM

I haven't found (so far) anything which discusses why the aussies went with the F-18 over its competitors. However, Australia currently operates C & D models, so I would imagine existing relationships with various manufacturers, maintenance providers, and parts suppliers for the earlier models played a factor.

Posted by: scott on October 31, 2007 12:16 PM

Hmm Interesting that the Aus bought the F/A 18 at all.

Isn't the F-16 fairly similar mission parameter and performance wise?? I know in the shoot out between the two way back when the F-16 won out.

I assume it's a land based variant of the F-18 without all of the various carrier bits on (Arrestor hook, folding wings etc etc) all they really do is add weight to a land based plane and reduce it's performance.

Meh I haven't kept up on the latest US fighters so I really don't know.

Posted by: jeff on October 31, 2007 01:19 PM

Well, one interesting thing about the 16 v the 18 is the dual engine factor. With the 16, lose and engine and lose a plane. With the 18, maybe not so much. That could play a factor.

But, yes, I do believe the 16 and 18 have fairly similar parameters and perform fairly equally.

Posted by: ronaprhys on October 31, 2007 07:51 PM

I would say thats probably it Ron. I assume the Aus fighters spend a lot of time over water so having two engines instead of one is a VERY good thing (Main reason the Navy doens't operate a navalized version of the F-16 if memory serves)

Guess the F-15 was to expensive or something.

Posted by: jeff on November 1, 2007 09:09 AM

It is always arguable as to what conclusions analysts come up with. Carlo Kopp however is generally well perceived in Aviation/techincal circles.

What is less arguable is conclusions drawn up by veteran pilots who have seen extensive combat action, particularly those who have shot down other aircraft, like for instance USN Rear Admiral Paul Gilcrist (Ret.). He has stated openly and bluntly that the Super Hornet is not a good fighter aircraft.

Even the U.S. Navy officially acknowledges that the Super Hornet is primarily a "bomb truck", and is not the first choice in conducting Air Superiority or Fleet Air Defence missions. The earlier, Legacy Hornets, similar to the models Australia has at present, currently fill these requirements (and only just barely).

What was also not even mentioned was that Australia has purchased an inferior Air-To-Air missile in the BAE AIM-132 Advanced Short Range Air-To-Air Missile or ASRAAM for short. This is despite evidence that there were other more capable systems out there, such as the German IRIS-T, the Israeli Python and the US AIM-9X Sidewinder.

The Germans pulled out of the ASRAAM program because they knew that the end product was inferior to the Russian Helmet Mounted Sight/R-73 (AA-11 Archer) Infra Red missile combination fielded in both the MiG-29 and Su-27/30/33/35/37 Jet Fighters. How did they know this? Germany had in its air force the MiG-29, inherited as a result of re-unification. The Deadliness of the system was obvious in mock dogfights with top-of-the-line fighters that NATO could muster.

The Germans surmised that, although the ASRAAM would offer big improvements over the earlier AIM-9L/M Sidewinder, it will still be inferior (even if one is equiped with a HMS system) against any opponent flying a MiG-29 or Su-27 and armed with the HMS/R-73 weapon system.

That is why, due to disagreements with the British on the design aspects of ASRAAM, that they pulled out of the program and produced what is now known today as the IRIS-T.

So, we have a bomb truck that has an inferior dogfighting missile that may have to go against an enemy Su-27/30, that not only has a bigger radar (it has two, front and rear) and a missile arnament that is heavier and is superior in short and long ranges, but also can outmaneuver and outrun and out-endure the Super Hornet.

While it maybe true that the Super Hornets that Australia is getting have the AESA (Advanced Electronically Scanned Array) radars, the Russian Su-27/30 also have it too. In fact we do not even know too much about the characteristics of their particular ESA radar, known in NATO codename parlance as "Slot Back". Without knowing this crucial information means you cannot develop electronic countermeasures against it. The US Navy doesn't even know if the stealth enhancement features of the Super Hornet is sufficient to delay detection by this radar system. What's even more worrying is that we do not even know if the Russians have developed their own ECM systems that could degrade the performance of radars like the Super Hornet's AN/APG-79 AESA, which by the way is smaller than the "Slot Back", which means less power, which translates to less detection range.

In the end we are paying for Boeing's selling points that may or possibly will turn out for it's operators to be painful lessons in the definition of false advertising.

The claim that the Super Hornet has "a lower radar signature than the legacy hornets" may sound good to some people, however the Super Hornet is not a true stealth aircraft. And the fact that it carries all of its weapons externally, in my opinion, effectively negates all the millions of dollars spent in designing and implementing the stealth features on this airplane in the first place, while very obviously and therefore unjustifiably ramping up the cost of each individual unit. Does the Australian taxpayer really want to pick up the tab on extras such as these that due to reality will be absolutely useless?

There have been quite a few questionable purchases made by Defence over the years. Greed seems to take precedence over the lives of our servicemen and women and the protection of the nation and the taxpayers that the greedy are leeching off.

Posted by: Carl on November 9, 2007 07:34 AM
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