Are the brass dumping a tried and tested weapon?
The F-111? As big a relic as a “Goldwater 64” campaign button? Not according to some defence bods.

Last year the Defence Capability Review advised that Australia’s F-111s
would be withdrawn from services in 2010. Yesterday, however, a
release came out stating that the Defence sub-committee of the Joint
Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade will conduct a
public hearing into the decision to retire the supersonic tactical
fighter-bomber in Parliament House this week.

Will it leave Australia exposed? This security-obsessed
government wouldn’t do anything like that, would it? It always
tells the truth, doesn’t it?

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Some facts. The F-111 is one heavy bit of hardware. Yes, it first flew in 1964 – but look at some of the specs

The F-111 can operate from treetop level to altitudes above 60,000 feet
(18,200 meters). The F-111 has variable-sweep wings that allow
the pilot to fly from slow approach speeds to supersonic velocity at
sea level and more than twice the speed of sound at higher
altitudes. Wings angle from 16 degrees (full forward) to 72.5
degrees (full aft). Full-forward wings give the most surface area
and maximum lift for short takeoff and landing. The F-111 needed
no drag chute or reserve thrust to slow down after landing.

The aircraft’s wings and much of the fuselage behind the crew module
contain fuel tanks. Using internal fuel only, the plane had a range of
more than 2,500 nautical miles (4,000 kilometres). External fuel
tanks can be carried on the pylons under the wings and jettisoned if
necessary.

The F-111 can carry conventional as well as nuclear weapons. It
can carry up to two bombs or additional fuel in the internal weapons
bay and a total external load of 25,000 pounds (11,250 kilograms) of
bombs, rockets, missiles or fuel tanks on wing pylons. Look at
what else this mother can cart – up to four nuclear bombs on four
pivoting wing pylons and two in an internal weapons bay.

The avionics systems include communications, navigation, terrain
following, target acquisition and attack, and suppression of enemy air
defence systems. A radar bombing system is used for precise
delivery of weapons on targets during night or bad weather.

The F-111’s automatic terrain-following radar system flys the craft at
a constant altitude following the Earth’s contours. It allows the
aircraft to fly in valleys and over mountains, day or night, regardless
of weather conditions. Kewl!

Last December, the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee asked
the brass about the implications of retiring the F-111s early.

The asked about possible loss of capability, the adequacy of the
proposed alternative platforms, cost implications – and the length of
time Australia may be subject to a potential capability gap for if the
2012 delivery date of for the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighters gets
delayed.

And guess what? The JSF is overweight and facing blowouts in
costs and production schedules – but John Howard still thinks it’s “a
fantastic concept”. Concept, note.

In regional airpower terms, Australia has been the meanest dog on the
block for thirty years thanks to the F-111. Yes, it cost a lot
then. Planes do. Yes, they crash time to time now.
Planes do. We will lose this edge if the F-111 is withdrawn.

The F-111 is still essentially sound as a bomber. In fact, it
might be even mores useful nowadays than ever – given the changing
nature of the strategic environment and the tactics that have been
developed and demonstrated in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some senior
airforce types say that there is nothing that can replace the F-111 in
its role.

The avionics and weapons systems have all been upgraded. That’s
what happens with airframes like the F-111 that still suit the needs
they were designed for. The outside stays much the same.
The gizmos and gadgets inside are updated to include the latest
technology.

The boss of the RAAF, Air Marshall Angus Houston, doesn’t seem sure of
this fact. He told a defence seminar earlier this year that after
2010 Australia will “go into an environment where we would have to
totally upgrade the F111… It would be an incredibly expensive
undertaking for an aircraft that is basically sixties technology.
Sixties technology means that it is very difficult to maintain and to
get a large number of aircraft on the line ready for operations.”

Up to a point, Air Marshall. Some of the F-111s under his command
actually have later generation avionics and weapon systems than the
FA-18 Hornet. Current upgrade plans – in jeopardy thanks to the
proposal to retire the F-111 – would enable the aircraft to become even
more capable of carrying out modern day strike and bomber roles than it
is today. Indeed, it is argued that this work would give the f-11
greater capacity in these roles than the Hornets or the JSF.

The cost of the upgrade for the F-111 would be cheap compared to the
money being put aside for upgrades to the FA-18, which will become
increasingly strategically irrelevant after 2010. If defence
wants more bang for its buck – literally – keeping the F-111 is the way
to go.

Defence has tried the line that retiring the F-111s will create savings. That’s true. They will.

Withdrawing the F-111 will mean a net reduction in outlays such as
manpower, contractor services, spares and fuel of around $100 million a
year. That’s a lot – but not even all the spin doctors in Russell
Hill can make that go far toward making up the $13 billion plus needed
for the Joint Strike Fighter.

Neither the brass nor the spin-doctors can fill the strike capability gap withdrawing the F-111 will leave, either.

So if you want to see some very senior people pedal backwards over Lake
Burley Griffin, why not drop by Committee Room 1R1 at Parliament House
on Friday.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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