Military Contracts for Minnows

Posted on Wed 04/02/2008 by


By TonyfromOz

Fellow readers,

I read with interest the article relating to the acquisition of new air to air refuelling tankers for the USAF, and I thought you might like some amateur insight into military contracts from an Australian point of view.
Keep in mind that the whole of Australia is just slightly less in area than the whole contiguous US mainland States not including Alaska. However, as big as that size may be, the population is just slightly less than that for Texas, ours being just on 22 million total. Now you can see how the greenhouse gases thing just won’t fly here, so they needed an angle, hence the per capita head in built up areas ‘statistic’.

Military contracts, as was suggested in that article, might have a little more to do with politics than what should be considered right for the military, and I know the phrase is somewhat hackneyed, but for the life of me I can’t understand how the ‘best’ for our military depends upon the lowest bidder.
So, in Australia, when it comes to contracts for military ‘stuff’, everything has to be sourced from overseas, and the overall budget is minuscule by comparison. That’s why those big ticket contracts are so carefully constructed, have a very slow inertia, and run the risk of carrying over to a government of a different political persuasion.
On the political scene, we have the Australian Labor Party, which equates to your Democratic party, and the Liberal party, unlike what you perceive as liberal, because here, they would closely align with your Republicans, and in fact both our parties would be mirror images of your two parties there. So when one military contract is awarded and approved by the party currently in power, the opposing party object (nearly always) as a matter of principle, so military equipment contracts are always extremely contentious.

I’ll relate three examples with respect to this matter.

First. The air to air refuellers

Keep in mind that the US is ordering 179 of these new aircraft.
We are acquiring five of the new Airbus A 330, the same aircraft designated in the US as the Northrop Grumman KC 45A
We have five of the old Boeings currently in service. They serve half a dozen purposes, and air to air refuelling is just one of those tasks. They actually have to be reconfigured from their transport/VIP/passenger role into the refuelling role. So they are not dedicated refuellers at all, and that refuelling capability has only been available since the early 1990’s. Those aircraft were originally passenger aircraft from the old QANTAS fleet from the sixties, and then reconfigured to the Air Force requirement from that. They seldom get used in the air to air refuelling role as reconfiguration is immensely expensive and time consuming. If our FA18 fighters and F111’s go to the US on exersize, one old 707 is reconfigured for that task so we can wave the Australian flag and say ‘well look what we’ve got’. As soon as it gets back to Australia, it gets reconfigured back to VIP passenger duties, code for politician’s private air transport.
So when someone arbitrarily says Australia is getting a ‘fleet’ of air to air refuellers to replace the current ‘fleet’, it’s just five dedicated refuellers to replace the occasional two pre existing 40 year old part time refuellers. The media reports are far removed from the actuality. The new refuellers are also purchased with a view to the future. We have the F111 (still) the FA18 and will be getting the F35 Lightning when it comes on stream, and the dedicated refuellers will extend their capability, considering the huge size of our Continent.

Second. The Collins class submarines

The tender called in 1981 for a replacement for the existing ‘fleet’ of six 1950’s design submarines. Seven Companies originally tendered for the contract and the process went on for six years, with the German and the English bids most favoured. The government changed to Labor and the contract was contentiously awarded to the Swedish Kockums Company in 1987. The decision seemed political, because even though it was one of those under original consideration, traditional thought was that the English sub would be selected. Current thoughts at the time were that this sub was selected because more jobs were promised for Australians, as the new Government required this, mainly in response to the Unions, who the Labor Party represents. The sub had countless problems in construction mainly because the Government wanted Rolls Royce capability from Edsel construction if you see that point. Construction went years and years over, as did the budget. Teething problems could never be sorted, newer technologies were ordered to be attached at ridiculous (political) whims, and at one stage after the first two were actually delivered and in sea trials, the submarines were ordered to stay on the surface and not dive. They have since proved quite a capable conventional submarine nonetheless, but still have problems to this day. They may be the best conventional subs on the Planet, but the first was commissioned fifteen years after the process was started and nine years after the contract was awarded and the last only came into operation only in 2004, 17 years after that contract was agreed. So when you hear of Australia’s fleet of submarines, there’s really only six of them.

Third. The F111

The aircraft contract was called in the mid sixties. Two applied. The English TSR2, and the US General Dynamics F111 which was selected, only with special requirements for Australian service, mainly beefed up undercarriage, longer wingspan wings, and better engines. These Australian ones had their own designation F111C, and were only purpose built for Australia, 24 of them in all.
This is an aircraft designed in the late 50’s first flying in the mid 60’s.
There was trouble with the wing carry through box which controlled the variable geometry wings and trouble all round. They went way over time delivery and were considered to be a ‘turkey’ in those early days, and enormously expensive. Our air force was the only one outside the US who ordered them and it was actually considered folly. Because they were long overdue, an interim aircraft was supplied, in this case F4 Phantoms, an aircraft of proven reliability.
Our F111’s were finally delivered in 1973, virtually obsolete by aircraft standards at that time. They not only proved to be the most perfect aircraft ever designed as a multi role combat aircraft, so well that even the US kept them on longer than for any other combat aircraft in their inventory.
Australia, as is its way, has completed numerous upgrades, and these have only enhanced the aircraft’s role. Those upgrade programs over the life of the aircraft include analog to digital, the addition of reconnaissance specifications, the addition of Pavetack, PGM. and on and on. We have even purchased others as the USAF phased them out.
General Dynamics are the aircraft’s manufacturer, the old Convair aircraft Company, and they operate out of Fort Worth Texas. The factory that constructed the F111 is one mile in length. The production line starts at one end and goes the length of the factory.
The US actually came to Australia to see just what ‘magic’ we were using to extend the life of what was basically an obsolete aircraft, and then GD came over under direction of the USAF. They then went back to the US and actually started pulling F111’s out of the desert. GD knocked a hole in the side wall of their factory at Fort Worth and rolled F111’s back onto the production line for refurbishing, and upgrading, mainly because any replacement aircraft was considered enormously expensive, even by US standards with their unlimited budget. The aircraft was just too good for what it could do, and realistically took the place of three other aircraft, the only true MRCA ever developed as it can perform virtually every task that any other combat aircraft can.
The last USAF F111 aircraft was finally taken out of service in 1998, almost 20 years longer in service than any previous combat aircraft. Some are still used as skunk works aircraft, testing stealth and combat platforms, but that’s deniable.
The aircraft proved to the best combat aircraft built and flown operationally. It gave Australia an advantage of military might unprecedented in its history.
Think back to World War Two. There were a couple of raids at the end of that war called euphemistically the 1000 plane raids. One dozen F111’s could be sent on that same raid now. They would fly on target undetected, drop their munitions directly on target, and nothing else, do more damage, harm less people, and then fly home untouched. They were used in Gulf wars one and two. Remember those emotive pictures of buildings exploding as just the target alone was hit. Precision guided bombs flying into the tops of buildings down airconditioning ducts. Guided by laser from F111’s standing off and lasing the target, guided by exact GPS positioning. The plane with the bombs flies somewhere near the target, lets go its flying precision guided munition and flies off back where it came from while the stand off F111 guides the bomb directly onto the target, without being detected, the bomb just flying ‘down the laser beam’.
The RAAF is still upgrading the F111’s we have and they are still state of the art to this day. They are being mooted as being taken out of service in 2010 to 2012, but realistically will still be flying operationally till at least 2020, which is not bad for what is now a 40 year old aircraft with nearly 15 years of service still ahead of it. In that time we have had them we have only lost 6 aircraft (I think) with the loss of only half the crews, 6 in all, making it virtually the safest combat aircraft we have ever had, something also echoed within the US, losing less F111’s than every other combat aircraft, as well as lasting the longest.

I’ve said all this for the one reason. When it comes to military procurement, we have to make the best of what we have, and then extend the life for as long as possible and spend as little as possible, because we can only afford so much.

It may seem tiny by comparison, and even though Australia are mere sardines in the huge ocean, we still have to give the impression of looking like a shark.