The arrival of the RAAF's first two Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning IIs at this year's Avalon air show was the climax of a 25-year journey for both the Joint Strike Fighter Project and the air show itself.
The F-35 began as a joint US-UK project in 1993. Coincidentally, the first Avalon air show was held in 1992 and the industry development and participation issues that have influenced the F-35 program since then have also shaped the air show.
I’ve attended every Avalon air show in one capacity or another, first as a specialist aerospace and defence writer and most recently as part of the show’s organising team. Over a quarter of a century I’ve watched the event – more properly, the Australian International Airshow and Aerospace and Defence Exposition – evolve and grow to satisfy the increasingly sophisticated business needs of its stakeholders. That includes the RAAF and the growing industry team behind the F-35.
During the 1990s the RAAF sought a new Lead-In Fighter (LIF). This advanced jet trainer would teach pilots to fly and fight in both the F/A-18A Hornet and its successor, to be acquired early in the new century under Project Air 6000. Simultaneously, the Army and RAN both wanted new fleets of helicopters.
All the contenders for these projects showed their wares at Avalon – in 1995, famously, BAE Systems displayed a Malaysian Hawk 108, head to head with its LIF rivals, Dassault’s Alphajet and the Aermacchi MB339.
Famously, Russia’s still-new Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker stole the show with a sparkling aerobatic display. Yes, even post-Cold War Russia had its eye on Project Air 6000, along with Dassault, BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin, Saab and Boeing.
Australia was in an enviable position. Having the region’s biggest and most technologically sophisticated defence force, the ADF had money to spend and plenty of choice. Capability was King: the ADF needs always to maintain an operational edge within the region. But the discriminators between competing bids were often the industry investments that enhanced Australia’s self-reliance. These were the local assembly and technology transfer deals that embedded high-technology skills and capabilities in Australia so that local firms could perform essential work on aircraft, ships and other systems in-country.
The promise of sheer capability and significant industrial investment at Williamtown saw the RAAF select BAE Systems’ Hawk 127 as its new LIF trainer in 1997. Twenty-one of the 33 aircraft ordered were assembled at Williamtown and they will be upgraded there to support the training needs of the F-35A.
So, during the 1990s and early 21st Century all the talk around the Avalon air show was of the fierce competition that the Australian government encouraged among firms pursuing its defence dollars. The level and quality of engagement between the RAAF and Australia’s aerospace and defence industries was poor. Avalon was in many ways an old-fashioned trade fair – lots of sales pitches and competitive behaviour, not so much shared wisdom.
The Australian government’s 2002 announcement that it would join the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Program as a Tier 2 partner, changed all that.
The multi-national structure of the F-35 program demanded a ‘whole of nation’ approach to securing a substantial role for Australian industry. The Federal Departments of Defence and Industry created a ‘Team Australia’ designed to maximise opportunities for Australian firms, including BAE Systems Australia, in the F-35 program. The Team Australia home fixtures were at Avalon, starting in 2003. Increasingly Defence and industry worked together to pursue opportunities on the JSF program and spoke with one voice to the F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO) in Washington and to prime contractor Lockheed Martin. The results so far: 30 Australian firms including BAE Systems Australia winning more than US$680 millions-worth of design and manufacturing work to date, sustaining some 2,400 local jobs. Consultancy firm PwC estimates this could rise to US$4 billion, sustaining some 6,300 jobs, by 2038.
The success of the F-35 Team Australia program, and the economic benefits that it brought, helped shape Australia’s 2016 Defence Industry Policy Statement (DIPS). This heralded a fundamental shift in defence industry policy and led to the formation of the Centre for Defence Industry Capability (CDIC) and a renewed emphasis on industry engagement, innovation and future economic growth.
But as far back as Avalon 2011 the industry conversation had turned to sustainment. The RAAF and Industry saw Australia as the focus for F-35 sustainment in the Asia-Pacific; the question then and at Avalon 2013 was, could Australia secure this work, and how could the local industry players work together efficiently and equitably? It was more than just talk. In December 2014 the JPO named Australia as the F-35 support base for the Asia Pacific southern region and, in a couple of technology domains, the global sole-source provider.
BAE Systems Australia became Australia's leader in air vehicle support, heading a team of specialists that includes Northrop Grumman Australia, RUAG Australia, GE Australia and Martin-Baker Australia. TAE Gas Turbines at Amberley is the propulsion system sustainment leader. The company will be competing for substantially more F-35 sustainment work in 2017, so potential team members were queuing up to present their credentials to the BAE Systems team at Avalon 2017.
Australia's purchase of the Hawk 127 in 1997 was the catalyst for significant investments by BAE Systems Australia in skills and high-technology sustainment at RAAF Base Williamtown. This provided the critical mass that made locating Australian F-35 sustainment there a no-brainer to most Australian aerospace firms. Defence estimates that sustaining Australia's F-35s alone will be worth $6-9 billion to Australian industry across their 30-year life.
Avalon 2013’s greatly expanded Conference Centre highlighted the growing awareness within Defence and Industry that the F-35 enterprise demands constant innovation and engagement between the RAAF, Australian industry, prime contractor Lockheed Martin and the JPO. That year, and in 2015, the event organisers’ focus on developing a supportive environment for B2B networking and information sharing helped create a palpable buzz around the exhibition halls and Conference Centre. In 2017, with the CDIC now established and Australia’s first two F-35s actually on display at the air show, that buzz was almost deafening. It was amplified by Lockheed Martin’s stand-alone JSF Pavilion and the company’s huge contingent of visiting VIPs.
The combined brainchild of Lockheed Martin, the JPO, RAAF and Australian industry partners, the Pavilion was designed to showcase Australian industry participation in the F-35 program. Fourteen Australian companies participated, along with the F-35 cockpit demonstrator and other 5th Generation technology displays. It was an outstanding success, hosting visits by the Prime Minister, Minister for Defence (twice), the Chiefs of the Defence Force and Air Force and the CEO of Lockheed Martin, Ms Marilyn Hewson. As well, the JPO head, Lieutenant General Chris Bogdan, his nominated successor, Rear Admiral Mathias Winter, and Australian F-35 leader Air Vice Marshal Leigh Gordon, all used the Pavilion as a platform for their own outreach to industry, national leaders and the general public.
Australia’s aerospace and defence industries have adopted a more sophisticated approach to communications and shared opportunities – B2B, B2G, G2G, all the permutations. Avalon has adapted to support this. Each year since 2011 the Airshow Conference Centre has grown to accommodate seminars and briefings on F-35 acquisition and sustainment and on every other aspect of air power, as well as on a growing civil aerospace sector. Overseas industry veterans say the Conference and B2B networking program are more professional and polished than ever before and Avalon has become not just a home fixture for Team Australia but an important ‘neutral’ venue for senior officers and government and industry officials from around the world to meet and talk.
Avalon 2019 will see the F-35 in RAAF service, and an Australian industry supply chain, centred on Williamtown, sustaining the growing fleet. And it will see the F-35 wowing the crowds in the air while the industry and RAAF teams responsible for keeping it up there share their insights and expertise in Avalon’s constantly evolving business centre and trade exposition. See you there!