Improved support from Defence
Byline: Kym Bergmann / Avalon
Apart from entertaining crowds, the true purpose of airshows is to provide an opportunity for industry participants to interact with customers – in this case mainly from the Department of Defence. Two years ago the amount of interaction was disappointingly low, but the situation this time was greatly improved – after a quiet first day. All of the major aerospace companies active in Australia were present, with the exception of Raytheon – which like many companies is in a cost-saving mode.
While there were no major announcements, Defence Minister Stephen Smith released the information that the RAAF’s Multi-Role Tanker Transports have reached Initial Operational Capability (IOC). One of these aircraft was not only on static display, but also took a number of journalists for a flight (not this one) to witness air-to-air refueling. Unusually for Australia – where politicians regularly muzzle Defence people from saying anything other than the most anodyne comments at charity functions and historical book launches – Avalon provided an opportunity to have uncensored chats with aircrew, including for the MRTTs. And what a positive experience that was, with the operators full of praise for the aircraft and what they contribute in additional capability.
The highlight of the flying program was certainly the F-22 ‘Raptor’, not so much because of spectacular aerobatics – though it is no slouch in that role – but simply because it was a chance to see the world’s most expensive combat aircraft take to the skies. All military aviation enthusiasts have read about it and its extraordinary 5th generation capabilities, so to see it first hand was a thrill. Apart from the excitement generated by the aircraft itself, the associated commentary from a US office over the loudspeaker system was the most enthusiastic and energetic heard at any airshow. Ever.
The briefing of the week was undoubtedly that by USAF Major General Christopher Bogden – F-35 program director – who put in a virtuoso 90-minute performance for a limited media team that included quite a few skeptics. Having started off by saying that he was not a cheerleader for the aircraft, the substance of his remarks made it very clear that he is a believer in the advanced capabilities of the F-35 and its transformational combat performance. He used the opportunity to take a swipe at the performance of prime contractor Lockheed Martin and – especially – engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney. In not so many words he suggested that they were being greedy and needed to lift their game – comments that were reported around the globe. Overall, he was confident that the program is on track and it will deliver a remarkable combat aircraft.
Many Australian defence officials were privately pleased that General Bogdan was able to provide such an extensive overview of the project because they are apparently banned by their Minister from being able to make any similar public pronouncements. The reasoning behind this reported ban is opaque, but probably relates to the Government wishing to keep its options open on the possibility of acquiring additional Super Hornets, which will come at the expense of F-35 numbers. This is not the position of the RAAF, which seems to have a higher level of confidence in the F-35 than their Minister – though of course they can’t say that.
Asked separately by APDR if he planned to make another visit to Australia, General Bogdan replied enthusiastically: “Yes – and next time I’m bringing my wife.”
As usual, all of the companies attending had interesting products and systems to describe and as usual it was impossible to visit them all. One of the many informative snippets was from German training aircraft company Grob, which confirmed that it has a strong interest in AIR 5428, though as yet it has not come to any particular teaming arrangements for an Australian bid. Until now, the company had maintained a relatively low profile, unlike Pilatus with the PC-21 and Beechcraft with the T-6II ‘Texan’. Unlike these two, the Grob G-120 has side-by-side seating for the student and the instructor, which the company argues is a better arrangement for training than the front & back approach.
Another area attracting strong interest is the Air Services / Department of Defence oneSky project, that seeks to acquire a single air traffic management system for both commercial and military users. All of the likely bidders were there: ITT Exelis; Lockheed Martin; Thales; and Selex – with only the aforementioned Raytheon absent. Exelis in particular were keen to leverage off their recent purchase of local communications company C4i, who will form an integral part of their bid.
Overall, companies were pleased with the level of interest shown in their activities by many representatives of the Department of Defence and the services. Show organizers had been working behind the scenes since 2011 to improve the turn out – and that obviously worked. Unlike two years previously, Commonwealth employees were allowed to accept a modest level of hospitality such as a cup of coffee and a sandwich, without fear that their impartiality and objectivity had somehow been compromised.