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Aussie Aardvarks

Line-up at AmberleyThe last bastion of the mighty F-111 now lies ‘down under’. Although retired from USAF service Royal Australian Air Force continues to use the ‘Pig’ as a potent asset. Andy Evans takes a look at the current status of those ‘Aussie Aardvarks’.

The Royal Australian Airforce's (RAAF) experience with the formidable General Dynamics F-111 ‘Aardvark’ had a far from promising start! The saga began on October 24, 1963, when under ‘Project Peace Lamb’ the Australian government agreed to purchase 24 F-111As. The Australian version was to be designated F-111C, a sort of hybrid between the F-111A, the F-111B, and the FB-111A, to be operated by Nos.1 and 6 Squadrons based at Amberley in Queensland. The F-111C was equipped with eight underwing pylons mounted on an FB -111 type large span wing, with the F-111B’s reinforced undercarriage. The first F-111C was successfully delivered on September 6 1968 however, problems with the aircraft’s wing carry-through box slipped delivery of the remaining 23 F-111Cs to late 1969. To make matters worse, the whole F-111 fleet had to be grounded pending verification of their overall structural integrity! As an interim measure, the RAAF leased a number of F-4E Phantoms to provide a stop-gap until 1973 when their ‘Pigs’ were finally ready for delivery. The F-111C uses the APQ-113 forward-looking attack radar, which is utilised for navigation, for air-to-ground ranging and for weapons delivery. Four of the original F-111As were significantly modified to RF-111C recce-jets with two KS-87C framing cameras, a KA-56E low-altitude and KA-93A4 high altitude panoramic camera, and an AN/AAD-5 Infrared Line Scanner. This installation resulted in a pronounced bulge to the weapons bay, however, recce configured the RF-111C’s still retain their attack capabilities. In October 1992 Australia announced its plans to buy 15 surplus F-111G ‘Aardvarks’ from the USAF to augment their 22 surviving F-111C’s, at a price described as ‘bargain basement!’ The F-111G’s are aerodynamically superior to the RAAF’s current F/RF-111C fleet, with a better climb performance, an increased range with a more robust inlet design - and at a mere A$10M an aircraft, this compares very favourably with the A$70M cost of a new fighter bomber! This acquisition has been variously described as one of the best value for money defence purchases of the last decade.

‘The Boneyard Wrangler’

'Boneyard Wrangler'When the US and Australian governments were discussing the purchase of attrition replacement Aardvarks, 14 F-111Gs were earmarked by the RAAF from ‘in service’ machines. However the fifteenth airframe, 68-0272, having also been identified by the RAAF as suitable for acquisition, was sent to the ‘boneyard’ at Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona. USAF personnel readying the aircraft for transfer to the RAAF at Davis-Monthan recognised the uniqueness of this F-111’s recovery and accordingly named it ‘The Boneyard Wrangler’ and a suitable tail artwork was applied for the occasion. The ‘Wrangler’ finally departed on 6 May 1994 flown by Group Captain Dave Dunlop and Flight Lieutenant Dave Riddel. One noteworthy fact about '272' is that it was the first production FB-111A Avionics Modernisation Program (AMP) aircraft. Also of interest is the fact that the aircraft was the first, and so far only F-111 to fly out of the Davis Monthan boneyard and return to service; and unless Australia requests additional ex-USAF F-111’s, the remainder are likely to remain in storage until scrapped.

In the Australian Defence Force (ADF) structure the F-111 has traditionally performed the role of the strategic deterrent, allowing the ADF to strike at crucial targets with total impunity. Initially using radar/inertial bombing techniques and ‘dumb’ iron bombs, the F-111's role revolved largely about striking at high value targets such as airfields, aircraft, command/control/communication facilities, power installations, bridges, railway facilities, naval bases, docks, munitions dumps and other area targets. By the early eighties the RAAF sought to expand the role of the F-111 to encompass both maritime strike and first pass strikes against hardened point targets, both of which required a major improvement in accuracy, and thus the use of Precision Guided Munitions (PGM). To facilitate this need a number of AN/AVQ-26 Pave Tack targeting pods were subsequently acquired. These capable systems improved the CEP of ‘iron bomb’ deliveries to about 80 ft. Of more significance however, was the ability to use the low cost Paveway II laser guided bombs which have a CEP below 25 ft, or even the more accurate Paveway III bombs which have a CEP of about 5 ft. The accuracy of the Pave Tack/Paveway delivery system is such that virtually any target can be destroyed by GBU-24 penetration or by the overpressure resulting from near direct bomb impact of a GBU-10. In addition, two AIM-9s can be carried for self-defence.

ClickModifications carried out on the F-111 force so far have involved the installation of fuselage bay cradles for the Pave Tack pods, a cockpit display upgrade, which included the fitting of additional electronics to support the AGM-84 Harpoon anti-ship missile and the GBU-15 2,000lb glide bomb. The addition of Harpoon to the F-111's arsenal has vastly increased the strategic importance of the aircraft. Its superlative operating radius, capable EW systems and high performance allow the use of Harpoon to best advantage. This provision made the RAAF’s ‘Pigs’ unique as being the only version of the F-111 that were capable of firing both Harpoon anti-shipping and HARM anti-radar missiles.

Supported by Jindalee OTHB/P-3C targeting, the F-111/Harpoon combination is the most powerful anti-shipping weapon system in the Western World today. The GBU-15, one of the star performers in the Gulf War, and used to destroy heavily defended hardened point targets is also a potent partner. This weapon carries a nose mounted television or thermal imaging camera, which transmits a picture back to the navigator's cockpit display via a Hughes AXQ-14 data-link pod. The navigator can then manually adjust the weapon's aim-point for maximum effect, with his steering commands transmitted to the weapon by the data-link pod. With an accuracy and range much better than laser guided weapons, the GBU-15 was a potent addition to the RAAF's armoury. Originally delivered in USAF camouflage colours, the Aussie 'Pigs' have been now painted in overall 'Gunship Grey'. However, the hue does appear to differ from plane to plane depending on where the aircraft has been, when it was painted, and what paint was used!

Old camo schemeFor the F-111G, a number of upgrades have been, or are in the process of being undertaken, the intention being to provide a degree of commonality with the existing F/RF-111C aircraft to minimise support costs, and maximise operational availability. All F-111G aircraft will be fitted with the Digital Flight Control System (DFCS) used in the F/RF-111C AUP (Aircraft Upgrade Program) aircraft. Because the G-model uses the AYK-18 mission computer, it has a number of avionics differences from the AUP system such as no Pave Tack, a different INS, no GPS or Doppler Navigation system. Also the software developed for the AUP cannot be used without a large number of modifications, as well as qualification testing, and was therefore a priority area for the RAAF are to address. F-111G will however, they retain their original TF30-P-107 engines, while the F/RF-111C's have been refitted with the TF30-P-109 engine in a recently approved upgrade. The payoff in fully integrating the F-111G into the operational strike wing is that of almost doubling the number of the RAAF's multi-role strike aircraft (17 x F-111C, 15 x F-111G and 4 x RF-111C) for very little expense in comparison with acquiring new strike aircraft. The fifteen additional airframes will also provide a substantial surge capability in wartime, and allow the airframe life of the existing fleet to be stretched more effectively by spreading the fatigue load over a much larger pool of airframes. By the early eighties the RAAF sought to expand the role of the F-111 to encompass both maritime strike and first pass strikes against hardened point targets, both of which required a major improvement in accuracy and thus the use of Precision Guided Munitions (PGM’s).

Raptor

After a very rigorous evaluation program, the RAAF selected the Lockheed Martin/Rafael AGM-142 Raptor as the new Stand Off Weapon (SOW) for the F-111; although many observers had tipped the Rockwell AGM-130 rocket boosted glide-bomb kit as the preferred choice. The AGM-142 will typically be carried in pairs by the F/RF-111C. The missile is functionally split into a guidance and navigation section in the nose, the warhead section (denoted by red stripes), the rocket motor section, and the hydraulics and control section in the tail of the airframe. The blast /fragmentation warhead forms a load bearing fuselage section, whereas the penetration warhead is a sub-calibre munition, mounted in a structural fuselage section built solely for this purpose. The conduits along the warhead section carry electrical cables between the guidance and navigation section and the aft hydraulics section.

Green Flag

The RAAF were invited to pit some of their newly upgraded F-111G’s from its 82 Wing against NATO’s best in Exercise ‘Green Flag 99’ held in the USA at Nellis AFB, Nevada. Six jets and 100 personnel were deployed to the desert exercise in a key opportunity which marked the first time Australia has been invited to the Green Flag series. Three months before the F-111 aircrews began dodging ‘Smokey SAMs’ and ‘checking their six’ for aggressors, a dedicated team of around 60 personnel had to prepare for a deployment to a foreign base. Operating a now unique jet meant that anything they could load into a single C-130 was all they would have by way of spares and tools. The Green Flag exercise was seen as a huge boost for the RAAF, which they undertook with gusto.

A8-113 at sunrise‘Pigs’ over East Timor

More recently the Australian led INTERFET force began using RF-111C’s for reconnaissance flights over East Timor to identify problems with the countries infrastructure and to improve its maps of the terrain. However, these aircraft were not used before the Indonesian military (TNI) withdrew on October 30 1999, after the Indonesian Parliament renounced its claim of sovereignty. Prior to that Indonesia had rejected an Australian request to fly F-111’s over East Timor and warned of an attack if the ban was ignored. The RF-111’s were then directed not to fly along the border with the Indonesian territory of West Timor or over the East Timorese enclave of Ambeno-Oecussi. Photographs from the flights were subsequently used to establish where roads needed repairing, but were not used to look for the thousands of missing East Timorese who fled in the violence that followed the independence vote.

To date the RAAF has lost one F-111G (A8-291) which crashed into an island of the coast of Malaysia in April 1999. Currently, the RAAF is working with Lockheed Martin Tactical Aircraft Systems (LMTAS) on studies to extend the operating lives of the aircraft until at least 2020. An area of particular concern is fatigue-crack analysis of the F-111 wing pivot, which is machined from D6AC high-strength steel. Fatigue cracks have also been found in tie-bolt holes in the compressor section of TF30-107 and -109RA turbofans of RAAF F-111Gs and F-111Cs, respectively, which resulted in their recent grounding for inspections.

More recently Australia has also maximised its US$2.5 million option on surplus USAF F-111 equipment which includes 130 TF-109RA engines, ALR-621 radar-warning receivers, and additional support items valued at some US$500 million. The $A474 million ($300 million) Avionics Update Programme (AUP) noted earlier and applied to 21 of the F/RF-111C's was completed in November 1999 with a formal roll-out at their Amberley base of the last of the aircraft to be so modified. Work on the AUP started in August 1990, and involved replacing dated analogue avionics with upgraded digital bombing, AN/APQ-144 radar, navigation, flight-control and communications systems, to extend the operating lives of 17 RAAF F-111Cs and four RF-111Cs for another 20 years. The aircraft are also being equipped with AN/ALQ-213(V) electronic warfare management systems from TERMA Elektronic AS in Denmark.

 

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