In November last year, the RAAF’s Follow On Stand Off Weapon programme (AIR 5418 Phase One) was placed on the Government’s ‘Projects of Concern’ list amid reports of technical risks and difficulties with integration onto the F/A-18A Hornet.
JASSM is a US Air Force project and the weapon has had its share of difficulties and delays, however prime contractor Lockheed Martin says it is now back on track and performing well. The problem Australia is having is the integration of aircraft and weapon and the projected live firing originally programmed for the late 2009 had still not occurred as this article went to press.
Announcing that the project had been placed on the lists of concern during a speech to the Department of Defence Senior Leadership Group, Defence Minister Stephen Smith told the audience that he was concerned about project management. “Government has not been kept properly informed as to the progress with respect to this major project” he said, “It is essential for Government to be appropriately informed about the delivery of complex and important capabilities so the appropriate steps can be taken to manage issues that emerge in relation to cost, capability or schedule”.
Smith says that the live fire test would occur in the United States in either late 2010 or early 2011and he expects a full report on it from Defence in order to find a way forward. “Defence will ensure that this project now receives additional scrutiny and senior officer oversight in the lead up to the test firing and in the development of subsequent advice to the Government” he said.
APDR requested an interview with the AIR 5418 Project Office in an attempt to fully understand the problems and the revised timeline for the live testing, but received a single sentence from a ‘Defence Spokesperson’ in response, declining to make any comment.
AIR 5418 seeks to acquire the Lockheed Martin AGM-158A Joint Air to Surface Stand-off Missile (JASSM) and was one of the mitigation strategies supposed to be in place before the RAAF could retire the F-111, the current long range precision strike capability. In theory this would then fill the gap until the Lockheed Martin Joint Strike Fighter entered service later in the decade, as JASSM is also a baseline weapon for the F-35A CTOL variant selected by Australia.
Another essential component of the desire to confer the short-range Hornet force with a long(er) range strike capability was the purchase of an air to air refuelling capability in the form of the Airbus KC-30A Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT). History records that neither of these ‘de-risking’ strategies could be brought into service in time, and the F-111 was allowed to retire, without the planned replacement, at the end of last year. Happily however, the Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet/AGM-154A Joint Stand Off Weapon (JSOW) has been acquired in the meantime, as a hedge against the late arrival of the JSF. This has partially solved the stand-off weapon shortfall, but even the Super Hornet will rely on air to air refuelling to match the F-111s strike radius.
The AIR 5418 programme was approved in 2004 to ‘improve aircraft survivability and weapon effectiveness’ of the F/A-18B Hornet and JASSM was selected as the preferred weapon in February 2006, beating the Boeing SLAM-ER and European Taurus KEPD 350.
Although the purchase of the weapon is under the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) protocol, Lockheed Martin has a Direct Commercial Sale (DCS) contract with the Commonwealth for integration and flight test support of the weapon on the Hornet, as well as system specification verification and some logistics support.
Because the Hornet is administered by the Navy in the United States, they have the lead on the integration work and a RAAF Hornet has been based at China Lake in California for some time to act as the prototype. Other stakeholders include the US Air Force and the China Lake Advanced Weapons Laboratory.
Following the first live firing test (flown by a RAAF pilot), a further releases will be carried out in Australia at the Woomera weapons range.
JASSM is a large semi-stealthy weapon in the 2000 lb (1013 kg) class, with a 1000 lb warhead and capable of being re-targeted in flight. It is 168 inches (4.2 metres) long and has a range in excess of 200 Nautical Miles. It is an autonomous long range precision strike weapon designed to be used against a range of high value targets.
The weapon can navigate to its programmed target in all weather, using an on-board jamming-resistant INS/GPS system and its primary seeker is an Imaging-Infra-red (I²R) sensor. It has Blast, fragmentation and penetration warheads.
In US service it is already integrated with the F-16, B-1, B-2 and B-52 bombers and, besides the Hornet, work is currently underway to match it to the F-15. As noted, it is also one of the ‘threshold weapons’ for the Joint Strike Fighter, but will not have been integrated by the time Australia begins taking aircraft in late 2017.
JASSM was originally intended to be a ‘joint’ weapons programme for both USAF and Navy use but, after some preliminary work, the USN decided not to proceed leaving Australia, as the only export customer to date, with much of the Hornet integration work to do. Each RAAF Hornet will be capable of carrying two weapons.
The programme has had a chequered history with some serious reliability issues and cost overruns affecting it by 2007. Trials at that time revealed that it could hit its intended target only 60 percent of the time and even worse, it managed to ‘jam’ itself when defensive software operation caused the GPS navigation signal to ‘drop out’.
These problems resulted in a Nunn-McCurdy breach, requiring a great deal of remedial work and the certification by US Congress that it is a programme essential for national security. The work done to bring JASSM back on track culminated in a Reliability Assessment Programme (RAP) conducted with weapons from the (then) current Lot 7 production batch.
Speaking with Australian media in August last year, Lockheed Martin’s JASSM International Programme Manager David Helsel described the RAP test as an event required to re-establish US confidence in the weapon. Conducted during late 2009, 16 missiles were launched from a B-52 and F-16, with a pass rate of 75% required by the US Air Force. In fact 15 of the 16 destroyed their intended target and the 16th actually struck its target but did not explode, giving JASSM a score of 94%.
“JASSM s back on track following the RAP tests” says Helsal, “We believe it has a healthy future”. The tests paved the way for the current production batch (Lot 8) which includes design improvements made along the way.
The RAP tests were followed by a Project Upgrade Verification flight test, conducted at the White Sands missile test range during January 2010, which Helsel says was also a success: “The weapon was launched from a B-52 and successfully negotiated a pre-planned route to destroy the target” he said “The test objectives were met and these included final verification of a new missile control unit, the recently upgraded actuator control electronics, digital engine controller and redesigned air data probe”.
Since then, JASSM came through Nunn-McCurdy as a weapon essential for national security: “After analysing alternatives, the other systems were determined not to meet several programme requirements” says Helsal.
To date 1200 missiles are on contract, of which well over a thousand have been delivered and Lockheed Martin says there is a requirement for over 4900.
Australia’s weapons are from Lots 7 & 8, with some of the PUV improvements being retrofitted to the earlier batch. Because of the delays to the programme however, these are now stored in their hermetically sealed containers in a warehouse and their ‘use by’ date is counting down.
Initial Operating capability was original scheduled to occur in two phases: December 2009 for the ability to strike fixed land targets and December 2010 for moving maritime targets. US delays in developing a maritime strike version (now known as the Anti-Surface Warfare variant) however has meant that this is now on the back-burner. Defence Budget Approval figures for 2009/10 was $34.7 million against an overall project cost of $399.6 million
Defence says the delays to IOC for the land attack variant, now over 12 months in total, has been caused by the delays to the Operational Flight Performance (OFP) software for the Hornet, being developed by the US Navy. A revised timetable called for the live firing in the US to be conducted last December, followed by the trial at Woomera in August this year. The latest (public) revision to IOC is set at December this year, with FOC (delivery of the full war stock) following a year later.
David Helsal would not comment on the programme delays, as Lockheed Martin is not the prime contractor for the integration work, but concedes that the problem is not with the missile, “There is a hand-off of data from the aircraft to the weapon (and) there have been schedule adjustments but I’ll let the Project Office comment” was all he was prepared to say.
As noted, the Project Office has consistently been unwilling to discuss JASSM with the media so it is difficult to ascertain if there are any further delays, although this seems likely since it has been listed as a Project of Concern.
Industry insiders say there had been ‘some positive developments’ as last year drew to a close and it is hoped these are shared with the public during the 2011 Australian International Airshow.