The Plane with No Name

The F-111: In Australia, an airplane for all seasons

Loaded with four 500-pound Paveway II bombs and a Pave Tack pod, this U.S. Air Force F-111F is ready for target practice. In the Persian Gulf War the aircraft was prized for its precision weapons delivery. (USAF)
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"So what's the airplane good for?" asks RAAF Wing Commander and veteran Pig driver David "Doc" Millar. He's leading a briefing at Amberley for novice crews. A giant map of Australia flanks him at the front of the room. On it are several large circles whose centers are RAAF air bases dotting Australia's northern coastal areas, and the circles—each representing the 3,500-mile operating range of combat-ready F-111s—stretch hugely toward Southeast Asia. Millar nods toward the circles, saying with pride, "And that, gentlemen, is why we're still flying a jet that was designed in 1963. Nothing else can do that."

In training exercises, F-111s have carried 8,000 pounds of bombs for 1,500 miles—at low level for 300 of them—without airborne refueling. They can do it at any time of day or night and in any kind of weather. Millar's right. Nothing else can. But why did Australia ever feel a need for such capability?

In the years following World War II, as the British government began withdrawing from its former Asian colonies, Western leaders fretted over communist expansionism. The fretting rose to the level of military action in June 1948, when Chinese communists in the Malay peninsula murdered three wealthy rubber plantation owners, setting off a terrorist campaign to overthrow the British-supported government there. The RAAF joined in the counterattack from an air base in Singapore, and the fighting continued sporadically until 1960.

By that time, Western thinking had crystallized into the so-called domino theory, which held that one country after another would fall to communism if no one challenged it. Australia was nervous about neighboring Indonesia, whose president, Achmad Sukarno, was vague about whether he'd oppose or welcome communist influence. (Indonesia's political instability resulted in a failed 1965 coup dramatized in the film The Year of Living Dangerously.)

In a grab for headlines, Australian politician Arthur Calwell claimed in 1963 that the Indonesian air force could bomb almost any city in Australia and that the RAAF had no capability to reciprocate. Although the remark was primarily political exploitation, it struck a nerve. The RAAF's strategic bomber at the time, the English Electric Canberra, was an old design—the first jet bomber to be manufactured in Great Britain—and it had limited range. From an Australian base, it was unable to reach Indonesia or any other part of Southeast Asia, where communism was beginning to get a foothold.

"Replacing the Canberra had been the RAAF's top priority for a number of years," wrote RAAF historian Alan Stephens in the book Going Solo: The Royal Australian Air Force 1946–1971. "In a reflection of classic air power doctrine," Stephens comments today, "the need for a new strike/reconnaissance aircraft was expressed in terms of taking the initiative in the air by destroying the enemy's air force on the ground, then turning the RAAF's offensive air power against other targets, both strategically and in direct support of the army and navy."

The strategy called for an aircraft with an attack capability that was both versatile and precise. At first the RAAF considered buying the TSR.2, a new warplane the British Aircraft Corporation was developing. But the TSR.2 never went into production, and the Aussies turned their attention to the F-111.

Today any threat to Australia is still theoretical, but the RAAF continues to look warily toward the north. "Because any threat to Australia would likely come through the sea and archipelagic region to the north, we need a long-range, multi-role capability to operate in that environment," says Wing Commander Brian Walsh of the air attaché staff at the Australian embassy in Washington, D.C.

Says Stephens: "It's also noteworthy that when the Interfet [United Nations peacekeeping] force deployed to East Timor in 1999, a detachment of F-111s was sent to the RAAF's base at Tindal, near Darwin. While the aircraft weren't used, the message was crystal clear and was understood by those for whom it was intended."

"Being an island continent, most of our defense is based on the perception that any potential enemy would have to cross the sea to get to us," Dunlop says. Thus the RAAF wanted a few custom features on their -111s, beginning with anti-ship weaponry. They also liked the longer wings on a Navy version, the F-111B, and a fighter-bomber variant, the FB-111A. General Dynamics designed the F-111C exclusively for the RAAF. It was the only model ever to be capable of firing a Harpoon anti-ship missile. In October 1963, when the aircraft was still being designed, the RAAF agreed to pay $100 million for 24 of them; the service recently announced that it plans to continue operating its fleet in both strike and reconnaissance roles until the year 2020. Few would have predicted that the F-111 was destined for such a long career.

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