Defence Minister Senator David Johnston has again raised the possibility of Australia acquiring a number of Lockheed Martin F-35B short take off and vertical landing (STOVL) versions of the Joint Strike Fighter for operation from the RAN’s new Canberra class LHD vessels.
Speaking to The Weekend West on May 17, Senator Johnston said the acquisition of the F-35B was “an option which has been considered from day one.” His comments echo those he made to an ASPI dinner in October 2012 where he described the LHDs as “…STOVL capable.”
Defence officials have consistently tried to pour cold water on the possibility of Australia buying F-35Bs over the years, despite its commonality with the conventional takeoff F-35A version of which the RAAF is acquiring 72 examples.
The Canberra class LHDs are being built optimised for amphibious operations using water craft and helicopters, and do not have sufficient fuel and weapons bunkerage to operate F-35Bs without a considerable upgrade in the RAN’s support ship fleet. Further, and while the possibility of cross-decking with F-35Bs of the USMC, the UK and other partner nations exists and will likely be encouraged, the LHDs do not have the thermion heat-resistant deck coating required to accommodate the F-35B’s exhaust for extended operations.
The F-35A and B models share about 60 per cent of their structure and a much higher percentage of their key systems and have similar handling characteristics in conventional flight regimes, meaning the logistics and initial training requirements would be broadly similar. But the F-35B is projected to cost about 20 per cent more than the F-35A, will be operationally limited to 7.5g and has about 30 per cent less range due to the need to accommodate the large lift fan, and will require a specialist flight training regime for deck operations and specialist maintenance training for under-way sustainment and support.