The Australian government has approved the purchase of a further 58 Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning IIs to allow the replacement of the RAAF’s fleet of F/A-18A/B ‘classic’ Hornets. Prime Minister Tony Abbott made the formal announcement – which would take Australia’s F-35 acquisition to 72 jets, after a first batch of 14 F-35As was approved by the previous Labor government – in Canberra on Wednesday.
The 58 additional jets will be acquired at a cost of $12.4 billion, a pricetag that includes $1.4 billion in facilities work at RAAF Bases Williamtown and Tindal, plus training, spare parts, weapons and support equipment.
“Together with the Super Hornet and Growler electronic warfare aircraft, the F-35 will ensure Australia maintains a regional combat edge,” the Prime Minister said.
The announcement also effectively ensures Australian industrial participation in the F-35 program worth over $1.5 billion, although the Prime Minister told media the acquisition was being made on the basis of “defence priorities” and not for the job creation and Australian industrial involvement that comes from Australia’s participation in the F-35 program.
The government was understood to have received a cabinet submission from the ADF earlier this year with two options, one for the full 58 jets and the other for a split buy of 38 jets this year and 20 more in future years. The F-35s are being acquired under the DMO’s AIR 6000 Phase 2A/2B New Air Combat Capability (NACC) project.
This decision follows a May 2012 two-year deferral of a Phase 2A/2B approval by the Gillard Labor government, ostensibly to “align” the RAAF’s planned initial operating capability (IOC) of 2020 with that of the US Air Force.
The RAAF already has two F-35As in final production that were contracted under the program’s low rate initial production (LRIP) lot 6, and has also secured long-lead production items for a further 12 aircraft. The first two RAAF aircraft are scheduled to be delivered to the USAF’s integrated training center at Luke AFB in Arizona by the end of the this year, while the RAAF’s first two pilots will begin training on the F-35 in December this year and in April 2015.
The 72 F-35As will replace the 71 classic Hornets of Williamtown’s 3 and 77SQNs and 2OCU, and RAAF Tindal’s 75SQN. IOC – initial operating capability – for Australia’s first F-35 squadron is planned for 2020, the current classic Hornet fleet will be withdrawn from service over 2021-22 and FOC – full operating capability – for the three operational squadrons and 2OCU with the F-35 is planned for 2023, the Prime Minister confirmed.
A further Phase 2C tranche of the project for up to 28 F-35s was deferred back in 2012 for a decision in the early 2020s to replace the 24 F/A-18F Super Hornets of the Amberley-based 1 and 6SQNs, meaning for the foreseeable future from the early 2020s onwards the RAAF will operate an air combat fleet of 72 F-35As, 24 F/A-18F Super Hornets and 12 EA-18G Growlers. The Super Hornets were ordered in 2006 as a ‘bridging’ capability between the retirement of the General Dynamics F-111C in 2010 and the arrival of the F-35A, but ongoing delays to the JSF program means it is likely the Super Hornets will be retained for a full life-of-type of 20 or more years.
In a statement, F-35 prime contractor Lockheed Martin welcomed Wednesday’s announcement: “Lockheed Martin appreciates the confidence the Australian government has demonstrated in the F-35 by their decision today. As the world’s only internationally available 5th generation aircraft, the F-35 provides transformational capability to the Royal Australian Air Force ensuring their ability to maintain a technological leading edge in the region, well into the future. We are committed to ensuring Australian companies remain a vital part of the F-35 global supply chain for both production and sustainment for many years to come.”