A proposal to operate the STOVL F-35B variant of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter off the RAN’s new LHD amphibious assault ships has been dropped, according to a report in the Australian Financial Review.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott had asked Defence to evaluate operating F-35Bs from the LHDs as part of the Defence White Paper deliberations, but that proposal was recently dropped on the basis of cost and complexity, according to the report by the Australian Financial Review’s defence writer John Kerin.
“There were just too many technical difficulties involved in modifying a ship which takes helicopters to take fighter jets and it is also very expensive,” the report quotes a source as saying. “You can safely say it has been dropped.”
The two LHDs, the recently-commissioned HMAS Canberra and the soon-to-be delivered NUSHIP Adelaide, are based on Spain’s Juan Carlos I, which was designed to accommodate AV-8B Harrier STOVL ‘jump jets’, and as such feature a ski ramp. But the Canberra and Adelaide would still require extensive modifications to allow them to embark and operate F-35Bs at sea, including new heat resistant deck treatments, approach landing aids and modifications to the ships’ aviation fuel storage and weapons bunkerage.
As it is it is unlikely the LHDs would even host US Marine Corps F-35B or AV-8Bs during future military exercises or engagements.
“Potentially, but it would need a significant amount of pre-planning and work to do that,” HMAS Canberra’s commander air, CMDR Paul Moggach, told Australian Aviation in an interview featured in the magazine’s July edition. “We are planning on integrating US Navy and US Marine Corp aircraft at RIMPAC 2016 as part of that exercise but certainly the ‘jump jets’ are not part of that.”
Continued CMDR Moggach: “Certainly, in an emergency, as a spare deck, it is plausible that we could land one on, but it is not something that we are planning on at all.”
The Australian Navy has not operated fixed wing aircraft at sea since the retirement of the aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne in 1982.
The White Paper is expected to be publicly released in late August.