The Chief of Air Force, Air Marshal Mel Hupfeld, has played down reports that F-35 flying hours have been reduced because of the availability of the aircraft.
He said the recent criticism was “completely unfounded” and insisted the drop was actually due to “training and capability requirements”.
The Australian first reported on Tuesday that the fifth-generation fighter would see its time in the sky downgraded by 25 per cent this financial year, before seeing more reductions in the following three years.
However, the newspaper’s story quoted Defence’s own budget estimates that said the revised forecasts reflected “fleet availability issues, various roles undertaken by EA-18G (Growlers), and (the) ramp-up hours curve from introduction to service”. The fighter has been the subject of multiple media reports globally regarding apparent design flaws, particularly in the US.
In a statement issued on Wednesday, AIRMSHL Hupfeld went on to describe claims the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program is not satisfying operational and training requirements as “misleading and simply false”.
“I can confirm the JSF program has met all of its tasking commitments, such as exercises, verification and validation activities and training requirements,” he added.
The newspaper article also quoted Labor’s assistant defence spokesman, Pat Conroy, calling into question the government’s management of the JSF program.
“The JSF is critical to Australia’s defence and the fact that it is flying thousands of hours less than planned is a real concern,” he said.
“(Defence Minister) Peter Dutton should explain to the public why this $16.6 billion project continues to be plagued with problems.”
Thus far, RAAF F-35A aircraft have clocked over 15,000 flight hours and the JSF program has delivered 44 aircraft and two operational squadrons, with the third scheduled to enter service later this year.
The Commonwealth government has ordered 72 F-35A aircraft under the $16.6 billion JSF contract with Lockheed Martin, designed to replace Defence’s now-retired Classic Hornets.
The RAAF formally retired its fleet of single-seat F/A-18A and two-seat F/A-18B Classic Hornets on 29 November last year, after over 35 years of service.
Since entering into service with the RAAF in 1986, Air Force welcomed 75 Classic Hornets, operated by No. 75 Squadron at RAAF Base Tindal, and Nos. 3 and 77 Squadrons at RAAF Base Williamtown.
In its over three decades of service, the Classic Hornet multirole fighter fleet completed more than 400,000 flight hours across thousands of missions.
Currently, a number of F-35s are taking part in Exercise Cope North 22, a training program ran with counterparts from the US and Japan.