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Australia won’t expand F-35 fleet, Defence confirms

written by Adam Thorn | April 18, 2024

F-35A performs at the Newcastle Williamtown Air Show 2023. (AC Campbell Latch)

The federal government has confirmed it has put on hold plans to buy a fourth squadron of F-35s and will instead redirect some of that investment towards long-range missiles.

The announcement was made at the unveiling of the ‘National Defence Strategy’, which will see Australia invest an additional $50.3 billion in defence funding over the next decade.

It follows January’s decision to upgrade the Super Hornet fleet and keep it flying until at least 2030, far beyond its initial retirement date of 2027.

“We’ve decided to keep the Super Hornets in service for two reasons: one, they’re doing great work, and secondly, the Joint Strike Fighter is even more capable than we initially thought,” Defence Industry Minister Pat Conroy said on Wednesday.

“We can delay the replacement of the Super Hornet, which frees up funding to invest in more long-range missiles, for example.”


The RAAF has a planned final fleet of 72 F-35s – which are still arriving – but significantly has the option to add a fourth squadron that would increase the fleet to nearer 100. These plans now appear to be shelved.

Defence said the National Defence Strategy, delayed in response to last year’s Defence Strategic Review, would offer a “fundamentally new approach to the defence of Australia”.

It will see the ADF shift to an “integrated, focused force” designed to address Australia’s most “significant strategic risks” through a policy of a “strategy of denial” – intended to deter adversaries from attacking in the first place.

In the short term, an additional $1 billion will be invested over the next four years to accelerate “ADF preparedness” including for “long-range strike, targeting and autonomous systems”.

Over time, the overall Defence budget will grow to more than $100 billion by 2033–34, equivalent to roughly 2.4 per cent of GDP.

“The National Defence Strategy outlines how we are transforming the ADF and equipping it to survive in a much less certain world,” said Defence Minister Richard Marles.

“These transformational reforms are designed to ensure that peace, security, and prosperity are maintained in our region.

“The Albanese Government is making an historic investment in Defence and has taken tough decisions to reshape the ADF to meet our strategic circumstances and to keep Australians safe.”

Australian Aviation reported earlier this year how the federal government agreed to a new five-year, $600 million deal to upgrade and sustain its fleet of Super Hornets and Growlers.

The introduction of the Super Hornet initially proved hugely controversial after it was declared a stopgap between the retirement of the F-111 and the delayed arrival of its true successor, the fifth-generation F-35.

However, the fighter has proved to be hugely popular globally, even starring in the last Top Gun movie.

Today, Australia has 24 Super Hornets with more powerful engines, bigger fuel capacity and the ability to carry more modern weapons than its predecessor.

The Growler, meanwhile, is a variant of the Super Hornet but differs in several key areas. In place of the nose-mounted gun, it carries two ALQ-218 tactical jamming receivers (TJR) pods on its wingtips and up to five ALQ-99 jammers on centre-line and wing stations.

This technology allows it to both shut down enemy defences if it senses they’re tracking it or proactively jam them anyway using its radar. It can even detect specific frequencies and comms devices by locating their emitters.

The fleet is operated by No. 6 Squadron and based at RAAF Base Amberley. The first only arrived in 2017, and the RAAF is the only air force outside the US to own any.

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