Australia’s F-35 squadron is expected to bring a breakthrough in the air combat capabilities and interoperability of the Royal Australian Air Force.

Today, the F-35 family has become a popular fighter for many US allies and partners in Europe and Asia. In the Indo-Pacific, Australia is also proving to be a major challenge to China’s expansionist ambitions. Australia’s F-35 squadron is expected to bring a breakthrough in the air combat capabilities and interoperability of the Royal Australian Air Force.

Australia joined the F-35 program as a Level 3 industrial partner in 2002. It planned to spend roughly $16 billion on four squadrons, or about 72 planes in all. To date, the RAAF had received 54 of its 72 F-35As, with the final front-line unit No. 75 Squadron in Tindal, Northern Territory. The RAAF intends to have all of its aircraft operational by the end of 2023.

The F-35 was intended to replace the air force’s ageing Hornet fighters and F-111 bombers. And back in 2002, when Middle East wars were raging, a short-range stealth fighter seemed more than adequate. Then, the F-35 development ran late, and the first tranches of Australia’s fleet weren’t ready to be deployed on operations until December 2020.

In addition to the manufacturer of key components for the fifth-generation stealth fighter at Lockheed Martin’s Texas facility, many of the F-35 parts and components for the aircraft are sourced from Australian firms. As a program partner, Australian businesses have been given the opportunity to supply components for production as well as sustainment for the entire F-35 fighter jet fleet.

The F-35 has taken two decades to develop, at great expense, and the approach of a common airframe for multiple tasks means it can’t be optimised for a single role. It has intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities that increase the operational capabilities of air, naval and ground units by providing valuable battlefield data in real-time.

Designed expressly for high-end, high-tech conflict Australia’s F-35 acquisition suggests a priority shift away from low intensity conflicts, such as the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns in which the F/A-18 served. While they may be used in similar counter-insurgency operations, that is certainly not their key role. 

The problem with the F-35, however, it is too expensive, including operating and maintenance costs. For example, Australia’s two F-35 fighter jets, purchased for more than $280 million in 2013, are probably too old to be updated to the current configuration. In a similar line, the US Air Force is also concerned that its aged F-35s are now just expensive training planes. The majority of Australia’s fleet will be modernized to be more similar to that of the United States, albeit this will require even more money.

Another big concern with the Australian F-35 is its inability to carry the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile. However, the country recently announced the plans to speed up the procurement of the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile Extended Range (JASSM-ER), which has a range of up to 900Km. These missiles will be outfitted in the Australian F-35 in near future.

The F-35 jets were constructed at different times over the past ten years in seven different configurations. This is a challenge for maintenance and repair work. The configuration complexity, insufficient spare parts and slow spare part repair times mean there are fewer serviceable aircraft on the flight line now than was expected even a couple of years ago.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here