Australia to Purchase 58 More F-35 Fighters

On Wednesday Australia announced it will buy 58 additional F-35s joint strike fighters for $12.4 billion.

Australia committed on Wednesday to purchase 58 additional F-35 Joint Strike Fighters (JSF) at a cost of $12.4 billion.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Defense Minister David Johnston announced the move in a speech in Canberra today, and said that the aircraft would be delivered to Australia by 2023. This will bring Australia’s total F-35 fleet numbers up to 72 after an initial pledge to purchase 14 F-35s back in 2009. Australia also holds an option to acquire a further 28 JSFs in the coming years.

According to The Australian, which broke the story before the speech, the $12.4 billion will count towards the purchase of the aircraft as well as “new facilities and infrastructure to be built for the new aircraft at RAAF Base Williamtown in NSW and RAAF Base Tindal in the Northern Territory.”

Still, as the newspaper noted, the price tag will make the F-35 acquisition the largest single defense deal in Australian history. It comes at a time when Australian lawmakers have been slashing pensions and other services in order to restore a budget surplus. In that vein, Prime Minister Abbott repeatedly stressed during the speech on Wednesday that the government already had the $12.4 billion on hand and the purchase would not affect future budgets.

“I want to stress that this is money that has been put aside by government over the past decade or so to ensure that this purchase can responsibly be made,” Abbott said according to The Guardian. He went on to explain: “The way we try to run government, and the way successive governments to their credit have tried to do these things, is you know that at some point in the future you’re going to need new ships, new planes, new armored vehicles etc, so you start putting the money aside now for the major purchases that you need in the future to keep your defense forces effective.”

Meanwhile, Defense Minister Johnston’s remarks focused on the F-35’s capabilities and how they would enhance Australia’s defense posture. “This is a system that can detect adversaries at quite a phenomenal distance and is stealthy so it is very, very difficult to find,” Johnston said. He later added: “We see this aircraft as providing everything Australia needs in terms of aircraft capability until about 2050.”

Australia was one of the founding members of the Joint Strike Fighter program and initially signed on for about 100 jets, a pledge it may still achieve if it exercises its option on the remaining 28 jets. However, some of the JSF’s founding members—including Italy and Canada—have since decided to re-evaluate their options as the F-35’s costs have risen even as the program has been plagued by delays.

Many feared that Australia was also losing faith in the fifth-generation fighter, especially after it announced last year that it was purchasing an additional 12 Super Hornet jets from Boeing to add to its existing fleet. The purchase of the additional Super Hornets now appears to just have been a stop gap measure before the F-35s are delivered and become operational.

Australia’s decision to move ahead with a large purchase of F-35s has the potential to renew other potential customers’ faith in the aircraft, especially because it comes on the heels of South Korea and Japan’s pledges to purchase the jets. It will also reduce overall unit prices making the JSF somewhat more economical for other nations.

Canberra’s decision to base its future fighter capabilities on the F-35 also reaffirms its commitment to a U.S.-led regional security environment, since one of the principal advantages of the fifth generation fighter is its ability to operate as part of a larger fleet. As Gen. Mike Hostage, the commander of the U.S. Air Combat Command, has explained:

The ability of the planes to work with each other over a secure distributed battlespace is the essential foundation from which the air combat cloud can be built.

And the advantage of the F-35 is the nature of the global fleet. Allied and American F-35s, whether USAF, USN, or USMC, can talk with one another and set up the distributed operational system. Such a development can allow for significant innovation in shaping the air combat cloud for distributed operations in support of the Joint Force Commander.

Thus, the more Asian nations that purchase the F-35, the greater the overall combat power of the aircraft will be in the region. As noted above, already Australia, South Korea, and Japan will complement the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Marine Corps.’ F-35s operating in the region. A number of other nations, including Singapore, are seriously considering purchasing their own F-35s.