After years of deliberations, Australia has made a full commitment to the controversial Lockheed-Martin F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) with Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s announcement that his government has approved an A$12.4 billion ($11.5 billion) deal for 58 F-35A Conventional Takeoff and Landing (CTOL) variant of the JSF. In addition to the 14 aircraft ordered in 2009, of which two are already in production and set to be delivered to a training detachment in the United States later in 2014, this latest commitment brings Australia’s order up to 72 aircraft. The first will arrive Down Under in 2018 for local testing and evaluation by the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), with Initial Operating Capability scheduled for 2020.
Predictably, the announcement has drawn strong reactions, both for and against the acquisition. Professor Hugh White, Professor of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University, wrote: “The F-35 has its problems, but on balance it is the best bet for Australia’s future air combat and strike capability, and that capability will be very important in the decades ahead.” However, prominent Australian F-35 critic and Member of Parliament Dr. Dennis Jensen of the ruling Liberal Party broke ranks with the government, calling it a “dud decision” and accusing Defence Department officials of acting as “salesmen for the Joint Strike Fighter” instead of being more discerning buyers.
So what does the acquisition—the largest ever Australian defense purchase—mean for the country’s defense posture? For one thing, it means that there will be no fighter capability gap when the last of the RAAF’s F/A-18A/B “Classic” Hornets are withdrawn by 2022. It will also ensure that the Classic Hornets will be replaced on a one-for-one basis by the F-35A, with two operational squadrons and one conversion unit based at Williamtown on Australia’s east coast, plus one more operational squadron in northern Australia to get the F-35As when deliveries of the Australian aircraft are completed in 2023.
Given the scale of the F-35 order, Australia will gain a fifth-generation air combat capability without any loss in the number of fighters it will be able to put up. While it has become almost fashionable in certain circles to criticize the F-35 program (justifiably, in some cases) for its numerous cost overruns, program delays, and perceived capability shortfalls, with its fully networked sensors and very low observable stealth features, the F-35 will be a formidable game-changer in the air combat arena when it achieves operational status, even with both Russia and China having their own fifth generation stealth fighters in development.
Despite the presence of risks, particularly in software development, the F-35 program appears to be on the right track and as more aircraft join the various flight test programs, Operational Test and Evaluation, and training squadrons in the United States, momentum looks set to continue building towards the objective of Initial Operating Capability for the U.S. Marine Corps’ F-35B Short Takeoff Vertical Landing (STOVL) variant in 2015 and 2016 for the CTOL F-35A for the United States Air Force (USAF).
Alongside the F-35s, the RAAF also operates 24 Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornets and has a further 12 EA-18G Growler Electronic Attack aircraft on order. The Growlers, designed to detect, jam and destroy enemy radar emissions, bring a unique force multiplier capability to the RAAF and make up, to a large degree, for any shortcomings the F-35’s VLO design has against certain bandwidths used by newer air defense radars. Together, these advanced platforms with their unique capabilities would mean that Australia’s air force remains among the most potent in the Asia-Pacific.
The acquisition also cements Australia’s strategic relationship with the United States. Already highly interoperable with American forces, Australia’s recent acquisitions will cement the country as a linchpin ally supporting American security policies in the Asia-Pacific. With the United States Marine Corps due to rotate their first F-35 squadron to Japan in 2017 and the USAF anticipated to base its first overseas F-35 squadron either in Korea or Japan in 2018-19 against the backdrop of the pivot (or rebalance) to the Pacific, the interoperability between the two countries’ forces will be taken up another level with F-35s in both inventories.
It should not be forgotten that several of Australia’s regional allies are also in the F-35 game, and the potential for the network-enabled F-35 to operate seamlessly throughout the region is huge. Japan, which has been described by current Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott as “Australia’s best friend in Asia” and a “strong ally,” has ordered 42 F-35As to replace its ageing F-4 Phantoms and will also be part of the global components manufacturing chain. Australia and Japan have been forging closer military ties over the last few years, with the RAAF and the Japan Air Self-Defense Force taking part in the Red Flag and Cope North series of exercises with the United States and other nations.
Similarly, South Korea, another American ally, has also ordered 40 F-35As and has a requirement for at least 20 more aircraft, budgets permitting. Like Japan, the Republic of Korea Air Force has a requirement to replace a significant number of older combat aircraft in its inventory, and must also contend with a nuclear North Korea, run by an unpredictable despot and still technically at war with the South.
Nearer to Australia, the Southeast Asian island nation of Singapore, a close military partner and a co-member of the Five Power Defense Arrangements, has reportedly selected the F-35B STOVL variant to be its next fighter (although, officially, Singapore insists it is still evaluating the aircraft and has not made a decision). The RAAF and the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) maintain close relations, with land scarce Singapore basing trainer aircraft and helicopters in Australia under long-term basing agreements and regularly deploying aircraft Down Under to use the latter’s extensive training ranges or to take part in joint exercises.
Even as successive Australian Defence White Papers have described the nation’s strategic environment as benign, tensions in the wider region have been simmering. While the region’s economies power along, driven by China’s phenomenal growth over the past decade, China’s accompanying rise in military might has raised concerns among wary neighbors, particularly against the backdrop of its territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas. Throw nuclear-armed North Korea into the mix and the outlook is decidedly mixed, encouraging regional powers like Australia to stay prepared for the unthinkable. With the F-35 on order, Canberra has taken a firm step in doing just that.
Mike Yeo is a freelance military/aviation journalist based in Melbourne Australia. He tweets at @thebaseleg