Seven more Lockheed Martin fifth-generation Lightning II F-35A Joint Strike Fighters arrived at a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) base this month, bringing the total number of F-35As based in the country to 13, according to the Australian Department of Defense (DoD).
The seven F-35As — the aircraft’s conventional takeoff and landing variant — arrived at RAAF Base Williamtown in New South Wales on December 11.
“This brings the total number of F-35As that are operating at RAAF Base Williamtown to 13, with another five aircraft based at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, USA,” Australian Minister of Defense Linda Reynolds was quoted as saying in a December 12 statement.
The RAAF accepted delivery of the first two F-35As at RAAF Base Williamtown in December 2018. By the end of 2020, 33 aircraft are expected to have been handed over to the RAAF.
“This is the most advanced, multi-role stealth fighter in the world, which will deliver next generation capability benefits and provide a major boost to air combat capability,” Reynolds said in the DoD statement.
The press release also notes that the Australian government has approved the procurement of the next 24 F-35A fighters, bringing the total number of aircraft to 72: “Defense has also signed onto an international deal known as the Block Buy Contract, valued in total at USD$34 billion, which will deliver 45 of Australia’s F-35A Lightning II aircraft.” The per unit price for each F-35A is estimated between $77-82 million, depending on the production lots.
The RAAF’s entire F-35A fleet is expected to reach full operating capability by 2023. The aircraft will have a projected service life of 30 years. Full operating capability (FOC) for the F-35A is expected for 2023. The RAAF has a stated requirement of 100 new fifth-generation fighter aircraft. The F-35A is slated to replace the RAAF’s ageing F/A-18A/B Hornets and operate in conjunction with the service’s fleet of Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornets and EA-18G Growlers.
In August 2019, for the first time locally-trained pilots flew an RAAF F-35A, marking another important step in the service becoming more self-sufficient in operating the stealth fighters.
The Australian DoD and Lockheed Martin announced a five-year $61 million contract to streamline operational support for the RAAF’s F-35A fleet that the same month.
There has also been speculation among defense experts that Australia will acquire the F-35B, capable of vertical or short takeoffs and vertical landings (STOVL) without requiring a catapult launcher, for the Royal Australian Navy’s two largest warships, the Canberra-class landing helicopter docks (LHD) HMAS Canberra and HMAS Adelaide.
The Australian government, however, has rejected the proposal as too costly. Military experts have also noted that a conversion would be technically complex and dilute the Canberra-class LHDs’ amphibious warfare mission. Nonetheless, the procurement of the F-35B cannot be ruled out entirely.