With the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) F-35A stealth aircraft steadily inching towards Final Operational Capability (FOC), manufacturer Lockheed Martin is eyeing another sale opportunity for these stealth fighters to Australia.
The Executive Vice President of Aeronautics, Greg Ulmer, said on February 28 that the company hopes Australia would want to buy more of its F-35 fighter planes after the country completes a defense review.
On the sidelines of the Australia International Airshow, Ulmer said – “We hope for the opportunity to deliver additional F-35s beyond.” Ulmer also mentioned that Lockheed was in talks with Canberra for teaming the F-35 with Boeing’s MQ-28 Ghost Bat fighter-like drone in a manned-unmanned teaming format.
The development comes amid the Australian assessment that the F-35A has exceeded all expectations. The Australian recently reported that the Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II is anticipated to reach Final Operational Capability (FOC) by the end of 2023 now that it is firmly established in service with the RAAF.
The report further stated that the focus within the Australian Defense is shifting to how the aircraft will be kept relevant as the tip of its air combat spear for decades. These discussions are significant amid rising security challenges from China that continue to expand into the Pacific.
The RAAF’s F-35A Initial Operational Capability (IOC) was attained in December 2020, and 60 of the 72 aircraft ordered have already been delivered. The remaining 12 aircraft will reach Australia before the end of this year.
The Australian fleet of F-35s accumulated over 23,000 flight hours by the end of 2022. Three fighter squadrons and an operational conversion unit had also switched from now-retired F/A-18A/B Hornets.
Earlier, there were reports the ‘Defense Strategy Review’ of the Australian government would recommend buying the fourth squadron of F-35 fighter jets. Canberra has committed to buying 72 F-35A fighter jets for three operational squadrons. However, adding a fourth will bring the total number of aircraft to 96.
Even though the F-35A has grown in popularity in Australia, some questions have also been raised about its viability. Senior journalist Brian Toohey highlighted the long history of costly problems of the F-35s already acquired and argued that Australia “should be asking for a refund.”
In February 2022, budget estimates paperwork submitted by the Australian Department of Defense (DoD) revealed that the RAAF’s F-35 Lightning II aircraft would spend less time in the air over the next four years than initially anticipated, sparking a national discussion on the aircraft’s capability and viability.
Later, in April, the head of the Aerospace Systems Division, Air Vice-Marshal Leon Phillips, informed the Foreign Affairs, Defense and Trade Legislation Committee of the Australian parliament that the government anticipated spending a staggering AUD14.6 billion ($10.87 billion) to maintain its Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II fleet until 2053. This announcement raised many eyebrows.
However, despite these misgivings, the aircraft continues to enjoy bipartisan support in the country and strong backing within the Royal Australian Air Force.
RAAF F-35A Proves Its Mettle, Upgrades Underway
In major international exercises, the F-35 has outperformed contemporary fighters like the F-15 and F-16, including in the recent Red Flag in the US, where American F-35As “shot down” more than 20 aircraft for every F-35 lost. This kill ratio is widely believed to be much higher than is publicly stated.
In addition, RAAF F-35As also participated in the annual Pitch Black exercise in the Northern Territory in August and September 2022, flying alongside and in opposition to combat aircraft from several countries.
“RAAF pilots are confident in saying the F-35A is delivering and realizing the capability they always aspired to get from the aircraft,” commented Lockheed Martin F-35 Combat Air Australia lead Chris Widerstrom.
“And, in many instances, they are learning of capabilities beyond those they understood the program was delivering. We have an aircraft that kinematically can do everything a legacy fighter can, but now with the power of sensor fusion and all the onboard sensors that contribute to it, it provides that informational awareness to allow much better tactical decision making.”
The international F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO) is working on several hardware and software updates to maintain the aircraft at the top of its game even before the RAAF receives all the aircraft it has ordered.
Many improvements are already being made to the F-35 to increase dependability, performance, and sustainability. They include replacing the AAQ-37 Distributed Aperture System (DAS), a collection of cameras positioned all over the aircraft that are linked to give the pilot a 360-degree view of the situation.
Even while the previous unit has operated exceptionally effectively, it will be replaced starting in 2023 with a new system that is hoped to improve capability and be far more dependable and less expensive to maintain.
The Electronic Warfare (EW) suite has also been “substantially upgraded,” according to Lockheed Martin. The aircraft’s F135 Pratt & Whitney turbofan engine is also being upgraded as part of a program called the Engine Core Upgrade (ECU), and a new engine is expected by 2028 or later.
Another set of enhancements includes the Technical Refresh 3 (TR-3) hardware and software upgrade and the incremental Block 4 upgrade roll-out, which will expand the F-35’s arsenal of weapons and add more teeth to its existing capability. They will include an enhanced memory unit, a panoramic cockpit display, and a new core processor (EMU).
The Block 4 upgrades include the F-35’s Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS), pilot-vehicle interface, mission planning, sensors and sensor fusion, training systems, and enhanced weapons capabilities.
The Block 4 upgrades will include several weapons sought after by Australia, such as the Kongsberg Joint Strike Missile, the Northrop Grumman extended-range Advanced Anti-Radiation Guided Missile (AARGM-ER), and the Lockheed Martin AGM-158C Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM). It will also be able to increase the internal air-to-air missile load from four to six weapons.
Besides, the electronically scanned APG-81 radar on the F-35 is likely to be replaced by the new APG-85 unit, which the JPO states will be incorporated into the manufacturing process starting with Lot 17.
Northrop Grumman revealed the new radar’s development in January 2023, but the company hasn’t yet given a complete description of what it could do—only that it will use some of the most recent technologies.
The RAAF F-35As will start upgrading at the BAE Systems facility at Newcastle Airport in 2025, despite the JPO still having to finalize the list of capabilities to be delivered under the Block 4 program. On top of that, the possibility of placing an order for another batch of F-35s remains on the table.
In a pre-air show speech, Defense Minister Richard Marles said the Defense Strategic review and the government’s decision on an additional purchase would be made public in April.
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