F-35 JSF takes to the sky


Australia now has four of the new fighters assigned to its first operational F-35 squadron, with the recent delivery of two more jets from the United States.
A further eight F-35s will be delivered to the squadron this year. These deliveries are the culmination of considerable effort and a very long, and at times frustrating, aquisition lead time.
No doubt, the RAAF is pleased the F-35 has finally arrived in-country but there’s a long way to go before it has the fighter it expected when Australia joined the international program back in 2002.
Even though these recent deliveries are some of the newest jets off the production line, the fighter remains in active development, with the RAAF’s first four aircraft delivered in an interim configuration.
The RAAF’s F-35s are built in different Lots, which means our F-35s are, and will continue to be, delivered in different configurations depending on when each batch (Lot) come of the production line. These current jets are, therefore, a far cry in terms of capability level from the final iteration expected for the RAAF’s fighter for the future.
Progress with the F-35 program has been slow. In the US, the jet has just begun its operational test and evaluation phase, with full rate production expected later this year.
In Australia, the F-35s at No 3 Squadron will now embark on a two-year verification and validation program, with Initial Operational Capability expected to be declared in late 2020 but significantly it’ won’t be until 2023 that the final configuration F-35s (Block 4) will be delivered (nine aircraft).
Over time, the F-35s produced before Block 4 will have to be modernised progressively to this final configuration.
Block 4 aircraft will have some 53 capabilities introduced, including a major avionics upgrade that will provide a higher resolution panoramic cockpit display along with core processor upgrades and other enhancements.
From an Australian perspective, these upgrades are welcome but, also significantly, it means years of having different F-35 configuration level jets on the flight line. This is bound to present significant and costly support implications.
Along with its international partners, Australia will use the US’s Global Support Solution to keep its F-35 fleet flying, but the GSS itself is still under development.
There’s also a fundamental problem – in this global approach to development – that getting Australian requirements included in the Block upgrade program is difficult. For example, Australia would like an anti-ship missile included in the early years of the Block 4 upgrade, to give the RAAF’s F-35s a competent maritime strike capability, but the US F-35 users are less concerned. As the US users have the largest production off-take they tend to dominate requirements selection.
Australia’s 72 F-35 aircraft were ordered under project Air 6000, and a fourth phase of this project remains active. This was envisaged simply as buying an additional 24 F-35As but upgrades of earlier configuration F-35s to the final configuration will be costly. This could impact on buying more F-35s and perhaps enabling a squadron to be based at RAAF Amberley.
Delays in the F-35’s development in the US have impacted on the Australian program, which a reason the 24 Super Hornets and then 12 Growlers were acquired to address a potential force structure imbalance, but we’re not there yet.
Underlying the hyperbole surrounding delivery of the Joint Strike fighter, the fact remains that the F-35 is proving difficult to introduce into RAAF service. It has taken an unexpectedly long time and considerable money to get four F-35s on the flightline at Williamtown; it will take even more time and a lot more money to reach the desired final operational capability: having 72 Block 4 F-35s on RAAF fighter squadrons.