The greatest single question facing the Lockheed Martin F-35 programme is how many will end up actually being bought? Barely a week goes buy without one of the future operators such as Canada, Japan, or Norway expressing concern about the aircraft's cost.
Australia is in the same boat. It originally talked about buying 100, and has far as I know has never officially moved away from this figure. In early May Canberra said it would delay the acquisition of 12 aircraft by two years, although it will still receive two aircraft in 2014. This pair will remain in the USA and be used for training pilots and ground crew.
The 12 remaining aircraft to be purchased under Project Air 6000 Phase 2A are to be followed by a whopping (and yet to be confirmed) order for 58 under AIR Phase 2B. This would bring Canberra total F-35 fleet to 72, well short of the magic 100 number.
In any event, it was with some interest that I read a research note about Australia composites maker Quickstep, a subcontractor for the F-35 programme. The note was published by analyst Alan Hill of Australia's State One stock broking firm after he talked with RAAF personnel at the recent Perth air show.
Most of the note highlighted the F-35's capabilities, but one passage caught my eye:
"The information was timely after PM Gillard had recently announced that the F-35 programme was a core element of Australia's defence strategy going forward, despite Australia's initial deliveries of the F-35 having now been pushed back, in line with recent deferments in the US. Australia, it appears, remains intent on purchasing 3 squadrons of the aircraft, i.e. a total of 72 aircraft. The first 2 aircraft are due in 2014, with the full complement due by about 2020."
It is impossible to say whether 72 will be Australia's final number, of course, based on what were probably informal discussions on the sidelines of a minor air show.
Australian defence expert Andrew McLaughlin tells me that the F-35 is 'pencilled in' for the third tranche of 28 aircraft (Phase 2C), which would take Australia to 100 F-35s. This could see the aircraft replacing Australia's 24 F/A-18F Super Hornets. That said, by the time a Phase 2C decision is made, Canberra could end up opting to buy an unmanned combat aerial vehicle, or even the F/A-XX that could replace the US navy's Super Hornet in the 2030s.