The greatest single question facing the Lockheed Martin F-35programme is how many will end up actually being bought? Barely a week goes buy without one of thefuture operators such as Canada, Japan, or Norway expressing concern about theaircraft’s cost.
Australia is in the same boat. It originally talked aboutbuying 100, and has far as I know has never officially moved away from thisfigure. In early May Canberra said it would delay the acquisition of 12aircraft 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 groundcrew.
The 12 remaining aircraft to be purchased under Project Air6000 Phase 2A are to be followed by a whopping (and yet to be confirmed) orderfor 58 under AIR Phase 2B. This would bringCanberra total F-35 fleet to 72, well short of the magic 100 number.
In any event, it was with some interest that I read aresearch note about Australia composites maker Quickstep, a subcontractor forthe F-35 programme. The note was published by analyst Alan Hill of Australia’sState One stock broking firm after he talked with RAAF personnel at the recentPerth air show.
Most of the note highlighted the F-35′s capabilities, butone passage caught my eye:
“The information was timely after PM Gillard had recentlyannounced that the F-35 programme was a core element of Australia’s defencestrategy going forward, despite Australia’s initial deliveries of the F-35having now been pushed back, in line with recent deferments in the US.Australia, it appears, remains intent on purchasing 3 squadrons of theaircraft, 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 finalnumber, of course, based on what were probably informal discussions on thesidelines of a minor air show.
Australian defence expert Andrew McLaughlin tells me that theF-35 is ‘pencilled in’ for the third tranche of 28 aircraft (Phase 2C), whichwould take Australia to 100 F-35s. Thiscould see the aircraft replacing Australia’s 24 F/A-18F Super Hornets. Thatsaid, by the time a Phase 2C decision is made, Canberra could end up opting tobuy an unmanned combat aerial vehicle, or even the F/A-XX that could replacethe US navy’s Super Hornet in the 2030s.