Australia has approved the acquisition of an initial batch of 14 Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, with its first aircraft due to be delivered in 2014, and the country's first operational squadron to be stood up by 2018.
"The JSF acquisition will allow Australia to maintain its regional air combat superiority. It will also enable Australia to effectively contribute to regional security and enhances opportunities for interoperability and commonality to support future coalition operations," says Air Marshal Mark Binskin, chief of the Royal Australian Air Force.
"The JSF's combination of stealth, advanced sensors, networking and data fusion capabilities, when integrated into the networked Australian Defence Force, will ensure Australia maintains its strategic capability advantage out to 2030," adds the defence ministry.
Canberra will buy 14 conventional take-off-and-landing F-35As, plus the infrastructure and support required for initial training and testing. This will cost an estimated A$3.2 billion ($2.9 billion). The first aircraft will be delivered in the USA in 2014 to begin initial training and test activities. The first squadron will be based at RAAF Williamtown in New South Wales, and is scheduled to begin operations in 2018-19.
Approval for a second batch of fighters will be considered in 2012. That will fulfil Australia's commitment to form three operational squadrons and a training squadron comprising no fewer than 72 aircraft.
By then, the defence ministry believes that it will have much firmer cost estimates for the remaining aircraft and necessary support and enabling capabilities. This will be part of the planned first multi-year purchase that is expected to comprise more than 1,000 aircraft for the USA, Australia and other JSF partner nations. "This will allow for much more effective planning of the final JSF acquisition," says defence minister John Faulkner.
The acquisition of a third batch, to bring the total number of F-35s in the RAAF to around 100, will be considered later next decade, in conjunction with a decision on the possible withdrawal of the service's new Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornets. Australia has ordered 24 of the type to provide an interim fighter capability between the retirement of its General Dynamics F-111 fleet this year and the induction of the F-35.
Buying the F-35 will also bring benefits to Australian industry, with 25 domestic companies having won around $200 million worth of contracts in the development and early production phase of the JSF.
"Consideration of acquisition of the next batch of aircraft in 2012 will provide the government the opportunity to review Lockheed Martin's progress on implementing the industry participation plan," says Greg Combet, minister for defence personnel, materiel and science.
Apart from the USA and Australia, the other partners in the JSF programme are Canada, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Turkey and the UK.