The Royal Australian Air Force is exploring options for equipping some of its planned Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighters as long-range surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft.

The concept requires modifications to two internal weapons bays. One would be plumbed to support a removable fuel tank while the other would be fitted with a multi-sensor surveillance suite.

The concept emerged during negotiations for Australian membership of the JSF system development and demonstration phase as a possible replacement for the RAAF's four General Dynamics RF-111 reconnaissance aircraft after 2015. Australia has already announced its intention to buy up to 100 F-35s as a replacement for its F-111 and Boeing F/A-18A/BHornet fleets, with the first aircraft sought by 2012.

Tom Burbage, Lockheed Martin executive vice-president JSF programme, says: "Maybe you have a fuel tank in one bay and a series of cameras in the other bay…It may be an aircraft that doesn't carry weapons at all."

He says that "the idea was to get F-111 type ranges. Australia has a different range requirement to most people. You could add external fuel to the aircraft. The trade off is: do you want to lose the internal weapons carriage capability driven by your LO [low observable] and signature control…and replace it with a fuel tank?"

Burbage says the concept is feasible, but would require Australia to fund the non-recurring development costs. "There is no other country that wants that capability," he says.

Australia has been exploring options for the renewal of its fast jet surveillance/reconnaissance capability for the past five years. Current plans call for a podded electro-optic and synthetic aperture radar suite to be acquired for the RF-111s between 2004 and 2007. The pod may also be carried by the RAAF's F/A-18s and Lockheed Martin AP-3C maritime patrol aircraft.

Source: Flight International