Australia's first F-35 on the assembly line in Fort Worth, Texas. (Beth Groom / Lockheed Martin)
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA — Australia will purchase 58 additional Lockheed Martin F-35A joint strike fighters for the Royal Australian Air Force, the country’s prime minister announced Wednesday.
The deal — worth $AUS 12.4 billion (US $11.5 billion) — is one of the largest purchases of defense equipment in Australian history.
The latest batch is in addition to 14 already approved by the Australian government, bringing the total order to 72 aircraft, enough to completely replace the country’s Boeing F/A-18A/B Hornets.
Australia has a total requirement of up to 100 F-35As.
“The fifth-generation F-35 is the most advanced fighter in production anywhere in the world and will make a vital contribution to our national security in coming decades,” Prime Minister Tony Abbott said. “The first F-35 aircraft will arrive in Australia in 2018, and the first Royal Australian Air Force operational F-35A squadron will stand up in 2020.”
Of the 14 planes planned before today’s announcement, Australia has ordered just two, which are due to be completed in July and will join the F-35 international training center at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., early in 2015 to commence pilot training.
The Royal Australian Air Force will replace three operational Hornet fighter squadrons and an operational conversion unit with the 72 F-35As, and it has a future requirement to replace its 24 Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornets, delivered in 2009.
“The government remains committed to building a strong, capable and sustainable Australian Defense Force,” the prime minister added. “The government will also consider the option of acquiring an additional squadron of F-35 aircraft to replace the Super Hornets in the future.”
Abbott also said that about $1.6 billion would be spent on infrastructure and facilities at the two future F-35A operating bases at Williamtown in New South Wales and Tindal in the Northern Territory.
“Australian defense industry has also been awarded over $355 million in work, and stands to win more than $1.5 billion in JSF-related production work over the life of the program,” he stated. “There are expected to be additional opportunities for Australian industry in the ongoing support of the F-35 in Australia.”
The F-35 has drawn criticism for risk remaining in flight testing as well as cost stability. But Andrew Davies, senior analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, welcomed Wednesday’s announcement, saying the joint strike fighter “overmatched“ anything that China or Russia has.
“One of the saving graces that Australia has is that, by the time we get our aircraft and are looking at introducing them to service, they should have been in service with the United States for two or three years already,” he told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.’s Radio National service. “So we should have some experience to draw on.”
Australian Defence Minister Sen. David Johnston earlier told Radio National that the government had a risk-mitigation strategy if costs increase to unacceptable levels.
“If Australia decides that cost has blown out to such an extent, we are not bound to continue,” he said.
“We are committed to the program. Every indicator at the moment indicates costs are headed in the right direction for us,” Johnston said. “So I’m not anticipating any drama, but should there be a major turnaround in cost, then the option is available for us to leave the program.” ■