F-35 Lightning II (photo : Air Attack)
THE RAAF will need to acquire 100 F-35 joint strike fighters to ensure a credible future air combat capability for Australia, air force chief Mark Binskin has warned.
As financial pressures bear down on the $22 billion defence budget, Air Marshal Binskin has strongly defended the F-35 as the all-round best choice for the air force's combat arm.
The Rudd Government's defence white paper, due to be published early next year, is expected to detail the acquisition of the F-35 in two tranches, the first to be delivered in 2014, at a total cost of about $16billion.
In a national security statement due to be delivered to parliament tomorrow, Kevin Rudd is expected to reaffirm a commitment to publish the white paper before the middle of next year despite pressures to delay the new defence planning document.
Defence sources expect the Government to order an initial 70 F-35s later next year, with another 25 to be ordered from 2012.
Contingency planning by the RAAF indicates that 100 aircraft will be the minimum necessary to sustain a 24-hour combat air patrol in Australia's maritime zones in the case of a high-level threat.
"No matter how you model it, the modelling keeps coming back to 100," Air Marshal Binskin told the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
The F-35 will replace the F-111 bombers that will be retired from 2010 and, eventually, the F/A 18 fighters from later next decade.
In the meantime, the RAAF is being re-equipped with 24 F/A 18 Super Hornet fighters from 2010, which will fill any prospective delay in the delivery of the joint strike fighters.
Air Marshal Binskin described the RAAF as the best "small air force in the world" and expressed full confidence in the F-35 as the best choice for Australia. He said they would be easily superior to new Russian Sukhoi fighters already in service with regional air forces, including Indonesia and Malaysia.
"We are looking at what will be the best multi-role aircraft in the world," he said. "It will have the best radar, the best defensive system of any of those aircraft in the world.
"It will be supported by the best airborne early warning and control aircraft and the best tanker in the world and flown, maintained and supported by the best people in the world. I've got to tell you: the system ain't going to get any better than that."
Air Marshal Binskin said the RAAF was in a major transition phase over the next decade that would see nearly every key platform replaced, apart from the four newly acquired C-17 heavy airlift aircraft.
The next decade will see the entry into service of the Super Hornets as well as Wedgetail airborne early warning aircraft, tankers and replacements for the AP3C Orion aircraft.
He said the RAAF had been fully stretched on operations ever since the East Timor deployment in 1999, with the maintenance of ageing aircraft a key issue. He said he would like to build up air force numbers from the current 13,500 permanent force to about 14,500.