15 April 2014

Australia Likely To Order More F-35s

15 April 2014

F-35 Lighting II (photo : Lockheed Martin)

Australia is likely to commit to buying 58 more Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightnings this month, setting aside the alternative of consolidating its combat aircraft squadrons on the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. The decision will increase the country's total commitment to 72 F-35s and expand the Royal Australian Air Force's fast-jet fleet, counting a separate order for 12 EA-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft as additional to, not part of, the fighter force renewal.

The defense department has recommended the F-35 order, probably worth around $8 billion, and the proposal has the endorsement of a leading think-tank. The government shows every sign of accepting the recommendation, says a source closely connected to the authorities. Accordingly, Lockheed Martin has probably escaped the danger of losing one of its largest F-35 customers, one that has already backed away from an original requirement for about 100 of the stealthy fighters. Even the risk that Australia could trim its commitment a little further now looks low, although that option was suggested by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute think-tank.

The Royal Australian Air Force's (RAAF) originally simple and logistically attractive plan to buy about 100 F-35s to replace a similar number of F-111s and F/A-18A/B Hornets was thwarted by delays to the F-35 program, unexpectedly early retirement of F-111 strike bombers in 2010 and a decision last year to buy Growlers. With 24 Super Hornets having replaced the F-111s and no longer considered stopgaps, the issue now is how to replace the 71 surviving Hornets, which will run out of airframe life around 2020.

The official answer has always been the F-35, but the introduction of Super Hornets into service has presented a clear alternative: Australia has had the choice of buying more of the Boeing fighters and waiting for F-35 to look dependable, or giving up on the stealth fighter and going for a homogenous Super Hornet fleet.

Canberra has already ordered two F-35s and committed itself to another 12, though the latter are not under contract. “In the near future” the government will consider a defense department recommendation that it authorize an order for another 58, making for a total of 72, say the institute's analysts Andrew Davies and Harry White. According to the source, the cabinet will decide the issue around mid-month, though delays in government decision-making are always possible.

“On balance, the decision that appears to meet government priorities for capability, industry participation and alliance management with the U.S. seems to be a further purchase of the F-35,” write Davies and White. They point particularly to what they see as increasing stability in the F-35 program, giving confidence that Lockheed Martin can deliver aircraft in time to replace the Hornets—though only just in time. The department has scheduled the F-35 to become initially operational with the RAAF in 2020; the analysts think the target can be achieved, but more big delays in the F-35's development and deliveries would leave the country with a debilitated fighter force for some period.

The analysis does not consider the great boost to the air force's capabilities that will come when 12 Growlers become operational in 2018. The Growlers could be regarded as part of the combat-aircraft renewal effort, bolstering the case for trimming the F-35 order, but the air force has argued that they are support aircraft and therefore separate. In effect, it hopes the Growlers will increase its fleet. 

f the government does buy 58 F-35s, then the RAAF will have a fast-jet force of 72 Lightnings, 24 Super Hornets and 12 Growlers, not counting BAE Systems Hawk lead-in fighter trainers. The total of 108 is about 10% higher than the 1980s levels that previous policy has consistently sought to maintain. Unlike other Western countries, Australia has not felt more secure since the end of the Cold War, and in general has not cut its forces. It has added important capabilities such as airborne early warning, in-flight refueling and over-the-horizon radar. Fast population growth and 23 years of unbroken economic expansion have helped, although defense spending has lately been a historically small fraction of GDP.

See full article Aviation Week

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