The scrutiny against the purchase and induction of the American F-35A Lightning II stealth fighter into the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) presses on as the Australian government recommends buying more for a fourth squadron.

‘Refund F-35s, Not Buy More’

Last week, an Australian critic pointed out that the country’s strategic focus in recent years has constantly been emphasizing building a long-distance fleet to cover its vast land, air, and water territory, yet has been pushing to buy more short-range F-35 fighter jets. The critic goes on to say that Canberra “should be asking for a refund, not buy more,” highlighting the “long history of costly problems” of the fifth-generation stealth fighters.

To ensure that nation’s security challenges will be met in years to come, Australia’s Defense Strategy Review includes recommendations that would help the defense ministry “to better understand where it should prioritize investment,” and among these recommendations is the procurement of F-35A fighter jets, which the country has so far committed to buying 72 for three operational squadrons. Adding a fourth squadron will bring the total number of jet fighters to 96.

“Given the plane’s long history of costly problems, we should be asking for a refund. The biggest mistake was to buy the plane in the first place. Labor should never have supported John Howard’s 2002 commitment to buy a fighter plane that lacks legs,” an Australian critic wrote in an extensive review on Australia’s Defense Strategy Review.

The critic continues to extensively discuss the shortcomings of the F-35s and how practical it would be for the country to buy the Swedish Gripen and/or the French Rafale instead, considering both aircraft would be cheaper and can be independently operated and maintained as the American fighter under the sovereign independence of the US refuse to share most of the plane’s repair and maintenance parts.

“Despite outstanding official critiques being available from the US Government Accountability Office and the Pentagon, Australian officials have repeatedly displayed their ignorance of the plane’s problems,” he added.

Relying on the manufacturer back in the US also means an expensive life cycle of operating and sustainment costs, which according to the Pentagon’s Cost Analysis Unit, could run up to $1.72 trillion (in 2020 dollars), including operations, support, and the initial acquisition cost. With this in mind, the critic explained that Australia could be spending roughly $A475 million ($321 million)per plane and compared the low sustainment cost of the Swedish Gripen, which would be around $A80 million ($54 million).

Steel Knight 23: F-35B Lightning II Landing at HOLF
F-35B Lightning II (US Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Isaac Velasco/DVIDS)

Janes reported in April that Air Vice-Marshal Leon Phillips, head of the Aerospace Systems Division, told the Australian parliament’s Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee that the government is expecting to spend up to $A14.6 billion ($10.87 billion) to sustain its F-35A Lightning II fleet until 2053, with considerations to potential factors such as “constant evolution of capabilities” that could drive up expenditures beyond 2032.