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).
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.
So far, Australia’s Department of Defense (DoD) has spent approximately $A623 million ($421 million) to maintain its 48 aircraft between 2015 to June 2021. Meanwhile, Phillips revealed that the sustainment budget for the jet fighters was $A314 million ($212 million) in 2021-2022, and with more aircraft to be ordered and inducted into the RAAF, these numbers are set to rise next fiscal year to around $A328 million ($222 million).
Incompatible with Australia’s Security Needs
It has been two decades since Australia joined the F-35 Joint Strike Fighters (JSFs) program as part of the Level 3 industrial partner, initially committing to buying 72 billion-dollar planes in 2002. Out of the initial aircraft, the RAAF has so far received 54 and expects to have them inducted into the service by the end of 2023.
However, numerous defense experts and Australian news reports have spoken against the Lockheed Martin jet fighters, calling it “a total disaster,” subsequently saying that it could not meet the country’s security needs.
Several experts and critics have stressed that while the F-35 can attain a combat radius of about 1,000 kilometers, it could not effectively reach South China without aerial refueling. Yes, the stealth fighter could be extended to another 1,500 km with a tanker aircraft, but in the middle of a conflict, the presence of aerial tankers could compromise intense dogfight combat. Not to mention that the actual combat range of the F-35 could be reduced to around 500 km due to the aircraft having to accelerate during a war, which means burning more fuel, EurAsian Times reported.
Moreover, most of the Australian F-35 fleet is currently fitted with the Block 3F digital operating system and has been said to be in need of keeping updated in order to keep up with China’s progressing aviation technology—and you know what that means: continuous update means tremendous additional expenses for Canberra.
This shortcoming was recognized by a senior US Air Force officer last year, saying, “the block that is coming off the line right now is not a block that I feel good about going up against China and Russia.” During the war games held in 2018 and 2019, the USAF did not use the current version of the F-35, with Lt. Gen. S. Clinton Hinote, the USAF’s deputy chief of staff, noting that in a scenario where China attacks Taiwan, this version of the F-35 will not be deployed unless significant upgrades are done to the digital operating system.
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Lockheed Martin has been working on the Block 4 version but has been running late with an expected delivery date moved by 2027—and yes, it will cost greatly.
For quite some time, the F-35 has been plagued with numerous technical problems and operational shortcomings that pose safety risks to Pilots. These, as well as their costly maintenance, have raised concerns not only in Australia but also in other countries such as the Pentagon and Canada. Can the F-35 really be ready to take on missions?
On its part, Lockheed Martin has made steady progress in resolving the deficiencies and flaws of the fifth-generation stealth fighter; however, “critical” issues remain to persist as of last year, according to F-35 Joint Program Office spokeswoman Laura Seal, that may or may not greatly impact on mission readiness.
“Details of [deficiencies] — even unclassified [deficiencies] — are not publicly releasable because the information is operationally sensitive, and its release could be detrimental to US and international war fighters operating F-35s worldwide,” Seal told Defense News.
Dubbed the most advanced node in 21st Century Warfare, F-35 Lightning II is a fifth-generation stealth multirole fighter developed by Lockheed Martin in the 2000s intended to perform air superiority and strike missions. It can also be used in electronic warfare and in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions.
The F-35 came from the X-35 concept demonstrator aircraft, which won against Boeing’s X-32 in a bid for the JSF program. The criticism from Australia was not the first for the American stealth fighter as it has already been heavily scrutinized by its principal sponsors due to the same issues on technical troubles, inflating cost, and delayed delivery, among many others.
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