Modernising the RAAF’s F-35 fleet

The first F-35A ‘Lightning II’ Joint Strike Fighter flies in formation with F/A-18 ‘Classic’ Hornets from Nos 75 and 77 Squadrons and 2 OCU on delivery to RAAF Base Williamtown. The F-35 carries No 3 Squadron markings, the first RAAF F-35 squadron. (Defence)

In December 2018, the first two of Australia’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighters arrived at their new home base at RAAF Base Williamtown near Newcastle NSW. This represented the culmination of considerable effort, Australia having joined the program many years ago in 2002. The arrival though is more another step on a long and winding road than a conclusion as the fighter remains in active development. The two F-35s that arrived at Williamtown are an interim configuration not the acquisition project’s final one.

In the US, the F-35 has just begun the initial operational test and evaluation (IOT&E) phase, which should lead to a Milestone C decision in very late 2019 and then full rate production. While seven years later than envisaged in 2002, the F-35 entering testing now is a positive sign. In early 2017 the director for the Office of Test and Evaluation forecast the aircraft would be sufficiently developed to enter IOT&E late 2018. F-35 enthusiasts contested this assessment believing August 2017 was possible, but time has proven the Director right and suggests the aircraft is now sufficiently developed to pass IOT&E

Accordingly, the US is now ramping up production to reach a highpoint in 2024 when the program’s reaches its largest annual procurements for the American services. In 2002 this was due to happen in 2012. This notable delay has had significant impacts in two areas. Firstly, there are an increasing number of old-build standard aircraft flying that will be different to the still evolving 2024 configuration. Secondly, the operational environment has evolved making upgrades to the F-35 essential so the aircraft can keep up with threat systems. Both these factors combine to trouble the introduction of the F-35 into Australian service.

The Royal Australian Air Force’s (RAAF) F-35s are, and will be, built in different Lots. These are Lot 6 (two aircraft), Lot 10 (eight aircraft), Lot 11 (eight aircraft), Lot 12, 13, and 14 (fifteen aircraft each) and Lot 15 (nine aircraft). The last Lot 15 aircraft is expected to be delivered in July 2023 and ferried to Australia the following month. These nine Lot 15 F-35s are the Holy Grail version. They are anticipated to be in the fully-developed standard as broadly envisaged in 2002.

The F-35s currently at Williamtown fighter base are Lot 10 aircraft that use the Block 3F software load. This gives them an air-to-air capability using AMRAAM and Aim-9X missiles and a basic air-to-ground capability using the Small Diameter Bomb, Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) and laser guided bombs. The two aircraft and some others arriving in early 2019 will embark on a two-year verification and validation program. Completing this will allow Initial Operational Capability to be declared in late 2020.

The Lot 15 aircraft will be in what is considered the final developmental configuration. These aircraft will be of a standard adequate for RAAF to formally declare Final Operational Capability and start wrapping the acquisition project up. This should be in December 2023 when the nine Lot 15 aircraft are operational in Australia.

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