The new F-35 Lightning aircraft weren’t in Australia in time for Pitch Black 2018, but they are likely to make an appearance next time at Pitch Black 2020, showcasing RAAF progress to becoming a true fifth-generation air force.
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The first two F-35s arrive in Australia in December and they’ll be followed by eight more next year.
Pitch Black, the RAAF premier multinational training exercise, was held from late July to mid-August in the Top End dry season. Personnel from 16 nations participated, with more than 130 aircraft from nine nations taking part in a series of complex exercises.
It featured a number of firsts, including participation of the RAAF’s F/A-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft.
Air Commander Australia Air Vice Marshal Zed Roberton said F-35 was well and truly on track to enter RAAF service.
“The next Pitch Black will most likely involve F-35 for the first time, bringing a level of complexity and new generation technology that is hard to replicate around the world,” he told reporters during the exercise.
Air Commodore Mike Kitcher told reporters, “They (F-35) may participate in a very small way in Pitch Black 20 but by Pitch Black 22 they will be participating definitely.”
Australia’s first F-35s have been a long time coming.
In 2002, then Howard government defence minister Robert Hill announced Australia would join the F-35 System Design and Development phase, making the nation a relatively junior partner in the program.
It was then expected the new aircraft would enter service in a decade, replacing F/A-18 Hornets and F-111s.
The program encountered a series of technical problems, which produced delays and cost blowouts. F-35 remains highly controversial.
The RAAF is now looking at initial operating capability (IOC) in late 2020, with 12 aircraft with 3 Squadron at RAAF Williamtown plus six more in a training squadron.
Full operating capability (FOC) with 72 aircraft is planned for the end of 2023.
That places Australia a fair way behind other operators. In 2015, the US Marine Corps declared IOC for its first squadron of F-35B aircraft.
That was followed a month later by the US Air Force declaring IOC for a squadron of F-35A aircraft.
The Israeli Air Force is already flying its F-35A aircraft on operations and, according to media reports, has already conducted at least two strike missions.
AVM Roberton said the RAAF, with its F-35s, Wedgetails and other advanced aircraft, was set to become the first fifth-generation air force in the world.
“Unlike the US, which will still maintain many of the older systems, we are small enough and agile enough that we will be operating at that top end of technology,” he said.
“That is so important for Australia, given our strategic interests, the size and scale of our nation and where we operate but also our ability to work seamlessly with all the other nations.
“It makes us a partner of choice for those other nations because they know not just the capability of our systems but just how capable the RAAF and ADF are at operating those systems.”
Lockheed Martin director of international business development Steve Over said four characteristics made an aircraft fifth generation, of which the first was stealth.
F-35’s multi-spectral sensor suite exist on no other fighter in the world and its datalinks could communicate with other F-35s in a stealthy manner, sharing vast amounts of information.
Finally, F-35’s sensor fusion and computers automate all battlespace interpretation, creating a logical three-dimensional image for the pilot of every aspect of the battlespace.
“It is truly game changing technology,” he said.
When maximum stealth is needed, F-35 carries all its weapons internally, but in a non-contested environment when stealth is not required, the aircraft can carry more than 18,000 pounds of ordnance on wing hardpoints.