Reports of a forced reduction of the RAAF F-35A fleet’s flight hours have been dismissed by Defence.
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Budget estimates documents filed by the Department of Defence have revealed the expected flying hours of the Royal Australian Air Force’s fleet of F-35 Lightning II aircraft have been revised down over the next four years.
Flying hours have been cut by 25 per cent in the 2021-22 financial year (FY22), and are set to be reduced by 17 per cent in FY23, 14 per cent in FY24, and 13 per cent in FY25.
Media reports have suggested the revisions were a response to supposed maintenance issues associated with operating the Joint Strike Fighters (JSFs).
The federal Labor opposition also weighed in, with assistant defence spokesman Pat Conroy calling into question the government’s management of the JSF program.
“The JSF is critical to Australia’s defence and the fact that it is flying thousands of hours less than planned is a real concern,” he told The Australian.
“[Defence Minister] Peter Dutton should explain to the public why this $16.6 billion project continues to be plagued with problems.”
However, Chief of Air Force, Air Marshal Mel Hupfeld has rejected such suggestions, stressing the revisions are not a reflection of the fifth-generation aircraft’s capability.
According to AIRMSHL Hupfeld, the fleet’s flying hours were reduced in line with changing operational requirements.
“The criticisms contained are completely unfounded,” he said.
“The Royal Australian Air Force has revised the expected flying hours based on our maturing understanding of the F-35A capability requirements and our expected build-up of the capability.
“Forward estimate flying hours are based on training and capability requirements, not availability.”
He went on to describe claims the F-35A is not satisfying operational and training requirements as “misleading and simply false”.
“I can confirm the JSF program has met all of its tasking commitments, such as exercises, verification and validation activities and training requirements,” he added.
Thus far, RAAF F-35A aircraft have clocked over 15,000 flight hours.
The JSF program has delivered two operational squadrons, with the third scheduled to enter service later this year.
The Commonwealth government has ordered 72 F-35A aircraft under the $16.6 billion JSF contract with Lockheed Martin.
All 72 jets are expected to be fully operational by 2023, with an option to expand the fleet to a maximum of 100 aircraft.