It is the next generation of air combat fighters and the future face of the Royal Australian Air Force and now, it will permanently call Australia home. But the fifth-generation aircraft is more than just a fighter, it is a catalyst for the transformation of both the ADF and Australian industry.
The Lockheed Martin-built F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is described as a game changer for not just the RAAF, but for the broader Australian Defence Force.
The first two aircraft, A35-009 and A35-010 were successfully delivered to No. 3 Squadron at RAAF Base Williamtown on Monday, following a series of trans-Pacific flights.
The $17 billion AIR 6000 Phase 2A/B program is the largest single project in the Air Force's history and marks the turning of the page in the branch's air combat capabilities.
This capability roll-out will help facilitate the way Air Force transitions toward becoming an integrated, fifth-generation force.
Minister for Defence Christopher Pyne welcomed the successful delivery of the aircraft.
"The Joint Strike Fighter is the largest acquisition in the history of the Royal Australian Air Force, and is a key part of the government’s $200 billion build up in Defence capability. This is the most advanced multi-role stealth fighter in the world.
"It will deliver next-generation capability benefits and provide a major boost to our intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities," Minister Pyne said.
Australia currently plans to procure 72 'A' variant of the fifth-generation F-35. The F-35A is the conventional take-off and landing (CTOL) variant of the family of aircraft.
Fifth-generation fighter aircraft represent the pinnacle of modern fighter technology.
The F-35 is a blend of all-aspect low observability even when armed, low-probability-of-intercept radar, high-performance airframes, advanced avionics and highly-integrated computer systems bringing a gods-eye view of the battlespace.
Multi-role, multi-domain, multi-dominance
It has been a long road leading up to the successful arrival of A35-009 and A35-010. One that has been mired with controversy over the capability and suitability of the aircraft for Australia's operational and strategic reality.
As a multi-role aircraft, the F-35 is designed to fulfil a number of key operational, tactical and strategic roles throughout the battlespace.
The F-35's advanced sensor package is designed to gather and distribute more information than any fighter in history, giving operators a decisive advantage over all adversaries.
As a 'network-centric' platform, the F-35 leverages the various pieces of operating software, avionics, integrated electronic sensors, displays and communications systems that not only collect and distribute data with both the pilot and other friendly aircraft, they also enable the F-35 to act as a node within a broader system-of-systems.
Lockheed Martin Australia chief executive Vince Di Pietro told Defence Connect, "I think that where some of the commentary and criticism that we have seen about the F-35 is unrealistic. We are trying to view the F-35 through the same prism as legacy platforms like the F/A-18, when if you keep trying to put the F-35 in a box, you really miss the point of the capabilities it brings to Australia."
These comments were echoed by Greg Ulmer, vice president and general manager, F-35 program, at Lockheed Martin.
"The F-35 as a multi-role, multi-domain platform, that combines next-gen technology developments in communication, sensors, speed and low observability, all brought together through sensor fusion, providing unrivalled platform capability," Ulmer told Defence Connect.
Australia joins the US, UK, Italy, Netherlands, Turkey, Canada, Denmark and Norway in operating the fifth-generation aircraft, with both Japan and South Korea to soon join the growing global fleet of F-35s.
"In Australia’s immediate region, Japan and South Korea are in the process of procuring the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter, and are closely aligned with Australia’s pursuit of shared strategic, security and economic interests," Minister Pyne said.
Both the regional and wider global introduction of the F-35 enables the RAAF to integrate its aircraft with those of regional and broader allies, creating a network of aircraft and air forces capable of learning and operating with one another.
Key to the puzzle
The aircraft's ability to act as a 'node' within a broader network of systems, will serve as a key force multiplier for the Air Force, as it progresses towards fully implementing Plan Jericho.
This ability will enable integration with existing Air Force platforms, like the legacy and Super Hornets, the E-7A Wedgetail and KC-30A Multirole Tanker Transport aircraft.
Commander Air Combat Group, Air Commodore Mike Kitcher, described the F-35 as providing a "quantum leap" in capability for the Air Force requiring both the RAAF and the broader ADF to rewrite the operational, tactical and strategic doctrines that have held true for the better part of the last 75 years.
"Integrating the F-35 goes beyond just the pilot and aircrew training across the technology, it involves integrating the F-35 with the Air Force's other key platforms like the E-7A Wedgetails, our Super Hornets and Growlers and KC-30As, furthermore it includes integrating the aircraft into systems like the Poseidon and the Triton, which is where we start to see a web of systems created," AIRCDRE Kitcher elaborated.
Developing a system of sensors and integrated shooters enables both the Air Force and the broader ADF to rapidly develop a 'joint force' capable of distributed lethality.
This concept is defined by establishing a complex system of air, sea, land and cyber platforms and/or systems incorporating integrated sensors and 'shooting' platforms that leverage the data driven world of the fifth-generation force.
AIRCDRE Kitcher told Defence Connect, "Air Force is playing its part in delivering a suite of technologies in both the air and ground domains, which will establish a complex air and ground network, capable of communicating with Army platforms like the future long-range strike missile and Navy platforms like the Air Warfare Destroyers or Future Frigates to deliver an unprecedented level of capability for the ADF."
These comments were reinforced by Ulmer, who told Defence Connect:
"The interoperability of the platform and its focus on multi-domain dominance enables the F-35 to work in close partnership with other platforms (like the Aegis combat system, MQ-4C Triton). The integration of sensor acquisition, the low observability and its impressive strike capacity makes the F-35 the perfect platform for Australia."
A cash cow for Aussie industry
Early Australian industry involvement with the multibillion-dollar F-35 program has enabled Australian industry to position itself as an invaluable partner for both original equipment manufacturer Lockheed Martin and Air Force.
This early commitment has seen more than 50 Australian companies participate in various stages of the F-35 program to date, across manufacturing, training, maintenance and sustainment.
With Australian businesses like TAE Aerospace, Milskil, RUAG Australia, Heat Treatment Australia and Quickstep establishing themselves as key strategic partners embedded within the global program across the manufacturing, training, maintenance and sustainment life cycles of not only Australian aircraft, but those of allies as well.
Defence Industry Minister Steven Ciobo was elated in welcoming the F-35s to Australia and possibilities the program presented for Australian industry: "Australian industry is manufacturing parts that will be fitted to every F-35 in production globally, and more than 50 Australian companies have directly shared in $1.2 billion in production contracts to date."
Minister Ciobo's comments were echoed by Di Pietro, who told Defence Connect, "We at Lockheed Martin are dedicated to continuing engagement with our Australian industry partners. We realised that we couldn’t do it by ourselves, it is great to see that so many Australian companies are now benefiting from the genuine opportunities created by the global partnership to create high-end industry skills across the country."
In the Hunter region, the F-35 program is forecast to create up to 400 engineering and skilled technical jobs over the next five to seven years. Nationally, over 50 companies at 18 different locations have contributed to the F-35 program, supporting over 2,000 Australian jobs.
"Up to 1,500 contractors have worked on the construction of the facilities to accommodate the F-35A at RAAF Base Williamtown, representing approximately $1 billion of investment in the Hunter region alone," Minister Ciobo said.
The two aircraft arrived in Australia following a cross-Pacific ferry from Luke Air Force Base Arizona and will be operated by the Air Force’s No. 3 Squadron.
Australia's F-35A Joint Strike Fighters will be operated by No. 3, No. 75 and No. 77 Squadrons and will be based at RAAF Base Williamtown and at RAAF Base Tindal in the Northern Territory.